30 November 2014

Active Waiting

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:2-4; 3:7-19

First Sunday in Advent/ 30th November 2014

It’s a dangerous book, Habakkuk. Written at an enormously traumatic time in Israel’s history.  In years before its writing, the mighty Assyrian army destroyed one city after the other, brutally murdering countless people.  And not long after Habakkuk was written, the Babylonians, under King Nebuchadnezzar, attacked Jerusalem three times, sending the leaders and skilled citizens into exile.  Finally, in 587 BCE—one of the most significant years in ancient history, witnessing one of the most critical events in the history of the Israelites—the city of Jerusalem was conquered and the temple, the dwelling place of Yahweh, completely destroyed.  The landscape was covered in violence.

The prophet Habakkuk—with the sensitivity, vision, and the voice of a poet—gives expression to the plight of God’s people.  He hears the cries of suffering.  He witnesses the anger and frustration and fear in the streets.  All that they considered “normal,” all that they considered safe and secure and even sacred, is now lost.  He sees desolation and destruction all around him.  He searches with God’s people for justice, but sees none.  He prays to God for help, but God is nowhere to be found.  Prayer after prayer ascends to the heavens and the response is sheer silence.

“O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen, and you will not listen?”  How long shall I cry to “Violence!” [–violence is all around us—] “and you will not save?” (Hab. 1:2).  Why, O LORD?  The prophet holds God accountable, “Why do you make see wrongdoing and look at trouble?  Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contentions arise” (Hab. 1:3).  Even the things we used to count on, a reliance on the courts of law and justice to order society and help save a people have now gone into exile.  “So the law becomes slack,” Habakkuk writes,” and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous—therefore judgment comes forth perverted” (Hab. 1:4).  The world has become unhinged from its axis and swirls off into chaos.

I chose this text for the first Sunday in Advent several weeks ago, before the grand jury made its decision last week in Ferguson, MO.  It’s not the traditional lectionary reading for today; it’s the selection from the Narrative Lectionary. Yet, it speaks to where we are as a nation.  I chose it, most significantly, because it says something about waiting and Advent is, of course, all about waiting—waiting to celebrate the birth of Jesus, waiting for Jesus’ final return, waiting for that day the English mystic Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) saw in a vision and later wrote, “And all shall be well, and all shall be well and every many of thing shall be well.”[1]

That’s the promise. But how long does one wait?  It’s easy to wait when everything is going our way, when life is good and there are plenty of things to distract us from all the injustices in the world. It’s easy to wait when the balance of justice weighs in your favor, serves your purposes and ends, satisfies your needs for food, shelter, employment, safety.  It’s easy to wait for that better day when most days are lived from a position of privilege or power or influence. 

It’s another thing entirely to wait when you feel like everything is against you, when you feel like you can never get ahead no matter how hard you strive, when life is not so good and you have nothing to distract you from all the injustices in the world—because you wake up every day surrounded by injustice.  It’s another thing entirely to wait when the balance of justice is weighing against you, obstructs your purposes and ends and hinders your dreams, impedes your ability to eat three meals a day, have a warm bed, a job that pays the bills or to know what it feels like to go to sleep feeling safe.  What does it feel like to wait without privilege, power, security, or influence?

This is one of the reasons Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) wrote his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail.  Even though this text has become part of the “scripture” of American history (and rightly so), it’s often overlooked (and sometimes omitted from various versions of the letter itself) that the letter was addressed to clergy.  King was exasperated by religious leaders—Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Jewish leaders of white congregations— who all begged King to slow down his movement, who said he was moving too fast, expecting too much.  King wrote in his letter that, "justice too long delayed is justice denied."[2] 

King didn’t come up with this phrase. It’s a vision that has its origins in scripture. Justice delayed is justice denied.  In the Mishnah, a Jewish commentary on scripture itself, written around the first century CE, we find these words: "Our Rabbis taught: ...The sword comes into the world, because of justice delayed and justice denied...."[3] The Quaker William Penn (164-1718) said, "to delay Justice is Injustice."

