Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Ten Who Were Healed

Deuteronomy 8:1-20
Luke 17:11-19

Once upon a time there was a homeless woman named Sam.  Sam had not always been homeless and she wasn’t exactly sure why or when she had become so.  She had some vague recollection that she used alcohol too much and that things had become fuzzy and unclear overtime.  She was fired from her job for being drunk, she lost her home and her family left her because of the bottle. But they didn’t understand. They couldn’t understand. Alcohol was the only thing that gave her comfort, gave her warmth. It was the one friend she could count on to get her through the days. So she slept where she was when she was tired, eating what she found, mostly trying to escape into the bottle whenever she could find the money to do so. People didn’t treat her the same afterwards. They wouldn’t look at her, wouldn’t answer her if she called out to them.  She had become invisible. When people did talk to her it was usually to yell at her to get a job or to spit on her. She wished they would show her a job she could get, or that she could keep. After a while she told herself the way others treated her didn’t bother her anymore. They just didn’t understand.  Sam’s leprosy was addiction.
Daniel was also homeless.  But he was homeless for a different reason.  The voices in his head had begun while he was still a college student.  But without a network of family to support him, he had had nowhere to go when the University kicked him out.  Strangers on the street seemed frightened of him.  They didn’t ignore him - no, they went out of the their way to avoid him.  At least the voices kept him company, though what they said was sometimes mean or scary.  At least he wasn’t alone.  Daniel’s leprosy was schizophrenia. 
Joan was a gang member.  She wore her gang colors and walked through the streets with both the pride and courage of her group, but also with the fear of other gangs.  She walked with a weapon in her pocket, hand on the handle, she walked with her eyes constantly scanning around her.  She walked with the memory of gang members hurt and killed, wearing the scarf of sought revenge.  Her hatred gave her the strength to overcome the grief, to get up each day, to walk each day with plans - but without much hope of living past her twenty fifth birthday.  She saw the fear of those around her.  Their fear fed her determination.  The police harassed her on a regular basis: they too only fueled her courage.  They didn’t know nothin’.  They didn’t understand.  But she would show them. Joan’s leprosy was hatred……
Joe was an ex-convict.  He had a bad start in life, had been abandoned by his mother and beaten by his father. As a result he started very young with bullying, he got involved with the wrong crowd and had found acceptance participating in petty theft, becoming involved in drugs, committing minor assault.  He had been to jail on several occasions now, and had a couple convictions.  He’d tried to go straight.  But he’d found that his convictions meant he was unable to get a job, for the first question on any application is “have you ever committed a felony?”  So he returned to the only life he could lead: one of crime.  He saw enemies all around him, he had to be careful, careful.  And he found himself expanding into bigger and worse crimes as he became desperate and as he found he cared less and less for himself or anyone else.  Joe’s leprosy was his past.
(5.,6.,7.,8.)      Myeesha was an African American woman raised in a neighborhood that still revered the Klu Klux Klan.  Tim was a gay man beaten up again and again for being a “queer”.  Ali was a Muslim man, harassed and even detained because he looked like a “terrorist”.  And Jose was an immigrant who did not speak any English, pursued and attacked because of his immigrant status.  All four had had enough. They were angry, they were bitter. They lived in terror with pains that had not been healed.  Their leprosy?  Social rejection and prejudice that had led in the end to an inflamed terror anger that were eating each from the inside out.
            Suzie had AIDS, Quentin had actual leprosy.  Their diseases were feared and as a result, they were feared.  Poor, at the end of their financial ability to pay for medical care, their leprosies were exactly that: they were outcasts, never to be accepted, never to be healed.
