Tag Archives: generosity

Keep Christmas Alive

A Sermon for 3 January 2016 – Epiphany Sunday

A reading from the gospel of Matthew 2:1-12. Listen for God’s word to us.

“In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!


Just before the holidays in 2007, something extraordinary took place. We could call it a Christmas miracle! . . . The setting for this miraculous event wasn’t a stable in Bethlehem in the dead of winter. Rather a Starbucks drive-thru on an overcast day in South Florida. (www.huffingtonpost.com/arthur-rosenfeld/pay-it-backwards-an-act-o_b_151793.html) . . . On his way to teach a morning tai chi class, a gentleman decided to warm himself up with his favorite cup of Starbucks tea. It started like any other Starbucks drive-thru. “Welcome to Starbucks. Would you like a tall, venti, or grande?” The gentleman placed his order at the menu board then pulled up as far as he could to wait his turn to pay. No sooner did the gentleman place his order and pull up in the line as far as he could, than the guy in the SUV behind him started laying on the horn. He obviously had left home before having his first cup. Shouting all sorts of expletives, and throwing in a hand gesture or two for certain effect, the guy in the SUV apparently was ticked that he STILL wasn’t close enough to the menu board to place his order. . . . It was just a few days before Christmas – nerves sometime can be quite frayed. The tai chi centered gentleman in the car in front was about to get out to let SUV man have it. Teach him a lesson or two about messing with a martial arts master. In his own words he reports that “my heart beat was up, my hands were clamming, my muscles were tense, and the whole world had constricted down to the tiny business of completing my hostile mission.” One last time he glanced in his rearview mirror, when suddenly he noticed that the twisted, hate-filled angry face of the man in the SUV behind him had become the same one staring back at him in the features of his own face. In that moment, he didn’t like what he saw – hostile ill-will quickly rising in that Starbucks line. . . . As he pulled forward to pay for his own tea, he took out an extra $10 and told the barista to throw in the cost of the order for the guy behind him. Shocked, the barista reminded him of what a jerk SUV man was being. Was he sure? Especially because SUV man just had ordered breakfast and coffee for five – totaling a small fortune at Starbucks. The extra $10 wasn’t nearly enough to cover the cost of the order. . . . He didn’t have to do it. He could’ve just taken back his money and pulled away. No one would have been the wiser. Instead, in an act far exceeding the norm, he pulled out his credit card and told the barista to run it. After all, it was just a few days before Christmas. “Peace on earth, goodwill to all, and all that jazz.” It would be his unexpected gift of goodwill to all – not only to transform his own spirit, but maybe to do a little for the undeserving jerk in the SUV behind him. . . . The miracle was that when SUV man pulled forward, his face still seething in impatient anger, the barista explained to him to keep his own credit card because his order had been paid for by the gentleman in the car in front of him. Instantly the generous act melted SUV man’s heart. He insisted to pay for the order of the car behind him. It was the least he could do. And for the next several hours, in that little Starbucks drive-thru in South Florida, humankind was on fine display . . . as one driver after the other graciously accepted the unexpected gift, then in turn enacted the same generosity to the person in line behind them. . . . No angels showed up to herald the good news. But on that day, those who had driven through that Starbucks not only experienced, but they also, in turn, embodied the true spirit of giving. Christmas in a nutshell.

So many of us love Christmas because it is a time for seeing the generosity in people all around. There’s something about Christmas that makes many of us a little merrier. Even if we never will any other time of the year, at Christmas we more freely express our appreciation for one another. We’re kinder – even to total strangers. The whole world shines a little brighter. . . . Maybe it’s the carols that cheer us. Or the excitement in children that has the capacity to get under the toughest skin. I know a lot of us carry deep pain over loved ones lost that seems even harder to bear during the holidays. . . . And many of us get all stressed out trying to make for that one perfect night. . . . But if we’d stop long enough, we might realize that growing inside us is a desire to give to those around us as freely and as joyfully as was given to the world that first Christmas night. The true generosity of Christmas.

