Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Giving Gladly

Giving Gladly
2 Corinthians 9:6-15[1]
Some of you know that I did my seminary training, both my Master’s and Doctorate, at a Southern Baptist Seminary. The Southern Baptists have a cooperative giving program that is a little like our per capita. Out of it they fund the various agencies and institutions, including their Seminaries. Their “Cooperative Program” giving was enough that all seminary students received a scholarship that covered their tuition. We simply paid a small registration fee. One of my professors once reminded a class I was attending that our education was being funded by gifts that were offered to God. He charged us to avoid the temptation to take that for granted. I’ve always remembered that, and I’ve never taken for granted the fact that my livelihood comes from gifts offered to God.
In part, one of the reasons for this is that, despite any difficulties I’ve been through in a life of service to the church, I’ve always believed that I am a part of something bigger than myself. I’m not just talking about this church, or our denomination; I’m talking about what Jesus called the “kingdom of God,” which refers to everything God is doing in this world to implement his merciful justice and unlimited compassion to set right all that is wrong. While my experience of life has not always confirmed that faith, I still believe in the kingdom of God as the reality that is ultimately true in this world. And I still believe God’s kingdom will have the last word.
I think it was that vision of belonging to something bigger than himself that inspired St. Paul in much of his ministry. From the very beginning, he was compelled by the conviction that he belonged to the “Body of Christ.” And so he did not hesitate to proclaim the Gospel, even when to do so put him in harm’s way. In fact, his commitment to proclaiming the gospel and serving the kingdom of God brought him into life-threatening situations on more than one occasion. And yet, Paul didn’t despair or lose heart because of the threats; instead he saw what he was going through as a way of “fulfilling the sufferings of Christ” for the sake of the church. Even in the lowest moments of his life, he was inspired by the vision that his life was a part of something much bigger than himself, bigger than Judaism, bigger than the Roman Empire.
In our lesson for today, he’s trying to encourage the people in the Church at Corinth to see themselves as part of something bigger than themselves—that they too were part of the “Body of Christ” which encompassed believers of all kinds—all races, all ethnic groups, all social classes, all walks of life. In that day and time, the most significant division in the church was the one between Jewish and Gentile believers. It caused serious problems on more than on occasion. And yet, the reality of the church in that day was that just about every Church everywhere included Jewish and Gentile members. So it’s understandable that St. Paul saw this as one of his most important tasks in ministry.
One way in which he set about to enhance the unity of a church that was being pulled apart by this division was to raise a collection. For whatever reason, it would appear that the believers in Jerusalem and Judea were living in a state of poverty, and it was a great burden to them. Since most of the churches Paul served were in the Gentile world, and were composed of a majority of Gentiles, he decided to raise an offering from the Gentile churches to the Jewish churches to help alleviate their suffering. From what he says about it here and elsewhere, it was his hope that this offering would help strengthen the bonds of fellowship between Jewish and Gentile Christians. He hoped that it would help the fledgling Gentile churches see themselves as a part of the larger “Body of Christ.”
Apparently there was some reluctance on the part of the Church at Corinth regarding this offering. For that reason, in our lesson for today, Paul encourages them to give “gladly.” He uses a variety of strategies to encourage them to do this. He points out that other churches had given generously despite their own difficulties. He reminds them that the one who “sows sparingly will also reap sparingly,” while those who “sow generously will reap generously” (2 Cor. 9:10 NET). He comes close to suggesting they will receive a material reward for their giving, but the language throughout makes it clear he is thinking about the spiritual benefits of their generosity, for themselves, for others, and for God’s kingdom. The bottom line is that he wants them to “give gladly,” not “with regret or out of a sense of duty” (2 Cor. 9:7, TEV). It seems to me that the main motivation for their ability to do that was for them to recognize that they were a part of something bigger than themselves.
We live in a time when many of us are longing to feel like we are a part of something more than just our own lives. I wonder if that’s not part of what drives our “mania” for getting over-involved in our lives. I don’t think that really satisfies our longing. But the message of our faith has always been that we who have identified with Christ have aligned ourselves with something that truly is bigger than anything we can imagine. We are a part of Christ’s Body in this world. We are a part of God’s kingdom, and we are called to promote that kingdom amidst the various “kingdoms” of our world. The way we do that is by investing our gifts and our lives in the work of this church. I hope that the vision of community, compassion, service, and faith that we stand for is motivation enough to lead us to make that investment by giving gladly.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/13/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A Change of Format

Those of you who may have followed my blog will notice a change of format in future posts. For the past 8 years or so, I have posted sermons with rather full footnotes, in part because I have been sharing my sermons with "The Text this Week" in the hopes of making my work available to the larger body of Christ. Now it seems that it is time to shift gears in my ministry. I will continue to publish my sermons, but they will no longer contain such full documentation of sources. I hope that they will continue to be useful. 