Imagine then, that one day Jesus came to these lepers, here and now.  He came to this town and these ten people.  These “lepers” all approached him.  Still keeping their distance they shouted out to him and called, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the the medics, to those who can say, ‘your leprosy has been healed’ and who can allow you, invite you, incorporate and include you back into society.”  And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when she saw that she was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. She prostrated herself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And she was not one of us: she was not a Christian, not an American, not one of us. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean?  But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”
Where were the other nine?  We can see where they are. One was still bitter that he had gotten leprosy in the first place, not thankful that what was rightfully his was returned to him.  Another, an atheist scientist couldn’t accept that Jesus had anything to do with the cure.  Another didn’t realize she had been cured. Another felt lost without the thing that defined him any longer.  Another ran home to be with the family he had not been able to face for years. Another felt cheated - she hadn’t had to work for the cure and believed that work was an important part of receiving healing. One had gone to preach the good news to all who would listen. Another was afraid of Jesus - this man who had such amazing power. One was doing what she was told - going to the priest because that’s what Jesus had said to do. And another was so happy that he just plain forgot and was too busy dancing in the streets.
Jesus said to Sam, to the one who returned, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”  Sam stood and looked at Jesus.  “No,” she thought, “my faith has not done this - you have done this. God has done this. But looking at Jesus, she saw that what he had said was also true. Sam had chosen gratitude. It wasn’t just happiness, it wasn’t just a “feeling.” God had given all a place of thankfulness within and Sam had chosen to call on that place. Sam made a choice about the way she would look at the world; she chose to recognize all the gifts, including the “leprosy” that had led her to this miraculous place. They weren’t all comfortable gifts, but Sam was thankful for them all. In being healed in body, she was healing in spirit; and in being thankful, her mind was clearing. In seeing the gifts in every aspect of her life, she found the courage to face her pain and let go of her “leprosy”. Her faith that Jesus healed her, allowed her to be part of her healing, too. She chose gratitude: and that is a healing gift that continues, day after day.
Bonhoeffer said this, “In normal life we hardly realize how much more we receive than we give, and life cannot be rich without such gratitude. It is so easy to overestimate the importance of our own achievements compared with what we owe to the help of others.”―Letters and Papers from Prison.
The Deuteronomy passage goes even farther reminding us not to forget who gave us every good thing. We did not earn what we have: it was all a gift. To repeat the passage, “Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. He led you through the vast and dreadful wilderness, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock. He gave you manna to eat in the wilderness, something your ancestors had never known, to humble and test you so that in the end it might go well with you. You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today.” 
That memory, the faith that accompanies it, and the gratitude that follows, makes us much more whole, much more happy (as I’ve shared before – studies show that gratitude goes a long, long way towards creating happiness and more, contentment in people), much more able to move forward into the world with success, with conviction and with energy.

            I hope that your Thanksgiving was truly a time of remembering all that has blessed your lives.  And my prayer for all of us is that we, too, find healing in our faith, and in our gratitude for all that God has given us.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Is it Ever Too Late?

I Thess. 4:13-18
Matthew 25:1-13

               I would like to invite you to think of an experience you’ve had in which you were simply too late.  It could be a time, perhaps, when you made your decision to attend something too late to get tickets or to RSVP, or signed up for something past the date to enroll or showed up late to meet someone and the person you were meeting had given up on you and left.  Maybe you forgot to pay a bill and then found it after the due date.  It’s part of the human experience that we are sometimes late for things.  We miss deadlines or fail to meet deadlines.  There just simply are times when we’ve put something off, forgotten about something that needed to be done, or took longer to complete something, assuming it would not take as much time as it did, and as a result we are too late.   
               Most of the time these aren’t big important things and so it may have been hard for you to even remember, in this moment that I’m asking you to do so, a time when you were too late. 
               However there are situations in which being late or being unprepared in a timely way is serious, or really problematic. I think about my friend, “Susan”, who had been estranged from her father for years. In her late teens she became very angry with him and cut him off as soon as she was able to leave the house. However, after some time had passed, she worked through her childhood challenges and had finally come to a place where she was at peace with her past, where she remembered the good things her father had done and had enough compassion to understand the mistakes he made.  More importantly, she saw her own mistakes and she came to a place where she was ready to reconcile, to reach out, to apologize, to make amends and to create a new relationship with her father.  It took a long time to get there, but once she finally did, she still found that finding the time to reach out to her father was difficult.   She found herself postponing the reconnection in the name of busy schedules and more immediate concerns.  But it was during that time, a time when she was ready to reconcile but simply hadn’t done it yet when she got the news that her father had had a heart attack and had passed away.  That “being too late” was one she could not fix. 