Today we’re nearing Epiphany – on January 6th when the twelve days of Christmas come to a close at least for this year. It’s the Sunday at last for the wise men. The ones for whom we can give great thanks – for that’s what they’re doing: embodying the generous spirit of Christmas! . . . Even if we typically have them right there in the nativity with the shepherds and the angel, the gospel of Matthew alone records the story of the travelers who came from afar under the glow of that star. Whether they arrived the night of the birth or a few years later, as is suggested by King Herod’s hateful edict to slay all the children two years old and younger. Whether there were three or a whole caravan of twelve as some scholars have suggested. We know that the gospel of Matthew places these generous gift-bearers at the start of the story – a significant way to begin the good news of what God is up to in the world and how God hopes for the world to respond. . . . They are foreigners from another land. Most probably professional star-gazers who spent their lives waiting for something. . . . Really it’s quite odd; their story half-plausible. I mean, why would anyone from so far away even care about a new star rising in the sky? And how did they know to link that star to a new king born of a little clan so far-off in Judea? It kinda makes you wonder what they already knew of the Messiah’s prophecy, as it’s entirely possible they were from what once was Babylon where Jewish exiles kept hope alive with stories of a Messiah someday to come set the world aright. Had these wise ones heard and hoped all along? Is that what caused them to risk such a trek and not be deterred until at last they reach the house where the child Jesus is? . . . “Overwhelmed with joy,” the scriptures read. “They saw the child with Mary his mother, and they knelt down and paid him homage” (Mt. 2:10-11). Somehow they know something amazing is in their midst: a gift beyond measure that floods their spirits with the very same generosity. . . . With them they carry chests of treasure. Items they must have considered precious – worthy for a new born king. They offer the child gifts. . . . Even though Mary and Joseph know his impressive future, this display must have seemed as unexpectedly miraculous to them as the revolution of generosity in that Starbucks drive-thru a few years back.

Epiphany is about giving gifts – humankind’s real reason for generosity. For Epiphany is the story of the manifestation of God’s great gift spreading out into the world as the wise ones return from their Bethlehem trek – like a light expanding from its source to inspire us with overwhelming joy that we might live the same generosity as God’s amazing gift. . . . I’m sure many of us have taken down the trimmings of the season. We’ve packed away the Christmas carols and returned the less-than-satisfying gifts. The cheer of the season’s about worn off as it’s time to figure out how to pay off the incoming bills and get back to business as usual – at least for another three hundred-fifty-some days.  . . . But here we are with travelers from afar. Ones of exceeding wisdom whose gratitude moves them to act – to give their very best gifts in honor of the One who gave the greatest gift to us all. . . . We’d do well to spend some time with these wise ones. To meditate upon their example – not just for one season, but every day of the year. . . . Because wouldn’t it be awesome if even a few of us kept the generosity of Christmas alive all the days of the year? Wouldn’t it be remarkable if even a handful of us return from this year’s Bethlehem trek like a light from its source radiating something different because of what we’ve made such a fuss to celebrate? Wouldn’t that be the most wonderful miracle from Christmas this year?

One of the songs of the season that I fell in love with the instant I heard it – and most probably have shared with you before – includes these words: “Emmanuel. Prince of Peace. Love come down for you and me. Heaven’s gift: the holy Spark to light the way inside our hearts. Bethlehem, through your small door, came the hope we’ve waited for. The world was changed forevermore when love was born. I close my eyes and see the night when love was born” (When Love Was Born, Mark Schultz, WOW Christmas 2011). . . . Love come for you and me. Heaven’s gift: the holy Spark to light the way inside our hearts. . . . I wonder if God’s amazing gift just might be enough to overwhelm us with gratitude until our lives are changed each day and forevermore.

Happy Epiphany, brothers and sisters in Christ! . . . Every day let us live the Light of the Lord our God!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2016  (All rights reserved.)



This post might sound a bit . . . overdone/expected/trite.

