text : Proverbs 11:24-25
theme verse : “Some give freely, yet grow all the richer; others withhold what is due and only suffer want.” (Proverbs 11:24)
An old rap song from my youth included the line, 'You better check yourself before your wreck yourself.' While none of the other lines were memorable, that one has staying power. Against what do we measure the effectiveness of our lives? Some level of success? Some measure of kindness? A lifestyle of generosity? A man gave millions to establish a university in Texas. Several years later, he lost everything. Someone asked if he had regretted all he had given to the university. 'Regret it?' he said, 'That school is the only lasting thing I’ve done with my money. Had I not given that money, I would have lost it too.' So much of living a generous life involves loosening our grip on fear, security, and the sense of scarcity. Only then, might we experience the freedom of a life that is ‘growing all the richer.’
*Gratitude Statement: “I will relinquish control.”
Open Mic testimony : Andy McMillan
communion music : Susie Monger-Daugherty, piano
offertory : Susie Monger-Daugherty, piano
reader : David Brock
preaching : Rev Mark Briley
special music : 'Gracefully Broken' (M.Redman) :: The Rising Band; Isaac Herbert, leader
If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands. If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands. If you’re happy and you know it then your face will surely show it. If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands.
Well… okay then. Wasn’t sure how that would go. We have some happy people in the house today. We have some who maybe just humored the pastor and went along with the child-like experiment. There may be a few of us who had no familiarity with the song and by the time we caught on it was over. We have some who likely flat out refused – “I don’t participate in ridiculous clapping rituals.” And honestly, it’s all okay. In fact, I learned this week that whether we’re happy and we know it or not may be something we can’t fully control. I’ve been reading some of Dr. Robert Emmons work in preparation for this series on gratitude. Dr. Emmons is considered one of the top scientific experts on gratitude which is fascinating – the science of gratitude – have you ever thought about gratitude as a science? Emmons notes that each person has a chronic or characteristic level of happiness. The research suggests that “people have happiness set-points to which they inevitably return following disruptive life events. Getting that book published, moving to California, having the person of your dreams answer your personal ad, each of these may send the happiness meter right off the scale for a while but, in a few months, it will drift back to the set-point that is typical for that individual. What goes up must come down.” Interesting.
It makes sense when you think about people in your life. Some have a naturally happy disposition and others have been waking up on the grumpy side of the bed for a while it seems. It’s a process of adaptation. Humans are adaptation machines. We take good things for granted and overcome obstacles that life throws our way only to return to the state of happiness that is natural for us. You win the lottery? A couple months later, you come down from the high to your happiness set-point. You lose a job? A few months later, you re-settle into that natural set point. I was honestly a little discouraged by this; as if there is nothing we can do about it. To strengthen this idea, Emmons says that 50% of our happiness is determined by our genetics.
But… that means we’ve got another 50% to consider, right? (So, you’re saying there’s a chance.) Turns out 10% of our happiness is determined by our circumstance. These are the things you can’t necessarily control. Life that happens to you. Emmons says humans mess up the happiness quotient by focusing on this 10%. He says, “Most people are trying to improve their outside circumstances. They want more money, a better car, a hotter body, a more beautiful spouse, a better job, and more.” Research says we are seeking happiness in all the wrong places. Why? Because the remaining 40% of our happiness is determined by our behaviors… our intentional activities. And as your pastor, I’m going to call these behaviors and intentional activities – spiritual disciplines or spiritual practices. The key to happiness lies not in changing our circumstances or changing our genetic makeup (which is frankly impossible) but in changing our behavior. Focusing on our behavior is four times more powerful than considering our circumstances when it comes to increasing levels of happiness. And do you know the number one behavior Dr. Emmons suggests improves happiness? He’s not the Gratitude Guru for nothing, my friends. You guessed it. Gratitude. To take it one step further, improving behavior also tends to create better outside circumstances as well. Not always, as some things are clearly beyond our control, but there is some correlation. 
Why does this matter? Because I want you to be happy? Of course, I do. But I also want us all to be growing in our spiritual health. It is why we are focused on gratitude this month. Practicing gratitude seems to be more than a good idea – but a reality of spiritual health. So, we’re tackling this honestly in this series called Open Mic. Andy McMillan stepped to the Open Mic today to share his thoughts on gratitude and stewardship… it is always inspiring to hear our community speak up about these matters. And we’re asking all of us to consider our own lives as an Open Mic. You have a voice. You practice a set of behaviors. You have influence in your home or your place of work or in the circles of friends and people you move among every day. What kind of impact are you making in those places? What is your life saying to them? And why does it matter as a person of faith? We’re asking these important questions in this stewardship series even as we’re asking us to consider the nature of gratitude and how, in turn, we give of our time, talents, and resources to God. Today’s title: Open Mic: Check one, two, three.
