Things Hold Together

Scripture: Colossians 1:1-15

I’m a believer that there are some things that can only really be said in song.  When you love someone, it doesn’t really do you any good to try to describe your love for that person in prose.  Instead you sing, “I can’t help falling in love with you.”  Or, “How wonderful life is now you’re in the world.”  Or, “When you smile, the whole world stops and stares for a while.”

And when you’re angry or heartbroken, it might be of some use to try to write out how you feel, but also, you have to crank up I Will Survive and sing along at the top of your lungs.  Right?

And I don’t know about you, but when I’m confronted by the beauty of nature, whether it’s true “lofty mountain grandeur” or just a beautiful sunset, the one thing I want to do is sing How Great Thou Art.

So when I read this passage from Paul’s letter to the Colossians, I think I recognize what he’s doing here.  This poem he uses in the opening part of his letter is probably an excerpt from a hymn that people were already singing in church.  It’s like he’s trying to describe the majesty and grandeur of Jesus Christ, and he just doesn’t really have his own words to describe it, and so the only thing to do is break into the song that’s written on his heart.  I imagine that he sings as he writes it: “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created in him and through and for him…and in him things hold together.”  These are verses that early Christians may have used to formulate doctrine about Jesus’ preexistence as part of the Trinity and the nature of  his relationship to the Father, but they aren’t meant as doctrine in themselves: these verses are, quite, simply, praise for the risen Christ who reigns over all things.

It’s a song I find myself coming back to for Christ the King Sunday, also known as Reign of Christ Sunday, which is today, and if I knew the tune I would want to sing it.  Christ the King Sunday is the last Sunday in the Christian year before we start over again with Advent and the promise of Christ’s birth.  That means that in the past year, just like every year, we’ve waited for Christ’s coming, celebrated his birth in that stable in Bethlehem; followed him through his ministry in Galilee, healing people and teaching on hilltops and telling stories of the Kingdom of God; we’ve walked with him through his final week in Jerusalem, including his arrest, trial, and execution; we’ve gathered to celebrate his rising again and ascension into heaven.  And we’ve asked what it means to follow him and grow in our discipleship.  Now it all culminates in this, this Sunday that reminds us that this human figure whose birth and death and earthly work we’ve spent the year telling stories of is also “the image of the invisible God…the one in whom all things were created.”

For those of us who tend to spend a lot of time thinking about who Jesus was as a person on earth, and maybe less about who Jesus is now – or even for those of us who tend to think of who Jesus is now mostly in terms of our individual relationship with him – Christ the King Sunday always bring us back to the risen king who reigns over heaven and earth.

And the thing is, it’s really hard to preach on that.  Because where my heart wants to go is back to this song I heard, which puts things better than I ever could.  In any case, there’s part of me that just wants to leave this there, these words of praise of the majesty of Christ, without trying to explain it or theologize it away or turn it into doctrine.  But then, like with a favorite song, I also want to comb through the lyrics, thinking more deeply about what they mean.

If there’s one phrase that captures my imagination from this hymn Paul uses in Colossians, it’s the line “in him, all things hold together.”

I had to think a little bit about why that particular line stuck out at me so much.  There’s something almost mystical sounding about it, Christ as the underlying force or principle of the universe in a way that takes my mind to something much bigger than the human Christ I usually imagine collecting fishermen on the shores of Galilee.

But to be honest, mostly I think I like this line because so much of the time, life seems to be held together so precariously, as if it’s just one dropped ball away from falling apart altogether.  I don’t mean this in a dire way, like you should be overly worried about me.  I mean it in a way that I think a lot of us probably feel much of the time, as we try to balance the demands of work, and school, and parenting – making sure you follow all the rules, even though they keep changing! – or caring for our own parents, getting our oil changed, finding time for appointments, maintaining relationships and not forgetting friends’ birthdays, not letting the dishes pile up too high.  I know every year I think, “This is the year I’m going to have it together enough to send out Christmas cards!” and every year, it is not that year.  And, of course, it’s easy to look at other people we know and think how they’re balancing all the same things we are and somehow they’re managing to keep it all together, though I’m sure they also think they are not.