How can you say to someone who is bearing the weight of injustice, the victim of injustice, to slow down?  Wait.  Put yourself in their shoes.  How does it feel to hear that?  Have you ever been the victim of injustice?  Have you ever felt the weight of privilege or power bearing down on you?  “How long, O Lord?  How long will I cry for help, and you will not listen?” When has that been your cry?  When have you cried “how long”?  If you’ve never made this cry, then at least name the children or adults who have made it their cry and continue to make that cry.  Put yourself in their shoes.

It’s easy to understand why people become impatient and refuse to wait and take matters into their own hands, force something to happen, anything to happen, often in anger and frustration.  These are actions that in the end are counterproductive, that hurt the cause, which will probably further hinder justice.  It’s the sick fruit that frustrated justice tends to produce.

And yet scripture tells us to wait.  Eventually Yahweh speaks to Habakkuk and says, “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it” (Hab. 2:2).  Even in the midst of all your activity and hustle and bustle, look and see the vision that God has placed before you.  Don’t miss it!  “For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, it does not lie.  If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay” (Hab. 2:3).  Wait for it.

There are, at least, two different types of waiting. There’s passive waiting and there’s active waiting.

Passive waiting is a kind of resignation or indifference.  “I can’t do anything about it, so why try.”  I’ll just sit here and wait for things to change.  The bus will arrive eventually, it always does, so relax, don’t stress.

Active waiting is different. We’re waiting, but never indifferent. We’re engaged, alert, expectant, vigilant, actively looking for what is coming.  It’s like being on a platform eagerly waiting for a train arrival. 

As I shared in the December Messenger, ever since I was a boy I had a great love for trains.  I had toy trains, I used to set up the train under my grandmother’s Christmas tree most years, and then I commuted to college by train, from Newark to New Brunswick, NJ.  Just last week I was on a train from Savannah to Fayetteville, NC, where I celebrated Thanksgiving.  What has always fascinated me and continues to fascinate me is the experience of waiting, actively waiting for a train to arrive.  You can stand on a platform, face forward and passively wait for it.  Or you can stand on the platform and turn to the left (or, if you’re in Britain, say at Waverly Station in Edinburgh, you turn to the right) and look for some sign of what is coming toward you.  You look for the lights of the train coming toward you, approaching out of the future, on its way toward you, on its way, and you get to witness the process its arrival, eventually arriving there before you.  And as you wait and strain your neck to see you’re actively participating in its arrival.  You’re sharing in the experience.

That experience—that’s an Advent-thing.  It’s a Habakkuk-thing.  It’s a God-thing.  We’re called to actively wait, to search for, anticipate the new thing that even now God is preparing for God’s children. And you have to be vigilant about this, look deep and hard into reality because you could miss it; keep awake for the signs of the time. But don’t be discouraged if you can’t see it now.  Seeing is not always believing.  Everything might be going to hell in a hand basket all around you, you might be surrounded by injustice, the land might be full of destruction and devastation and violence.  Even if you have no evidence to believe otherwise “wait, it will surely come,” God says.

This is one of the reasons why Habakkuk is a dangerous book—especially for those who profit from or are perpetrators of injustice.  In 1940, a church newspaper in Basel, Switzerland published a column with the title: “Word on the (Current) Situation,” which included an excerpt from Habakkuk.  The military censors across the border in Germany banned the newspaper because they viewed the text as a critique of the Nazi regime. This unflinching belief in God’s ability to make an end to violence is precisely the reason why the book Habakkuk was banned in Nazi Germany.  The idea that God will end unjust power was considered too dangerous to be tolerated.[4]

“Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails, and fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of the deer, and makes me tread upon the heights” (Hab. 3:17-19).

Devastation and violence and injustice might be all around us—and they are—but God will have the last word.  God is our strength who allows us to approach the future with confidence, not fear.

Remember, it was into a world of injustice that Jesus was born.  Jesus was born at a time of brutal Roman oppression when people cried “How long, O God, how long?”  It’s for a world such as ours that Jesus was born, a world broken and torn apart by sin. It’s for a world such as ours, where we are still called to wait—actively, eagerly—for some sign that salvation, the birth of a child, the promise of redemption, hope for the hopeless, justice, true justice, restorative, healing justice for every victim of injustice.

The poet/writer Walter Wangerin wrote:

"God is coming! God is coming!
All the element we swim in, this existence,
Echoes ahead the advent.