As a kid, there was nothing more fun than finding an open mic… you could make weird noises or yell loudly or beat box… it was just fascinating to hear your voice amplified. Being a pastor’s kid, I often was around the church early (and late), before and after events would happen in the life of the church. The sound guy would often send me up on the chancel before events and check the mics. Loved it. “Mic check, one, two, three,” was the standard and I usually started with that before broadly expanding what I would test out on the microphones. There was an old rap song from those days that included the line, “You better check yourself before you wreck yourself.” It was actually more like, “Chick-chiggidy- check yo’self before you wreck yo’self.” It was always worth a go when checking the mics. And while I can’t remember even a little bit of the rest of the song, that line has staying power. It would heed a good warning to my spirit in times of need. It was like the parental advice before going out, “Remember who you are.” Same thing. Check yourself before you wreck yourself. You can get yourself in a bind pretty quickly if you’re not intentional about what you expect your life to be about. There is plenty of scripture that can be of help in times of need but there’s nothing quite like the Proverbs to put you in check when you need it the most.
Some have described the Proverbs as the voice of that wise elderly person in your life who has been through it all and doesn’t have time to sugarcoat advice any more. The Proverbs cut to the chase. Get right after what’s real and necessary and what can alter your behavior in a positive way. The two short verses from Proverbs 11:24-25 get right to the point. “Some give freely yet grow all the richer; others withhold what is due and only suffer want… a generous person will be enriched, those who help others will be helped.” Boom. Short and sweet. To the point. Would you say that is true of your life? In giving freely, do you grow more fulfilled? In withholding, do you end up only wanting more? The writer says bluntly, you want to measure an effective life? What do you give away? How do you help others? Are you more concerned with getting yours, being selfish, or living in gratitude and doing good for the world? Seems pretty straightforward and I think most of us would say, at least in church, that we agree with the notion, “It is better to give than receive.” But is that truly how we see success? Or do we live as if control and power and money and more of it is what determines success?
There was a man who gave millions to establish a university in Texas. Several years later, he lost everything. Someone asked if he had regretted all he had given to the university. “Regret it?” he said, “That school is the only lasting thing I’ve done with my money. Had I not given that money, I would have lost it too.” What have you given of yourself to… what place, what cause, what hope… that is about a lasting impact? Gratitude is about living with open hands to the world. When we clench our fists or hold tight to our possessions or our time or our gifts of ability to some cause to improve the world, we close the door on gratitude. We are, in turn, not changed for the better. We’re not happier. And we just get lost in the fear of scarcity. As if there’s not enough stuff to go around. Not enough money. Not enough, not enough, not enough. How often is that our driving concern?
A friend shared with me this week his experience of the past weekend. He wandered into an Estate Sale and was a bit taken aback by the whole experience. People were rushing in to claim the material goods of another now deceased… a houseful of things that stood as a reminder of one’s property, possessions, personality and likes. My friend stood back as others were aggressive in the hunt for steals and deals and a couple of those working the sale said in observance of the look on his face. “Look at him, he’s soaking it all in, creating a plan for what he wants to get.” My friend, still a bit stunned by the whole thing, asks the two working the sale, “Did you know the person who lived here?” “Uh, no,” they said. “Do you know their name?” “Um. No, guess I don’t… but they sure had some great stuff.” We work hard to accumulate a life without taking much time to truly live a life. Writer of proverbs is saying, “You want your world to expand? Not with riches but with what truly is a rich life? Then live generously. Lead and make room for others to lead. Give and model for others what generosity looks like. Loosen the grip on your possessions and see what that affords your spirit to possess anew.” Sometimes, it is our comfort that makes us lose sight of the generous life. We become consumed by mundane things that are not kingdom game changers.
In the movie Old School (not a pulpit-endorsement mind you) Will Ferrell plays a married, thirty-something-year-old suburban man who finds himself at a college party. When he’s offered a drink, he declines, saying, “I have a big day tomorrow.” When he’s asked, “Doing what?” he responds, “Well, um… actually a pretty nice little Saturday. We’re gonna go to Home Depot, buy some wallpaper, maybe get some flooring, stuff like that. Maybe Bed, Bath & Beyond… I don’t know. I don’t know if we’ll have enough time…”. As you can imagine, not overly relatable to a college aged crowd but why do people who have seen this movie remember this line? Will knows how to deliver a line, yes, but more than that, there’s something more going on than his trip to Home Depot on a Saturday. The man in this movie is bored.
He has the life that is often portrayed as the ideal – a spouse, a house, a job, security, comfort, privilege, freedom – and yet it’s left him bored, numb, and in a low-grade state of despair. His ‘success’ has actually served to distract him from just how deeply unsatisfied he is with his life. Have you ever experienced this sort of life… or maybe know someone who has? It can create a paralyzing indifference that comes from being too comfortable. What Rob Bell calls, “Death by wallpaper and flooring.” Happiness does not exist solely in wallpaper and flooring… even if you’re an interior designer. Our behaviors have to move us beyond that comfort… over the edge of easy, comfortable, existence to a life that places gratitude, generosity, and difference-making as our top behaviors.
