Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Sermon for May 22

The Authority to Make Disciples
Matthew 28:16-20; Luke 24:36-40


I recently stumbled upon some remarkable correspondence in the church files:

Dear Christians,
This is my commission to you -- in fact, you might even call it a great commission. You are to go to all people everywhere and call them to become my disciples. You are to baptize them and teach them to obey all that I have commanded you.Don’t forget. I will be with you always to help you, even to the end of the world. I will never leave you nor forsake you, because I love you. Please don’t forsake me.With all my love, Jesus Christ

Another letter was clipped to the back of it.

Dear Jesus Christ:
We acknowledge the receipt of your recent communication. Your proposal is both interesting and challenging; however, due to a shortage of personnel, as well as several other financial and personal considerations, we do not feel that we can give proper emphasis to your challenge at this time. A committee has been appointed to study the feasibility of the plan. We should have a report to bring to our congregation sometime in the future. You may rest assured that we will give this our careful consideration, and our board will be praying for you and your efforts to find additional disciples.We do appreciate your offer to serve as a resource person, and should we decide to undertake this project at some point in the future, we’ll get back to you.Cordially,

The
Christians

Sounds like Congregationalists to me–God’s frozen chosen. Hey–I’m a Congregationalist now, too. I love to study proposals and then come up with all the reasons why we can’t change. We’re not the only ones who do that, by the way. It’s human nature. In fact, when I was studying the texts for today’s sermon I ran across something I never read before. In Matthew’s account of the great commission, the eleven remaining disciples are standing on a mountain with Jesus. They text says when they saw him some worshiped, but some of them doubted. Some versions say that some of them hesitated. This could only mean one thing – some of the disciples were Congregationalists.

Honestly, I never noticed that verse before. I always skip right to the Lord’s final earthly words, but I never detected the fact that some of the disciples felt uneasy about worshiping Jesus. Something was holding them back. They were not ready to go out into the world and to teach and baptize and make disciples.

It still goes on today. We are people who believe that God loves us. We believe that Jesus lived, died, and rose from the grave to defeat sin and death and to offer us forgiveness and new abundant life. We know it. But many of us still hesitate when it comes to putting our beliefs into action. When we get to the part about living out our faith, we hold back. Some people will hesitate because they can’t believe that Jesus actually asks his followers to do such risky things like making disciples of all nations. Who is this Jesus that he would ask us to impose our faith on others. And who are we to go out and tell Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists and Atheists that they are wrong. Isn’t that conceited? Certainly Jesus is not taking into account the complexity of pluralism and the principles of religious freedom.

Some people will hesitate because they still do not understand who Jesus is. They worship God, but they are uneasy with Jesus. They don’t know how Jesus fits in to the God-picture. Is he God, or is he a mere human? Sure, he’s important and influential. Sure we believe in him and respect what he taught. But, is Jesus worthy of our worship? Do we dare follow when we don’t really know him?

Some will hesitate because they are afraid of the consequences. We need to ask: what will following Jesus mean to my present level of comfort? What will I have to give up? What will it do to my family relationships? What will others think of me?

I’m reminded of a story I read about lobsters. From time to time lobsters have to leave their shells in order to grow. They need their shell to protect them from being torn apart, yet when they grow, the old shell must be abandoned. If they did not leave it, the old shell would soon become their prison – and finally their casket. The tricky part for the lobster is the brief period between when the old shell is discarded and the new one is formed. During that vulnerable period, hungry schools of fish are ready to make them part of the food chain. Currents toss them around from coral to kelp. I bet in those moments the old shell looks pretty good. We aren’t so different from lobsters in that respect. Even some of the eleven disciples were not able to leave their old lives. After the resurrection, they went back to the lives they lived before they had ever even heard of Jesus. In Luke’s version of the great commission, the risen Christ finds the disciples hiding out in a room. When Jesus materializes in front of them, they think he’s a ghost, and they are filled with fear and doubt. They could not shed their shells. They hesitated. They doubted. At first there is no visible change in their lives. Following Jesus is hard work. We have to shed our shells–the old structure and framework we’ve relied on. We step into dangerous waters so that we can grow and live the new life into which Jesus calls us.

So, how do we move from hesitation to active love for the world? I think part of the answer is found in Christ’s final words in Matthew’s Gospel: “Remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Jesus’ authority over all heaven and earth flows from his ever-present love. Jesus says, “With my authority, the authority of love, preach my message to the ends of the earth.” The great commission is rooted in humility and mercy. If we are sharing the gospel out of self-righteousness, then our discipleship is flawed. Sometimes we think that because we apply the name Christian to ourselves, we have the right to think we are better than others. But, the name Christian reminds us that Christ literally loved us to death. Those who seek to follow Christ will find their authority deep-rooted in loving kindness. Out of gratitude, we share that love with others, teaching, baptizing, and witnessing to what we have seen God doing in our lives.