God is coming! Can’t you feel it?”[5]

God is coming! 

And nothing can stop that train.

[1]From Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love.
[2] Letter from Birmingham, 16 April 1963.
[3] Mishnah, Pirkei Avot (Chapters to the Father) 5:8.
[4] As told by Ulrike Bail, cited by Juliana Claassens at Working Preacher.
[5] Walter Wangerin, Jr., “The Signs of the Times,” The Manger is Empty (Harper San Francisco, 1994).

19 November 2014

Nibblers No More!

Revelation 3:14-22

23rd Sunday after Pentecost/ 16th November 2014

“It was the deciding game of the Divisional Series between the [Nationals] and the St. Louis Cardinals [in 2012]; the winner would play in the National League Championship Series.  The Nats got off to an amazing start, building a 6 to 0 lead in just the first few innings. But then the Cardinals slowly chipped away at that lead. Even so, the Nats could have won the game with just one more out in the ninth inning.  In fact, all that they needed was one pitch, the right pitch, to get a final out.  But they couldn’t get it.  The Cardinals got strategic hits to get on base, the Nats walked too many batters and couldn’t get that last strike, that last out; and thus they lost the game.”  After that painful loss that ended the season, Nats manager Davey Johnson had this to say about his pitchers.  “They were nibbling, and it was painful to watch.”  “By nibbling he meant that the Nats pitchers weren’t challenging the batters with their best stuff: they were nibbling around the edge of the strike zone and throwing too many balls.”  Toward the end of the game, the pitching coach said to the pitchers as they made their way to the mound each time:  “Stop nibbling!”[1]

What did he mean by “nibbling”?   The word “nibble” has its origins in Low German and emerged around 1800.  It means, “to show cautious interest in a project or proposal.”  “Nibbling is when our efforts are half-baked, lackluster, ill-conceived, and insufficient—when we’re not putting forth our best stuff.”[2]  We nibble when we hold something back, hold something in reserve, fail to give it our all.  We’re cautious, suspicious, dubious, perhaps fearful about an outcome, so we pull back.  When our hearts aren’t in what we’re doing, we’re nibbling.  It’s “halfhearted devotion.”[3]

The church in Laodicea was a congregation full of nibblers.  You won’t find that word in the text, of course, but it’s a good word to describe a word that is: “lukewarm.”  That’s Christ’s chief complaint with the Laodiceans, one of the seven churches in Asia Minor. Of the seven churches—Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea—Christ has the strongest words for the church in Laodicea.  By contrast, the churches in Ephesus and in Philadelphia are affirmed for their faithfulness. Not the Laodiceans. Christ can’t find anything to praise in them. Christ still loves the church there, but they have issues.  Lots of issues.  What was going on there?

Laodicea, first colonized by the Greeks in the third century BC was the richest city in the region of Phrygia.  It was so wealthy that after a devastating earthquake in 60 AD, the city proudly refused imperial disaster assistance from Rome and rebuilt the city with its own resources.  Laodicea was located six miles south of the major Roman city of Hierapolis, ten miles northwest of Colossae, and a hundred miles east of Ephesus, which was along the coast.  Laodicea was situated at a major intersection along many trade routes, especially the east-west route from port at Ephesus in the west to remote regions of Asia Minor in the east.  The city was well known and well endowed by its textile, banking, and medical industries.  It was particularly known for its signature commercial items: shiny black wool and Phrygian powder, used in the making of an eye salve. 

The city also had a major water problem.  It had no water source of its own, so it had to pipe in water down from the hot medicinal springs in Hierapolis. (The springs are still there today. On the tour I led to Turkey and Greece, back in 2011, we spent an afternoon in Hierapolis and even played in the medicinal springs.)
Mineral springs of Pammukkale (Hierapolis), Turkey.
As a result, “by the time [the water] arrived [in Laodicea], its tepidness and mineral content made the water nauseating.”[4]  People were prone to spit it from their mouths.

 “I know your works,” Christ says, “you are neither cold nor hot.  I wish that you were either cold or hot.  So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:15-16).   “Spit” is too mild here.  “Vomit” is better.  “I am about to vomit you out of my mouth.”  It’s what the Laodiceans often did after drinking water piped in from Hierapolis. 

