Sunday, October 29, 2006

We're Growing in Grace

Psalm 116:12-19
"There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea;
There’s a kindness in God’s justice, which is more than liberty."
(F.W. Faber, Chalice, 73)

This is good news. We serve a God who is gracious and compassionate and we get to celebrate that grace and compassion, that mercy and kindness, as we come together for worship.

The ancient Israelites held great Fall festivals to give thanks for God’s wondrous bounty and sing songs like the one in Psalm 116. They thanked God for the bounty of the harvest and for hearing their cries when they were going through difficult times, like when death and anguish were their lot in life. These songs remind us that God is the giver of every good and perfect gift. And so, we join the Psalmist in asking: "What can I give back to God, for the blessings he’s poured out on me?" (116:12 MSG).

Growing Faith and Giving Thanks

Giving back to God takes faith, and faith, as Hebrews says, is "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Heb. 11:1). Abraham left Haran and headed for a new home trusting that God would provide that home. Moses did the same. They acted in faith because they believed that God had promised them a share in the inheritance of the saints.

Paul prayed that the Colossian church would "be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power," but he also prayed that this church would be prepared to "endure everything with patience" (Col. 1:11). Paul understood that faith is about growth in the Spirit. It calls on us to take difficult steps into the unknown, trusting that the God who has been with us in the past, will also be with us in the future.

Growing Faith and A Testimony to God’s Grace

Because we don’t know the future, walking by faith holds great risk. The stock market could collapse or a disaster could strike. And so the choice is simple: Do we live in fear or by faith? As individuals and as a church, we grow spiritually when we step out in faith and accept the risks involved. As we grow in faith and give of ourselves, that fear that plagues us begins to dissipate, and we’re able to take another step forward.

As we look forward into the future as a congregation, much remains unclear. And yet there are patterns and possibilities already taking shape. Maybe you can envision with me that new sanctuary full of people, both young and old. Your ideas might be different than mine, but we can share the vision. Perhaps you see an active youth ministry or a tutoring program that touches the lives of children throughout the community. Perhaps you see a Hispanic congregation forming. The patterns are there because we’ve talking about them.

As we talk about dreams, we discover that these dreams are related to our vision of stewardship. We ask: what can I return to God? How can I be a good steward of what God has given me? You see Stewardship isn’t about duties or even support to church ministries. Stewardship is about being faithful with the good gifts God has given us and then giving thanks to God with a grateful heart. Yes, stewardship is about taking care of the things of God, which means we act on God’s calling. The Spirit is leading, are we willing to take the step of faith to embrace that call? When we walk by faith we discover the spiritual wisdom that enables us to "lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work." (Col. 1:10-11).

Knowing that God is gracious and merciful, the Psalmist calls us to do three things: pray, keep our promises, and offer a thanksgiving sacrifice. So, in response to this call:

1. I’ll Pray

Paul said: "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances" (1 Thess. 5:17-18). Jesus prayed in the Garden and on the cross and found strength in God’s presence. Prayer doesn’t happen only when we address God in words; prayer happens whenever we stop to acknowledge God’s presence and listen for his voice. It can happen in formal settings or on the run. It can happen at work or at play. Prayer is that constant conversation we have with God, even if we can’t seem to find the right words to say. When we can’t find the words, Paul says, the Spirit will pray for us, with groans too deep for words (Rom. 8:26).

2. I’ll Keep My Promises

As we grow in faith, we find strength to keep our promises. It’s easy to say, I’ll do this or that, but in the doing there’s difficulty. When we live in a community of compassionate faith, however, we find strength to keep our promises. This is the message of the Psalmist who writes: "I’ll complete what I promised God I’d do, and I’ll do it together with his people." When I made my baptismal vows, I promised to love and serve God, with all my heart, soul, and mind. That’s a difficult promise to keep, but with the community standing with me it’s possible.

3. Finally, I’ll offer the Thanksgiving Sacrifice

In ancient Israel, the thanksgiving sacrifice was a grain offering. Leviticus directed the pilgrims to bring unleavened loaves, cakes and wafers made of grain mixed with oil. These gifts were products of their hands, of their labor, and they brought them to God, like we bring our tithes and offerings, as a way of saying: Thank you for giving me life. It might not be easy, but it is good.

Our offerings to the church are more than simply dues paid to support the work and ministry of the church. They are expressions of faith. They stretch us and remind us that what is ours is really God’s. We’ve been entrusted with good things. Our giving through the church is an expression of that trust. And the congregation as it stretches itself to enter into new forms of ministry, which happen to be supported by these gifts, takes a step of faith and offers thanks to God. Let’s offer a testimony of thanksgiving to the God who hears our supplications and inclines his ear unto us.

Preached at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc, CA

21st Sunday after Pentecost

October 29, 2006

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