I went on a long training run on Friday along the Mississippi. I was greeted by a sunny day. I smelled the fragrance of the lilacs and flowering cherry trees. I saw the dancing pinks and whites of the apple blossoms. I saw herons, egrets, ducks, geese, woodpeckers and eagles. I felt the spray of the water as is cascaded down the Coon Rapids dam. And I thanked God for all of it.
And I thought of where the river flows a thousand miles to the south. This is the 2-year anniversary of the gulf oil spill. The ecosystem is still recovering and we still don’t seem to be looking real seriously about our dependence on fossil fuel. We are now extracting record amounts of oil from the gulf without any significant changes in policy that contributed to the disaster.
Like many of you, I worked in my garden a bit yesterday. I have the dirty fingernails to prove it. I plan to do it again today. While I don’t always love turning the soil and my back gets awful sore, I sure do like to see the green come up. I like to fantasize about Vidalia onions and sweet peas and green beans and tomatoes and basil. I already see the rhubarb and the raspberries and the chives making their annual debut. On earth day, we remember not only the fruits of the land, but the fact that such bounty takes work and good stewardship.
Little children, let us love, not in speech, but in truth and action. How do we put our truth into action?
The ABC has a new Environmental Stewardship initiative where they are encouraging congregations to be greener and better stewards of the earth. We have already done a lot of that. We have participated in the MN Energy Challenge, reducing our collective and individual carbon footprints. Many of us will attend the Living Green Expo at the Fairgrounds two weeks from today. One of the exhibitors there may well be Sylvan Hills Farms, a family farm from Menomonie, WI who drops off boxes of organic food at UBC for 20 weeks during the growing season. Whatever you do, pause to enjoy the bounty of green. Let it fill you and in response take action.
Let us love not only in speech, but in truth and action.
This is also commitment Sunday. It is when we put our beliefs into tangible action. It felt real good to have the taxes done and in the mail this past week. How good it is for some of us to receive a refund in the mail. How good it is to invest in our country, as an obligation to make things right for everyone. Well, maybe that’s not what it feels like. But we do give our taxes in the trust that people will use them for the best of purposes. And while we often feel disconnected once we send that check in, the opposite is true here at UBC. On Commitment Sunday, we fill out little blue pieces of paper which tell us how we are going to invest ourselves in this community. The truth is that what we get out is directly proportionate to what we put in. Because we don’t have a huge endowment or a large staff, we are very dependent on the good and generous people of the UBC community who invest their time, their treasure and their talent in the furtherance of God’s ministry at this little church.
Now, we are not big in numbers, which is a great thing—it gives us intimacy and a sense of knowing and caring what happens to each other. It also means that each of us is important to making this ship stay afloat. So, while I’m tempted to encourage you to give as much as you can, I think a better idea is to take a percentage of your income and use that as a starting point for your giving. The Bible talks about giving ten percent of our treasure back to furthering God’s work. Now, this was originally established to support the tribe of Levi. When the 12 tribes landed in the Promised Land, eleven of the tribes ended up with land. The 12th tribe, the Levites, had the responsibility to attend to the religious function of the people. So each tribe gave 10% of their goods and it paid for the temple, the food for the priests and the rituals of the people. Now, they did not tithe their time or talent, but they probably should have.
Nowadays, the Levites are the preachers and the music directors and singers and Administrative assistants and the janitors and the child care workers. But we wouldn’t want to trust everything to the professionals. That would change who we were. It would diminish us. So, we invest and commit ourselves to this community and we do things. We serve on Ministry Teams. We sing in the choir. We play handbells. We tend the garden. We represent the church at the State Capitol. We knit prayer shawls. We put our truth into action. All of this is the work of the church.
Many of you got to meet George Williamson last week. Back when he was pastor and I was in the pews, he encouraged us to take tithing seriously. He spoke of it as a spiritual discipline. He saw it as an investment in what we believe. It’s putting truth into action. I considered the couple of bucks I dropped in the plate when I remembered to and then I made a big decision. I was making $8,000 in my first job out of college. I tithed it and paid $200 a quarter. I found I didn’t miss the money, but felt much more invested in the church’s work.