Neither hot nor cold.  Nibblers. Half-hearted.  Lackluster in their commitment.  The adjectives “hot” and “cold” should not be used to describe different kinds of Christians.  “Christ opposes the hot and the cold to the lukewarm.”  If you’re going to be hot, then be hot; if you’re going to be cold, then be cold.  But you can’t be lukewarm, indecisive, in the middle.  Take a stand!  “Declare yourselves!  Be hot or cold!  Be clear!” Be a witness!

Take a stand for Christ where you live, in the world: a world that demands undying allegiance to its twisted values, a world that demands tribute to its gods, a world that demands authority to principalities and powers and imperial Caesars.  In such a world, declare your devotion. 

This won’t be easy.  Why?  Because the Laodiceans think they’re self-sufficient.  They’re so wealthy they don’t need financial assistance from Rome.  They’re full of themselves.  They’re the opposite of the Smyrna church, which was materially destitute but rich in witness (Rev. 2:9).  Not the Laodiceans.  They’re sophisticated, cultured.  They’ve thoroughly accommodated themselves to the values of Greco-Roman society and their profiting from it.  They sold out. Christ mimics what Laodiceans often said about themselves, “You say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing’” (Rev. 3:17).  But, Christ says to them, “You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17).

“This city of wealthy bankers would feel [annoyed] at being labeled poor. This city of medical schools that pioneered pharmaceuticals for the betterment of sight would not appreciate an insult that labeled their entire municipality blind.  This city full of merchants who outfitted the Greco-Roman world in the finest textiles, particularly their famous black wool, would be amused to hear someone call them naked.”[5]  As far as Christ is concerned, they are fooling themselves.  They think they have it all, but they actually have nothing.

Christ offers them a different way to live.  He invites them to become “rich” in other ways.  “Buy gold from me refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes that you may see” (Rev. 3:18).  In other words, step out, take a stand, declare who is Lord of your life: commit!  “Their blindness is their lukewarmness, their accommodation to the values of the Greco-Roman world.”[6]  The salve that Christ offers will really cure their blindness.

And so he gives them an opportunity to take a stand.  “Repent,” Christ says.  Metanoison.  Repent.  Change your mind.  Change the way you’re thinking.  Change the way you’re living.  Be earnest about it.  Not half-hearted.  Stop nibbling.  Throw yourself into it.  Repent.  And then, listen for that knock on the door—“Listen!  I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (Rev. 3:20). 

Can you hear his voice?  Do you hear his knock on the door of your live?  Then open it, open the door—not just a little, not just a crack to see who’s on the other side, but without caution, without suspicion, open it wide!

Christ wants our commitment.  And, I believe, deep down in our hearts, we want to be fully committed to him.  But we all know how difficult this is at times.  There are so many things vying for our attention, our focus, our energy, and our resources.  And then there’s the fear and anxiety that always come with commitment.  We’re afraid of being disappointed.  We’re afraid of betrayal.  We’re afraid of failure and so we never try.  We’re anxious about where that level of commitment might lead us.  What might be required of us?  Asked of us?  Do we have the courage for that kind of commitment?  It’s easier to be lukewarm, non-committal, halfhearted—one half of the heart engaged in action, the other half reserved, held back, protecting itself from getting hurt (or getting hurt again).

How’s this for a motto: Nibblers no more!   No more half-heartedness.  Instead, let us throw ourselves more fully into the work that Christ has called us to do.  Let us invest ourselves completely—all our heart, soul, strength, and mind (Luke 10:27)—to God’s call in our lives.  Let us take some risks and open the door and allow Christ to enter our lives, let us invite Christ to enter this church in new ways!  Let us give our very best to the Lord and to our neighbors.  

On this Mission Sunday we celebrate and give thanks for the work of our mission partners.  I’m grateful, as I know you are too, for the mission support this church provides.  And yet we all know there’s so much more to be done.  We’re only scratching the surface.  We are grateful for what we are doing, but we know the needs are great and deep.  We can’t settle and say what we’re doing is good enough.  Something more is needed.  The church’s mission work is more than charity and it has to be more than offering Band-Aid solutions to the wounds of the work.  This is one of the major reasons why mission needs to be linked with advocacy; that is, working to remove the conditions in society that create hunger and homeless and suffering and violence.  I’m looking forward to seeing the ways our new Envision Fund will support current and new mission endeavors, but also peace and justice and advocacy issues. 