Do you feel me on this?  I know some of you may even have bigger and less mundane reasons to feel like things are falling apart, like whatever has been the center of your life somehow isn’t holding anymore – whether that’s a job or a relationship or a housing struggle or illness or some aspect of your identity that you seem to have lost.

In one way or another, I think, we’re all probably desperately praying for things to hold together.

To be honest, I really don’t think that the grand promise of this cosmic Christ is that I’m ever going to feel like I personally have it all together.  That’s much more the realm of self-help books or people who come over and give your closet a makeover than it is the one who is the visible image of the invisible God.  Jesus, as the one who not only reigns in heaven but is God incarnate, deals much more in the messiness of our real, barely-holding together lives.   He never really seemed to get along with the people who had it all together, anyway.  And yet I do really love this idea that underneath it all, whenever things seems to be falling apart, Jesus is there holding all things together.

In the world around us, too, there’s plenty that seems to be falling apart.  Climate scientists are telling us we’re just about at the tipping point where it’s too late to walk back the damage we’ve already done to the earth, and we’re left to imagine what that’s going to mean 20 years from now.  In California in just the past few weeks, thousands of people have lost their homes and possibly also loved ones to fire.  Across the border in Tijuana, Mexico, migrants in the caravan wait to see what’s next – which I don’t mention to evoke fear of those migrants, but out of a sense that our world is a place where so many people are forced to uproot themselves out of poverty or fear for their lives.  Our own political system seems so often on the verge of breakdown when we can’t work together and sometimes aren’t sure if we should even try, and, as we head toward February and the special United Methodist General Conference which will revisit our denominational stance on same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBT people, the Church (big C) seems on the verge of breakdown as well.

Again, I don’t think that the promise here is that Jesus will magically swoop in and physically save us from the consequences of our actions, whether those actions are too-large carbon footprints or political extremism or economic policies with far-reaching effects.  And yet somehow in the midst of all of this, we cling to the same words Paul did: that in Christ, all things – somehow – hold together.

And while I don’t want to explain or theologize away a beautiful line from a hymn, it makes me wonder what this promise does mean for me, for us, for all of us living these messy and almost-falling-apart lives here on earth, while Christ reigns in heaven.

The hymn goes on to say that God, in Christ, was pleased to reconcile all things to Godself.  And while this work has been done – on the cross – it also continues: as God calls us back to Godself, as God calls us back together, as God calls us back to love, as God calls us back to wholeness in Christ.  Christ’s life and death made that reconciliation real in heaven, and it’s still being realized here on earth.

What I hear in that is that Christ is not only holding things together, preserving and sustaining what is, shaky as it may be, but actually drawing all things together into a state of shalom – in the full sense of that Hebrew word, which is to say not just peace, but love, and justice, and wholeness.

We all know that saying beloved by Martin Luther King, Jr., that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  I go back and forth on whether I believe that or not.  Some days it seems like things really are getting better, as far as we still have to go.  Some days it seems like our only hope is for Jesus to come back real soon and set things right.  I don’t know which one of those things is true, to be honest.  But what I know, either way, is that there is something, or someone, who holds all of it in his hands, who will one day establish that shalom on earth as it is in heaven.

One of my commentaries put it this way: “What does it mean in a world of fragmentation, suffering and confusion to repeat its claim that all things cohere in Christ or that they have been reconciled in him?  It reflects an absolutely basic conviction that, despite the vastness of the cosmos, its determinative principle is not impersonal.  The God who is the ground of existence bears a human face – that of Jesus Christ.  This means, too, that despite fragmenting and chaotic forces at work, we humans can trust that the pattern of Christ’s death and resurrection is more fundamental and gives the power that sustains the world its distinctive character.  So, although it defies present empirical verification, we confess that what holds the world together is not the survival of the fittest or an unending cycle of violence but the reconciliation and peace of Christ.”[1]

There’s a boldness, a leap of faith, inherent in saying that, isn’t there?  That the underlying, fundamental holding-together principle of the cosmos is not any other of these things that seem to exert so much power and influence – but Christ’s love and goodness?