When Kim and I make our budget plans, we always start with a tithe to the church. After that, we decide on other gifts we give to other organizations. Because we are blessed with such health and relative wealth, in comparison to the rest of the world, we see it as our obligation to give back. It’s a way that we pay it forward. It’s a way that we put the truth we know into action. And it feels good. It feels like our priorities are in the right place. I know that this church has our backs. I know that this church steps into the forefront of issues and advocates for the poor and outcast. I know that this church is a home to the homeless.
Many of you remember Allen Tsai. He was a member of the church and he led a forum a year ago as he was getting ready to return to Taiwan. He said UBC gave him oxygen at a time when he felt choked by life and religion. What a great compliment. That’s who we are.
I know that this church offers partnership to not only a sister church in Nicaragua, but a Lisu church in St. Paul. I know that this church radiates beauty in our music program. We love our children. We make this building available for three congregations, a school, numerous organizations, theater groups, dance classes and community organizing ventures. When there is an issue of import, we are not only using our words, but we are taking to the streets and putting our faith in action. When my sister was moving here, so many of you offered her help and support. When someone needed extra care, you formed a team called share the care to help them out. This is living the truth in action. It is how we care.
The late educator and philosopher John Hot once said, “Everything we know, we have learned. Nothing we have learned has been taught.” A college professor Leonard Jordan said, “I can’t teach you. I can provide the opportunity for you to learn, but I cannot teach you.” Children in the first three years of life learn by imitation. We can talk a good game, but people learn by how we walk and act. We imitate the good and bad in those we love. The scripture says, you shall know them by their fruits.
Jesus was often asked how we should live. He was asked to explain it in words, but he most often explained it by telling a story or giving an object lesson. He taught by welcoming the outcasts, by never condemning the oppressed, by healing the untouchables, by being a resister of violence by prayerfully setting an end to violence. A follower of John the Baptist asked if Jesus was the Messiah. Jesus responded, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”(Matt 11:4-5) “Little Children, let us love, not in speech, but in truth and action.”
David Bartlett writes in Feasting on the Word: “In a time of schism and dissent, what is most threatening is that Christians should continue pontificating about love while they turn hatefully from one another and ignore each other’s needs.” (p.445—Year B volume 2)
Little Children, let us love, not just in speech, but in truth and action. The social Gospel tells us to give so that others may have life and have it with abundance. Put feet to your beliefs.
You know that song, “Holy Ground”, was sung at every service at the San Francisco Metropolitan Community Church. It was there that so many of our LBGT friends came limping back to church after having been burned by religion. Many fled to San Francisco, or OZ as they called it, to experience freedom. And many of them found it. And some found God. They especially found God when they encountered HIV. The disease spread so fast and furious that it took a generation of the brightest and best from the streets of San Francisco. Thank God for the new treatments that came a bit late for some. As they cared for one another, loving them in their dying days, advocating for medicinal marijuana, getting affordable housing or health care services, they found out how to be God: how to reflect God, how to be the ultimate healing presence. And each week, as they sang, “we are standing on Holy Ground, and I know that there are angels all around.” It was especially true, for each week it seemed, another part of the community died of AIDS. And so they sang with ever more tender hearts, and those angels who had gone before them buoyed them up to be the church.
We have angels all around. We see them on these bell banners. We see them in the faces lining the halls. We see them in the community that is still here and thriving after 162 years. We are thankful for all of them. The question for us is, how do we honor them moving forward? How do we live into our calling as Christians? How do we move from talking about love to acts of love?
Ronald Cole-Turner in his Feasting on the Word essay (p. 446) says, “We cannot believe in Jesus without believing in love. And we cannot have love without action. John gives us no room to negotiate.”
When we look at our property, it’s not a private chapel. We have tended it to be sanctuary. Children are playing on the lawn all week. Students are studying on the swing or steps on a warm afternoon. Some are even helping themselves to raspberries and herbs from our side garden. It is how we live the truth in action. Within these walls, ideas become action. Prayer becomes justice and justice work becomes our prayer life.
So how about it? On this earth day, on this commitment Sunday, what commitments are you going to make? How will you live out your faith, not just in words, but in action?
What seeds will you plant in your garden of love? How will you live into your calling? How will you add yourself to the cloud of witnesses that have gone before?
They will know we are Christians by our love.
It is how we live in partnership with the angels that are all around.
This is what Jesus lived and died for. Our faith in action is how Christ lives each and every day.