Sunday, November 10, 2019


We have to keep our guard up these days
to defend our reasonable boundaries.
Panhandlers stop us on the sidewalk.
Non-profit fundraisers accost us at the grocery store.
Everyday our mail contains solicitations.

Stewardship could feel like more of that.
But it isn’t. 
We don’t guilt each other or ask anyone 
for more than they can do. 
And the purpose is different. 

Stewardship is right at the heart of Christian life;
            so if the Church doesn’t teach it, 
           we’re short-changing the people
and censoring the gospel in two ways. 

First, as disciples of Jesus,
the meaning of our life is participating
in his mission.
There are so many secular causes to support,
            from public radio to muscular dystrophy
                        to domestic violence shelters. 
Most are good and I hope you support them.
But the Church isn’t just one more good cause.
It’s the foundation for all the good causes.

Philosopher Charles Mathewes asks 
             how people can live meaningful, joyful lives
            when the world is such a mess. 
He contends the core problem in today’s society 
is a shortage of hope.

Science agrees. 
The medical publication, BMJ Journal, reports that 
       the main cause for declining American life expectancy 
        is despair 
– despair taking such forms as addiction and suicide.
In half the states, suicide rates are up 30% since 1990.
Teen suicides in Colorado jumped 58% in the last three years
        making suicide the leading cause of death 
         for Colorado youth.

That’s the tip of an iceberg
            of ubiquitous insidious hopelessness.
Escalating despair breeds desperate action
      like nihilistic violence and hate groups
      who shoot up synagogues in Pittsburg 
       and try to bomb them in Pueblo.

These are all symptoms of despair 
that there is still anything good to do, 
anything true to believe in, 
anything beautiful to love.

What the world desperately needs, 
        Professor Mathewes says,
 is people with the capacity for hope.
Hope launched ships to explore the earth
            and spaceships to take us beyond it.
 Hope gets us out of bed in the morning. 
It’s the wind in our sails, the spring in our step,
            the daring to dream of a better way.

Carl Sandburg said,
            Hope is a tattered flag . . . 
         the shimmer of the northern lights
         across a bitter winter night . . .
        the Spring grass showing itself where least expected . . . 
            and children singing chorals of the Christ Child.

But our societal hope tank is running on empty.
Today’s world urgently needs 
people with the capacity for hope.

Enter the Christians.
Hope is what we do.  
Hope is our stock and trade.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
            1st Peter says, for by his great mercy we have been 
born anew to a living hope through the resurrection      
            of Jesus Christ from the dead.
Jesus is all about hope – a living hope.
Jesus lives, we just sang in our hymn, Thy terrors now, 
O death, can no more appall us.

We can and we must take action on moral issues --
            housing, nutrition, violence, climate change.
But the first thing -- the core thing – 
       the Church of the Ascension 
       can do for the world is to cultivate 
our capacity for hope,
        to be a lighthouse in this darkening storm.
That’s the Church’s business, your reason for being here. 

The world urgently needs the Church of the Ascension
to proclaim by word and example 
the good news of God in Christ.
That isn’t just one good cause among many.

Just as despair is the root of violence, hatred,
            addiction, and suicide;
Christian hope is the root of peace, 
            reconciliation, freedom, and life.
None of the other good causes are possible 
            without hope that the Source, Destiny, Meaning
and basic Truth of this life is Love
--  and Love wins.
            As Tolkien said, the gospel story means
                        that one day everything sad will come untrue.

I am glad that non-profit charitable giving 
            was higher than ever last year.
But giving to churches has declined 50% 
            since 1990.
It isn’t just fewer members.
We members give a smaller percentage of our income  
              to churches now 
              than people gave during the Depression. 

When we value secular projects
            above the Mission of Jesus Christ,
            we are buying new curtains for a house
                        with a crumbling foundation. 

I support secular good causes too. 
But the Church’s mission isn’t just one more good cause. 
It’s the moral foundation for all the good causes. 

