12 October 2009

The Face(s) of God

1 Peter 4: 7-11
28th Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 11th October 2009

“The end of all things is near; therefore be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers.” This is an odd juxtaposition. Isn’t it? “The end of all things is near,” Peter believed. Then he tells his church how to live in the interim. What he suggests is really remarkable. It’s not the end of the world ethic we might expect. There’s no, “the end of all things is near,” so go out and enjoy yourself: eat, drink, for tomorrow we die. This is not a command to hunker down in a monk’s cell to get your spiritual house in order, or to remove yourself from the cares of the world. In fact, all the things he directs his church to do are actually the kinds of things one might expect in people who are going to be around for a while.

Instead, this is the ethic Peter gives his community. When Peter says, “be serious,” it’s another way of saying, “Preserve your sanity.” Protect your mind. In other words, knowing that God’s day is coming, use your mind to make proper decisions. Know what’s important, necessary, and know what isn’t. Know proper proportions. Know what you need and what you don’t need. Know how much is enough and how much needs to be given away.

When Peter says, “discipline yourselves,” it’s another way of saying, “Be sober.” In light of the coming day of God, be alert. Don’t be drunk (which is what’s implied in the Greek here). But be responsible, not frivolous and certainly not gloomy. But serious in the sense that everything we do matters to someone, particularly God.

Sanity and sobriety are required for the sake of prayer. For how else can we pray? And, without prayer how else can we discern God’s will for our lives? How else will we be empowered to live the Christian life? Without prayer, how else can we, “maintain constant love for one another,” as Peter urges us then in the text? The word “constant” here implies a love outstretched, reaching out, ever taut with tension, like the muscle of an athlete that is perfectly stretched, as in a race. It means every muscle in one’s body is stretched in a constant expression of movement, of activity – for the Christian, a constant love that even covers and stretches over a multitude of sins. It’s all for the sake of this new kind of love. This is the kind of ethic Peter gives to the community. The end of all things might be near. But then he sends them out.

Be hospitable to one another – without complaining about it (in other words, stop wining). Open your doors, open your hearts to the world, to strangers, because one time you were not part of the church of Christ, expand your heart; one time you were not part of the household of God, one time you, too, were a stranger to Christ. Be responsible to and for one another. Share.

Indeed, “Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received (1 Peter 4:10).” Thus, we have the context for the text our stewardship committee selected for this year’s stewardship season. This is the text we’ve invited to reflect upon, pray about, and discern what it means for us individually.

We probably need to draw out the meaning of this phrase, “like good stewards.” We can only be good stewards when we realize that it means to be a steward. Peter says to the church: think of yourselves as stewards.

In Peter’s day a steward was very important. He might be a slave, but his master’s goods were in his hands. He was trustworthy. There were two types of stewards, the dispensator, the dispenser who was responsible for all the domestic arrangements, all the household supplies. And the vilicus, the bailiff, who was in charge of his master’s estates and acted as landlord to his master’s tenants. “The steward knew well that none of the things over which he had control belonged to him; they all belonged to his master. In everything he did he was answerable to his master and always it was his interests he must serve.” The implication here is obvious: “The Christian lives under the conviction that nothing he or she possesses of material goods or personal qualities is his own; it all belongs to God and one must ever use what one has in the interests of God to whom one is always answerable.”

We’re even asked to be stewards of our words. “Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies (1 Peter 4:11).” Would we talk to each other difference, even the daily internal dialog we have with ourselves, if we considered it God’s word? How would we spend our time differently, if we considered it God’s time? How would we share our hearts, gifts, our resources, our money, if we thought of them as God’s gifts, God’s resources, and God’s money which we are saving and investing in order to do God’s work? Remarkable, this is the ethic Peter presents to us.

The “end of all things is near,” is not language we usually hear in Presbyterian circles. Another way of getting at what Peter is saying here is to say, when the end of time comes, when the end of our time comes, when we die, we can say we’ve been happy if we lived our lives in a certain way. Happiness is expanding our love and widening our hospitality and deepening our generosity and strengthening our service and sharing our gifts, all for the glory of God. Happiness is not a life of selfish gain, of hoarding and greedy accumulation, but of joyfully, cheerfully sharing all our resources, our gifts, not as if they belong to us, but as if – because they do – belong to God, entrusted to us, to be shared.

Why? So that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ! We live this way all for the glory of God. Why? Because to live this way is happiness. When we live this way, to the glory of God, we get a glimpse of the very face of God. Because this is God’s way and when we live this way we get glimpse of the face of God in the people we love and welcome and are generous toward and serve.