Nonetheless:  with great appreciation, affection, and respect; I write in honor of Alfred.  A man of amazing faith and love who has lived nearly 100 years.  Tonight I learned that he may be about to breathe his last and he wanted me to be the one to be there with him for his last rites — something I interpret as his last words to and from God.  If I was there tonight, I would hold up a mirror to his face and say:  “Love, Love, Love, Love.  From Love you came.  By Love you have lived all the days of your life.  To Love you return.  Know that you rest eternally in the amazing embrace of Love.”

The one of whom I write is a humble man who has made significant scientific contributions to this world, though the kinds of projects he has worked on for our government have haunted him many days of his life.   I had the pleasure of being his pastor for a brief part of his journey — the part in which he lost his younger sister and underwent several rounds of what we all expected would be his final days.  Last winter he declared he would live to another spring, to plant a garden and watch the fruits of his labors grow.  I have had the joy of getting to know one of his daughters, one who might just be the most faithfully, devoted, loving, fun-loving person in this world.  Her commitment to her family has been inspiring.  A smile comes to my lips every time I think of her and her dear, passing father.  It’s been over a year since last I saw them, but due to their loving generosity, I still sip tea each morning for which they are responsible!  (When Alfred found out I loved to drink a cup of tea in the morning, he made sure they got me a box or two every few weeks — even during the days he was hospitalized and during the time he was burying his younger sister!)  When I moved here a little over a year ago, I had a mid-size cardboard box full of boxes of tea!  Alfred always wanted to ensure I, as his pastor, had this little pleasure each day.  His heart is pure kindness.  Love.  Grace.

A box of my favorite Tea lovingly given to me by Alfred.

A box of my favorite Tea lovingly given to me by Alfred.

We never do know the kind of impact we have in this world.  Who we are can be given as such a gift.  In simple ways.  In ways that encourage along a fellow, struggling traveler.

In honor of an un-known man who gave not only of his brilliance, but also of his incredible generous spirit, be someone today that impacts this world forever for good!

So be it . . .


A Compelling Vision

If I understood the commas correctly in a post today on achurchforstarvingartists.wordpress.com, then over $26 million was given to 4000 nonprofits in one day last week. It was called Giving Tuesday. I had never heard of it, until I received an email that morning from a nonprofit urging me to get in on the excitement. I guess it’s a take off from Black Friday, followed by Cyber Monday, followed by Green Monday which I received information about this morning. When will it all end???!!! The advertising world is doing a phenomenal job at getting our attention. At reminding us that we must have this one perfect thing at this amazing, great deal. Hurry don’t let this discount pass you by! Today is the day, so: charge! Charge! Charge! (And free shipping too!)

It’s really more than ironic this week when the Advent gospel text turns us to John the Baptist, crying out in the wilderness to get ready for a whole different way. He’s trying to get our attention. To get us ready for something more than just buying and selling. Buying that which too often goes forgotten the day after it finally arrives. And selling our souls to that which will never satisfy.

The blog post I read this morning spoke of a compelling vision. It asked the question: does the organization which you represent present a compelling vision? As the author quoted the statistical figures from Giving Tuesday, she concluded that people obviously want to give. I realize that it may not be everybody in this world. I’m guessing we all can tell stories of some very selfish people. Still, I think about people I’ve observed in the past few months alone. I truly can say I often have been amazed by remarkable generosity. Just today I was sent from the church among whom I serve with four large bundles full of goodies and comforts. I was to deliver this amazingly thoughtful, unexpected gift to a husband who faithfully is caring for his dying wife of 68 years while she continues under hospice care. Is there a more compelling vision than being part of a community that seeks to be present to the dying and those whose hearts are breaking as they tend the failing body of their loved one? This is the same community that showed up last week for ones they just are beginning to know whose father died suddenly. The same community that gathers together to worship and learn and enjoy one another each week. All the while waiting for local folks to appear who might be in need of financial assistance or a bag of groceries from the food pantry. If you ask me that’s a pretty compelling vision!

It’s actually called the church – one representation of a body that too often gaines very bad press these days. Don’t get me wrong: in many ways, we’ve earned what we’ve gotten. I think a wise One once said that you reap what you sow. But in so many other ways, we have gone about amazing work. It’s time that we better market our compelling vision: we are the community that does our best to embody the One that is Pure Love. If you’re looking for somewhere to give, I urge you to start there.

