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Breaking Free of Black Holes



Pastor James Clarke’s sermon for Sunday, October 16, 2016. This is the second sermon on Stewardship. You can listen to the sermon here.

Ever felt like you were in a black hole?

In Defying Gravity, Tom Berlin uses the black hole as a metaphor for what happens sometimes in life when you get consumed or are beaten down or hurt or abused or you may less than good decisions to the point where no light can escape from us.

I believe these times are inevitable for all us.

Sometimes by our own choices, and sometimes simply by circumstance.

In my first church, there was a man who was a doctor, who was younger than most of the congregation, and he made it clear to me that he took care of a quarter, at least, of the budget. And he was full of “suggestions.” To put it simply he was a bully.

And that turned me, at that time, into a black hole of depression.

Other times, I have found myself worrying so much about the numbers, you know – the metrics: the numbers, the attendance, the money, the new members must be “confession of faith” by the way, and it’s easy, when you talk about those things that “measure” how well you are doing, to get into a black hole where we can’t see anything positive.

And as a pastor, I have witnessed many people times in life where they experienced black holes.

So what I think about when we look at the story of The Lost Son which is about one of the blacker holes in the Bible.

The second son gets his inheritance, he squanders it. He ends up eating the food of the pigs! (You have to remember how Jews feel about pigs.) The worst possible condition.

Imagine him homeless and eating out of a dumpster…

And as we all know, he returned home and said he would be happy to work as a hired hand for his father and the father welcomes him with open arms and slaughters the fatted calf.

And of course, the older son is incensed because he has been working so hard, And their father had never done anything like that for him!

Can we relate?

I love parables in the bible because they can have so many different meanings and one of them is the black hole is not just with a younger son. The older son has a black hole too!

You can hear it and feel it. It’s his resentment.

I imagine that he was obsessed with doing well. Maybe he was concerned about the number of sheep, and the money and he was also angry because to waste the fatted calf was not economically expedient.

I can imagine why he would be very angry at his father.

Living in the black hole of investment and fairness and financial security and growth, there was no room for grace in the older son. For himself. Or for his father or his brother. He was in the black hole. Remember we talked about last week’s Financial Gravity.

The story is obviously, and we all know, is about grace. That’s what we usually focus on. But in order for all this to happen, the younger son had to get to a point where he said something like, “I have to let go.” He let go of everything. And he let go of any sense of pride or entitlement or expectation for what he would do in life.

He let go, not only of material and emotional and spiritually he was naked. And he emptied himself of all worldly things. In contrast, the older son was still clinging to everything: success, growth and wealth, whatever it was.

This is the side of the story that I had not seen before. God’s grace for us is ubiquitous and prevenient – ever present and available to all. And it symbolizes in the story of a father who had grace for his younger son despite all his bad decisions, but for also for the older son who couldn’t receive it because he was living in a black hole of financial security and gravity.

Do you realize how awful the word “losing” is in our culture?

When I was at my first church, that’s what I was afraid of, being the loser.

The lost son was a “loser.” He lost everything. He would have been ridiculed. You’re Fired!! That’s what Donald Trump would say.

What the younger son should have done is to fight back. Attack back – by any means, Legal or illegal – find someone to sue!

The usual thing, particularly for men to do, when one is called a loser is to Double down – battle, dispute, insult. But the younger son did none of that…. He surrendered all.

In Philippians 2 there is this wonderful hymn about Jesus:

Who though he was in the form of God

Did not regard equality with God

As something to be exploited,

But emptied himself

Taking the form of a slave,

Being born in human likeness

And being found in human form,

He humbled himself

And became obedient to the point of death –

Even death on the cross

That is the path of the younger son….

A wise mentor one said to me that 90% of spirituality is letting go. Generosity is an act of letting go and a spiritual practice. And counter-intuitively, it heals our black holes.

Consider the rich man from last week. If he had given away his wealth, how transformative that would have been.

In his book, Defying Gravity Tom Berlin give us some statistics on giving in America, It says that 44.8% reported giving nothing. 41.3% give less than 2%. Which means 13.9% of the population gives the majority to charity.

Don’t think that’s the richest people, however, because they give about 1%.

Then he breaks this down into what Christians give. This is the real shocking thing… The average for Christians is 2.9%. 72% of Christians give less than 2%. That’s less than the American average.

What are we to think of these numbers? What kingdom are most Americans living in?

That’s private! That’s nobody’s business.

But is there such privacy before God? I fully understand why a politician is reticent to share his or her tax returns. It’s kind of like taking your clothes off, being exposed.

Because it tells a lot about who we are. I can see why, especially politicians would not want to do it. Ultimately generosity is about identity. You don’t want people to know who we are.

Berlin says:

Many people think they are not financially generous because they lack the resources. In fact, though, the issue isn’t wealth but identity. If we see ourselves as stewards, we understand that we are custodians, not owners, of our possessions. As stewards, we don’t view the world through a quantitative lens showing how much is available but through a qualitative lens showing what can be done with the things God has given us.

Put simply, everything belongs to God. We are called to be stewards of it. Owners amass wealth – stewards distribute it.

Imagine if all Americans lived as stewards rather than owners…

Has anybody here imagined winning the lottery?

I confess I do. Even though, according to the Discipline, I am not supposed to gamble.

I look at that of course I would use the money, some of it, for selfish purposes. I would get my children through college without debt and I would put a little more for retirement since we don’t have a house. Might travel a little, and I might buy a new car!

I wouldn’t buy a jet, though. And I don’t think I would buy a yacht… I’ve never flown first class and I don’t think I’d change that.

I think what I primarily would do is set up a trust in management. How could I call myself a Christian and do otherwise?

What we would do with lotto winnings is truly telling of who we are. What we do with our money matters not because it’s our freedom, because it’s our identity. It’s about who we are.

For stewards, giving is not kindness, it’s obligation. Generosity is an act of surrender to the identity centered in God and not the self. So when we let go of desire for success or material things or power, probably power most of all, that we will be healed of our black holes.

You see giving heals the giver too. And giving isn’t just to help the person who receives but transforms the one who gives.

Stewardship isn’t first about money. Money is the way we measure things. Stewardship is about who we want to be in life. Which kingdom do we want to be a part of? What forces do we want to move us in life? Do we want to be owners or stewards? Think of the rich man and the older son.

Generosity is not an act of kindness, distributing our leftovers. It is a part of our responsibility as disciples.

So who do we want to be?

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