The second reason we give
            is for the good of our own souls.
The way of the world ensnares us
            in trying to make life secure, solid, dependable,
                        but it just isn’t.
Worldly life is transitory, always shifting. 
As Wordsworth said,
            Getting and spending we lay waste our powers. 

It’s as if we watch a movie so intently we forget it’s a movie.
We think it’s real. Then the house lights come on.
We see the screen, and the screen is God.

Christian life is the spiritual discipline
of looking past the anxious, grasping illusion 
and living into truth of grace.
How do we do that?

Jesus said, Do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth
            where the moth corrupts, 
            and the thief breaks in to steal.
            Store up for yourselves treasure in Heaven 
            where the moth does not corrupt, 
            and the thief does not break in to steal.
            For where your treasure is, 
                    there will your heart be also.

Stewardship moves our hearts 
– not just stirs them –
moves them, relocates our hearts 
through the exercise of generous faith.
Faith is the opposite of fear – fear of scarcity,
fear we’ll run out, fear of not having enough.
Faith trusts God. 
We don’t have to cling so tightly to our money.
When we open our fist, 
        it opens our hearts, and lets some life slip in.

Two brothers from Zarephath, Nebraska owned a farm 50-50.
One had seven children; the other was single.
Then a famine came. 

The single brother thought, I have half the grain
            but my brother has seven children to feed.
So each night he slipped some of his grain 
            into his brother’s bins.

The married brother thought, I have half the grain
            but I have seven children to work and support me,
            while my brother has no one.
So each night he slipped some of his grain 
            into his brother’s bins.
Each was mystified. 
Though he was giving his grain away, it was not diminished.

One night they met on the path and discovered
            the miracle lay in each other’s generosity.
If either had just kept his grain,
his material wealth would have increased,
but he would have missed the real wealth,
         the discovery of his brother’s love. 

We store up  treasure in Heaven by trusting God enough
         to loosen our death-grip on worldly  security,
           and giving to support each other in Jesus’ Mission.
We support his Mission of hope 
            first because that’s where our real life is,
            where our true joy is found,
            and second because the act of giving 
reshapes our souls for eternity.

Thornton Wilder summed up stewardship 
in his immortal words,
            Money is like manure.
            It isn’t worth a thing unless it’s spread around
                        making young things grow.

Monday, November 4, 2019


Something happened before 
     our Gospel story of the 10 lepers 
     --  a long time before 
– thousands of years before.

A stone age man or woman had a spark of insight, 
a flash of awareness.
She didn’t have words for it 
     because language was just beginning.
Besides, it was too primal, too basic for words. 

That Paleolithic primate noticed reality,
     that there is something instead of nothing,
     that this something has no known origin,
                 is wonderful, miraculous, alive, mysterious. 
She saw that her own existence
     was part of that wonder, miracle, life, and mystery. 

She had neither designed nor crafted it.
But there it was. 
Our life, the world into which we are born,
     the passion, the meaning, 
and the beauty flowing through it are all a gift 
bestowed by an infinitely mysterious Giver. 

We call that early primate homo sapiens, wise person,
     because she attained unto wisdom.
Once she discovered that it’s all gift,
     she felt the primal gratitude and it opened her heart
     to be surprised by everything and to appreciate it.
That’s the moment when human life acquired flavor.
For without gratitude, we miss the wonder and the joy
and everything feels functional, flat, and flavorless.

Flash forward to 30 A.D. and the 10 lepers.
They had three problems 
– physical: leprosy was a bodily disease
--  social: lepers were ostracized from the community--  and spiritual: lepers lived in misery and resentment. 

So these 10 lepers called to Jesus, Have mercy on us. 
 Jesus healed them physically by his grace.
He sent them to the priest to declare them clean,
     and restore their place in society. 
Check the boxes for the physical and social problems.
But one leper returned to say thank you.

He’s the only one who got the spiritual piece.  
Jesus said to him, Your faith has made you whole.
Jesus had made him healthy and clean.
But becoming whole depended on his response.