The Lord is With Us

The Lord is With Us
Haggai 2:1-9[1]
What is your formula for “success” in life? It depends on whom you ask, and I would say a survey would yield a wide variety of answers. There was a time when the formula for success was to work hard, do what is right, love your family, and trust in God. Unfortunately, the changes in our society and our economy over the last several decades have made us painfully aware that we can do all that and not wind up with the “success” we were hoping for. The “millennial” generation is learning that to be successful in life, they have to be flexible, able to innovate, thinking creatively about ways to carve out a niche for themselves in the world. It’s a very different approach to life, but then they face challenges many of us could not have imagined at their age.
One of the side effects of the changes in our society and economy is that church is changing. And while many are wringing their hands about the future of the church, I think there are just as many people in churches who are actually worried about the past.  Remembering “the good old days,” they are desperate to find the solution that will make it possible for us to re-create those days, when the pews were mostly filled.  Unfortunately, no one can turn back the hands of time, and those days are gone for good. In order for churches to thrive, we have to take a cue from our children about what that takes to thrive in this day and time.
I imagine that our situation isn’t all that different from the way it was in the days of the prophet Haggai.  He was one of the exiles who returned to Judea from Babylonian captivity.  And when they returned, they found that everything had changed. Jerusalem, their cities and towns, and especially the Temple, were all in ruins.  There were those who looked at the ruins of their culture and their temple and who worried about the future: how would they survive?  And there were those who looked at those same ruins and grieved over past greatness that had been lost.  But for all their worrying and all their grieving, I’m not sure they knew what to do about it.   
And so the word of the Lord came to Haggai.  He rather pointedly reminded them that their efforts to restore their lives and to provide for their future had been in vain.  They struggled with crop failures, food shortages, inflation, and famine—not to mention the lingering threat of their enemies who would like nothing better than to see their restoration project fail.  And the word of the Lord came to them: “You have looked for much, and, lo, it came to little; and when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? says the Lord of hosts. Because my house lies in ruins, while all of you hurry off to your own houses” (Hag. 1:9).
Apparently, everyone was devoting their efforts to ensuring and securing their own future—rebuilding houses, planting crops, trying to maintain their feeble hold on the land of their ancestors.  And their efforts met with more failure than success.  Haggai asks them, “Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?” (Hag. 1:4).  And Haggai’s words had their effect: “the Lord stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel ..., and the spirit of Joshua ..., and the spirit of all the remnant of the people; and they came and worked on the house of the Lord of hosts, their God” (Hag. 1:16). 
But even though the people set about the work of rebuilding the temple, there were those who remembered the former temple, Solomon’s temple.  And in comparison, this new temple looked pretty shabby. Once again, Haggai came with the word of the Lord: “take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts” (Hag. 2:4).  Even though the results of their work may have seemed disappointing to those who had seen the original temple, the word of assurance was that the “Lord of hosts” was with them.  That was the purpose of the temple: it was to be a place where the people could come to encounter the presence of God in a unique way.  And so Haggai told them to go on with the work despite their misgivings.
I would imagine that there are many in our day who are saying similar things about the church—or about their church in particular. They remember the “good old days,” and look for a way to somehow re-create that storied past. They may believe there are certain qualities that are supposed to define a thriving church. But we live in a very different world, and the strategies that worked 25 years ago will not necessarily work today. Rather than trying to go back to the way it was, we have to learn to be flexible, able to innovate, and think creatively now.
Regardless of challenges we face in the church, the promise Haggai made to the exiles in Judea applies to us today as well. We can rise to the occasion and do the work it takes for this church to thrive.  Just as the people of Haggai’s day needed foundation stones and timbers to build the temple, so we have specific things we can do promote new life in our church.  They aren’t secret; they’re the same as they have always been: prayer, worship, studying Scripture, helping those in need, working for peace, promoting community, and inviting others to join us. And the reason why I believe we can do the work it takes to see the church thrive in our day is because we have the promise that we are not doing the work on our own.  We can do our part because we have the same promise the people of all ages have had: it is not our efforts alone that will cause this church to thrive, but the presence of the Lord who is with us.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/6/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