Nibblers no more!  We can walk a thousand miles in a CROP Walk, but if we’re not addressing the reasons for widespread hunger in society, we’re nibbling.  How can we say we’re passionate about feeding the hungry when we’re not eradicating the reasons why they’re hungry?  And how can we say we’re concerned about homelessness when we’re not addressing the societal structures and economic injustices that cause people to lose their homes and their jobs? 

Nibblers no more!  Full-heartedness in all that we do.  Giving our best to God and to our neighbors and to ourselves.  This is what we’re committing to next Sunday when we make our pledge to CPC.  It’s not called Pledge Sunday or Stewardship Sunday (every Sunday is really stewardship Sunday), but Commitment Sunday—and your financial pledge to CPC is a demonstration of your commitment to Christ’s work in the world.  It’s not the only measure of your commitment, but it’s a major one.  And we are being to asked to pledge to “even greater works” (John 14:12) with full hearts to God’s work among us.

Last summer, I had a chance to play golf with my brother, Craig, in Savannah.  He’s an amazing golfer, very gifted.  I’m not very good at it.  I don’t play that often—which is why I’m not very good at it.  He’s a good teacher and I’m not always the best student.  This time I heard Craig say something that really struck me, it was advice regarding my swing.  As you probably know, swinging a golf club at a ball is no guarantee that one will actually hit the ball.  It’s possible to swing and soon realize that the ball is still sitting there on the tee, staring at you—laughing at you.  Craig said, “Commit to the ball.  Then swing.”  Golf is mostly a head and heart game, you know.  Commit, then swing.  You can’t be lukewarm about it.  Commit.  (I can tell you this made a noticeable difference in my score!)   

Sir Edmund Hillary ascending Mt. Everest in 1953.
Sir Edmund Hillary (1919-2008) knew something about commitment.  He was the first to reach the summit of Mt. Everest, in 1953.   He once said, “Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness, concerning all acts of initiative [and creation]. There is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans; that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.”   He’s right: the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too.

“Listen.  I am standing at the door, knocking if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.”  May it be so.

[1] I’m grateful for Roger Gench’s telling of this story and his reflection on the phenomenon of “nibbling,” found in his recent work Theology From the Trenches: Reflections on Urban Ministry (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 64.
[2] Gench, 65.
[3] Gench, 65.
[4] Cited in Brian Blount, Revelation: A Commentary (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 80.
[5] Blount, 82.
[6] Blount, 83.

09 November 2014

What's in Your Heart?

John 14:1-14

Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost/ 9th November 2014

In his classic spiritual autobiography Confessions, Augustine of Hippo (354-430) tells the story of his move from disbelief to belief in Jesus Christ.  Belief is important, of course, but what Augustine discovered was something deeper—a relationship with a living Lord, a Lord who loved him through and through.  And Augustine, in return, responded with deep love.  “Lord, I love Thee,” he wrote, “Thou didst strike my heart with Thy Word and I loved Thee!” Christ’s love for us, our love for Christ—this is what shapes the life of faith. Deep connection.  No separation.  Deep fellowship.  Heart-to-heart.

I last preached on this text back in May.  And in that sermon I shared that there was a time when I thought that all God wanted from me was my belief.  Belief is what mattered, I thought.  I went to Sunday School.  My mother taught Sunday School for almost forty years; she was my teacher twice (not because I had to repeat a grade).  I learned that believing in God was important; I thought that that’s what God wants from us.  As a result, I was so afraid of doubt or showing any sign of unbelief.  Verses such as Acts 16:31 were seared into my brain, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household” (NIV).  I was afraid that I didn’t have enough belief, enough to be saved, that is. Or, there was this one from Romans 10:9, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (NIV).  I worried about being lost.  Belief is the key to the door that leads to everlasting life.  Or so I thought.

