Paul Larsen wrote: "This sermon is specific to our congregation ... it really worked well.
"People loved it, which is saying a lot for a stewardship sermon. When people entered the sanctuary they received a balloon with the words, 'Send the Love,' printed on them. When we let the balloons go at all three services people spontaneously applauded. We only have half of our pledges in, but so far they have increased their pledges by more than 14 percent."
Stewardship theme: "Send the Love"
Mission motto: "Called by the Gospel, Gathering, Growing, Giving"
Send the Love
John 8:31-37, Luke 19:1-10
The Gospel text is the story of Zacchaeus. That story is actually a wonderful illustration of what Jesus is saying in our Gospel lesson. Jesus says, "You will know the truth and the truth will make you free." Zacchaeus was all bound up. He was a tax collector, a traitor working for the enemy, a treacherous cheat. He was all wrapped up in himself and his possessions. But something caused him to want to see Jesus. The other people who wanted to see Jesus were not about to let this little worm wriggle his way to the front. So, little Zacchaeus climbed a tree. Then the one who would later be hung on a tree reached out to him and offered him love and acceptance. Jesus called him to come down and told him that he would dine with him that day. Zacchaeus was not only thrilled, he was transformed. The truth that Jesus loved him and accepted him set him free. In joy and gratitude he announces that he will give half of what he has to the poor and that he will repay anyone he had cheated four times as much as he had taken from them.
Sometimes we are up a tree and we don't even know it. Sometimes we don't recognize our need for forgiveness because we compare ourselves to crooks and criminals instead of comparing ourselves to Christ. We think God should accept us because we are better than a lot of people. But if we were going to earn God's acceptance we would have to be perfect and that is impossible.
Other times we think we are so far up the tree that no one could ever get us down. We feel that our sins are too serious to be forgiven. That is not true either.
The truth is God accepts us just as Jesus accepted Zacchaeus. God loves us and accepts us just as we are. But God also loves us too much to leave us there. God has the power to change our lives. God's truth can transform us and set us free. That is what Jesus did for Zacchaeus and that is what God can do for us.
The truth of God's love and forgiveness gave Zacchaeus the freedom to give out of joy and gratitude. Too often we give out of guilt and duty.
The story is told of a man who came into his pastor's office and gave him a generous check. It was much larger than any gift this person had ever given before, so the pastor asked what motivated him to make this gift. The man said, "Well, I was out hunting and came across a big momma bear and her cubs. The momma bear felt threatened and charged me. I tried to shoot her, but I missed. I took off running and was praying like crazy as I ran. Just as the bear was gaining on me I saw a hollow log and I dove inside it. The bear stood outside growling and trying to get at me, but couldn't. Then it started to rain. She got sick of waiting for me in the rain and went away. The only trouble was the rain caused the log to swell up and I was stuck in there and couldn't budge!"
The pastor asked, "How did you get out?"
The man replied, "I started thinking about all the ways that God has blessed me and what a wonderful life God has given me. Then I started thinking about how little I give to the church. That made me feel so small, I was able to crawl right out!"
God doesn't want us to feel small or guilty. God wants us to know the truth about his great love for us. He wants the truth of that love to set us free. He wants that truth to transform us and fill us with joy so that, like Zacchaeus, we become generous givers.
When you entered the sanctuary today you received a balloon. Without any air in it, it doesn't look like much and it isn't good for much. But it can be changed and transformed with a little breath.
In Greek, the word for breath is the same word that means "spirit." In the Gospel of John, when Jesus gave the Holy Spirit to the disciples, he did it by breathing on them. God continues to breathe the Spirit into us through the word (blow into balloon) and the sacraments (blow); through worship (blow) and prayer (blow). And through the power of God, we are filled with the Holy Spirit (blow).
Now the purpose of that is not so we become all puffed up or so we look pretty and draw attention to ourselves.
We are filled with the Spirit so that we can give a lift to others. We are filled with the Spirit so that we can help people see the Spirit in us and see the love of Christ. We are filled with the Spirit so that we can have an impact!
Some of you jumped!
God wants us to surprise people and wake them up. God calls us to live in such a way that people look at us and our actions and are surprised at how different we are from the rest of the world.
The world tells us to be consumers and gather all the goods we can get. Jesus calls us to give even as he has given to us. He gave his very life. We are called to give of ourselves and our resources to help those in need.
The world tells us to look out for number one. Jesus tells us that God is number one and we are called to serve God by serving others.
The world tells us that there is a scarcity of everything. It makes us afraid that there won't be enough to go around. God calls us to a theology of abundance. He blesses us with his love and all the other gifts we need and encourages us to share those gifts with others.
I want you to take out your balloons and blow them up, but don't tie them off. The way God fills us up with the Holy Spirit is through gathering for worship (blow) and fellowship (blow); growing in faith and understanding (blow); and giving of ourselves and our resources (blow). When we are filled with the Spirit (blow) we are not meant to just keep that inside. When we are filled with the Spirit we are ready to send the love.
I want all of you to hold your balloons up in the air and then on the count of three I want everyone to let them go. 1-2-3!
Wasn't that fun? There is great joy in sending the love. That is what God calls us to. God calls us to a joyous giving of the love he has first given us. It is God's truth that you are loved and accepted, just as you are, that sets you free to be a giver.
The truth that Martin Luther re-discovered was that we are justified by faith not works. We are saved by grace alone. Our relationship with God is a total and unconditional gift. We can rejoice in that gift so much that our gratitude pours out of our lives like air let out of a balloon. And as it comes out it moves us about and propels us into the world as we send the love.
I hope and pray that we will all respond that way as we prayerfully consider our stewardship gifts for 2005. First, I want to thank you for your generous giving in the past. Children are learning about Jesus, youth are growing in faith, adults are active in service, the sick are being visited, the grieving are being comforted, the hungry are being fed, people are being ministered to because of your gifts. Lives are being changed because of your giving and I thank you for that. I want to thank you also for considering growing in your giving so that our congregation can grow and expand in mission and ministry. Please think about and pray about increasing your financial giving by 1 percent of your household income. That means if you are making $40,000 a year that you would increase your annual gift to Christ the King by $400 in 2005. There will be a chart to help you calculate that in your stewardship materials. So please, give that serious and prayerful consideration.
I also invite you to consider growing in your service. I want to thank you for the many and varied ways that you serve. If you were at the ministry fair you caught a bit of the flavor of all that goes on here and the many ways that Christ the King is doing God's work in the world. Thank you for all that you do.
About 33 percent of our congregation is actively involved in one area of ministry beyond worship. I hope we can raise that percentage. If you are able to volunteer to be involved in one or more areas of ministry listed on our shared ministry brochure that would be wonderful. I know you will find joy in it and you will help Christ the King send the love.
There is an old saying that I believe is true, "You can give without loving, but you cannot love without giving." Think about that. Think about the love God gives us and how we can each return that love to God.
The truth is God loves and accepts you just as you are. The truth is God also loves you too much to leave you as you are. Let that truth set you free so that in joy and gratitude you respond by sending the love with your gifts of time, talent and money. Amen.
Let us pray: O God, we give you thanks for the love and acceptance you give us as a gift. Fill us with your Holy Spirit that we may be empowered to do your work in the world. Inspire us and increase our faith so that we are able to grow in our giving so that Christ the King may grow in her ability to send the love. Amen.
Another way you can help send the love is to pick up all of those balloons you sent flying everywhere!
Paul Larsen is senior pastor of Christ the King Lutheran Church in New Brighton, MN.