Paul usually closes his letters with exhortation – instructions on how to live faithfully as followers of Jesus Christ – and while he’ll get there in Colossians too, this hymn that he chooses to begin his letter isn’t that.  It’s not instruction to us, it’s praise.  And at the same time, it’s hard to deny that the one we praise in such a way has a claim on our lives.  Maybe that’s why Paul says in 2 Corinthians that we, as Christians, have been given a ministry of reconciliation – that the ordering principles of our lives should be the same as that of the cosmos, lives that lead ourselves and others toward shalom.  What would it look like for our lives to be places of God’s reconciliation?

I asked a colleague this the other day and she said that if she can trust that in Christ all things hold together, then she can actually dare to live in this risky way that is following Christ.

Because this Christ we dare to follow “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible…He himself is before all things, [and even when it seems like everything around us and in us is falling apart], in him, all things hold together.”


[1] New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. XI, p. 609





Margins: Leave the Corners

Leviticus 19:9-10

The book of Leviticus often gets a bad rap.  It is most famous for laws that probably seem irrelevant to many of us today: Don’t eat animals with cloven hooves who don’t chew their cud (11:7).  Don’t wear clothing made out of two different kinds of fabric (19:19). Don’t touch dead lizards (11:31). There are certainly people – mostly Jews of various levels of orthodoxy – who do still follow these laws (or some of them) today, but I imagine most of us here, if we had questions about what kind of meat to eat or what to do if we suspected that we had contracted a skin disease, would probably seek out a different source for our answers.

But Leviticus does also have some good pretty good stuff, some laws that many of us would probably agree are not only applicable to our lives today but even central to our faith.  You must not steal or deceive or lie to each other.  That’s from chapter 19 (v. 11).  Do not show favoritism to the poor or deference to the great; you must judge fairly (19:15).  Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens (19:34).  Love your neighbor as yourself (19:18).

Leviticus also contains the first mention of the law we talked about last week, the command to tithe, or to give 10% of that which we produce back to God.  For the people of the early Hebrew Bible that meant 10% of the grain from your fields, 10% of the fruit from your trees, and later 10% of your livestock as well.  That 10% would then go to supporting Temple worship and the priests and Levites who made that happen, as well as to feed the poorest and most vulnerable people in the community – the immigrants, widows, orphans, and anyone who didn’t have the means to produce food for themselves.

As I said last week, we may have some differing opinions over whether this is still a good and relevant law for us today.  We are no longer a primarily agricultural society, though of course we can still easily translate a principle of giving 10% to our modern paychecks.  Even so, nowhere in the New Testament are we commanded to give a fixed proportion of our income. And yet I would (and did) argue that there is something holy and good about creating margins in our lives, in setting aside a fixed amount of what we have in thanksgiving to God and for investment in God’s work.  Even if 10% isn’t realistic for you at the moment, you can still commit to this practice of setting some aside to give back to God – the practice itself is more important than the number, especially to start.

But this command to tithe isn’t the only law about giving and generosity in Leviticus that I think it might be worth coming back to.  If we go back to chapter 19 again, we’ll also find this one: When you harvest your land’s produce, you must not harvest all the way to the edge of your field; and don’t gather up every remaining bit of your harvest.  Also do not pick your vineyard clean or gather up all the grapes that have fallen there.  Leave these items for the poor and the immigrant; I am the Lord your God.

We hear it again in Deuteronomy 24: Whenever you are reaping the harvest of your field and you leave some grain in the field, don’t go back and get it.  Let it go to the immigrants, the orphans and the widows so that the Lord God blesses you in all that you do.  Similarly, when you beat the olives off your olive trees, don’t go back over them twice.  Let the leftovers go to the immigrants, the orphans, and the widows.  Again, when you pick the grapes of your vineyard, don’t pick them over twice.  Let the leftovers go to the immigrants, the orphans and the widows.  Remember how you were a slave in Egypt.  That’s why I’m commanding you to do this.

In Jewish teaching this is called pe’ah, the practice of leaving the edges or the corners.

How many of you have ever been gleaning?  The practice of gleaning comes from this biblical command.  Some farmers will let organizations and volunteers come in once the fields and trees have been harvested to collect what’s left over.  You may find apples still on the trees or on the ground that are still good to eat.  I’ve gotten to dig for sweet potatoes before, the ones that were missed the first time around.  Instead of becoming food waste, this food goes to local food pantries and organizations to feed those who might not otherwise have access to fresh produce.