It was later, in college and in seminary, that I realized two things: the value of doubt and the meaning of God’s grace.  I came to know what grace felt like. It’s then that I discovered that grace comes first—it always comes first—followed by belief.  Belief matters, theological ideas matter, but belief unfettered by grace, belief apart from grace, is cheap and, worse, dangerous.  Belief matters, but what matters more is our relationship with the object of our belief, that is, our relationship with God through Christ in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.  Gradually, I came to realize:  God doesn’t want my belief. God wants me.

So, what causes this confusion?  Skewed readings of John’s gospel get us into this mess; they tend to confuse us. It’s not John’s fault. It has to do with the way we read him. We just heard John 14:1, “Believe in God, believe also in me.”  Then there is the conversation between Philip and Jesus.  “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”  Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time,…and you still do not know me?  Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?”  “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.” (John 4:8-11)  Jesus is helping both Philip and Thomas understand the unity between Jesus and his Father, with God.  Jesus is saying in other words: If this seems odd or foreign to you, Philip and Thomas, then look at what I’ve been able to do because the God is at work in me.

It sounds as if Jesus is being harsh here.  There is a gentle rebuke, but we have to hear the rebuke within the context of Jesus’ deep friendship with them, within his commitment to them, within the extraordinary trust and confidence Jesus has in them.  Jesus isn’t some revivalist preacher demanding Philip and Thomas to make a decision: belief or unbelief.  Their conversation is situated within the context of what they’ve already come to know about him. 

Here, Jesus is a teacher who wants his students to deepen what they already know; he’s sharing this knowledge with them, this wisdom about who he is because Jesus trusts them.  In fact, he has extraordinary confidence in them.  Jesus wants them to realize that through him they are being drawn deeper and deeper into a relationship with the Lord of the Universe, the Source of all goodness and grace, the Fount of love and life.  It’s a relationship that the Lord of the Universe, the Source of all goodness and grace, the Fount of love and life seeks to have with you and me.  How do we know this? Because it’s the same relationship Jesus showed us in his relationship with his Father.  Jesus’ disciples—you and me—have been and are being invited to live, to dwell in that same kind of relationship, a deep intimacy with God.  Heart-to-heart.

This is an extraordinary claim—radical, life-changing in its implications for us. It must have been staggering for the disciples to hear.  “I am in the Father,” Jesus said, “and the Father is in me” (John 14:10).  What we have here is a mutual indwelling, one participating in the life of the other.  Life flowing from the Father to the Son; life flowing from the Son to the Father.  The Father dwelling in Jesus works through him. Nothing Jesus says he says on his own.  Nothing Jesus does he does on his own. It’s all the result of God working through him.  Jesus certainly had more than belief in God.  He trusted in God.  He rested in the strength of the relationship. He rested in God’s faithfulness and love for him.  And in the strength of that relationship, that mutual exchange—God trusting Jesus; Jesus trusting God—Jesus was empowered to act, to serve, to save. 

Therefore, when we hear the word “believe” here (and throughout John’s Gospel), we should understand it to mean something more like trust.  When we trust in what Jesus has shown us with his life we discover that, like him, we are being drawn into a deep, intimate relationship with God. 

Jesus came to show us that God wants more than your belief. God wants you. This is what God desires from us.  It’s what God desired for humanity since the dawn of time.  The Christian life is about more than saying, “I believe in God,” or “I believe Jesus is the Son of God.”  The Christian life is about more than belief.  It’s an experience.  God is in me and I am in God.  That’s what Jesus is suggesting to Philip and Thomas.  God is in you and you are in God.

Why does this matter? I’ve been building up to this point. Why is this so important?  Because, as Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me”—that is, the one who trusts in me, rests in me, welcomes me, participates in me—“will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12).  Now, that’s a bold claim. 

Greater works than Jesus? How can he make such a claim?   Because Jesus knew the potential power of human beings when their lives are bound to God, rooted in that relationship with God, like Jesus, and when the Life of God pours through them.  What Jesus knew, we can and do know.   When we are rooted in that relationship, when our hearts rest in the knowledge that God is working through us, we will witness the further unfolding of God’s love incarnating itself in the world, in the church, in you and me. God still desires the incarnation of divine love in the world.