               I think of a parishioner who a week before his death informed me that he had a burden he needed to confess, but that he wasn’t ready to do it.  While opportunities were offered, he never got to a place where he was ready before he became unable to talk or share.  I can only hope that his soul was at peace in the end. But I could not make him confess what he felt he needed to share, and time passed him by.
               I have another friend who in a rage said some things to a person she deeply loved and cared for.  Her apology was too late. She could not take back what she said, and she could not fix what had been done.  Her sense of what to say, her timing with her apology, her realization of what needed to happen to make the situation as whole, peaceful and healing as possible – all of it came too late.  I remember still another friend who had broken up with a man she had deeply loved.  When she came to the realization that her reasons were small, were trivial, and that this was the man she wanted to spend her life with, it was too late and he had found someone else.
               Personally, I find that the things I regret the most about my life are the opportunities I failed to  take until it was too late, as well as the wisdom about relationships, things that should have been said, could have been said, or might have been expressed differently, that also came too late.  Ralph Waldo Emerson said this about being too late, ”You can never do a kindness too soon because you never know how soon it will be too late.” 
               Friday at Faith and Film night we watched “Pieces of April” - a movie about the healing and reconciliation in a very broken, dysfunctional family.  As we reflected on the movie afterwards, I thought about the fact that the mother’s diagnosis of terminal cancer allowed the family members to make the very important decisions to reconcile.  But many people’s deaths are sudden – car accidents, heart attacks, or other.  We don’t know when these things will take someone we love.  If we aren’t diligent about healing our relationships, sometimes our efforts simply ARE too late.
               As Christians, as people of faith, passages like today’s from Matthew call us to be prepared in a further way, to be ready, and to be on time, to “bring enough oil with us that if the bridegroom comes later than we expect, we still have enough oil to meet him with lamps lit.”  This means putting our spiritual concerns above our worldly concerns, our busyness, our activities at all times. We do not know when we will be called to declare and stand up for our values, when we will be called upon to demonstrate who it is that we really serve. Is it God and the values of our faith that tell us that our primary concern must be about loving God above all and loving everyone we encounter as ourselves?  Or is it the world and the values of our society which tell us to care for ourselves and our own before thinking of others, that say, “go for that luxury because you deserve it?”  Are we ready for the day when we are confronted and forced to make our faith commitments clear by the choices that we make?  When we may be surprised by having to choose between God, faith, and love for others; or the world asking us to do something that is ‘wrong’ by the standards of love and care that our God calls us to uphold, that hurts others, that is a betrayal of our faith?  Most often we won’t even know we have declared ourselves until after the fact. It may be in hind-sight that we see when that moment came and went.  Are we prepared for it?
When it comes to spiritual matters, “being too late” can have great consequences.  If we fail to engage God in a meaningful way that creates in us wholeness and connection, we risk being too late – of missing out on the most important parts of this journey that we are given, of the depth of connections to life, each other, ourselves and God that we could have. The parable tells us that in waiting to connect with God, with Love until it is too late, we risk the possibility of being unknown to God.  And failing to be known by God is the greatest loss we can experience. 
               The reality is that we will probably have such moments.  And as the human beings that we are, my guess is that sometimes we will find, after the fact, that we have not acted in a way that honestly reflects values of love, compassion and faith, that we have chosen for the values of the world instead, that we have not chosen intimacy with God, not chosen to be known by God, have been unprepared in meeting God, but instead have walked and lived in a way that is contrary to the faith beliefs we espouse.
               So where, then, is the Good News in this?  I asked Jasmyn, about three years ago, as I was working on this parable for another sermon what she thought of this parable. She told me that she thought if the wise bridesmaids had been really wise they would have encouraged the bridegroom to give the others a second chance because it was not really their fault that they are foolish. I found great hope in her words, because they show a level of compassion for others that God shows us again and again. God is the God of love, of forgiveness, and of second chances.  We are given the opportunities, even when we mess up, to try again to work out our relationships with God.  When we mess up with God, God does forgive.  When we are too late, God does give us chances again and again to be faithful, to be connected to God, to be prepared to be in relationship with God. As the God character in Joan of Arcadia put it, “The question is what are you going to do now?  That’s what I’m all about – your next chance to do the right thing.  That’s how you know I am who I am.  That’s how you shall know me from all others.  What are you going to do now?  Every new decision is a chance to do the right thing.  You don’t get that from the other side…  It’s all about what you do next.” 