One of my majors in College was English. I ended up taking many classes with the Chair of the English Department. Dr. Peters was a large, pompous man who regularly intimidated students. He impressed fear into everyone. His authority came from his title, his position, and his ability to scare his students half to death. In a literature course on the age of classicism, Dr. Peters would bellow out, “Braddock, what, according to Alexander Pope, is the requirement for being a British magistrate?” He would scowl at me as I sat in stunned silence. “Well, Braddock, what’s your answer?” I would finally stammer out a made-up answer. “I think Pope says if a man wants to be a magistrate, he has to have a wife who sells Tupperware.” Dr. Peters would shake his head and look at me in disgust before moving on to the next victim.

I was also a teaching assistant for another English professor, Dr. Paul. One afternoon he handed me a stack of papers to grade. As I went though the pile of freshmen English journals, I was disgusted by how poor the work was. Each passing paper was worse than the one before it, and the marks I gave reflected my loathing for their pasty writing. I delivered the graded papers back to the Dr. Paul, shaking my head in repugnance. The next day I went to his office, and he had a stack of papers for me to look through. They were actually the journals I had corrected the day before. Dr. Paul had gone through and changed all of the grades to higher marks. When I asked him about it, all he did was quote an OT prophet: “Matt, in wrath, remember mercy.” That lesson has stayed with me. There is no doubt in my mind why Dr. Paul had a very devoted band of students on campus. Dr. Peter’s authority was fed by the fear of his students. Dr. Paul’s authority was rooted in mercy.

I think the same holds true with Jesus. His authority is not found in the way he scares followers into obedience. We don’t obey Jesus because we are afraid of what he will do to us if we don’t. No, Jesus’ authority comes from his deep, abiding love. We follow and believe because we’ve been marked by love.

Christians have historically had a problem with this concept. In the earliest centuries of the church, the goal was to save people through persuasion. But by the beginning of the dark ages, persuasion meant coercion. Charlemagne typifies the thinking at the time. Before he became the Holy Roman Emperor, he was warring with the Saxons. The goal was conversion of the pagan Saxons to the Christian faith. Because the goal was so worthwhile, Charlemagne approved of any means necessary to make them convert. In the year 755, the Saxons were defeated, and they submitted to mass baptisms over the next two years. Charlemagne wrote, “If there is anyone of the Saxon people lurking among them unbaptized, and if he scorns to come to baptism and he wishes to absent himself and stay a pagan, then let him die.”

I’m really not trying to dump on Christianity here, but we need to realize that this sort of ends-justifies-the-means thinking still exists in the church today. In 1998, news outlets reported on an amendment to KY state law that allowed ministers to carry concealed weapons in church buildings. On the Today Show, Maria Shriver interviewed a pastor who played a pivotal role in the new law. The preacher reported that down-and-outers looking for money often visit churches and he suggested that having a gun might provide protection from those who might desire to steal church contributions or hurt employees. Bewildered, Maria Shriver asked the preacher if he understood that his reliance upon a handgun stood at odds with the Christian proclamation of peace and reconciliation. Imagine having the wife of Arnold Schwarzeneggar, the poster boy for violent entertainment, reminding the church that the gospel bids believers to resolve conflict with methods that are different from those that rely upon physical force.[i]

The gun-toting preacher stands in stark contrast to another news account from the University of Southern California Medical School. In August of 1993, a young woman named Sopehia White went looking for a nurse named Elizabeth Staten brandishing a .38. Staten was allegedly cheating with White’s husband. Firing six shots, White hit Staten in the stomach and wrist. When Staten ran into the emergency room, White followed her, firing again. In the ER, with blood on her clothes and a hit pistol in her hand, another nurse, Joan Black, met the attacker. Nurse Black did the unthinkable. Black walked calmly to the gun-toting woman – and hugged her. Black spoke comforting words. The assailant said she didn’t have anything to live for, that Staten had stolen her family. Black said, “You’re in pain. I’m sorry, but everybody has pain in their life . . . I understand and we can work it out.” As they talked, the hospital invader kept her finder on the trigger. Once she began to lift the gun as if she would shoot herself. Nurse Black just pushed her arm down and continued to hold her. At last, Sopehia White gave the gun to the nurse. She was disarmed by a hug, by understanding, by compassion.

Who has the greater authority, the emperor who forces baptisms on pain of death, the minister with the gun, or the nurse who hugs attackers? Before you answer, let’s remember that on a cross at Calvary was nailed the One who was unjustly abused, tried and murdered–and his dying words were a prayer of forgiveness for those who killed him. Imagine the result if Jesus had lived in KY, and just before they nailed him to the cross he claimed his right as a citizen and pulled out a .38. Jesus Christ gained all authority by stretching out his arms, and disarming the world with by a hug, by understanding, by compassion.

