Sunday, October 26, 2014

Heaps and Plenty

2 Chronicles 31: 4-12
October 26, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

4 He commanded the people who lived in Jerusalem to give the portion due to the priests and the Levites, so that they might devote themselves to the law of the Lord. 5 As soon as the word spread, the people of Israel gave in abundance the first fruits of grain, wine, oil, honey, and of all the produce of the field; and they brought in abundantly the tithe of everything. 6 The people of Israel and Judah who lived in the cities of Judah also brought in the tithe of cattle and sheep, and the tithe of the dedicated things that had been consecrated to the Lord their God, and laid them in heaps. 7 In the third month they began to pile up the heaps, and finished them in the seventh month. 8 When Hezekiah and the officials came and saw the heaps, they blessed the Lord and his people Israel. 9 Hezekiah questioned the priests and the Levites about the heaps. 10 The chief priest Azariah, who was of the house of Zadok, answered him, "Since they began to bring the contributions into the house of the Lord, we have had enough to eat and have plenty to spare; for the Lord has blessed his people, so that we have this great supply left over." 11 Then Hezekiah commanded them to prepare store-chambers in the house of the Lord; and they prepared them. 12 Faithfully they brought in the contributions, the tithes and the dedicated things.

Today is an exciting day! Not only is it the Lord’s Day, it is also the first Sunday of our Stewardship Season, and the last Sunday before our 170th anniversary celebration, it is also Reformation Sunday! Isn’t that THRILLING?! I know that like me, you are bubbling over with delight as you think about that fateful day, almost 500 years ago, October 31, 1517. A young monk named Martin brought his list of 95 issues with the church, ninety five issues in sore need of reform, ninety five things that needed to change, and he nailed them to the door of the church at Wittenburg. BAM! Changed the world forever. Eventually.

After Luther came John Calvin, and after him John Knox, and before too many generations had passed, the Reformation had spread from Europe to Scotland, and John Knox was working out the details of how the Presbyterian church would be organized. Decently and in order. I can see that you can barely contain yourselves.

Well, okay, here’s another thing to get excited about: our 170th anniversary! Since 1844 this congregation has been active in ministry in Sterling. We were the first reformed congregation in this town, and like the Presbyterian slogan – reformed and always being reformed, we have been agents of change for 170 years. We’ve changed people, and we’ve changed the world in small ways and big ways. ….But that is for next Sunday.

Maybe you can work up some enthusiasm for the books of First and Second Chronicles. I tell ya, there is some good stuff in those books. If you want, open your pew Bible and take a look at First Chronicles. It’s on page 360. Really, it’s okay – I know we’re Presbyterians, but it is really okay to open a Bible during worship!

Check it out – this is a great story here – First Chronicles chapter 1:

1 Adam, Seth, Enosh; 2 Kenan, Mahalalel, Jared; 3 Enoch, Methuselah, Lamech;  4 Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth.

…okay, skip a few verses, maybe it gets better…

8 The descendants of Ham: Cush, Egypt, Put, and Canaan.
9 The descendants of Cush: Seba, Havilah, Sabta, Raama, and Sabteca. The descendants of Raamah: Sheba and Dedan. 10 Cush became the father of Nimrod; he was the first to be a mighty one on the earth…..

Well, maybe you had to be there…

Okay, here’s something to get really, really excited about – Hezekiah!
Yay, let’s give it up for HEZEKIAH!

Hezekiah was a reformer, too, it turns out. He didn’t have 95 theses, or a Catholic church to push against. He didn’t have a printing press – that movable type press to print his reforms would have come in handy. But it was 700 BC, and Gutenberg wouldn’t introduce that technology for another couple thousand years. Hezekiah, in fact, didn’t have much to work with at all. He had inherited a kingdom that had once been enormous. Under his ancestor King David, Israel to the north and Judah to the south had been brought together as one kingdom. But over time, things had gone wrong, and the once-united Northern and Southern kingdoms had split. Hezekiah’s kingdom consisted of Judah, under constant threat from the Assyrians. His uneasy alliance with Egypt had brought him no advantage.

Worship at the temple was in disastrous shape. Over time, the building had gotten run down. The symbols and reminders of the past had become objects of worship in and of themselves. The people had forgotten who they were. Nobody obeyed the old forms and standards of giving. The priests and Levites charged with running the temple and leading worship were so neglected that they could barely survive. The temple was shabby, the people discouraged, and everything was disorganized.

Hezekiah came in and said, “This place needs to be put in order.” (I think he may have been the first Presbyterian.) Hezekiah cleansed and renovated the temple. He made sure there were systems in place to get things done that needed doing. Then he set about reforming stewardship. You can’t run a worshiping community on faith alone. There has to be some money coming in to keep the oil in the lamps, to keep the holy places cleaned up and in good repair. The priests can’t live on love – there has to be enough coming in to keep body and soul together. If they are devoting themselves to the law of the Lord, they need to be supported by the worshiping community.

Things haven’t changed all that much since Hezekiah’s time. Over the generations from 700 BC until now, some things stay the same. Church staff still need to be paid, church bills still must be paid, attention must be paid to worship and the space for worship. Like the temple then, the church now is always in need of support, always in need of maintenance, always in need of reformation. That’s hard work.

It is thrilling to see what extraordinary things God is doing here. But it can also be exhausting. If you look around this congregation, this building, this town, you can easily see that it isn’t the place it once was. There aren’t as many people in town; there aren’t as many Presbyterians. Millionaire benefactors are in short supply! There isn’t as much as there used to be – resources are not as abundant as they once were.

Like the people of Hezekiah’s faith community, we’ve cleaned the building up and spruced up our surroundings. And like the people of Hezekiah’s time, we’re called once again to bring the first fruits – the first and best of everything we have – in gratitude to God.

So it is an exciting day - reformation is exciting!

We know it from history, and we know it from our own experiences of witnessing change and new hope, new opportunities for mission, new co-workers in Christ joining us, new groups in our building and in our community, sharing ministry with other Christians.

Our motto, “reformed, always being reformed,” speaks to both the excitement and the exhaustion. We can get really enthusiastic about changes, and we are always in need of reform.

But sometimes, moving into the future is just plain tiring. We might experience resistance, or suspicion or rejection from our neighbors. We might experience resistance and suspicion within our own hearts. We may need to rethink our ministries, ministries that we once loved. We may need to confess that simply having done something in the past is not sufficient reason to keep on doing it into the future. We may need to reform our approach to worship, or to our work tasks.[1]

We may need God to re-shape our perspectives, or our attitudes, or our stewardship, to transform our hearts once again. Somehow, we have to strike a balance between change and stability. We have to be always looking for the balance between celebration and self-congratulation. And we have to constantly remind ourselves that all reformation, every transformation, like every good gift we have been given, comes from God, and not from us.

Even as we struggle to maintain that balance, we remember that it is Christ who is at work in us and in the world!

It isn’t all up to us.

One of the foundational ideas of the Reformation is that we are saved by grace through faith, not by anything we do, or by our particular status in the world, nor by how much money we bring. Our transformation, our personal reformation, comes through Jesus Christ. Our renovations of our church building, our participation in new ministries, our contributions to ongoing ministry, and even our occasional decisions to let go of some things that no longer work, all of these have one true source, and that’s God.

Reformation is not something we do. Being reformed is not just something we add to our resume, not just another accomplishment. And change and transformation are not projects we undertake so that God will like us more. Our faithfulness is not accomplished in order to win God’s favor. We are not putting good works and pledges into God’s big vending machine expecting a big payoff of prosperity on earth and reward in heaven. We offer ourselves and our gifts in gratitude for God’s faithfulness over the generations, and in our own generations.

That’s not to say that there aren’t rewards for us, just like there were for the faithful people of Hezekiah’s time. They found that in their giving, they were blessed, even as the recipients were blessed. They found deep joy in generosity, and through their faithfulness, their faith was increased. It’s a paradoxical truth, that the more we give to God, the richer we feel. The more we bless others with generosity, the more we feel blessed.

The bulletin insert for today asks us to think about the people sitting with us in church. It reminds us that the gifts people bring represent their stories and sacrifices. And it says, “All of your stories together make up the generations of generosity that characterize your church.”

As I have helped prepare for our anniversary celebration, I’ve been reading stories of some of the early Presbyterians who came to this place, who established homes and businesses, and who built this church. They were ordinary people, with stories to tell, and they were the beginning of the generations of this church. We stand on their shoulders, just as they stood on the shoulders of those who came before, their ancestors, who had the courage to leave their homes in Germany or Switzerland or Scotland or Ireland and come to this country to make a new life. And we stand on the shoulders of those generations of people going back to First Chronicles and before. Those names we heard: Adam, Seth, Enosh, Noah, Shem, Ham, Japheth….Hezekiah- they are all as much our ancestors in faith as the names in our own history: Galt, Pennington, Ward, Johnston, Manahan.

So we have a lot to celebrate, this Reformation Sunday!
Reformation is not just a day in history. It is a way of life that looks back to the generations that went before, and looks ahead to the generations that are yet to come; it is a way of life that stands on the firm foundation of the past while constantly seeking a vision for the future. From our history we have learned that the generosity of generations accumulates, like the gifts brought to the temple by the people of Hezekiah’s time, until there are heaps and heaps, plenty and abundance, blessing God and blessing the people as they pile up gifts and heap up gratitude, for today, and for the future, so that generations from now, this church will stand as a testimony to the grace and mercy and love of God in this time, for this people, and for all time, for all people, until that day when Christ returns to claim us as his people. Thanks be to God!


[1] Karoline Lewis

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