Tuesday, March 19, 2013

March 17, 2013 - Walking In the Way of Jesus: Deeds Over Words

Matthew 25:34-40

When I was in seminary Tony Campolo came to speak in a chapel service.  He set off quite a controversy because he began with these words – I have three things I'd like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don't give a (blank).  What's worse is that you're more upset with the fact that I said (blank) than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.

That comment was quite the conversation starter around campus.  Quite a few people were offended by Campolo’s words.  In one class, as people complained about his language, the professor said, well, you’ve proved his point, haven’t you?

Perhaps there are times when we need a jolt to get our attention.  In our Scripture passage for this morning, Jesus gives us just such a jolt.  Remember that we have been studying the final days of Jesus, as found in the gospel of Matthew.  In those final days Jesus seeks to drive home some of his most important teachings to his disciples and his followers.  As we read a portion of a longer passage, we hear Jesus talking about the importance of deeds over words. 

34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘”Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.
35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,
36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
37 Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?
38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?
39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”
40 The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Jesus pulls no punches in this passage.  He steps on toes.  He goes from preaching to meddling.  Jesus says, in essence, we will be judged by our deeds, and specifically those deeds that are directed at the least of these. It is tempting to try and take the edge off of this passage.  It is much easier to talk about God’s grace and his love than it is to share the tougher passages, such as this one.  But it’s a tough passage, and there is no way to remove the edge from these words.

I’m an optimist at heart and I try to paint everything in as positive a light as possible.  If our house burned down and I had to call and break the news to Tanya, my approach would be guess what!  You know that skylight you wanted?  It’s tempting for me to want to sugarcoat things, especially difficult or bad news, or even worse, the challenging words of the gospel.  I love to talk about grace and love, but there are some very challenging words in the gospels as well, and it’s not nearly as fun to talk about those words.

James, the brother of Jesus, really absorbed these words.  Listen to what James writes, in 2:14-18, showing just how deeply he allowed these words of Jesus to sink into his heart -

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds?  Can such faith save them?  15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food.  16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?  17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. 
18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”  Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.

Interestingly, Martin Luther, the great Reformer, was so disturbed by those words that he believed the book of James should be removed from the New Testament.  Imagine that! It bothered Luther to read words that seem to indicate our faith is judged by our actions, so he wanted to remove them.   

In terms of our relationship with society, people are looking to see if people of faith will live out their words by their deeds.  People want to know that we are not just talking about the importance of love, but actually living the way of love in our daily lives.  People want to know that we are not just talking about the importance of reaching out to others; they want to see us actually practicing it.  People want to know that we are not just taking about the importance of being welcoming to all people; they want to see us actually practicing it. They want, in short, to see us emphasizing deeds over words. The most effective way for churches to connect with, and make a difference in, their communities will be to live out their words through their deeds.

The world of unbelief has heard all the words; they need to see the deeds.  Jesus was loved and accepted by crowds of people because of his deeds – his love, his compassion, and his care.  Many of the religious leaders of his day, by comparison, were very good at talking, but not at acting, on their words.  Jesus was a person of action.  He certainly talked – a lot – but his words were always brought to life by his actions.  

I was fascinated by the coverage of the election of a new pope.  Did you watch the video feed of the chimney to see when the smoke would come out?  I got excited when I saw white smoke coming out of the tailpipe of my car the other morning.

I was really fascinated that the new pope took the name of Francis, after Francis of Assisi.  Francis believed the church needed to reform, so choosing that name is a really big deal, and it will take a lot to live up to the name.  The world is watching, and in choosing the name of Francis the pope is going to have to move quickly on some important matters, especially the scandal of abuse that has so shaken the Catholic Church. 

Perhaps you wonder why it would matter to those of us who are Protestants.  It matters a great deal, because the world of skepticism and unbelief does not make distinctions between denominations; they simply see us as one group of religious people and every scandal in the church world, wherever it takes place, taints us all in their eyes.  But the reality is, abuse happens in all kinds of churches, and it is not always dealt with in the proper manner.  One Protestant denomination actually refused to create a list of perpetrators of abuse so other churches would not risk the chance of calling an abuser.

Churches can’t give mere lip service to such matters.  I’m grateful that in Disciples churches there is a process that guarantees that if I do something improper I will lose my ministerial standing and every church in North America will know to stay away from me.

The heart of our congregation is in our deeds.  I’m grateful for the ministry of our congregation and what you do.  The CWF ladies had their tables set up this morning.  Do you know what they do with the money they raise?  It goes to the Disciples Mission Fund – $4,000.00 a year.  The Disciples Mission Fund supports 72 different ministries in our country and around the world, reaching into countless lives.  Every month we serve at God’s Kitchen downtown, serving people who need a meal.  Dinner is taken to the Men’s Shelter.  Dozens of baskets of food are delivered at Christmas time.  Dozens of kids are tutored through Arriba Ninos.  That’s how people really learn who we are – through our deeds.

I heard the head of a relief agency once describe traveling to a place of great need.  As she walked through an area where young children were being treated for malnutrition and other health difficulties, she saw a young child in a bed and because he looked so malnourished and so weak she thought he had passed away.  As she stepped up to his bed she realized he was still alive, but not by much. She put her hand behind the child’s back and head, and could feel the ribs as though they were ready to break through the skin.  In telling of the experience later she said, hunger seems very real when you can touch it.  

In telling that story she was trying to make real to us, as did Jesus, how difficult things are for so many people.  In the time of Jesus the majority of people would have been classified as the least of these.  There was a small, wealthy, upper class; a very small group of what we would call a middle class; and a large number of people who struggled to earn enough to survive on a day-to-day basis.  Among the wealthy were some of the religious leaders, who could be particularly callous toward the poor.  Jesus challenged them to move beyond mere words, and into deeds.