Without gratitude, we are not yet whole. 
Something is missing,  something fundamental. 
Elie Wiesel said,
     When a person doesn’t have gratitude,
     something is missing in his or her humanity.
John Milton told us what was missing. He said,
 Gratitude . . . allow(s) us to encounter
everyday epiphanies,. . . transcendent moments of awe
     that change forever how we experience
     life and the world. 

Brothers and sisters, 
if we want transcendent moments of awe,
     if we want our lives changed forever,
     the starting point is gratitude. 
The spiritual teacher Brother David Stendle Rast said,
     Gratefulness is the key to a happy life . . . because 
if we are not grateful, no matter how much we have, 
we will not be happy. 

Such gratitude is a habit of the heart,
a disposition of the mind
we acquire through practice.
A personal example:
My prayer life has gone through some phases and stages.
For years, it was all intercession.
I gave God a lot of good advice
     on what people needed.

For me, praying was an exercise in sacred
     because, in my family of origin, 
the way we showed love for someone
     was to worry about them. 
Then I noticed two things. 
One, worrying about people
sent them a dark message. 
It said there was something wrong with them.
Two, there was no room in my prayer
     for gratitude.
So I shifted to interceding for people
     in broad terms – let God work out the details – 
then thanking God for having these people in my life.            

The simplest and richest prayer I know is
     Thank you, Jesus.
Brother David said,
     We are never more than one grateful thought
                 away from a peaceful heart. 
We have (he said) a thousand opportunities every day
                 to be grateful: . . . good weather,
                 to have slept well . . . , to be able to get up,
                 good health, to have enough to eat . . . .
            There’s opportunity upon opportunity to be grateful. 

Friends, if we directed our attention 
        to something good in the world
and said, Thank you Jesus, just three times a day,
we would be well on the way to wholeness.

As we said last week, the Church is a gymnasium 
where we develop the strengths to live well,
        a studio to practice the art of life.
So naturally the heart of our practice together
     is gratitude.

The root of Eucharist is charis,
     which is Greek for a free gift.
In worship, we notice have been given something 
-- perhaps I should say everything.
Eu-charist means a thank you gift, 
a free gift back to the Giver 
to acknowledge what we have received
and express our gratitude.
It’s a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.

The sacramental life is a perpetual gift exchange.
It works this way:
God has given us something, rather everything. 
We respond by giving back God, 
          what we’ve got -- ourselves.
In his classic Prayer of Oblation, 
St. Ignatius of Loyola prayed,
        Accept O God my memory, my will, 
        my understanding, my imagination.
        All that I am and all that I have, 
        you have given me.
        I give it all back to be disposed of 
        according to your good pleasure.

       Grant me only the comfort of your presence
              and the joy of your love.
        With these I shall be more than rich,
                and will ask for nothing more. 
God gives us the very earth under our feet,
the air we breathe,
all things bright and beautiful 
the song says.
In appreciation, we give ourselves back to God.
God in turn fills us with God’s own self, 
     and gives us back as human sacraments
to each other.

In a few minutes, at this altar rail
     we will give ourselves to God
     and be filled with God 
                 so that we can bear God’s grace           
                 to a spiritually starving world.

The offertory is the nucleus, the nuclear act,
     if you will, in our ritual.
We may give money to support various causes 
       we approve,
and hopefully we support the Church’s mission
to share Christ’s love in the world.
But our gift to the Church is different 
from our other donations.

It has a different symbolism, a different meaning,
and a different effect on our hearts. 
We give a fraction of our money
     to acknowledge that all we have belongs to God 
and has been entrusted to us
     for God’s mission in this world. 

Just so, a pledge campaign isn’t the same 
as fundraising for a secular non-profit.
It’s a spiritual thing.
It isn’t just about the Church’s budget.
It’s about our souls.
It’s about practicing the gratitude  
that opens our hearts 
to transcendent moments of awe
         that . . . change our . . . (lives) forever.

It’s about practicing the generosity 
     that flows from faith
and grows our faith to make us whole.