The authority to make disciples comes from mercy, humility, and love. Nothing else will do. There is no need to hesitate or doubt. There is no need to hold back. The authority of Love goes with us. So go, teach everyone you meet, far and near, in the way of love. Invite them to share in our baptism. Instruct them in the teachings of Christ. And remember, Jesus will be with us as we do this, day after day after day, right up to the end of the age.[ii]


[i]. Lee C. Camp, Mere Discipleship, 28, 34-35,
[ii]. See, The Message

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Sermon for Pentecost, May 15, 2005

What If You Caught On Fire?
Acts 2:1-21


It is April 21, 1898. A fleet of Spanish ships anchor of the coast of Cuba, and Congress has just declared war with Spain in response to the sinking of the Maine. President McKinley is given $50,000,000 to win the war. The war will last only 3 months and cost the U.S. about 400 killed or wounded. By December, the US will gain the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam, and emerge as a power to be reckoned with on the world stage. For Spain it will be a humiliating defeat. Both her Atlantic and Pacific fleets will be sent to the bottom of the sea and with them went Spain's prestige as a world power.

On April 21, 1898, closer to home, life seems to go on as normal. In Trumbull, CT it is a windless night, darkened by the new moon. A church social, sponsored by Helping Hand Mission is held in the basement of the congregational church. The sexton locks up the building at 10:00 and goes home. But soon after, without warning, fire breaks out in the church basement. Flames engulf the entire church in a matter of minutes. Local citizens come from all directions to put out the fire, as the owners of the Plumb Brother’s store next to the church scramble to remove as many of the store’s contents as possible. All efforts to save the church are useless. The Trumbull Congregational Church is burned to the ground. The bell that rang throughout the village is destroyed, along with the entire structure of the church. The only furnishings that survive are a few chairs and the weathervane that was perched on the lofty steeple.

Sometimes we talk about people with vibrant faith as being on fire. Let it never be said that the Trumbull Congregationalists were never on fire for the Lord.

The mid- 1800’s were actually a time of great spiritual renewal in Connecticut. It was the golden age of liberal theology, and congregational churches proved to be the most fertile ground for this new way of thinking about the Bible. An example of this is the book In His Steps by Charles Sheldon. A graduate of Andover Seminary, Sheldon was a liberal Congregationalist minister, wrote a book about the fictional small town of Raymond. The town is challenged by the local minister to ask themselves in every situation, for one full year, “What would Jesus do?” It’s ironic that conservative evangelicals picked this phrase up in our own day and marketed the WWJD craze. Sheldon’s liberal religious view was actually in line with our Puritan ancestors. He believed that God could not be confined merely to the church and the home. He saw Christianity as a valiant fight that took place in church and on the street, in the home and in the business world. In the 1890’s, ministers from this pulpit preached about self-sacrifice and the cultivation of character, and the need for all of society to be transformed by the Gospel.

We here at Trumbull Congregational Church are the inheritors of these traditions. At a time when our church was literally on fire, the citizens of the town answer the call to aid one another. And when this area was spiritually on fire with new theologies, I imagine the good Congregationalists in Trumbull were faithfully worshiping, and trying to figure out how to match their faith with their lives. And while the times have changed, the spirit of this place has not. We still support one another, coming together in loss and tragedy. We still worship together in a traditional protestant fashion. And on this Pentecost Sunday we stop to realize that we, as a community, have are people who are not comfortable with religious fervor. We have an intellectual tradition that has never emphasized tongues of fire and prophesying and speaking in tongues. Our Spirit-filled heritage emphasizes faith and obedience over the long haul, righteous obedient living, and the common good for the community.

Too often our chatter about the Spirit latches on to the unusual; the exceptional, the wildly flamboyant. People tend to limit the visitation of the Spirit to special, effervescent spiritual experiences. Like speaking in tongues. Or a rapturous moment of spiritual insight. Or a miraculous healing. By doing this, we can miss the prime importance of the normal, loving activity of the Spirit in our lives. I know some wonderful “salt of the earth” Christians who feel guilty because they can’t remember any extravagant spiritual experience. Yet those same people steadily bear the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control. You can probably remember people like that in the history of our church. They weren’t Spirit-filled tent revival evangelists, but they were Spirit-filled instruments of God who touched lives around them with the greatest fruit of all: love.

Those who only connect the Holy Spirit with the spectacular, are missing something. The majority of the Spirit’s work is done quietly. Sometimes the Spirit does come in powerful, description-defying ways. But I think most of the time, the Spirit is our holy Friend who quietly works in us and through us day by day.