When it comes to applying a law like this to our lives more generally, though, it may once again seem like a relic of the past.  Again, most of us don’t have fields or grapes or olives anymore.  When it comes to tithing, it’s pretty easy to translate into a non-agricultural context: instead of 10% of our grapes we give 10% of our paychecks back to God and to God’s work.  But when it comes to leaving the corners, it may be harder to translate.  What does it mean for us modern urbanites to leave the corners or not go back over our fields a second time?

Just like the law of the tithe asks us to create a margin in our lives to live within and set a certain amount aside, the law of pe’ah, of leaving the corners, asks us to create a margin – to leave room in our wallets and our budgets to help those in need.  It asks us to leave room to be able to live generously in community with others.

I usually listen to the news on the radio while I drive into work in the morning, and for a long time off and on, I’ve been hearing about the civil war going on in Yemen.  It’s been going long enough that it often gets eclipsed by the other news of the day, and yet every once in a while it will make its way back to the top of the news cycle and I’ll be reminded people are calling it the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.  The war has brought widespread famine and starvation and people don’t have access to basic healthcare.  After the most recent time I heard this, I thought that I should maybe give some money toward aid work in Yemen.

But, you know, I’m trying to stick to a budget.  And there was just some other stuff going on this month.  I needed some new orthotic inserts for my shoes to help me run better.  I decided it was time to buy some new clothes.  I bought a gift for a friend who was having a baby.  So then there wasn’t really a lot left over.  I thought, maybe next month.  Of course, next month it’s time to start buying Christmas presents.  So maybe Yemen will have to wait until the new year.  Maybe in January?  Well, that’s when my car insurance auto-renews, so…

This past week, after I preached about tithing and as I started to think about this practice of leaving the corners, I finally made a donation to an organization that is doing aid work in Yemen.  Because what I want to do is to live and spend in such a way that there is room in my life and budget for things like this – to live generously in respect to those who are vulnerable or suffering in the world around me.  If my whole field is harvested – if all my money is accounted for with other expenditures – then I’m not going to be able to do this.

For better or worse, it’s never specified how much room you’re supposed to leave.  When we’re talking about tithing, it’s pretty clear: 10% is 10%.  We can ask about things like before tax and after tax or what the loopholes are, but we at least have a good, solid guideline for what God expects from us.  But if we are talking about pe’ah, leaving the corners and edges of our field unharvested so the poor and hungry can come and be fed, just how wide are we supposed to make those corners, anyway?  Rabbinic commentators debated this, and came up with different answers that they disagreed on.[1]  There is no one definite answer to that, which, depending on your personality, maybe drives you crazy or maybe you appreciate the flexibility.

Personally it drives me crazy.  I really like to know when I’ve checked the box.  But when it comes to loving and caring for your neighbor, there’s really no box to check.  Maybe you can leave bigger corners this year than you did last.  That’s what we Methodists call sanctification, growing in love and holiness throughout the course of our lives as God gives us grace.

Some of you might be saying, oh man, last week you told us we were supposed to tithe, and now you’re telling us that’s not even enough?  And yeah, I guess that’s right.  Someone once told me that stewardship begins with the 90%.  10% (or at least that portion that we have committed to set aside) goes back to God, and we are entrusted with living faithfully and generously with that which is left to us – which is the meaning of stewardship. Let’s face it, if you place your check in the offering each week but don’t have any left over to buy lunch for someone who needs it, that’s probably not what God intended.  If you tithe faithfully but have to wait three months to donate to Yemen because you spent your whole budget on new clothes you didn’t strictly need, that’s probably not what God intended either.  (See, sometimes I am preaching to myself.)

In the end I believe these two commands are meant to be lived together.  One asks us to set aside a fixed amount of what we have and one asks us to leave enough room to be generous with the rest.  Both ask us in different ways to create margins in our lives, to set some of what we have aside for God, for our world, and for our neighbors in need.

Both commands challenge this dangerous idea we have that everything we have belongs to us.  After all, we might say, we’ve worked hard for these crops – or for this paycheck, this lifestyle.  We’ve plowed and sown and watered and tended our fields and our trees.  We’ve worked long hours, sacrificed time with friends and family, put everything we had into that project, or stood on our feet until we could barely walk.  Surely we have a right to that which our work yields.  And yet it’s God to whom the field belongs first, God who gives the growth, God who gives us the gifts and ability to work and earn a living and have enough to share.