2018 has been a year of this sort of behavior at Harvard Avenue Christian Church. We’re growing as a church by most every measure. At a gathering of those newer to the congregation last Sunday, there was an eagerness for Bible Study and understanding of our movement of faith known as the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). A Bible 101 course and a series about who we are collectively as Disciples and who we are as disciples at Harvard Avenue will be new opportunities in 2019. We had 448 people join us to worship God last Sunday morning. I remember a decade ago being here on a Sunday morning with as few as 140 faithful. Those are just numbers but they represent a hunger and passion for faith… to do something counter-cultural… to invest in the spirit.
During the state-wide teacher walk out this Spring, you rallied to be a host site for school children during those important two weeks. You made meals for teachers marching from Tulsa to the capitol and delivered them wherever the walk ended that particular night. You treated and cared for the educators of our own congregation that season… it was an inspiring time. In more recent weeks, 100 volunteers stepped forward to host homeless neighbors at the church for a week and we’ll do so again just before Christmas. Ashley Pease created and hosted a Spotlight Theater Camp for kids this past summer that will surely grow in its second attempt next summer. We experienced the gifts of that camp on Sunday Funday – one of the most joyous worship experiences I’ve ever been a part of – where 22 people stepped forward at the end of worship to profess faith in Jesus and join our congregation in the mission and vision we share. There were mission trips and fellowship gatherings and the world’s leading pickleball player present to lead a clinic at our church. As a church, we gave almost $30,000 in special offerings to Week of Compassion alone – a denominational ministry that is the first to respond to natural disaster needs in the world. This week, leaders of Week of Compassion are coming to our church from around the country for their bi-annual meeting… to be on the turf of a congregation who has given more in special offerings to serve this ministry than any congregation in the United States and Canada for several years running. You have given freely, and we are growing in faith, in number, and in spirit because of it.
Kevin, Courtney and I were on a prayer and planning retreat a week ago with pages of prayer requests from you that we took humbly and intentionally before God in prayer. As you poured out your hearts, we poured out those requests before God and continued to find the word “wholeness” surface as a quest of our congregation. How can we be a movement for wholeness in our very fragmented world? That seems to be the hunger of our community so we’re working to shape 2019 around that need and desire and I believe it will be a deeply meaningful journey… if you’re up for it. If you’ll invest time and energy, spirit and resources to help us find God’s loving challenge and encouragement in faith. If we all do our part… give our best… invest intentionally in the communal effort, I believe the transformation will not only be visible to us all, but it will be an inspiration to our city.
Carrie and I will be prayerfully completed our pledge card this week and bringing it to worship next week on Thanksgiving Sunday. Will you join us in that? Your pledge to the church helps determine our reach in 2019 – what programs we can offer, what new needs we can meet, what worship experiences, studies, retreats we can create, who we can serve more fully, what witness we can make in Tulsa and beyond. You may think that your contribution of time, talent and resources isn’t as valuable as another’s, but I’ll politely disagree. You give. You trust. You grow.
Chris Martin, lead singer of the band Coldplay once said: “I can’t dance like Usher. I can’t sing like Beyoncé. I can’t write songs like Elton John. But we can do the best with what we’ve got. And so that’s what we do. We just go for it.” What are you ready to go for? How can you be grateful in a new way? How can your generosity expand to a new level? Proverbs says a generous person will be enriched. Your 40% control over your behaviors may make all the difference. Can you imagine your satisfaction – physically, emotionally, spiritually, improving by 40% next year? We can, at minimum, take a step in that direction. And practicing gratitude is the best place to start.
You know the story of the rich, young ruler. A young man who came to Jesus asking, “How can I grow all the richer?” He asked it by saying, “What do I have to do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said, “You saw the felt boards in Sunday School – follow the commandments, etc,”. The man smiled, “Of course. Got it. I’m good.” But Jesus knew he was living with tight fists on his possessions. So, Jesus challenges further, “Sell what you’ve got and give it to the poor.” And the line that always pierces my heart flows next. “The man turned from Jesus and walked away, sad, because he had so much great stuff.” (Perfect for a someday Estate Sale). I don’t want to spend my life walking away sad. Do you? It’s all about perspective. And no one can do perspective for us. We’ve got to do that spiritual work. That’s the hard work of the 40% in the happiness quotient. But if I know you, Harvard Avenue Christian Church, I know you’re up for the work. And I’m so grateful to be on the journey with you. You are a people who live gratitude well. I’m happy and I know it. You? Maybe worth one more shot…
If you’re grateful and you know it clap your hands. If you’re grateful and you know it clap your hands. If you’re grateful and you know it then your life will surely show it. If you’re grateful and you know it, clap your hands.
 https://www.njlifehacks.com/thanks-robert-emmons-book-summary/ Info shared in this message concerning Emmons work are found at this link.
 This quote and the Old School reference found in Bell’s “Drops Like Stars.” Harper One. 2009. Pg 41-42.