The Holy Spirit is graciously and quietly busy all over the place. The quiet Helper. The modest Friend.
The Spirit is quietly at work:
in the sincere concern of a friend for our health,
in those who take a stand against injustice,
in the grace of neighbors who go the second mile,
in the inner resources we discover in times of crisis,
in those who dare to go against the tide of popular opinion,
in the grace that enables us to admit when we are wrong,
in the resilience of people who fight for the rights of others,
in those who surrender some of their rights for the larger good,
in times when we share the Gospel in spite of our inadequacy,
in finding joy in unexpected places,
in taking on responsibilities that we once thought beyond us,
in refusing to let the greed of society take over our soul,
in giving thanks always, even through the hard times of life,
in rising above past failures and putting past hurts behind us.
in finding a central core of peace in the midst of turmoil,
in daring to laugh in situations where some would curse,
in knowing ourselves to be children of God,
in knowing ourselves loved, even when we have been very unlovable
That’s just the edge of the Spirit story. I could go on and on, reflecting on the quietly consuming ministry of the Holy Spirit in our midst; that inspiring Lover whose fruits we tend to take for granted. It is only by the Holy Spirit that we as followers of Christ live and give ourselves in love to the world for which Christ died.

I’ll admit, sometimes I find myself hankering for a little more spectacular action. A slice of excitement would be nice every now and then. I have good memories of those occasions when a double dose of the wind and fire have shaken me up. But as I reflect on those events in my journey, I now recognize that they happen at times when I was so thick-headed, too insensitive, to grasp what was happening. The Spirit had to give me a shove in new directions. Maybe these more dramatic experiences are a testimony to my own poor faith. Maybe this is what happened to the believers when the wind and fire from God blew down upon them. Before Pentecost they were guilt-ridden, demoralized men and women, afraid to even leave go out in public for fear of their lives. One had betrayed Christ. One had doubted him. One had publically denied knowing him. Some left him at his hour of greatest need. They saw Jesus ascend to heaven, and were joyful and confused. They are waiting in Jerusalem for some promised direction from Jesus. Then the Spirit comes in power. It is not until that moment that the believers are empowered with boldness to tell the world about Jesus.

My experience is that God takes drastic measures when I get in a rut and can’t see the obvious way out.

All such “wind and fire” occasions need to be tested, to see if they are authentic. As far as I know, there is only one test for the gift of the Spirit. Love: the Jesus kind of love. Never forget, not for one second, that the most Spirit filled person of all time was Jesus. Love is the only infallible sign of the Spirit.

The Nobel prize-winning novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez sent a farewell letter to his friends as he was dying of cancer. He wrote, "If for an instant God were to forget that I am a rag doll and gifted me with a piece of life, possibly I wouldn’t say all that I think, but rather I would think of all that I say. I would value things, not for their worth but for what they mean. I would sleep little, dream more . . . I would walk when others hold back. I would wake when others sleep. I would listen when others talk, and how I would enjoy a good chocolate ice cream! If God were to give me a piece of life, I would dress simply, throw myself face first into the sun, baring not only my body but also my soul. My God, if I had a heart, I would write my hate on ice, and wait for the sun to show . . . My God, if I had a piece of life . . . I wouldn’t let a single day pass without telling the people I love that I love them. I would convince each woman and each man that they are my favorites, and I would live in love with love. I would show [people] how very wrong they are to think that they cease to be in love when they grow old, not knowing that they grow old when they cease to be in love!" The words of dying man, a rag doll gifted with a piece of life, telling friends how to live.

For me, this is the essence of being on fire. It is often like a rag doll being filled with abundant life. My fellow rag dolls, let us warm to the fire, bear our souls to God, wear our hearts on our sleeves and go forth into the world, rejoicing the power of the Holy Spirit and burning with love.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

May 8 Sermon -- A Letter from Home

Luke 11:33-36

Well, I thought I’d do something a little different and share with you a letter from my family in Jericho Springs, MO. You might enjoy hearing about some of the happenings at the Jericho Springs Progressive Church of the Ozarks. I don’t think I’ve ever told you about them before. My Great Aunt Georgia is a long-time member there. In fact, my family has been attending there for generations. Anyway, it’s a place like most other home churches–muddling through the same old issues and made up of the same old wonderful people, with a few colorful characters and one or two certifiable nut cases thrown in–my family excluded, of course. Anyway, here’s the letter.