Wishing you wonderfully nourishing bread on your journey!


One Life

16 November 2014 sermon — Matthew 25:14-30

DISCLAIMER: I believe sermons are meant to be heard. They are the word proclaimed in a live exchange between God and the preacher, and the preacher and God, and the preacher and the people, and the people and the preacher, and the people and God, and God and the people. Typically set in the context of worship and always following the reading of scripture, sermons are about listening and speaking and hearing and heeding. At the risk of stepping outside such boundaries, I share sermons here — where the reader will have to wade through a manuscript that was created to be spoken word. Even if you don’t know the sound of my voice, let yourself hear as you read. Let your mind see as you hear. Let your life be opened to whatever response you begin to hear within you.

May the Spirit Speak to you!

Click here to read scripture first: Matthew 25:14-30 (NRS)

Several years ago I sat through a long and arduous meeting across from a woman wearing a t-shirt that I couldn’t take my eyes off of. It really was so alarming that I found myself deep in thought rather than paying attention to the agenda for which we were gathered. The t-shirt read: “You have one life. Do something!” . . . “You have one life. Do something!” . . . Wasn’t that the message we heard a few weeks ago on All Saints’ Sunday as the chime rang for each loved one we named? Isn’t that the silver lining of the dark cloud of death? Every time we come face-to-face with the loss of a loved one, at the same time, we come face-to-face with the reality of our limited time. Our days are not infinite – not in the life we know now as human beings. . . . Sure we have the promise and hope of life everlasting with our God. But here and now, we only have one life. It is expected that we do something!

Jesus might as well have been wearing the very same t-shirt as he talked to his disciples that day. Mind you – according to the gospel of Matthew’s telling of the story – these words come just two days before the drama of Christ’s final Passover. They’re in Jerusalem – well, right outside on the Mount of Olives, actually (Mt. 24:3). And certainly at least one of the twelve was intuitive enough to know the tension is mounting. The one who’s been busy giving away his life each day for the life of the world is about to face his riskiest investment yet. He’s about to march right into Jerusalem, and though he doesn’t want to swallow the biter cup of suffering – as his prayer in the garden reveals (Mt. 26:39), still: he’s willing to keep himself open come what may. Even if the outcome is death, he keeps his trust in his father: our God of Life. . . . This one, who is on his own high-risk adventure, is the one who tells the story we heard today as recorded in Matthew’s gospel.

It’s like three people, Jesus says. Maybe we should start it the way we love all stories to start. Once upon a time there was an extravagant owner. He wanted to see how his folks would do. So he called them together and gave to each way more than any could imagine. He was careful to consider what each might be able to handle, so as not to overwhelm. Yet lavish, immense amounts were granted. . . . According to Jesus’ telling of the story, one was given the equivalent of 75 years of a day laborer’s earnings. One 30 years of a day laborer’s earnings. One 15 years of a day laborer’s earnings (Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 4; Lindsay P. Armstrong, p. 309). . . . They really weren’t given any instructions. Just entrusted with such enormous gifts. I guess the owner figured they all knew each other really well: out of love for the one freely giving, the three would know just what to do. I mean, love begets love. Generosity evokes additional generosity in open, pure spirits. So, of course, the owner simply trusted they would not squander the gift.

Perhaps the owner forgot that fear is powerful. Fear gets its fangs in us and before we know it, we’re stuck. Immobilized. . . . How often has Spirit come to us with grandiose ideas? Crazy thoughts about things like starting over. Or trying something new. Opening ourselves to the person in need before us. Or investing more of our time and energy that another might grow. Spirit nudges us all the time into the ways that lead to life. And when we’re listening; if we’re paying attention; too often fear gets at us before the new thing even is given a chance to begin. . . . Now what if that would have been Christ’s approach? Where would we be – where would the fate of God’s entire creation be – had Jesus allowed fear to get the better of him that week in Jerusalem as he faced all that lie ahead? . . .