               Additionally, we, too, are called in all things to forgive, both the other and ourselves, when we are ‘too late’ and when others are “too late”.  And, we are given the amazing gift of being invited to learn from our mistakes.  Connie Shultz said, “If we can’t remember the wrong turns, we’re bound to get lost again.”  “Our mistakes and failures connect us to others in profound ways that our successes and conquests never will.  It’s in the moments of humility, when we have no choice but to see our own foibles and missteps, that the seed of compassion takes root in our hearts….I regret how often I hurt others when I was so sure some wrongs were beyond forgiving – until I committed them myself.” Just as God does not set a deadline for us, we are called to not set deadlines for others, but to accept and invite reconciliation and healing whenever it is offered, whenever it comes. That is good news both for us and for those we love.
               I do not believe that God sets limits or a time line on when you can turn to God. But still, God wants us to choose God now for our own sakes. Do we want to miss the wedding?  Do we want to miss out on knowing the God of celebration and of life and of love who is amazing and grace-filled and faithful and awesome?  When we are not prepared, when we are late, we miss out on those opportunities. We miss out on that closeness and wholeness and wondrous support. 
               Will God give us another chance? Of course. Will we mess up? We do, again and again.  But personally, I’m going to work hard to be ready, to not be late, to be present with God at all times.  Because I don’t want to miss the party and have to wait for the next chance. I don’t want the angst of being out in the cold waiting, while others are inside celebrating with the bridegroom. I don’t want the bridegroom saying to me, “I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.” And I don’t want that for anyone else, either. 
               I want to end with a poem that to me sums up the hope that is in today’s lesson.  It was written by Charles Peguy who is a French poet.  He wrote,
“When grace doesn’t come straight, it comes bent.
When it doesn’t come from above, it comes from below.
When it doesn’t come from the center, it comes from the circumference.
We may finish a way we never began, but we shall finish.
This age, this land, this people, this world, will get there along a road they never set out on.” 
And that is good news indeed.


Thursday, November 9, 2017

What is Love?

      I've found myself thinking about love a great deal lately.  We all want to be loved deeply and unconditionally.  But what does that mean?  When I think of love in its purest form, I really value the definition of Scott Peck who says something along the lines of "to love someone is to want and to work for that person's highest good."  I value that definition of love because it is all about the person who is being loved.  It is focused on them: on what is best for them.  It is deeply caring, deeply concerned, deeply empathetic as it requires really knowing the other, really seeing the other, and really valuing the other as the unique person that they are.  We all want to be loved this way: for ourselves.  We want to be appreciated, we want to be cherished.  We want to be seen and understood, to be the focus of someone's attention and affection.
      I believe most parents strive to love their children in this way: to love them for exactly who they are, to want what is best for them, and to work for their highest good. When we hear about parents rejecting their children, for whatever reason, we recognize it for the tragedy and travesty that it is.  We know those parents are not fulfilling their job as unconditionally loving care-givers.  And we see the devastation that results in the suicides and chronic depression that far too often follows parental rejection.  When parental love happens the way it is supposed to, we know it to be the truest and deepest form of love.
       We also envision this kind of love coming from the Divine, from God, whatever we understand that to be.  This love is a selfless, and unconditional caring for the other.  From God we expect that love to see us fully for who we are, to know us completely, and especially, to understand and accept and value us exactly as we are.  That is the ultimate in love.  And when we talk about being called by faith to love one another, this is the kind of love of which we speak.  We are mandated to see, care and have compassion for each other, expecting and wanting nothing in return, even as we work for the highest good of the other.