We all want this kind of happiness. When scripture says, “God loves a cheerful giver (2 Corinthians 9:7),” the Greek is literally, “hilarious.” There’s a part in our souls that really wishes we could live and give this way. We all want to see the face of God. But, there’s a little bit of Ebenezer Scrooge in all of us –fearful, angry, anxious. Like, old Ebenezer, we’re not really happy living this way, not proud of this part of ourselves. We’re not really happy living this way, we want redemption, and we want release. Our souls long to live God’s way, our hearts desire not constriction, but expansion in love, to grow into a new way of being. But it’s just so difficult for us, I’m not sure why. We’re fearful of change. We’re fearful of giving. We’re fearful of not having enough. Maybe we’re unable to really trust, maybe even trust God to provide.

My friend, Carlos Wilton, a Presbyterian minister in New Jersey, tells this story. “In downtown Seattle a few years back – though it could have been any city in this land – a man was walking down the street just a few days before Christmas. He came upon one of those Salvation Army kettles. As he approached the volunteer, an old woman ringing the bell, he felt an unaccustomed spirit of generosity wash over him. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out all his change. He dropped every last coin into the kettle with a smile.

The man turned to leave, but then he stopped. He reached into his back pocket, pulled out his wallet and emptied everything last bill into the kettle as well. Grinning like an idiot, he walked away with a bounce in his step. But about two blocks later, the bounce wore out. Suddenly it hit him! “What have I done?” he asked himself. The man turned around, walked back to the old woman and asked for his money back. He got it, and left again, walking very quickly this time, head down, looking neither to the right nor the left.”

“For two blocks…that man walked in the Kingdom of God. For two blocks he was free of the burden of his possessions. For two blocks he put other people above himself. For two blocks he was self-giving and generous. For two blocks he was blessed; but like most of us, he could not stand the uncertainty that goes with that much blessing. He wanted to continue to think he is in control. He walked back, out of the realm of God and back into the well-worn grooves of his weary world.”

Sometimes it’s scary walking into the Kingdom of God, living the life of Christ, being self-giving and generous. But when we do, we get a glimpse of God. “God is known,” John Calvin (1509-1564) said, “where humanity is cared for.” The face of God is revealed in how we serve one another. When we serve and share we get a glimpse of the face of God.

“…that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ.” This seems to imply that God’s glory is mixed up in all things, in all the stuff of life, in people and all the things that people do. When we are stewards of God’s various forms of grace, then God’s glory is being revealed all around us and in us. That’s what I mean by seeing the face of God – we see God there. And when we are serving one another with all of this grace that’s entrusted to us, we come to see the many faces of God upon all that we do.

The face of God emerges when we’re generous, when we share, when we love – and it emerges in the faces of people who receive what we give and share, in the face of the people we love. I wish I had to power to deprogram that part of our brains that equates stewardship with fundraising and collecting money. Stewardship is not about financial figures on a ledger, but faces. It’s not about not fundraising and budgets, but about faces. It’s about the faces of people whose lives are transformed through the sharing of what’s been entrusted to us. It’s about the faces of people who encounter the face of God when we’re generous.

Think of the faces: Where do you see God’s face in this congregation? Where do you see signs of God’s compassion? God’s face is all over this congregation.

o I see it in you. We see it in one another;
o Read the ‘thank you’ notes on the Mission bulletin board and think of the faces of people whose lives have been changes because your support of this ministry;
o I wish you all could see the face of the children who come down and sit up front for the children’s message, to see the joy on their faces, who hear the gospel and get it;
o Can you see it in the compassion and love found in this community? As we suffer with those who suffer and rejoice with those who rejoice? Personally, I don’t know how people get by without the love and support of the church family.

This week, before you determine your pledge for 2010, before you look what you gave this year and decide what you will give, I invite you to sane and sober prayer. And as you pray, conjure up the faces: the face of the people in this church, over the years, the faces of the people sitting beside you, the faces of our children, try to envision the faces of people around the world who see the face of God in our mission giving, and imagine the faces of people who will become part of this community. It’s about the people – and lives touched and change for the glory of God. Give more than you have in the past. Before you pledge, ask: “Is this gift given to the glory of God?” Then fill out your pledge card – make it a commitment, be bold. It’s your covenant between you and God. Then make your pledge – do it to the glory of God.
William Barclay, The Letters of James and Peter, revised edition (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1976), 251-255.

Carlos Wilton’s sermon, “Hilarious Giving,” in William G. Carter, ed. Speaking of Stewardship: Model Sermons on Money and Possessions (Louisville: Geneva Press, 1998), 72-73.

Calvin’s Commentary on Jeremiah 22:16, cited in William Stacy Johnson, John Calvin: Reformers for the 21st Century (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 13.

No comments: