Monday, November 21, 2016

November 20, 2016 Building Generosity

In June of 2010 Bill Gates and Warren Buffett inaugurated the Giving Pledge, designed to encourage people of great wealth to either give or pledge the majority of their wealth to charity while alive or at their passing.  As of this year, 139 pledges have been added to the list, and the total amount of money pledged is 732 billion dollars.

$732 billion – isn’t that amazing!  That’s three-quarters of a trillion dollars!  All of us fantasize about coming into money, don’t we?  Perhaps we dream of winning the lottery, of finding money buried in our back yard, or discovering you’re a long lost heir to Bill Gates or another wealthy individual.  Who doesn’t enjoy thinking about the possibility of coming into sudden and great wealth? 

But while we often think about how much we would enjoy coming into money somehow, some day, the real question we should ask is – what will we do with what we have?  We might come into money some day, but we might not, so what will we do with what we have at the moment?

We are continuing with the series of messages I began last week, based upon the theme of Building.  The theme comes from Matthew 16:18 – on this rock I will build my church.

Last week we began the series with the message Building Grace, and this week’s message is Building Generosity.  The topic of generosity, obviously, ties in with Consecration Sunday, when we return our pledges, pledges that are both financial and spiritual.  I realize that not everyone is comfortable using a financial pledge card, and that is perfectly understandable.  I hope everyone will, however, fill out the portion of the pledge card that relates to talents and abilities, as these are gifts that make such a difference to the life and ministry of our church.  We are, like all churches, a volunteer-driven body, depending greatly upon the time, energy, and talents of our members.  A large portion of our generosity comes from the giving of our time, talents, and abilities.  Without the offering of these gifts we would certainly be greatly impoverished.

The passage that serves as our Scripture text for today comes from Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi.  This is the final letter we have that was written by Paul.  At the time of its writing Paul is in prison in Rome, appealing a sentence to Caesar.  Ultimately unsuccessful in his appeal, Paul is eventually executed and, at this writing, he is most likely already aware of his coming fate.  Writing under such circumstances, Paul is in a very reflective mood.

Philippians 4:10-20 –

10 I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it.
11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.
12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.
13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.
14 Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles.
15 Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only;
16 for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid more than once when I was in need.
17 Not that I desire your gifts; what I desire is that more be credited to your account.
18 I have received full payment and have more than enough. I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God.
19 And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.
20 To our God and Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Here is what I want to say this morning about Building Generosity.

1.  Generosity is a total way of life.
When we think of generosity money is most often what comes to mind, but generosity involves much more.  We know that generosity includes our time and talents, but it’s still more.  Generosity is all encompassing of our lives. 

Generosity is reflected in how we think.   Can we think in an expansive way, in an open-minded way, in a graceful way, in a compassionate way?  All of those adjectives and more reflect a generosity in the way in which we think.

Generosity is reflected in how we relate to and treat others.  Do we treat others with love and grace? Do we demonstrate compassion in our dealings with others?  Do we speak to others in a way that reflects that we see them as brothers and sisters in Christ, as fellow children of God?

Generosity is reflective even of how we see God, because if we fail to see God as being generous, it is unlikely that we will be generous.

All of these were evidenced, I believe, in the life and ministry of Paul.  Reading through not only this morning’s text, but the entire letter of Philippians, a spirit of generosity absolutely flows out of his pen, because it flows out of his heart.

2.  Generosity is not transactional.
I heard of a church once that, in planning for their budget, decreed that every ministry and every program had to pay its own way.  That is, every ministry and every program has to generate enough money to justify its inclusion in the church budget.  I can’t imagine where such thinking came from, as that is a really terrible way in which to build a church budget.

Generosity is not transactional, and what I mean by that statement is this – generosity is not dependent upon or expectant of a corresponding return.  That is, if you invest $2,000 in a ministry, if you invest 100 hours of volunteer labor into a ministry, we do not expect it to have an equal return in money and volunteer hours.  We don’t give to the Kingdom of God with the expectation that a return on investment will come to us.  There is not a relative value to what we do as the people of God.  Some things we do cost nothing, some cost just a little, and others might be very expensive, but we don’t consider the value of a ministry based solely on whether or not there is a financial cost, and certainly not upon any idea that it must generate a financial return.

An investor in the stock market will watch the market and will look for and expect a return.  They will calculate the worth of the stock by the amount of return it brings.  This is not how we operate in the church or in the kingdom of God.  Not everything in which we invest has a return that is measurable.  Not everything in which we invest has a return that is visible.

Return, in the kingdom of God, is measured in impact upon lives.  If we invest $1,000 or $5,000 or $10,000 in something, we might not see any kind of financial return.  As much as we need money to operate, financial return is not why we do anything that we do.  What is the monetary value of ministering to another person?  There isn’t a monetary value to that action.

Paul makes this beautiful statement – 15 Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; 16 for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid more than once when I was in need.  17 Not that I desire your gifts; what I desire is that more be credited to your account.  18 I have received full payment and have more than enough.

Perhaps those churches were thinking in a transactional manner, believing that an investment in Paul would not be a good use of resources.  If so, that certainly proved to be a great misjudgment. 

3.  Generosity is the antidote to false answers.
Even though generosity is more than money, allow me to add this thought about money – money can be a great servant, but is a terrible master.  Allow me to repeat that – money can be a great servant, but is a terrible master.  Money can do many wonderful things, but it can also be used as a way to deal with our many issues that we have as individuals, and we might see money as an answer to those issues, but it is what I would call a false answer.  A false answer is this – it is something to which we turn to fill a need, but it cannot do so.  And even though it cannot fill that need, we continue to try and get it to fill that need.

Here is how money is often used as a false example – we spend money in order to feel better, but feeling better after spending money is a very fleeing experience.  In fact, spending money in order to feel better can very quickly be replaced by a sense of regret when we look at our bank balance and discover we couldn’t afford to spend that money to make ourselves feel better.  The opposite of spending – saving and, perhaps, hoarding – isn’t necessarily better because no amount of money can insulate us from what life might bring to us.  I would never be so na├»ve as to say that money and resources don’t matter; they do matter.  Life is very difficult when we do not have the necessary resources and we cannot ignore the reality that many people do not have the resources they need in life.

But those resources are not a final answer.  Resources can give us a good life.  Resources can even provide us with a certain type of happiness – or, perhaps, satisfaction is a better word – and resources can be used for a great deal of good.  But if you listen to Paul when he writes – 11 …I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.  12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength…we hear the voice of someone who was not captured by false answers.  It’s interesting to me that Paul uses the word secret, not because there is any secret to finding satisfaction in life, but because we can so easily allow that path to satisfaction to be hidden from us.

If you have seen the movie Titanic you may remember the scene where people are piling into the lifeboats.  One of the wealthy passengers offers a stack of cash to a crewmember in order to secure a seat on board the lifeboat.  The response of the crewmember was disbelief, because he knew the money would do him no good on a sinking ship.  There is always a point at which money, or other valuable commodities, will come to an end and be able to go no further.  That is when we truly discover the difference between a real answer and a false answer.

Let us build a sense of generosity in our lives.  Let us build a sense of generosity in our congregation.  And in doing so, know that we are helping to build God’s kingdom.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

November 13, 2016 Building Grace

This morning we begin a new series of messages based on the theme of building.  Several weeks ago I began to sketch out the themes for our messages in the coming months.  Along with the four-week series on Your Life I made a list of the first messages in building.  I have taken, for this theme, the words of Jesus from Matthew 16:18 – on this rock I will build my church.  I was thinking about those words recently and that word build just jumped out to me.

In that verse from Matthew’s gospel we find those famous words spoken by Jesus in response to Peter’s great confession of faith.  Jesus, you will remember, had traveled with his disciples to the region of Caesarea Philippi, where he then asked of them, who do people say the Son of Man is?  Answering Jesus, they began to mention names such as John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or, perhaps, one of the other prophets.  Jesus asked them a second question, this one a bit more personal – but what about you?  Who do you say that I am?  In response, Peter declares, You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God, to which Jesus replied, Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it (Matthew 16:15-18).

I thought, what a great theme for a series of messages; there are so many way in which to consider that idea of “building.”  Next week we’ll talk about Building Generosity and in other weeks it will be Building Gratitude, Building Hope, Building Love, and other messages carrying on with the theme of building.

This morning we are talking about Building Grace, and for our Scripture text we’ll read what I believe to be not only one of the most dramatic stories in all of the Bible, but also one of the most dramatic examples of grace.  Found in John’s gospel, chapter 8, verses 2-11 we read these words –

At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them.
The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group
and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery.
In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”
They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.  But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger.
When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.
10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
11 “No one, sir,” she said.  “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

As people, we are products of a particular context and, very often, we are not aware of that context and how it shapes us.  For instance, the general tone of preaching in our country, for about two and a half centuries, was set by an 18th century minister by the name of Jonathan Edwards.  In 1741 Edwards preached one of the most famous sermons in American history – Sinners In the Hands of An Angry God.  This sermon was the archetype for countless others that followed, in that it portrayed God as an angry divinity, ready to pronounce judgment upon his creation in the most extreme manner imaginable.  Here is an excerpt from his sermon –

Yea, God is a great deal more angry with great numbers that are now on earth: yea, doubtless, with many that are now in this congregation, who it may be are at ease, than he is with many of those who are now in the flames of hell.
The wrath of God burns against them, their damnation does not slumber; the pit is prepared, the fire is made ready, the furnace is now hot, ready to receive them; the flames do now rage and glow. The glittering sword is whet, and held over them, and the pit hath opened its mouth under them.
The devil stands ready to fall upon them, and seize them as his own, at what moment God shall permit him. They belong to him; he has their souls in his possession, and under his dominion.  The devils watch them; they are ever by them at their right hand; they stand waiting for them, like greedy hungry lions that see their prey, and expect to have it, but are for the present kept back. If God should withdraw his hand, by which they are restrained, they would in one moment fly upon their poor souls. The old serpent is gaping for them; hell opens its mouth wide to receive them; and if God should permit it, they would be hastily swallowed up and lost.
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.
O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell. You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder; and you have no interest in any Mediator, and nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment.

Well now, that’s a cheerful thought, isn’t it?  And that’s one of the more tame passages.

The life and ministry of Jesus was about grace, and in today’s text we find such a dramatic example of that grace, and from this passage I want to say a few things –

1.  Jesus did not disqualify anyone from his grace.
If we are truly people of grace – truly – we do not put qualifications on those whom we will love or accept.  Jesus was constantly in conflict with religious leaders and authorities who wanted to serve as God’s gatekeepers and determine who did and did not qualify for God’s grace.  In this passage, and in others as well, we see the focus of their attention as this woman who is brought before Jesus.

Have you noticed someone is missing from this story?  Do you know who it is?  It is the man who was part of the relationship.  It is no accident that they chose a woman to bring before Jesus.  Obviously, because of a charge of adultery they could have brought the man as well but they didn’t, because they had no regard for this woman.  They had no regard for her, first of all, because she was a woman and they did not provide her with any kind of standing or dignity simply because of her gender.  They force this woman to stand before the crowd, with their rocks in hand, and with bloodlust in their hearts they stand at the ready to stone her.  Those men couldn’t have cared less about her, she was merely an object to be used.  History hasn’t changed much, has it?  Men have from the beginning seen women as objects to be used.  Not all men, of course, but plenty enough.

It’s sad to say that for much of history women have often been treated in such a manner.  And they have been, and continue to be, treated unequally in many religious settings as well.  For the life of me I cannot understand why some churches have been so discriminatory in the way they treat women.  I know all the passages that supposedly limit the roles of women and have studied them for many years, and I will tell you that not one of the discriminatory interpretations that are offered of those passages will stand up under good scholarship.  But it’s not just women who are discriminated against by some religious people; there continue to be those within the church community who want to serve as God’s gatekeepers, determining who is and who is not worthy of his grace, and they find, unfortunately, others with whom they take issue.

To come here, we believe, is to come to a place – a church – where you do not have to qualify for God’s grace or justify yourself in order to be given God’s grace.  God is not look ing for you to qualify or justify yourself to receive his grace.  Nothing disqualifies you from his acceptance or his love.  Your politics do not disqualify you.  Your ethnicity does not disqualify you.  Your education level does not disqualify you.  Your gender does not disqualify you.  Your sexuality does not disqualify you.  Your marital status does not disqualify you.  Your economic status does not disqualify you.  Your beliefs do not disqualify you.  God’s love and grace is open to all.

2.  Jesus stood up for those disqualified by society.
John says, in verse 6, that the teachers of the law and the Pharisees used this poor woman as a means to trap Jesus and thereby discredit him. 

Notice how Jesus diffuses the situation.  It is tough to be graceful in an emotionally charged situation (and it certainly seems as though we are now living in such a context), especially when rocks are about to be thrown.  It’s hard not to imagine the sense of righteous anger that must have been roiling in Jesus, but in this scene he is calm, unlike when he erupts in such passion aainst the moneychangers in the Temple.  Though he is calm, it does not mean he is without anger and passion against those who want to condemn, and, sadly, to condemn in the name of God.

When we talk about grace it is important to remember that an emphasis on grace does not preclude the call to stand up for those who are disqualified, mistreated, and cast aside by society.  In fact, grace compells us to speak up for those individuals.  Jesus was the great champion of those whom society had determined to be unworthy of consideration, of those who were seen as expendable, and of those who were not deemed worthy of inclusion or love.  So grace does not at all mean to overlook injustice or suffering or prejudice or discrimination.  Grace will offer love to all, but grace will also rise up when someone is being oppressed or treated unjustly.

Jesus did not hesitate to stand up for this woman, and he did so in the face of a crowd that cried out for her blood.  That takes some nerve, doesn’t it?  It takes some courage, doesn’t it?  It takes some conviction, doesn’t it?  It’s really easy to be quiet in the face of a crowd.  It’s very easy to remain silent when the mass of people are angry and threatening.  But sometimes the crowd is wrong and someone needs to speak up.  Aren’t you glad to know that Jesus spoke up for this woman, even in the face of an angry mob armed with rocks and stones?  I am.  And I hope I can follow his example.

3.  Don’t be the person holding a rock.
It doesn’t take much of a rock to cause a world of hurt.  If you have been struck by just a small pebble you know that a very small rock causes a great deal of damage.  David, remember, felled Goliath with small stones that he scooped up and put in his sling, not large ones.

I hope we don’t have anything in common with those teachers of the law and Pharisees who stood, with stones in hand, to accuse and judge this poor woman.  But I do fear there is one way in which we are similar – we’ve all got at least one rock in our hand, reserving it for someone, or some group.  Am I right?  I’m afraid I am.

Sometimes I get tired because I’m carrying so many rocks.  And when I’m carrying rocks my hands are too full to be filled with the grace that God has called me to share.  When I’m carrying rocks my hands are too full to receive the blessings that God wants to give to me.  When I’m carrying rocks my hands are too full and too weighed down to reach out a helping hand to the one who needs my helping hand.  When I’m carrying rocks my hands are too full and too weighed down to embrace the one who needs my embrace.

Are you ready to put down your rocks? 

Building is not easy.  We found this out with our new church playground.  First, it had to be moved because of the power line running through the area we had chosen.  Then, as we awaited delivery of the equipment, we learned that the truck driver quit – en route with the equipment – and we expected our schedule to be rearranged.  Thankfully, we were able to proceed on schedule.  After the equipment arrived and was unloaded we faced the daunting task of putting it all together on Friday and Saturday.  It was a lot of work.  Among the final pieces of work yesterday was the installation of four benches.  Three of the benches we managed to install without any problems, but one of them seemed to have a will of its own and was determined to make things difficult for us.  Once in place we secured it with twine, which kept breaking and allowing the bench to fall forward.  For some reason, it only happened with this one particular bench.  Someone finally secured it with heavy-duty straps.  Last night, after Light Up Shelbyville, I drove here to the church with Nick and Tanya, because I wanted them to see the playground.  As we drove up the driveway I turned on the car’s bright lights and the first thing I noticed was that same bench, once again having fallen over, in spite of the heavy-duty straps holding it in place.  Now, I was certain, it was just taunting us.  Thankfully Dave Kerchner fixed it this morning, but I would not at all be surprised to walk out of the church after the service and see it leaning forward once again!

Building is not easy and always – always – reveals the unexpected. Building grace is really not easy, but it is our calling.  Let us be people of grace.  Let us go about building grace.  We live in a world, after all, that is much in need of grace.  Let us go forth in grace!

Monday, November 07, 2016

November 6, 2016 Your Life Is A Gift

This morning we are concluding our series of messages based on the theme Your Life.  Our final message is Your Life Is A Gift.

Tuesday was All Saints Day, celebrating saints known and unknown.  Saints are not just people who are profoundly spiritual or people we think of as more holy or spiritual than others.  Saints, in reality, are most often people who are special and influential in our lives.  Using that definition, therefore, my life – and yours – is full of saints. The apostle Paul sometimes addressed his letters to the saints at particular churches.  In his letter to the church at Philippi, he begins by writing to all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi…(Philippians 1:1).

Our Scripture text for this morning is Philippians 1:3-11, and you can follow along as I read –

I thank my God every time I remember you.
In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy
because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now,
being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me.
God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight,
10 so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ,
11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.

There are two phrases in that passage that I especially appreciate – I thank my God every time I remember you (verse 3), and I have you in my heart (verse 7).  Those are beautiful phrases, and they speak of the importance of the saints who in habit our lives.  The writer of Hebrews famously echoes the sentiments of Paul by writing, we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1).  I’m not sure what that phrase means, exactly, but this is how I interpret it – in some way, the people we love and who have loved us, even though they might be gone from this earth, continue to have a powerful influence over us and in some way continue to watch over us.  I find that to be a very comforting thought.

I want to spend most of my time this morning sharing stories that some of you shared with me about the saints in your life, and also to share about some of the saints in my life, and I want to begin by putting all of it in this context –

You are a gift to someone and have received the gift of others.

Because you are important and influential to someone, you are a saint as well.  Some of you shared stories with me about the people who are gifts in your life.  With their permission, I am sharing a few of them.

Referencing a very difficult, abusive upbringing, one person wrote of one who was very kind and also a neighbor who demonstrated faith –

Our neighbor…took us to church every Sunday.  Very Christian people, she talked about God to us every day, her knowing what a life we lived!  She had a crocheted curtain she made that was the 23rd Psalm…her faith was something we all wanted!
I started working for (him) in hay, tobacco, etc.  (He) felt so bad for the life I lived he would pick mu up here at home before I left, said…I will pay you just to ride around with me!  Surely a nice man...he taught me respect, work ethic, and meeting very influential people in the country.  He knew about my life at home.  I loved him like a father, he said…you came and live with me and my wife.  I didn’t want to since he had just married…I said I will live in that old house on your lake, it had no windows and I was 16, I and others put wallpaper up and the rats came through the walls that night and tore all the paper off…I opened my clothes drawer and there laid baby mice!  The only heat I had was an electric heater that I had to keep up under the covers to keep warm, wonder I had not burned up.
Out of all these things…without these people I have mentioned I would never had made it without Jesus Christ, God the Father, and the Holy Spirit saved me, and there (are) not many days that God does not talk to me. 

And from another –
As I thought about people in my life I consider to be true gifts, the list seemed endless.  I am so very blessed by people who have given so much of themselves, and their hearts, to enrich my journey, support me, encourage me, but most of all, to love me with such an unconditional and undeserved kind of love.  I am forever grateful and humbled by their presence through the years.  And many of those people stepped into my life at my early age.  My parents divorced in the early 60’s, late 50’s, at a time when not having both a mother and a father at home working together to raise their family was not common.  I seemed to be about the only one of my network of close friends and schoolmates who lived at home with a single mother.  But...I was more than blessed, as a youngster growing up and even to this very day with several true “Father Figures” whom I so respected, admired, and loved.  They were always near to guide me, advise me, steer and support me, occasionally scold me, and always love me.  I had the best kind of grandfather any child could ever expect to have who lived just across the street from us.  My grandparents were such a major part of our daily lives, and I often wonder what path my journey may have taken had it not been for our supportive, devoted grandparents.  Then the father figures just continued, thanks be to God, as I grew up…my brother and I had a step-father who had no children of his own and loved us as if we were his own.  The fathers of some of my closest…friends I grew up with in school were always near for me, and a couple of those dear gentlemen still touch my heart today in such caring ways.  Mind you, all these “fathers” had plenty to do raising their own families, and yet they always had the time and the hug, and often the much-needed advice, for me…God truly blessed me and gave me some of the finest “gifts” ever in the form of the “other fathers” I have had in my life.  Thank you Heavenly Father, thank you earthly fathers. 

The next one comes from someone who had a sibling with special needs and was eventually placed in what we would now call a group home.

After taken there…it was a solemn time in our lives…we made the trip every Sunday after church, plus her birthday and holidays.  She adjusted and so did we.  When we visited, we always had a pocketful of change to buy treats for the residents.  We also took nail polish and hair accessories and “did” hair for the gals.  We’d toss ball, swim, and participate in activities with the ones who were able, while (she) sat in her wheelchair on the sidelines…we were never ashamed, we learned to be grateful at very early ages, we learned empathy…(two) sisters because Special Ed teachers, (one) became a speech therapist, and our brother is a very compassionate man.  We learned to stick together nurture each other, and not take anything for granted…she passed away…just before her 54th birthday.  She had a profound effect on many.  We hope to see her laughing and dancing when we meet again.

The next one is from someone I will identify because her story has been shared in very public ways, including an article in Shelby Life magazine.

It is a few days before Christmas, there is snow on the ground, there are decorations everywhere and the temperature is in the single digits. Families are getting together, playing cards, and enjoying the holidays.  That sounds just like Christmas. There were two sisters that decided to have a family night. They were each married and each had one kid. They got together, laughed, played cards and had a wonderful evening. The younger sister, her husband and the 2-year-old baby left between 1 and 2 am to head home. It was about a 10-mile route well traveled between the sisters. Now remember, it is just a few days before Christmas, the temperature is in the single digits and there is snow on the ground. Well, they didn’t make it home. There was a blowout. The baby was thrown from the car. She landed in a snowdrift. The car continued just enough off of the road that no one was suspicious of it. 
It was six hours before someone decided that what appeared to be an abandoned car should to be reported to the authorities. It was about 8 am when the accident was finally being investigated. The love and grace of God came in the form of a fire fighter that was retracing the car’s tracks. The love and grace of God allowed the firefighter to see a tiny shoe in the snowdrift. That tiny shoe belonged to a 2-year-old baby girl that had been laying in the 9° weather for at least six hours. It had been approximately 6 or so hours from the time the little girl’s family left relatives to head home.  It was 6 or so hours before God’s love and grace brought a firefighter to the scene looking close enough that he found that two-year-old little girl’s shoe in the snow bank. God’s love and grace told that firefighter to investigate that little shoe so that he could find the two-year-old little girl that had been laying there in the 9° weather for at least six hours. The firefighter quickly discovered that that little girl was still alive. Now remember, it is 3 days before Christmas when this family left to head home between the time of 1 and 2 am, it is now 8 am. The two year old was quickly rushed to the hospital. When she arrived to the hospital her body temperature was a dangerously low 74 degrees. Her hands and feet were severely frostbitten. The doctors were very concerned with her left hand. While the doctors were monitoring the little baby girl, making sure her heart responded to the body returning to normal temperature, the families of the baby girl’s parents were being notified that the little girl was now an orphan. 
This pain bestowed upon the families could have been worse. The firefighter could have missed noticing the tiny shoe in the snow.  The fire fighter could not have listened to God guiding him in the necessary direction. The love and grace of God that came in the form of a firefighter that discovered a tiny shoe in the snow drift that belonged to a 2-year-old baby girl that was laying in 9° weather for at least six hours. God's love and grace sent that firefighter just in time, God's time, to find that little foot in the snow. God’s love and grace told that firefighter to investigate that little shoe so that he could find a two-year-old little girl that had been laying there in the 9° weather for six hours. Thankfully God’s love and grace came in the form of a firefighter named Robert Coogle.  With this firefighter investigating every speck of the scene, this rescue, this victim, has a victory! This firefighter saved little Baby Tara from the brink of death.  
Now, back to the hospital. The doctors and nurses closely watched over (the) little baby…(the) baby quickly returned to a spunky two year old but one with sore hands and feet and a touch of pneumonia. After several days she was allowed to leave the hospital. The court awarded…(the) maternal grandmother guardianship but custody was with her Aunt, the Aunt that she had been visiting just before the tragedy. 
Now(the baby’s)…Mom and Aunt were raised in church, always attended church so, (she) went to church, all of the time. The (baby) grew up.  (She) still went to church. (She) went to college. (She) still went to church. (She) got married, had a family and still went to church. (She) became a Granny and she still goes to church. (She) is one blessed Granny because her family attends church as well.  (She) has always gone to church. God has always been a part of (her) life.
As each day goes by, Tara Shaver, a member of our congregation, who was that baby, says, “I become more grateful for God’s grace and love. Especially the grace and love God sent in the form of a firefighter. I know that I am only here because God has a plan for me.  I know when my time on this earth is over…I will spend eternity with the One that sent the fire fighter to discover the tiny shoe in the snow drift on that 9 degree morning just 3 days before Christmas.”

Those are moving stories, aren’t they?  And before I share the stories of some of the saints in my life, remember this –

Sometimes the best gifts come in badly wrapped packages.

How many of you have received a gift at some point in life – perhaps from one of your children when they were young – and it was wrapped rather badly?  Perhaps the paper was wrinkled and torn.  Perhaps it wasn’t even wrapping paper, but some old newspaper or a paper bag.  When you looked at it you knew it could have been wrapped much better, but when you opened it you found a homemade gift and exclaimed it’s the best gift ever!  It was the best gift ever because it was a gift that truly came from the heart, and as it was, we are more than happy to overlook the packaging that was so unattractive. 

When I say the best gifts sometimes come in badly wrapped packages I am of course, using it as an analogy to refer to us.  But in doing so I am not commenting on anyone’s wardrobe or casting aspersions on anyone’s character.  What I mean by a badly wrapped package is that we are flawed and incomplete people, but that doesn’t mean God cannot and will not use us, or that we cannot be a gift to the life of another person.  Indeed, the saints who come into our lives are influential and meaningful to us precisely because they are badly wrapped packages.  It is their flaws and shortcomings that all them to be used by God to influence us and to set an example for how we should live.

When I speak of the saints in my life I would begin with my parents.  The great gift given to me by my parents was the gift of faith, for which I am immensely thankful.  But there are other gifts as well.  From my mother I inherited her sense of fairness.  Our home was a hub of activity for many of our friends, and they were always welcome in our home and often stayed for meals and overnight.  My mom was very gracious in tolerating the loud, raucous behavior of a bunch of teenage boys.  But she had her limits, and one of her limits was that everyone must be treated fairly and decently; that was a rule not to be broken, and when it was, the offending party was sent home and could return only when they learned to treat others fairly and kindly.  From my father I inherited a sense of determination, or, as my mother might say, his hard-headedness.  Whichever it is, it has served me well over the many years of ministry when I have, at times, wanted to give up.

William Norris was another saint in my life.  Reverend Norris came to our church as the minister when I was in the fifth grade, staying into my college years.  He was a great man and was my primary role model in ministry.  Reverend Norris (in those days it was “Reverend Norris,” never Bill, or even William.  We would never have dared to be so casual in how we addressed the minister!  I still remember my shock when I heard his wife address him as Bill.  She would call Reverend Norris by his first name?  To my young ears, it seemed rather scandalous!) was a very gregarious man, active in the community, and possessed a loud laugh that you could hear a block or two away.  I was in college when his family moved from our church, and I was incredibly sad that they were leaving.  I happened to be home and I went to their home to help load the truck moving their belongings.  While we were loading the truck one of our town characters came down the street.  If you are a fan of the Andy Griffith show you will remember the character of Otis Campbell.  This man was our town’s Otis, although there was nothing at all humorous about his life.  There is nothing funny about the kind of addiction that had all but destroyed his life.  I think he was often homeless, generally unkempt, and smelled bad.  Most people would stay away from him when he came their direction.  When Reverend Norris saw him he went quickly to him and gave him a big hug, said he would miss him, and that he loved him.  I had no idea that Reverend Norris had a connection to the man but I shouldn’t have been surprised, as Reverend Norris ministered to everyone in our community.  To see him embrace this man with such compassion was a tremendous example to me.  Reverend Norris’s wife, Judy, passed away only a few weeks ago.  As a young person, I was one of several who often made her life very difficult, as she tried to prepare us for the annual Christmas program.  I still have on my bookshelf a devotional book she wrote many years ago, and inscribed a personal message to me on the inside of the front cover.  I wrote her a letter a few years ago, thanking her for the influence she and her husband had on my life, and she kindly wrote me a reply.

The next saint was Bob Mack, who was the director at the Elkhorn Valley Christian Service Camp in eastern Ohio where I attended church camp as a young person.  Bob did not come from a church background and had lived quite the adventurous life before having a rather dramatic conversion.  I worked a lot of weeks for Bob at camp, and I still remember on a Saturday morning, before going home, when he took me aside to talk to me about the fact that I had broken a camp rule, a rule that should have required that I be sent home.  Bob talked to me about it and told me he did not want to send me home and he offered me grace.  I would have done anything for Bob after that day.  When I was ordained to the ministry in May of 1979, after graduating from college, Bob gave the sermon at my ordination service.  He is gone now also, and I miss of him, and have thought of him often over the years.

I would also mention the churches I have served, which have been sources of many saints in my life.  As I am now beginning my eighth year here at First Christian, I am grateful to say this has been my best and most enjoyable stretch of ministry in my three-plus decades of ministry, and it is because of the many saints here who have loved me and been so gracious to me.

And I would be remiss if I did not mention my family – my wife, Tanya, and our sons Nick and Tyler.  I won’t say much about them, because I don’t want to embarrass them (and they would prefer that I not say much) but I must say one or two things.  When Tanya and I first met, she was actually interested in one of my best friends, and thought that by hanging around with me she might have the opportunity to go out with him.  I’m very pleased to say that I won her over.  But as we began dating, she reminded me on several occasions that she never dated anyone over six weeks.  Again, I won her over.  But then she told me should could never marry a minister.  Once again, yes, I won her over.  Tanya, Nick, and Tyler have been such wonderful gifts in my life, and they are saints for being so patient with me and for loving me in return.

I could go on and on, speaking about the many saints in my life and the cloud of witnesses that have, and continue, to surround my life.  They have been such a blessing to me that I could never adequately describe what an impact they have had upon me.

Your life has been blessed with saints who have been tremendous gifts to you.  But don’t forget that you are a gift to others as well; you are a saint to someone.  Your life, indeed, is a gift!