Once upon a time, one who was given an extraordinary amount went out in fear. He dug a hole. Not wanting to lose or waste or take any sort of risk whatsoever with what of his master’s he’d been given; he buried in the ground that which had been entrusted to him. He allowed fear to rob him of the opportunity to know great joy. . . . As one commentator has written, he played it safe, which is “something akin to death, like being banished to the outer darkness” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 4; John M. Buchanan, p. 312).

We have one life.

Of course, there are other ways to understand this story. There’s always more than one way to understand whatever we hear. One preacher questions why we always relate the master of this parable of Jesus with the big M Master of the Universe. (Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Parable of the Fearful Investor,” Nov. 13, 2011: http://chapel.duke.edu/worship/worship-services/sermons-bulletins/2011-sermons-archive). Reading from another angle, she wonders if this third slave wasn’t the hero of the story. The whistle-blower of sorts who refused to participate in an economic system, like the one of Jesus’ day, that was eating up the simple people of the land while more fully filling the deep pockets of those profiting from the way it had come to be. Might Jesus have meant the master of this parable was a lower-case m master who just was trying to get more for himself in the end – no matter the cost to those hurt by it all. If we read it that way, this parable becomes a code to Christ’s disciples that refusal to participate with the powers that be will lead to the wrath of those powers coming down upon our head. As he’s about to experience in Jerusalem, do something as rash as not perpetuate the unjust system and the system will ensure we are put out. Taken away the little that we might have and thrown out into utter darkness as one totally worthless in a world set up to take more and more for themselves. . . . The truth remains: We have one life. And just wait until we hear the parable Jesus is about to tell next – at least according to the gospel of Matthew! Come back next week for that one.

Maybe you’ve heard the brilliant words of the poet Mary Oliver. In a poem entitled “The Summer Day,” Oliver writes, and I quote: “Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean — the one who has flung herself out of the grass, the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down — who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes. Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face. Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.” Oliver writes: “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me,” she writes, “what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” (Mary Oliver, The House Light Beacon Press Boston, 1990 on: http://www.bemindful.org/poems.htm).

We have one life: one wild and precious life. An amazing gift to us from God.

One thing we might commit to do is invest a little bit more of it in the mission of God. If you were here last week then you might have heard the Minute for Mission in which one member said that she gives of her time, talents, and money because she wants to be a part of this church. She wants to be involved in the ministry this church is doing – things that she knows matter to God even more than they matter to her. . . . Many of you already are investing in God’s work through this church by participating in bible studies and Sunday School and other opportunities to shape your heart and mind a little bit more into the heart and mind of God. Some of you are around here a lot: fixing what’s broken, listening to the need of a struggling stranger, welcoming whoever enters into our fellowship hall or food bank or sanctuary. Most all of you are giving financial offerings each week that go to pay the electric bills of this church, and ensure we are inspired by beautiful music, and even have a pastor to call upon when you need someone to help you sort through what God is up to in your life. I wonder if each of us could step up a little bit more. Maybe increase our financial pledge by just one small percent in the year ahead. So that if you have been giving $2,000 this year, increase it one percent to $2,020 in 2015 – that wouldn’t be too harsh of a stretch for most of us, would it? If you only have been attending worship, try getting involved in one additional ministry of the church – not necessarily to be in charge of it, but maybe just show up to be present next year in one more way. If you have been great among us at using your talent of organizing, maybe begin to utilize your talent of encouragement too. You get the idea. What if every one of us invested a little bit more of who we are and what we have for the work of God through the ministry of this church? . . . We only have one life: one wild and precious life.

So: hide it? We cannot. Play it safe? We cannot. Risk it all, invest it lavishly like our Lord, in absolute trust of the abundantly, Life-giving Master? I know it may not sound very prudent – or even very Presbyterian. Nonetheless, here and now, we’ve got just one wonderful life. . . . For the life of the world, why not risk it all? In the end we too might hear: “Well done good and faithful servant! . . . Enter into the joy of your extravagant master!” (Mt. 25:21).

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2014 (All rights reserved.)