      But there are other ways in which we usually use the word "love" that I think require a different word altogether.  We often use the word "love" in relationship to romantic attachments, for example.  But this kind of love is not unconditional, and it is far from selfless.  It is a kind of "love" that wants, hopes and expects to be returned.  It is a "love" that is seeking something for the self, a kind of barter-love in which I will care for you if and when you care for me.  And at the point at which you stop caring for me, I will do everything I can to stop caring for you in return because this kind of love feels pain when it is not returned in the same way.  This thing we call love is a desire for something for ourselves - an intimacy, a connection and a care from the other.  It is motivated by self-interest and a yearning for closeness.  It is limited by circumstances and qualified by a trade in affection that we hope will be even.  It is everything the kind of love we hope for from God or from parents is not.  We often idolize this kind of love.  But less and less do I see this as ideal.  Yes, we need relationships.  Yes, we need mutuality.  Yes, we need intimacy.  But is this love?  Not the way I understand it.  Not the way we are called to offer it.  
      The same is true of friendships.  Most friendships require a mutuality, a give and take, a trading of affections for them to be considered "loving".  "Love" in a friendship is conditional upon trust, mutuality and commonalities. But again, this is not "Love" the way we are called to give it.
      I believe all of the deepest spiritual leaders model the first, ideal love for us, but since I am most familiar with Jesus, I will point out some of the ways in which he did this, calling us to do the same.
      First of all, he never demanded that someone change before loving or caring for them.  He loved them and that allowed some people to change, but the love, the unconditional love, always came first.  He prevented the stoning of the woman caught in adultery before inviting her to change.  He offered healing water to the woman at the well before telling her her past history.  He offered to eat with Zacchaeus without reservation or comment and Zacchaeus chose to change as a result.  He healed the ten lepers, even though only one returned to give thanks.  Again and again, he offered care and love unconditionally and fully.  That love was so great and so transformative that it invited people to grow, but it never insisted on it.
     Second, he offered the care that wanted the highest good for everyone, even those trying to hurt him.  He never refused to respond to the pharisees, he never turned against the soldiers who arrested him with violence, he ate in the homes of friends and foes alike.  He was always willing to engage people, wherever they came from on the political or theological or social spectrum because he wanted the highest good for all people, all of them - even when they were seeking to destroy him.
     Third, that care, that work towards the highest good took many forms, depending on the one in front of him.  Some needed healing.  Others needed lessons.  Some needed acceptance and saving from the wrath and rage of others (the woman who washed his feet with tears, the woman caught in adultery).  Whatever the person in front of him needed, he worked for their highest good in offering that.
      We know the result of this.  In return for his Love, those who "loved" him best offered the second kind of love: they wanted more from him than was possible.  He was constantly being pursued when he went off to pray, he was constantly being sought after, even when he needed time to himself.  Judas tried to push him into the actions that Judas wanted and ended up betraying him instead.  People did not see him for who he was, they did not offer him care for who he was, they could not Love him with the kind of love he offered to them.  Offering real Love back to God, or to the world seemed and seems an impossibility for most people.  And still, we are called to love with the ideal love that we have seen demonstrated.
      I have said to many people that I never knew what it was to love until I became a parent.  I am so grateful for the experience of that kind of deep, unconditional caring because it reminds me that I am to strive to love everyone with that same kind of "I will do what is best for you no matter how you feel about me" way.  Being a parent has been practice for me in loving others who sometimes don't want that love, sometimes don't return it, sometimes push it away in angry ways.  It showed me what unconditional, full love really looks like.  It also holds up to me a mirror for those times when I am failing to love in this way but instead am seeking an emotional trade with someone else instead.  Again, we do all need that kind of intimacy and mutual relationships as well.  But that is not Love.  For me, I hope to grow more loving towards all people, even those who are enemies and even those from whom I want that mutual intimacy and emotional trade.  It is a journey, it is a learning.  But it is worth the effort.  For as Jesus said of the one leper who did return to give thanks - it is in that return that he was truly healed.  It is in the Loving that we truly experience the gifts of Love.  It is in the true unconditional caring that we come to meet the Divine.  It is in giving Love that we come to know Love.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

All Saints and Stewardship

Ephesians 1:11-23
Luke 6:20-31

Today I have the daunting task of talking to you about both Stewardship and All Saints Day. But while these may not seem connected, stewardship is not just a giving forward, it is also a celebration of what has been, an honoring of the past.