Dear Matt,
Hello to you and Christy, Zoe And Elias. Well, we just got back from a quick trip to Branson. Your second cousin Elton bought me tickets for an early mother’s day gift. I went with Miss Adelaide to see the legends of accordion at the Lawrence Welk resort. I’m not much of a fan, but that Jo Ann Castle can make an enthusiast out of anyone. I’ve never heard “Flight of The Bumblebee” played on an accordion like that before. This year’s mother’s day gift is much better than last years’s. Last year your cousin Elton got me a toilet cleaning brush, a new screen door, and a gift certificate to Weight Watchers. I wasn’t impressed, and I think Elton got the hint when I cracked him over the head with that toilet brush a few times. And don’t you laugh, either. Your mother told me about the time you gave her that set of football team glasses that you got for free at the gas station with a fill-up. Some say beggars can’t be choosers, but I say a lame mother’s day gift is as useless as dried spit.

There’ve been some strange events at my church, The Jerico Springs Progressive Church of the Ozarks. It all started about a month ago. Our minister, Pastor Sanford, has always been a Bible-preaching man of faith. He also has bad taste in clothes. He will wear the same rumpled suit for weeks on end, complete with a tie that looks like a trout. He says he wears it to remember that Jesus wants him to be a fisher of men. I’ve dropped some money to him, anonymously, and suggested he buy himself a few respectable ties, but he usually just gives the money away to the poor, and keeps knotting that trout tie around his neck.

Anyway, a few weeks ago, as church was about to begin, Bea Jimson was thumping away at the organ and we waited for Pastor Sanford to enter. Ten minutes later, pastor was still not out, and I was beginning to get edgy. All of the sudden Bea stops playing, jumps to her feet and says in her best carnival voice, “Ladies and Gentlemen, straight from the Arkansas border I present to you, Brother Elijah Hope.” I’m thinking, “I didn’t know we had a guest preacher today. I sure hope he doesn’t bring snakes like that last idiot we threw out of here.” We aren’t THAT progressive. Little did I know that I was about to see something much worse. As soon as Bea sat back down at the organ, out comes Pastor Sanford in a rented white tuxedo, complete with gold buttons and white tie. His graying hair was all slickered back on the sides, and tufted up to an oily pompadour on the top. Adelaide thinks he was the living image of what Elvis might have looked like if he was still alive. I think he looked like Col. Sanders.

I didn’t think it could get much worse, until he started to speak. “Brothers and Sisters,” he growled, “The Lord has been-a-speaking to me. He said to me, Brother Sanford, I’m about to change your name. From now on, you will be called Elijah Hope. You will be my anointed prophet and a mighty healer. Go back to your church, and let the healing flow from you like a river of hope.” We all just sat there, wondering if this was his mid-life crisis. I looked over to see what Sister Eliza Sanford, the pastor’s wife, was doing. I half expected to see her dotting her teary, mascara-smudged eyes with a satin hankie. Instead, she just sat frozen in the front row, her jaw set sternly in place and her eyes, from what I could see, popping out a like rockets at her lifemate.

Well, Pastor Sanford, AKA Elijah Hope, AKA Col. Sanders Supercharged, started strutting around the stage, talking about how God had anointed him to preach and heal, and how he needed 400 acres of land to build a new faith healing center in Jerico. He kept eyeballing me when he talked about land. He knows I have 400 acres of good grazing land – I guess he thought maybe the Spirit would move me to donate. I just sat there with my arms crossed like two big ham hocks, and gave him a mean squint every time he looked my way.

I didn’t think it could get much worse, until the faith healings began. About this time, the only one who was enjoying Elijah Hope’s antics was Bea Jimson. I don’t think Bea believed it so much as she was thinking how much fun she was going to have telling her 4 sisters about the pastor’s mental breakdown. Anyway, Elijah Hope got down on his white polyester-covered knees, squinched his eyes tightly, and said, “God wants to do a healing. God wants to fix you up. He’s speaking to me right now, and he’s telling me that there’s someone here with a short leg, and God wants to grow it right back.” Then he jumped to his feet and started scanning the crowd. “Who is it?” He shouted. “Don’t be afraid. Come right on up.” Almost on cue, the back door opened, and Daryl-Bob Broadfoot walked in (you remember Daryl-Bob? He’s Molly and Vernum’s grandson – your forth cousin). Daryl-Bob hung his head low as he shuffled to the front, dragging his limping dawg in tow. The dawg was a mud-colored hound mutt named Jenny. Jenny is as old as sin on Geritol, with bald patches on her hips. Daryl-Bob brought Jenny right up to Elijah Hope and told him that the dawg had a short leg and needed the anointing. Elijah Hope didn’t waste any time grabbing that dog’s bad leg, and shaking it furiously in the name of Jesus. The dawg never even flinched. She just looked over her shoulder with those tired-looking eyes to see what was keeping her from a morning nap. Pastor Sanford was grabbing and pulling that dawg’s hind leg like he was a kid fighting over a piece of candy. Then the prophet leapt up and screamed out, “Jenny, Be healed!” With that, Daryl-Bob pulled a greasy napkin out of his jacket pocket, slyly unwrapped a chicken neck, and fed it to Jenny as a prize for putting up with having her leg stretched by a maniac in a white tuxedo. The dawg was so excited to be fed, she scampered off the stage and proudly ran down the center aisle with the chicken neck in her drooling mouth. I guess the dawg wasn’t lame – she was just real hungry. But Elijah Hope called it an honest-to-God warm-up miracle.