New Sight, Fresh Vision

New Sight, Fresh Vision
Habakkuk 2:1-4[1]
There are times in life when it seems like “God is in his heaven, and all’s right with the world.” In everything that really matters things just seem to line up. It all works smoothly and life makes sense. But there are other times when it can seem like everything has come unraveled. You find out you’ve been “downsized” at work. Or the diagnosis is a frightening one. Or no matter what you try, it seems like nothing goes right at home. In those difficult times of our lives, one of the challenges we may face is that our problems persist for so long that we begin to believe it will always be this way. We lose sight of hope, and just put one foot in front of the other to keep moving. Or we may be tempted to just shut down altogether.
Unfortunately, we are living in a time when church life can seem that way. Estimates on the number of churches that close each year range from five to ten thousand. The numbers of pastors who drop out of ministry aren’t much better. It’s no secret that it’s a difficult time to be the church, especially a neighborhood church with a particular identity like “Presbyterian.” When you look around and see dwindling congregations and younger families seemingly going elsewhere (or not at all), it can be pretty discouraging. It’s easy to lose sight of hope and wonder what future this or any other church has.
In our lesson from Habakkuk for today, he was dealing with a crisis of faith and hope as well.[2] It’s hard to know for sure, but it seems clear that Habakkuk carried out his prophetic ministry during the time when Israel and Judah were being effectively dismantled by powerful empires like the Assyrians and the Babylonians. By comparison, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were tiny and had little hope of fending off these ruthless invaders. We know from other sources that they tried to make an alliance with Egypt, the only other major world power of the day. But that didn’t protect them from being conquered and sent into exile.
One of Habakkuk’s problems was that he found it hard to reconcile the fact that this was a judgment from God. The reason this was a problem was that God was using the Babylonians, a people who were far more violent and unjust, to carry out this judgment. That didn’t make any sense to Habakkuk. He doesn’t come right out and say it, but it seems as if Habakkuk is disappointed with God because right and wrong appeared to have been turned upside down. From his perspective, what was happening meant that “judgment comes forth perverted” (Hab. 1:4). Later in the same chapter, Habakkuk asks God rather pointedly, “why do you look on the treacherous, and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?” (Hab. 1:13). We might debate with him as to whether Judah was truly “more righteous,” but that’s the way he saw it, and because of that he had a serious problem with God.
So Habakkuk poses his question to God and then basically decides to watch and wait to see how God would answer his complaint. I find it interesting that Habakkuk doesn’t mince words here: he’s complaining about God’s justice and fairness and he knows it. That’s something we might think ought not be done, but Habakkuk was not the only prophet to complain to God. While we might be tempted to think of “complaining” to God as an act of unbelief, that’s not necessarily the case. If you think about it, it may take more faith in God to voice a serious complaint than to keep silent.
The interesting thing about Habakkuk is that God does indeed answer. Although there are other times and places in the Bible when God gently (or not so gently) chides the complainer, there’s nothing like that here. God simply gives Habakkuk an answer: “there is still a vision for the appointed time; …. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay” (Hab. 2:3). God’s answer to Habakkuk is that even though it seemed as if the events around him invalidated his faith in God as well as his hope for any future for his people, God did indeed have a future in store for them.[3] It might not look like what Habakkuk expected, but that didn’t mean there was nothing left to hope for.
In fact, although it’s not obvious on the surface of things, it would seem that part of God’s answer is that the proud and arrogant people who had conquered them would not last. In our lesson this comes as a hint: “their spirit is not right in them” (Hab. 2:4). In the next verse, it’s more straightforward: “the arrogant do not endure” (Hab. 2:5). Although the proud and arrogant seemed to have all the power at the time, God assures Habakkuk that their power would come to an end. And his people would indeed have a future.
At times when you look at our world it’s easy to become discouraged. It can seem like all the wrong people have all the power in our world, and they use it to their own advantage. With that in mind, many may say that the church has become irrelevant in our culture. But just as it was in that day, so now God still has a future for his people.[4] And the path to that future is found in our lesson as well: “the righteous live by their faith” (Hab. 2:4). Perhaps a better way to put it is that God’s people endure through their faithfulness to him and to the gospel of new life through Jesus Christ. That is the vision that has inspired generations of servants of God—right here in this church as well as elsewhere. And it’s that vision that continues to point us toward the future. As we gain new sight of this future, it can renew in us a fresh vision for our lives in the present.

[1] © 2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/30/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Ralph L. Smith, Micah–Malachi, 107: “Habakkuk, like all of us, was living ‘between the times,’ between the promise and the fulfillment. Habakkuk was to wait in faith for God to act.”
[3] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.3.2:913: “How much need faith has of hope may be seen from the innumerable temptations which assail and shake those who would cling to the Word of God, from the delay of God in the fulfilment of His promises (cf. Hab. 2:3), from the hiding of His face, from the aperta indignatio [revealed indignation] with which He can sometimes startle even His own people, from the scoffers who ask where is His coming, who argue that all things remain as they were, and who can so easily insinuate their doubts into ourselves and the world around (2 Pet. 3:4)!”
[4] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 85, where he reminds us that our hope is based on a promise, one which contains a fundamentally different view of reality, and in fact not only “announces the coming of a not yet existing reality” but also to some extent “goes beyond what is possible and impossible in the realistic sense” by anticipating the fulfillment of the promise already in the present. Cf. also similarly, Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 295.