The Ephesians passage tells us that we were chosen in Christ.  We can rest assured that the Saints were chosen in Christ.  We can feel safe in the assurance that our loved ones still exist in some form, that they are with God, that our love for them still matters, and their love for us still continues.  When we are in grief, as many in this congregation are this year, these words can seem a little hollow, perhaps. We miss them.  And while the promise that they still exist in some form helps, while being assured that they are now at rest with God can help, it doesn’t always ease our grief. 
As I thought about the fact that on All Saint’s Day we are called to honor those who went before, I realized that we honor them as much for our sake as for theirs.  Taking the time to celebrate and remember those who have shared with us their time, their wisdom, their presence - helps us to grieve with grace, to celebrate their lives, even as we mourn our own losses, to reflect on the legacies that they’ve left us and that have made us who we are today.    
We honor their memories by sharing with others stories of their lives.  We honor their memories by praying about them, or talking to God about them.  We honor their memories by spending time looking at their pictures, at things they’ve made or things they’ve created, by remembering them.  But there is more.
One of the ways we honor the memories of the Saints is by maintaining practices and rituals that were important to them…such as going to church and giving to church. The saints, the ones who have passed, understood that faith is not just a statement about what we believe.  It is an action, it is about doing, much more than believing.  You show what matters to you by what you do with your time, your energy, your money, your talents, your gifts.  That means that we honor the Saints not only by following in a tradition of generosity, but by giving of our time, our energy, and our talents as well.  There is something that every person here can do.  Every person here can contribute in some way: writing cards, knitting scarves, coming to bible study, inviting your friends to come to an event at church: the concerts, the studies, Sunday worship.  Stewardship then is following through on all of this: it is about committing our lives with our time, energy, talents, and resources - all of which is an expression of faith but also an honoring of our tradition, our history, and the Saints that have gone before us as well.
That doesn’t mean that giving is easy for any of us.  We live in a culture where we are expected to get more and gain more.  We often rank ourselves by the wealth we can demonstrate and we socialize with those in the same socio-economic sphere.  What we perceive to be our need often grows to fit our incomes or to even exceed them.  We can see it happening in our lives and in the lives of those around us, but it is hard to change this, especially in a culture that celebrates wealth. 
A boat docked in a tiny Mexican village. An American tourist complimented the Mexican fisherman on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took him to catch them.
            "Not very long," answered the Mexican. 
            "But then, why didn't you stay out longer and catch more?" asked the American. 
            The Mexican explained that his small catch was sufficient to meet his needs and those of his family.
The American asked, "But what do you do with the rest of your time?" 
"I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, and take a siesta with my wife. In the evenings, I go into the village to see my friends, have a few drinks, play the guitar, and sing a few songs. I have a full life." 
The American interrupted, "I have an MBA from Harvard and I can help you! You should start by fishing longer every day. You can then sell the extra fish you catch. With the extra revenue, you can buy a bigger boat."
"And after that?" asked the Mexican. 
"With the extra money the larger boat will bring, you can buy a second one and a third one and so on until you have an entire fleet of trawlers. Instead of selling your fish to a middle man, you can then negotiate directly with the processing plants and maybe even open your own plant. You can then leave this little village and move to Mexico City, Los Angeles, or even New York City! From there you can direct your huge new enterprise." 
"How long would that take?" asked the Mexican. 
"Twenty, perhaps twenty-five years," replied the American. 
"And after that?" 
"Afterwards? Well my friend, that's when it gets really interesting," answered the American, laughing. "When your business gets really big, you can start buying and selling stocks and make millions!" 
"Millions? Really? And after that?" asked the Mexican. 
"After that you'll be able to retire, live in a tiny village near the coast, sleep late, play with your children, catch a few fish, take a siesta with your wife and spend your evenings drinking and enjoying your friends." 
How much life do we miss in our quest to become richer?  In our quest to gain more for ourselves and our families?  We know that the most generous people, again with time as well as with money, are often those who start with the least amount of money; and that those who share the least are those with the most money and time to do the sharing.  We also know that studies show there is NO increase in happiness associated with an increase in wealth.  What we think will make our lives fuller and more meaningful doesn’t.  Instead, the one thing that tends to be the best indicator of human happiness is a person’s generosity, with giving, and with caring for and serving others.  That is something that people of previous generations often understood much better than we ourselves can.  And, on death beds, the biggest regret that is always expressed is not spending more time giving meaningful service and time to those people and needs that we care the most about.