Elijah Hope was glaring at us now with lightening in his eyes. He was sweating like a pumpkin in the morning dew, and he told us that since we just saw what God can do, it was time for a real miracle. “Albie Beydler, come on up here,” he cried. He pointed his finger at the front row, and Albie Beydler was the target. Albie never saw the frothing prophet pointing at him. Albie was blind. Lost his eyesight when he was a child. He wasn’t even just part blind. Sometimes when we went to lunch in the town of Lickskillet, we would see Albie sitting in front of the Blue Tick Convenience Store. We’d go up and say hi, and Bea Jimson would wave her hand in front of his face to ensure he was still blind. Albie would never flinch. Well, as soon as Albie’s name was called by the prophet, we all got a little panicked. Now the pastor was going too far. It’s one thing to heal a hungry dawg simulating a short leg. Now he was about to embarrass Albie Beydler in front of the whole town.

Someone helped Albie up to the stage. Elijah Hope draped his arm over Albie’s shoulder and said in a gentle voice, “Albie Beydler, God wants you to see. Do you believe God wants you to see today?” Albie just shrugged and said, “Don’t know. I reckon if God wants me to see, I’ll see.” That answer was good enough. Elijah Hope jumped in front of Albie. Then Elijah spit into his own hands, rubbed them together, and smeared them over Albie’s eyes. Holding his hands in place over Albie’s eyes, the pastor howled out, “Albie Beydler, God says the people walking in darkness have seen a great light. You be healed now.” With that he violently pushed Albie back, and waited for the results. Albie landed on his rear end, and just sat there for a moment. We were all too stunned to even help him up.

All I can say is it was a miracle. A loose connection must have gotten knocked back into place in Albie’s head, for all of the sudden Albie told us he was starting to see lights, and then colors, and then blurry forms. Pretty soon, he was jumping and hollering for joy. And Pastor Sanford, the faith healer, seemed quite pleased with himself. After that, Pastor Sanford gave up faith healing for good. I don’t know whether his wife gave him a strong talking to, or whether he couldn’t afford the rental tux anymore. Maybe it was his moment to do something for God.

All of this crazy excitement has got me to thinking a lot blindness. Poor Albie had a real problem. He couldn’t hit the wall with a wet mop. But now he has light in his life. You know, I’m no saint. I say and do things I know I’m not supposed to. Then I make excuses for my dumb behavior. I try to blame it on someone else, all the while making my wrong choices become a part of my daily routine. Sometimes I think I’m just as blind as Albie Beydler was. Except my blindness is a spiritual blindness, and it’s the result of my own cockamamie desires.

Well, I don’t need Elijah Hope or any other faith healer to spit on me to make it go away. No crazy antics will fix this problem. What I need is to let some light shine in my darkness. Jesus said it best: Keep your eyes open. Your eye is like a lamp, lighting up your whole body. If you live in wide-eyed wonder and belief, your body fills up with light. If you live squinty-eyed in greed and distrust, your body will be like a dank cellar. Keep your eyes open, your lamp burning, so you don’t get musty and murky. Keep your life as well-lighted as your best-lighted room.

For me, that means I wake up every morning and make a decision to let my faith in Jesus shine in and then shine out. I’m not going to rely on someone else to do it, or blame someone else when I fail. My job is to let light shine, first on my own life, and then out of me for others to take notice. When I become a light for God, well I guess that is a real miracle in its own right – that God would take a dim lightbulb like me and use it to make some good light again.

Matt, tell the people in that new church of yours to be lights in the darkness. Life’s too short to let ourselves be dimmed by our differences. Imagine what happens when a bunch of lit-up followers of Jesus come together and shine all at once. Why, it would be brighter than the lights at the Lickskillet Veterans Memorial stadium. That kind of light would be irresistible. I think that’s what Jesus invites us to be.

It wouldn’t hurt you to clean up your act a little, either, but we’ll deal with you some other time. I need to scoot. Zeb Chambers had a fire in his field. The fire company came and put it out. Problem is that they sprayed so much water, now they’re engines are stuck in the field. I’m going to drive over and see what kind of progress they’ve made.

