Saturday, August 28, 2010

What’s in it for me?

Luke 14:1, 7-14
I’m sure you’ve had the same experience, and in the same place. The other day, Mike and I were leaving Dunnellon, heading south toward home. We were approaching the stoplight at Hwy 488, where 488 traffic merges into one lane on Hwy 41 on the bridge. From two cars behind me, a pickup truck pulled out to the right and passed us and about four other cars before merging in front of the first car.
The rest of us moved ahead slowly, since we didn’t want to have an accident. The driver in the pickup had only one thing on his mind. “I’m more important than these other people. I’m in a hurry. I don’t want to get stuck behind some fool who obeys the speed limit.” 
For many people today, “it’s all about me and what I want.” In Jesus’ time, there was a definite social ranking. People knew where they fit in society, and that never changed. The wealthy and the royalty intermarried. Landowners intermarried, to add to the land they owned. People could, through bad management or bad luck, move downward and lose their land. Moving upward was not done. Even in marriage, it was not done.   
  Power was retained by owing favors. In an honor and shame society, which is still the way it works in the Middle East, accepting an invitation meant an obligation to repay. The invitation list was made up with the consideration of what could be gained in return. The guest list was always made up with the question, “What’s in it for me?” in mind. The returned favor might be a dinner invitation, but it could also be a better rate on a loan, the purchase of a piece of land, or the daughter in marriage.
In our Gospel story, a Pharisee has invited Jesus to dine with some of his friends. Since we know that Jesus and the Pharisees were usually at odds with each other, we wonder, why is Jesus invited? What’s going on here? Maybe this Pharisee is Nicodemus – the guy in John’s gospel who comes to Jesus at night with questions, and ends up helping to bury him. Or maybe he wanted to convince Jesus how wrong he was. Or maybe he was just in it for the chance to dialogue with a famous person. He could brag that he had dined with Jesus, adding to his honor tally.
Jesus calls attention to the social ranking, favor-paying custom of getting the best seats, the seats closest to the host. He uses the custom to his own purposes, and tells a story. He suggests that guests at a wedding should assume they rank fairly low, so they get the honor of being asked to move to a higher ranked seat. This makes sense to the honor conscious folks gathered at this dinner. I can almost hear them agreeing with Jesus, and remembering times when they have been invited to sit closer, or when they hesitated to take a seat because they weren’t sure about who outranked whom in a particular situation.
Then, Jesus turns the tables on them. Instead of inviting one’s friends, and those with whom one shares favors, they should invite those who have no way of repaying the favor. Invite the poor, the disabled, the blind. These folks cannot repay the favor, but God will bless the host at the resurrection. He will be made righteous – right with God – in this act of selflessness. That’s “what’s in it for them.”
Today, there are some churches who invite the poor, the disabled, the blind, the homeless to a meal. They offer this meal knowing those who eat can’t pay for it. They discover something much better; they discover relationships with some amazing people, people who have learned to survive despite the odds. The gift of serving and the friendships are “What’s in it for them.” As they continue to offer these meals, they ask themselves a different question. They ask, “Who else can we bless?”
Gerry is a person who asks, “Who else can I bless?” Today, there are many programs to help underprivileged children. Reading is Fundamental (RIF) is one of those programs. Many Kiwanis and Rotary and other service clubs are involved, and the Kiwanis Club I belong to is proud to be involved in it. 
RIF involves giving books to children, and helping children develop a love of reading that will last a lifetime. Some communities receive government funds for the books. Our community does not. Funds raised through Kiwanis activities and donations buy the books we give away.
Gerry and a few other volunteers go two or three times a year to read to the children, and then give them the books we have bought. These books may be the only books the children own, and that’s exciting for them.
The children get a lot out of the program. They love having Miss Gerry come and love them and read to them, and give them books. But I think Gerry gets more out of it. She calls them “my kids” and goes to the Kindergarten graduations to celebrate with them. Her face glows with the joy she receives in helping these children. Gerry is blessed by giving herself to the children.
We can give to our peers and gain recognition and perhaps some fame. And we can give to those who are not our peers, who have no way to repay us, and receive greater rewards in knowing we have done something good in Jesus’ name.
When we make decisions about our own financial and other resources, we can make plans to use those resources based on the question, “What’s in it for me?” Or, we can make plans to use our resources based on the question, “Who else can I bless?”
Here are a couple of very practical situations, about which we can pose these questions, and answer them as a congregation.
First, there is a family that has come to Hope asking for help. The single mother has several children, and she can’t find a job in this economy. They need cash to keep the electricity and gas turned on. They need cash for other bills as well. We have helped them with food and grocery store gift cards. How will we respond, as individuals and as a congregation? Shall we adopt this family, and give what we can to help them? Are you willing to open your pockets and your hearts to help them? How will we be blessed in the giving, if we decide to do this?
Second, we have received $10,000 in bequests from Bea Rossi. This money has been designated, as a start, to help us meet beyond the budget expenses like books for Sunday School and communion kits for deacons-in-training. We hope to not use much of the money that way, but we have used a little of it.
We have also received a bequest from Irma Reichenbaugh for over $100,000. What shall we do with this much money? If it goes into the general budget, it will pay for things like copy paper and electricity. We might not have to ask you to dig deeper into your pockets, at least for a year or two. That could be “what’s in it for us.”
But if Irma’s money gets earmarked for mission, it could be used to help people in need, like the family I mentioned, and it could help mission development congregations, and campus ministry, and seminaries, and so forth. This would seem to be what Irma would have wanted. She would have wanted others to be blessed by her generous gift to Hope.
As you go through the next week or so, check to see which question you are asking. Are you asking yourself, “What’s in it for me? What can I gain from this money, or this situation?” or are you asking yourself, “Who can I bless with this money, or this situation?”
 Please pray with me. Generous God, you have given us so much: family, friends, home, life, your love and forgiveness. Help to ask the right questions in life. Help us to look beyond ourselves, to seek to bless others with your generosity to us. Amen