When we set aside a portion of our harvest to tithe, we are reminded of these truths, and reminded even to leave some more room to let others in.  Because God also tells us that some of what we have belongs to others.  Not just that we can give some if we’re feeling particularly generous.  But that it belongs to them.

You know that enclosed in your bulletin you can find a Commitment to Giving card.  I hope that you will take this home, pray about the margins God is calling you to create in your life and what portion God is calling you to set aside.  And then I hope that you will bring it back next week so we can celebrate our commitments for 2019 as we give thanks for all God has done for us.

You heard Sarah talk earlier about the welcome she found here at Arlington Temple and why she decided to make this her church home.  This is part of God’s work that you are investing in when you make that commitment to setting some aside.  You’re investing in worship that not only brings us together each week but also welcomes visitors from all over the world and provides a spiritual home away from home.  You’re investing in opportunities for each of us to grow in our relationship with God through prayer, music, and Bible study, so that we can go out to be God’s people in the world.  You’re investing in this space which welcomes our neighbors who come each weekday for something to eat, to get warm or cool off, or simply to find community.  You’re investing in our surrounding community through the bag lunches we pack, produce we bag, and backpacks we fill with school supplies.  And you’re investing in our future as we make plans for the renovation of this space in a couple years and think about the opportunities for ministry that that might open up.  God is doing good things here and I believe God wants to do even more.  So I do hope you will fill out this card.

But I also hope this card will be just the beginning.  That as you make this commitment, and each time you fulfill it, you will be reminded of all that God has given you, reminded of your neighbors who God loves, and reminded of God’s call on your whole life – including your fields.  And your paychecks.  And I hope then you will make some extra room, and go out there and live generously as God’s people in the world.



Margins: Enough to Set Aside

Scripture: Deuteronomy 14:22-29

It’s the time of year again when we get to talk about money.  I always like to open things up by acknowledging that no one likes talking about money.  Religious appeals for money may for some of us conjure up images of megachurch pastors with private jets or smarmy televangelists who promise that whatever you give will be returned to you tenfold.  Or they may just bring up that good old-fashioned sense of being guilted into something you don’t really want to do.  How we spend our money tends to feel like a really personal thing, even more so than how we spend our time, and so it can feel like this is one of those times, as the saying goes, when I’ve “quit preaching and gone to meddling.”

I say those things upfront because I never liked listening to stewardship sermons from the pews, and I feel like it kind of helps to clear the air a little.  I don’t say them by way of apology, because in the end, if the church doesn’t have the investment of the people who make it up, financial and otherwise, then we don’t really have a church.  And also because I really do believe that the way we spend our money is an important part of our spiritual life; that if Jesus is Lord of our lives, then that means of our bank accounts too.

The concept of giving as part of a faithful life does, of course, precede Jesus.  So today I want to back it up and talk a little about the most basic rule for faithful giving in the Hebrew Bible – tithing.

To tithe means to give ten percent, and for the people of the early Hebrew Bible that meant ten percent of your grain, your fruit, and your livestock.  We find the command to tithe in three different places – Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – and it’s a little different in each one, which probably shows that the specifics were adapted to the needs and circumstances of the time.  But some of the things these tithes went to were Temple worship, both personal and corporate, supporting the priests and Levites who did priest-adjacent work, and caring for immigrants, orphans, and widows – the most vulnerable people in society who didn’t have the means to support themselves.

I’ve been surprised to discover that you can find a lot of Christians on the internet who do not believe in tithing. They will tell you that nowhere in the New Testament do we find a command to give 10%. Paul, they’ll point out, writes to his churches and instructs them to give according to their means, instructs them to give joyfully, instructs them even to “excel in this grace of giving.”  And, in fact, I was even surprised to discover that the Christian church didn’t recover the practice or expectation of tithing until sometime in the 4th century.[1]

So it’s easy to argue, I guess, that insisting on some old law requiring some fixed proportion of income is no longer that relevant.  After all, times have changed.  We pay taxes now. Our giving should be prompted by the Spirit, not dictated by some legalistic understanding of holiness.