Love,
Aunt Georgia

Friday, May 6, 2005

Sermon for May 1, 2005

The Problem With Private Faith
Luke 24:36-40

Last year, Marybeth Hicks wrote a great piece in the Washington Post. She wrote:

The mashed potatoes sit in stiff, icy peaks on the plates, thin moats of beef gravy surrounding their starchy edges. A while ago, the combination of boiled potatoes, butter, sour cream and milk spun on the whirring whisks of the electric mixer, promising the tasty comfort of carbohydrates. But now, the steam long dissipated, dinner mostly consumed, there remain two lumpy mounds of glop -- as appetizing as papier-mache, or perhaps wet lint from the dryer.After 15 years of parenting, the dinnertime battle rages on. Besides the mashed potatoes, tonight’s menu is pot roast and a medley of frozen peas and carrots -- a reliable meal, nothing fancy. Earlier, the lingering scent from the crockpot had everybody salivating like Pavlov’s dog, subliminally suggesting a tasty dinner -- except that two of my children won’t eat mashed potatoes. This is simply ridiculous. Who doesn't eat mashed potatoes? Worse, they refuse to eat not only mashed potatoes, but any potato that isn’t a french fry served in a paper envelope -- not baked, boiled, hash browned, scalloped, au gratined, home fried or tater totted; not with ketchup, sour cream, butter, salt or vinegar . . . The point is, on any given evening, the best eater in the house is the disposal in the kitchen sink. But not tonight.Tonight I decide to ignore both my pediatrician and conventional wisdom. Tonight I’m force-feeding. “Nobody gets up from this table until all the food on your plate is eaten. Period.” Two heads snap toward me in horror. “All of it?” they ask in unison. “Every bite,” I declare, drawing a line in the mashed potatoes. “But I'm allergic,” my daughter cries as she scratches her arms and fakes a sneeze. “I don't like potatoes,” my son protests, stating the obvious. “Too bad,” I reply in a tone of voice that conveys I’m serious. They pick up their forks and push the spuds around on the plate. “They’re cold,” my son complains. “They were hot when I put them in front of you,” I remind him. My picky eaters reluctantly shovel some mashed potatoes onto their utensils and slowly bring the pasty food to their lips, their youthful faces contorting in anguish. Their eyes water. The color drains from their cheeks. They subdue the gag reflex -- an obvious effort to gross me out.[i]
Sometimes we in the church treat the Bible like a great meal that’s spoiled by a cold glob of mashed potatoes. We read the Bible and listen to preachers, or family, or friends talk about their spiritual journeys and we pick and choose which teachings are appetizing and which ones are indigestible. For many people, faith is a little mix of this, and a dash of that. Throw in a little of God’s love, stir in a belief that all people are good to the core and will become angels when they go to heaven, fold in the belief that it doesn’t matter what religious faith you belong to because they all teach the same moral lessons. But leave out the stuff that doesn’t taste good: Don’t even allow thoughts God’s judgment or human sin to enter the recipe. Maybe foreign missions leaves a bad taste in your mouth. And tithing one’s income to God’s work is definitely out. It’s human nature to want pleasure without having to experience discomfort.

For some, the most tasteless aspect of church life is that dirty little “E” word – evangelism. Some people think it is bad taste to share one’s faith with another. Some prefer to say, “My religion is a personal thing, a private matter.” At one time, I agreed with this statement. I never stopped to think about all the other personal things I talked freely about: my fears, my family, the loves of my life, politics. I’ve come to understand that my religion is a personal thing -- deeply personal -- but it’s not private.[ii] It can’t be private because Jesus tells his followers to go out and preach the gospel. We are supposed to be ready to tell another person about the hope we have in Jesus Christ.[iii] So, if we talk freely about other personal matters, and Jesus tells us to spread the good news, what really keeps us from talking about our faith with others.

Some people say, “Well, it because we are New Englanders. We Yankees don’t like to get worked up over anything but the Red Sox.” Don’t buy it. The real difficulty in sharing our faith is that we lack desire and know how. The Lord’s work is the work of rescuing the lost, the work of growing mature spiritual lives. It is difficult and dangerous ‑ and some do it better than others. We would rather let the experts do it.

What if I was asking you to help save someone’s physical life? You would have no trouble seeing your responsibility. If you were the first to come upon the scene of a car accident you wouldn’t think of standing by and letting victims die in a burning vehicle while we waited for more skilled rescue workers to arrive, Sometimes there are situations in life where one must always do what one can.[iv] But we have convinced ourselves that sharing our faith is not one of those activities. There are people who are spiritually suffering all around us, and instead of doing something ‑ anything to bring them to the One who can help, we collapse into our private faith. Instead of being brave Christians, we often choose to turn our heads away from suffering humanity. We think we can afford to look the other way ‑ as long as our own personal needs are being cared for.