The entire orientation of this text is toward the future.  Not once did Jesus ever call his disciples to look back to a golden age.  Instead, he called them forward toward a new age, to the new thing God was doing in the world through Jesus, but also beyond Jesus, through Jesus into the future.  The story of God’s love is still being told, it’s still unfolding—and you and me are part of the story. By virtue of our baptisms we’re now inside the story of God’s love.  And God is still telling that story, living that love through the way we serve him and follow him.  Not with our “beliefs,” but with our actions.  Even greater works. 

You can see why our Stewardship Committee chose this verse for this year’s campaign.  God is working through Catonsville Presbyterian Church and God expects great things from us and great and even greater things—kingdom things—are possible through this ministry when our hearts are in the right place. 

The Capital One credit card commercials have gotten a lot of mileage out of the tagline, “What’s in your wallet?”  That could make a good tagline for a stewardship campaign, “What’s in your wallet?”  But from a faith perspective it’s a secondary question.  Here’s the truth: we already know what’s in our wallets. We know the answer to that question.  The more relevant question is this, “What’s in your heart?”  “For where your heart is, there will your treasure be also” (Matthew 6:21).  Our hearts can keep the wallet folded up, tight and secure. Closed hearts have closed wallets.  Open hearts can open up a wallet and release its contents in love.

Several years ago we said good-bye to the celebrated writer and teacher, Reynolds Price (1933-2011), who taught English for many years at Duke University.  He was also a dedicated Christian.  As a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, Price recalls asking his teacher and mentor Neville Coghill for some piece of advice, some pearl of wisdom to live by. Coghill shared with Price the words his mother said to him before she died.  “Remember. I only regret my economies.”   I “have to say,” Price later recalled, “that for the remainder of my life—and there've been great patches of my life in which I've had almost no money whatsoever, I've had to borrow $5 from friends to buy food for the next week or whatever—nonetheless, I've always splurged whenever possible, financially, emotionally, in almost any other legal way.”[1]  I only regret my economies.

As we move toward Commitment Sunday on November 23, prayerfully considering our financial pledge to this ministry, I invite you to listen to your heart.

We all know that our tithes and offerings are more than simply giving to a good cause or charity.  Right? We all know what we give is not some measure of our satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the church.  Right?  We all know that we’re not paying for services rendered.  Right?  Instead, what we give—and the many ways that we give to God—is a measure of our gratitude to God; it flows from our hearts. 

There’s a great moment in Winnie-the-Pooh when, we’re told, “Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.”[2]

When we connect with that feeling of gratitude to God, when we give with joyful hearts, we are blessed.  There’s no doubt about that.  That’s an amazing feeling.  But consider the blessings that we share when we give through this ministry, the blessings we make possible through this ministry, when hearts are full and overflow with gratitude. That’s also an amazing feeling.  This is what leads to great and even greater works.  Consider the larger reach of this ministry when we give generously with love.  There’s no telling the impact this church has had in the lives of God’s people throughout its history.  And there’s no telling the greater things we will do when God’s people give with truly grateful hearts.

One day, “a congregation in the Carolinas received notice of a large and unexpected bequest—its annual budget amount several times over.”  My friend, Paul Grier, who works for The Presbyterian Foundation, shared this story with me several weeks ago.  He was meeting with the church’s finance committee and that’s when he first heard about the story.  “No one knew, or had even recognized the donor’s name.”  Paul “encouraged the church to be in touch with the estate executor, an attorney in Missouri.”  “It turns out that the donor, who had died several months before, was from Missouri and had spent her entire life there.  Although she was a faithful Presbyterian in adulthood (and also remembered her home congregation very generously), she had grown up in a largely unchurched home.  Her mother’s mother was a member of this southern congregation in the Carolinas, and one summer brought her visiting granddaughter to Vacation Bible School.  It was there that this child (probably about eight at the time) came to faith and remained grateful to this church throughout her life.  At her death, some 70+ years later, she divided her estate between the two congregations that were the most meaningful to her.”[3]

Those two churches certainly discovered what was in her wallet.  They also discovered what was in her heart—and why.  May it be the same for you and me.

[1] Reynolds Price, Feasting the Heart: Fifty-two Commentaries for the Air (Scribner, 2000), 100.
[2] A. A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh (1926).
[2] I’m grateful for Paul Grier’s telling of this story.