And times have, and we do, and it should.  And giving prompted by the Spirit may even mean more than 10%!  And yet I’m not ready to give up on this idea that I’ve heard referred to as “creating margins” in our lives – intentionally scaling down so that we have enough to set aside.[2]

A couple weeks ago I had a conversation with one of our new church members to talk about what membership means, and she asked the question, “Is tithing required?”  It wasn’t a skeptical question; she was open to it, and wanted to know.

I answered that when we officially join the church, we make a vow to support its ministries with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness.  That word “gifts” includes financial gifts.  We are promising to give of what we have to be a part of this community and participate in it and invest in it.  But in the end, that amount is between you and God.  I’m not logging into your Wells Fargo account to check on the actual rates or anything.  You need to decide what is a faithful and realistic commitment to make given your own situation.

BUT, I said, I really believe in tithing.  When I first started tithing, in seminary, I did it because I felt like if I was going to be a pastor and preach sermons like this I should probably not be a hypocrite about it.  But it’s turned into something I feel really strongly about as a personal practice.  Because I believe that God has given me a lot.  And I believe that my budget says something about my values, what I make room for in my life.  And I believe that if I didn’t commit to setting some aside, that I would always find another use for that money, and that more often or not, that use would be for me, or our family, or something that did not require me to look far beyond myself.

And I really, really believe that life is better when I look beyond myself.  I believe it’s better when I acknowledge the source of my blessings, when I invest in a community and purpose that is bigger than myself, when I do my part to make sure the most vulnerable people in our community and world are fed and cared for.

We often think of drawing lines, creating margins in our life, as something that limits us and hems us in.  But the well-drawn margins can actually be life-giving.  I once heard about a study some researchers did watching kids on the playground.  One playground had a fence around the perimeter, and another playground was not fenced in.  On the playground that was fenced in, the kids used the whole space, right up to the fence.  On the playground where there was no fence, the kids stayed closer in.  Instead of limiting them, that boundary gave them freedom.  If you ask me, there is something freeing about making a commitment to give.  It’s not something you need to wrestle with every week or every month.  It just becomes part of what you do, and eventually, part of who you are.

I know tithing may seem way out of reach for some of you.  10% is actually kind of a big number. I know that you may have crushing student debt.  And I know that you might barely be able to make your rent this month.  And I know that you may have health issues and that once those bills start coming they don’t stop.  I never want your giving to this church to be something that’s oppressive or exploitative.  I would rather you give nothing than that be the case. You know what I think is more important than the actual number?  This practice of intentionally creating margins to live within.  The practice of setting some aside, in gratitude and in recognition that life isn’t all about us.  As one of my colleagues said the other day, committing to giving 5% consistently is better than giving whatever’s left over.

I told you that even within the Bible, the actual practice of tithing seems to have adapted with the times. I know another pastor who tried to do some work re-imagining what this kind of commitment might look like if not a flat 10%.

What if, she said, you committed to giving to the church an amount equivalent to what you spend on groceries each month?  Or what you spend on eating out? What if you committed to the giving the church an amount equivalent to what you pay for a gym membership?  Or what you spend on entertainment and leisure, however you want to define that?  What if you gave to the church an amount equivalent to what you spend on vacation each year?  Or an amount equivalent to what you set aside for retirement?

Obviously these are some widely varying amounts and proportions here, but that’s the beauty of it – that it helps you think about creating that margin in your life, in a way that puts this commitment alongside those commitments you are already making whether you are thinking about them that way or not.  If you do think about things that way, it would still be helpful to have a number on this pledge card, since I don’t know how much you spend at Starbucks each month, and we do still have a budget.  But I would also love to know what equivalency you are making there.

I don’t promise that God is going to bring what you give back to you tenfold.  I do believe that God will bless you in your giving.  I believe you will receive the blessing of looking beyond yourself.  I believe you will receive the blessing of being part of God’s work in the world through this church.

It starts with creating margins.  What will you commit to set aside?


[1] New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. I, p. 1190

[2] Phil Maynard, Membership to Discipleship: Growing Mature Disciples Who Make Disciples, p. 27