It’s not that we’re mean spirited, or hateful. I think we’re just afraid to talk about our faith. We’re afraid of the cost. But look at what’s happening around us. What will be the cost if we do nothing? The problem with private faith is this: We have been given the greatest gift ‑ the gift of relationship with God now and forever through Jesus Christ. It’s a gift of new life, a second chance. God extends the gift freely to all people. But when we privatize our faith, we hoard the gift for ourselves, while those don’t know how to receive this new life are perishing.

A perishing world needs every one of us to do our part in proclaiming God’s love. Listen to what the Apostle Paul has to say in the book of Romans (10:13). I’m reading from a contemporary New Testament paraphrase. “Everyone who calls, ‘Help God!’ gets help. But how can people call for help if they don’t know whom to trust? And how can they know whom to trust if they haven’t heard of the One who can be trusted? And how can they hear if nobody tells them? And how is anyone going to tell them unless someone is sent to do it? ... The point is, before you trust you have to listen. But unless Christ’s word is preached, there is nothing to listen to.”[v]

People need to believe. In order to believe, they need to hear about the wonderful things God has done in our lives. In order to hear that message, someone must tell it, and it can’t just be the pastors and church professionals. People expect me to say it, so it’s easy to tune me out or attribute my passion to the fact that I’m a paid religious fanatic. Speaking and living out the faith is the calling of everyone who goes by the name “Christian.” You are the preachers. You preach with your words and your actions. God is looking to send you out to begin to make a difference in this hurting world.

And just to be clear, I’m not asking you to do it perfectly. I just want you to do something. My favorite curmudgeon, G.K. Chesterton, once said, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” What he was saying is this: When a task deserves to be done at all, it deserves a less than perfect attempt while we learn to do it better. We begin doing it poorly as we try to improve our skills.[vi] Sharing your faith is worth doing, so just do it, even if it’s done poorly at first. Take a step of faith, even if it is uncomfortable. Make your personal faith bloom into something that will draw others to Jesus. Do it with gentleness and intelligence. Do it by building relationships and investing in people’s lives by committing to honest dialogue with those who don’t agree with you. Do it with dignity and pride. You have something worth saying. What you have to say, and the way you live your message may be the only light a person has out of darkness.

Jack had been president of a large corporation, and when he got cancer, they ruthlessly dumped him. He went through his insurance, used his life savings, and had practically nothing left. A pastor visited him with one of the church deacons. The deacon said, “Jack, you speak so openly about the brief life you have left. I wonder if you've prepared for your life after death?” Jack stood up, livid with rage. “You *** **** Christians. All you ever think about is what’s going to happen to me after I die. If your God is so great, why doesn’t He do something about the real problems of life?” He went on to tell us he was leaving his wife penniless and his daughter without money for college. Then he ordered us out.

The deacon felt so badly, he insisted they go back. They did. “Jack, I know I offended you,” the deacon said. “I humbly apologize. But I want you to know I've been working since then. Your first problem is where your family will live after you die. A realtor in our church has agreed to sell your house and give your wife his commission. I guarantee you that, if you'll permit us, some other men and I will make the house payments until it's sold. Then, I've contacted the owner of an apartment house down the street. He's offered your wife a three-bedroom apartment plus free utilities and an $850-a-month salary in return for her collecting rents and supervising plumbing and electrical repairs. The income from your house should pay for your daughter's college. I just want you to know your family will be cared for.”[vii]

Jack cried like a baby. He died soon afterwards, so wrapped in pain he never put his faith in Christ. But he experienced God's love, even if he couldn’t fully accept it. And his widow was so touched by the caring of the church, she started coming to church and put her faith in Christ.

I would not be standing before you and preaching God's Word today if someone hadn't taken the risk of sharing her personal faith with me. She was not an evangelist. Her words were faltering. She was afraid of my reaction. She couldn't even remember where the Bible verses were that she wanted to show me. But at that moment, God used her to call me into the kingdom. I'm glad she didn't yield to the inward allure of private faith. You see, private faith saves you, but what about everyone else? How are they to call upon Christ if they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have not heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim them unless they are sent? What will you do? My hope is that you will do anything you can. It may not be much, but it may be just enough to change another person's life forever.

[i] by Marybeth Hicks.
[ii] J. Mack Stiles, Speaking of Jesus (Downer's Grove: 1VP, 1995), 13.
[iii] See I Peter 3:15
[iv] Gary Henry, “Worth Doing Badly” (5122/97), www.brasstacks.org.
[v] Eugene Peterson, The Message (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1993), 283‑284.
[vi] Henry, “Worth Doing Badly.”
[vii] http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/e/evangelism.htm

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