When I was in seminary I had the opportunity to serve as an interim Student Minister in Lawrenceburg. After the year of being an interim I spent another seven years as an Associate, and greatly enjoyed my ministry there. During my interim year, I worked with Dr. James Cox, who was serving as the interim pastor and chaired the preaching department at Southern Seminary. Dr. Cox was very gracious to me and was a wonderful mentor. As we traveled between Louisville and Lawrenceburg we had a lot of time to talk and he taught me a lot about writing sermons and preaching. He even taught me it was okay to be nervous. One Sunday evening, just before worship began, he was showing me something in the program. I noticed that his hand was shaking a bit and asked him Dr. Cox, do you still get nervous before you preach? Surprisingly, he said yes. Dr. Cox had written numerous volumes about preaching and had preached all across our country and in other countries, and yet he was still nervous about preaching at a Sunday evening worship service. That made me feel a lot better! I still remember one of his sermons. Dr. Cox preached that everyone has everyone has their personal Bible. Our personal Bible is not a particular translation or edition, but one that we put together in our mind, and that Bible contains our favorite passages. In that sense, a personal Bible is something that is very positive. We ought to have passages that our meaningful to us and that we turn to on a regular basis. But the negative aspect of having a personal Bible is we leave a lot out, and perhaps we leave some passages out of our personal Bibles because they are difficult and challenging. Today’s verse is a tough one to include in our personal Bible.
In the passage from which this verse comes, Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus tells of the final judgment, which, in these verses, is based upon how people care for one another, in particular, those who are hungry, thirsty, in need of shelter or clothing, sick, or in prison.
This is a very action oriented passage, much like James 2:14-26, which says, What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only. Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.
As we continue our series of messages about spiritual gifts, this morning we come to the gift of Assisting. In our present day and age, it is a gift that is much in demand. The challenging economic conditions of the past several years have left many people struggling, and in great need.
A recent study by the U. S. Department of Agriculture revealed that a growing number of Americans are now “food insecure,” which means they do not have enough food to adequately feed their families. The study did not, unfortunately, receive much media attention. I heard a passing mention of it on a news program and had a difficult time finding many references to it on the internet. Talking about difficult times is, evidently, difficult.
Our church receives an increasing number of calls asking for assistance. I assume other churches have noted this increase as well. In growing numbers, people are turning to churches in search of help in making ends meet. We do not, unfortunately, have the resources to meet every request that we receive.
The requests are rising because greater numbers of people are slipping into poverty. The face of what some call the “new poor” is one many of us would recognize – they are our friends, neighbors; maybe even the person we see in the mirror.
In order to face the challenge of these increased needs, I believe it is important that we –
1. Partner with other churches and organizations.
This month I start a term as the leader of our local Ministerial Alliance. I have two goals that I really want to stress during my term, and I would appreciate your prayers about these two areas. First, it is my goal to increase the participation in the Ministerial Alliance. I don’t know how many churches there are in Shelby County, but only a fraction of them are involved in the Ministerial Alliance. As I’m out driving around the community I take some time to stop in at other churches to invite the ministers to come to the meetings. I’m trying to increase the involvement to help with the second goal, which is getting the churches to work together to meet the needs of our community. As Disciples, we emphasize unity between churches, and I believe that it’s important not only because it is a part of our heritage, but it is the only way we can make an adequate response to the needs that surround us.
There is no need for us to “reinvent the wheel” when it comes to helping others, and there is certainly no reason to “go it alone.” I am very grateful for what our congregation does, but I think we can multiply our efforts by joining with others. There are ministries and organizations in our community doing great work, and we should join with them in their efforts. The Open Door of Hope Men’s Shelter, led by Lee Bean, is doing great work. We have members of our church who prepare meals each month. Last week Henrietta Hardin spent the night sleeping in a box as part of an effort to raise funds for the shelter. At the beginning of the evening Lee Bean introduced a man who was a desperate alcoholic living in a cemetery. Through the work of the shelter he was sober and preparing to start a new job. Operation Care and CASA are two more of the ministries, and there are others doing very important work. Can we offer volunteer and financial resources to help them in their work, and in doing so expand the ministry of our own congregation?
2. Speak on behalf of those who are struggling economically.
Like many of you, I watched a good deal of both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. I heard a lot of talk about the middle class, but not much about the poor. There were some words used by both parties that alluded to those who are struggling, but it’s difficult to win an election talking about the poor. As God’s people, recognizing the value of every individual and knowing the mandate given by Jesus to care for “the least of these,” we should speak up for those who have very few political champions.
Throughout the Old Testament, the prophets often reminded those in power of the importance of caring for the poor. Ezekiel, speaking about the city of Sodom, says that city’s sin was this – This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy (Ezekiel 16:49). That’s not how most people think of Sodom, is it? Ezekiel is very blunt about the failure of the people of Sodom to care for the poor. Isaiah says Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58:6-7). Deuteronomy says Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, "Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land." (Deuteronomy 15:11). We could go on and on with references from the prophets.
3. Keep these words of Jesus in front of us.
These words are a powerful reminder to the important work to which we are called. As we are in the midst of election season, we must remember that a great deal of politics is about self-interest – what are you going to do for me? But as Paul reminds us in Philippians 2:4, each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Those words are in antidote to the rampant self-interest of our day and remind us not to forget others.
I was told years ago that one of the first lessons a minister must learn about serving a church is to pay the rent. This person said you have to learn to pay the rent every month and once you’ve paid the rent you can pursue the things you would like the church to do, but pay the rent first. What he meant by paying the rent is this – find out what people expect of you and meet those expectations. To put it even more bluntly – learn what makes people happy and work to keep them happy.
I’ve been in ministry a long time, so I understand why someone would make such a statement. And I understand that keeping people happy makes life easier. But I would like to do more in life than simply pay the rent. Wouldn’t you? And wouldn’t you like to know that our church is doing more than simply paying the rent? I think it would be a tragedy to one day sum up my life by saying, what did I do with my life? Well, I paid the rent.
Keeping these words of Jesus before us is a guarantee that we will do more than simply pay the rent.
We need the words of Jesus in front of us so we don’t get lost in our own lives. All of us face difficulties in life, and at times those difficulties are very stressful and very challenging. When we have those times the temptation is to withdraw into our own lives and overlook the suffering that is in the world around us. Jesus draws us ever back to the need that is in the world.