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),
[v] Eugene Peterson, The Message (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1993), 283‑284.
[vi] Henry, “Worth Doing Badly.”

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