            One of my house-mates from college lives as a Catholic worker volunteer.  This means that she lives in a community of other volunteers who open their house to the poor in their community.  They feed them, house them, living in community together.  She is married with children and still lives in this community.  While I struggle to find the money to send my children to lessons so that they might have a full education, her children have the fullest education possible, living with and serving God’s people in community.  She has found God’s wealth to be far greater than that of material wealth and security.   She lives in God’s kingdom and she does it every day.
            I think about Rick Warren, the pastor of the megachurch, Saddleback in Southern CA.  When his books hit the best seller list and he started raking in the money, he had to make some serious decisions about what he would be doing with it.  He wrote, “sometimes learning to deal with the good is harder (than dealing with the challenges in life). For instance, this past year, all of a sudden, when the book sold 15 million copies, it made me instantly very wealthy.   It also brought a lot of notoriety that I had never had to deal with before. I don't think God gives you money or notoriety for your own ego or for you to live a life of ease. So I began to ask God what He wanted me to do with this money, notoriety and influence. He gave me two different passages that helped me decide what to do, II Corinthians 9 and Psalm 72.   First, in spite of all the money coming in, we would not change our lifestyle one bit.. We made no major purchases.  Second, about midway through last year, I stopped taking a salary from the church.   Third, we set up foundations to fund an initiative we call The Peace Plan to plant churches, equip leaders, assist the poor, care for the sick, and educate the next generation.   Fourth, I added up all that the church had paid me in the 24 years since I started the church, and I gave it all back. It was liberating to be able to serve God for free.   We need to ask ourselves: Am I going to live for possessions? Popularity?   Am I going to be driven by pressures? Guilt? Bitterness? Materialism? Or am I going to be driven by God's purposes?   When I get up in the morning, I sit on the side of my bed and say, God, if I don't get anything else done today, I want to know You more and love You better.. God didn't put me on earth just to fulfill a to-do list. (God) is more interested in what I am than what I do.”
Many people come to church for what Church can give them.  Instead, maybe we should pick a church by what church needs us.  It should be a two way street.  No church will be perfect, and that is part of the challenge.  Same is true of the Saints that went before.  None of them are perfect, but we sometimes feel the church should be perfect and until we find one that is, we won’t commit.  We don’t honor our loved ones by making them into people they really weren’t.  We don’t honor who they really were by remembering only the good stuff.  And we don’t honor the tradition of the church by insisting it be perfect, or that it serve us if we are not giving back every bit as much as we hope to get from the church.  It is in giving that we receive. 
I think about the description of heaven and hell that I have shared with you before: in hell, you walk in and see a banquet table filled with foods, but everyone’s elbows are locked.  Each person struggled to feed himself, fighting against the fact that each one cannot bend his or her arms to bring the food into his or her mouth.  In heaven the situation looks very similar: a table filled with food, people surrounding the table with elbows locked.  However in heaven everyone is feeding each other.
            Stewardship, choosing to give of our resources and to give with generosity, is a statement of trust in God, a statement that we know that our real wealth comes from our connections with God and to God’s people.  It is an offering to the church and to one another the foods on the banquet table, trusting that we will be fed in turn.  It is an honoring of all we have loved and all we continue to love as we celebrate the generosity of the Saints by being generous in turn, by sharing with one another our time, our experiences, our wisdom, our energy, and our monetary gifts.
            The words of the hymn we will be singing later, “we give thee but thine own” is one of the truest statements of our faith.  The money, the talents, the gifts and resources we have are not ours.  They are on loan to us from God…but as scripture tells us, “from those who have much, much will be expected.”
            We are blessed.  And today as we remember the Saints who have passed on, we remember that their presence in our lives was a great blessing and their memories continue to be a blessing.  We honor those memories by striving to give as much as they gave us, of all that we have and all that we are.  Amen.