We must touch the hurts and the suffering of the world.  I think that people outside the church world are looking for deeds more than they are words, and when they see deeds rising to a level beyond mere words they will be much more interested in what we have to say.

Monday, March 11, 2013

March 10, 2013 - Walking in the Way of Jesus: Mercy Over Indifference

Matthew 20:29-34

A man left his place of work one day with a wheelbarrow full of sand.  The guard at the gate was concerned that perhaps he was trying to sneak out of the plant with something, so he stopped the man and sifted through the sand.  Finding nothing, he waved the man through the gate.  The next day, at quitting time, the same man came to the gate with a wheelbarrow full of sand.  The guard was convinced the man was stealing something, so once again he stopped him and sifted through the sand, but found nothing.  Day after day the same routine took place.  Quitting time came and the man would come to the gate with a wheelbarrow full of sand and the guard would sift through the sand to be sure he wasn’t stealing anything.  Actually, the man was stealing something.  Does anyone know what he was stealing?  Wheelbarrows.

Isn’t it amazing that we can fail to see what is right in front of us?

As we continue our series of messages Walking in the Way of Jesus, this morning our message is Mercy Over Indifference.  The Scripture passage is Matthew 20:29-34.  This is a story of people who could not see what was right in front of them.  It is a story of blindness, but not the physical blindness that is mentioned, but the blindness of indifference.  

When I read this passage there is something that really jumps out at me, and it took me a while to figure it out.  Maybe you’ll notice it to.

29 As Jesus and his disciples were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him.
30 Two blind men were sitting by the roadside, and when they heard that Jesus was going by, they shouted, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!”
31 The crowd rebuked them and told them to be quiet, but they shouted all the louder, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!”
32 Jesus stopped and called them. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.
33 “Lord,” they answered, “we want our sight.”
34 Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and followed him.

Matthew says the crowd was following Jesus as he traveled.  They were leaving Jericho and as they were walking along the two blind men, who were sitting alongside the road, began to call out to Jesus.

In the day of Jesus there was no shortage of people who were suffering.  Suffering was everywhere and people were always sitting in city gates and along the roadsides, asking for mercy.  Healthcare was nonexistent for the far majority of people who simply didn’t have the resources to pay for a doctor and even among those who did have the money, medicine in that time was very limited in what it could accomplish.

These two men probably sat at that same place every day.  They were sitting along the road that was a busy thoroughfare for people going to and from Jericho. 

But this day something was different.  There was a buzz about the crowd that hadn’t been evident on previous days, and they find it is because Jesus is passing by, so they begin calling out to him.  The word choice of Matthew tells us it wasn’t a tentative cry – it was a scream.  It was the loud, piercing cry of two men who were absolutely desperate for help.

Here’s what really jumps out at me and puzzled me for so long – who yells at a couple of blind guys?  Listen again to what Matthew records – The crowd rebuked them and told them to be quiet.  I know we are living in a time of great contentiousness, but wow, was it even worse in the time of Jesus?  I mean, who yells at blind guys who are doing nothing but asking for mercy?  Who would tell a couple of blind men to be quiet?  How cold and callous is that?

For a long time I couldn’t figure out why the crowd would be yelling at these two blind men.  The crowd was certainly excited about Jesus.  He was leaving Jericho because he was traveling to Jerusalem.  Many of the same people in this crowd most likely became part of the crowd that would, in just a few days, welcome Jesus into Jerusalem at the Triumphal Entry.  There had to be a lot of cheering and yelling happening, so why worry about the fact that two more people were joining in on the shouting?

Besides, it would only take a few minutes before Jesus would be out of earshot of the two men, so why would the crowd be worried about them calling out to Jesus?  Here is why, I think – the crowd didn’t want Jesus to stop.  The crowd didn’t want anything to interrupt his journey to do what they wanted him to do, and when the blind men started calling out to him Jesus did exactly what the crowd feared he would do – he stopped to reach out to the men.

So here’s what I think was going on with the crowd.  The crowd wanted Jesus to go to Jerusalem.  They wanted him to go to Jerusalem because it was the spiritual and political heart of Israel.  It was also just days before Passover, a festival that commemorated God delivering his people from slavery in Egypt.  I think the crowd had hopes that when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem he would declare himself the one who would once again deliver the Israelites, this time from the Romans.  The crowd did not want these two blind men distracting Jesus from what they wanted Jesus to do. 

So, quickly, here are a few lessons for us from this story.

1.  The blind men recognized that Jesus could change their lives, and they asked him to do so. 
Is it really that simple?  Is it just a matter of asking?  Don’t we have deep-seated thought and behavior patterns that make it difficult to change?  Doesn’t it take months and years of work to make even small adjustments in our lives?  These men asked for mercy, and received it.  I believe it is the desire of God to change our lives.  Be open to his life-changing mercy.

2.  We need to make sure our eyes remain ever open to the suffering around us.  
The irony of this story is that there is blindness in this story beyond that of the two men – it is the blindness of the crowd.  Somehow, this crowd, clamoring for Jesus, could not see the need of these two men, even though they were right in front of their eyes.

We live in a world that it can be cold and callous and heartless.  Even religion is at times cold – that person is simply getting what they deserve – God is punishing them.  And that may simply be a convenient excuse for remaining indifferent to the plight of a person in need.

3.  Be bold in our faith. 
The two blind men had not hesitation in answering Jesus when he asked What do you want me to do for you?   I like that.  The blind men were not about to be discouraged by the crowd who sought to rebuke them.  They were bold in calling out to Jesus.

Some years ago I was visiting with someone in the hospital.  They had received a diagnosis that provided very little hope for them.  The person asked me to pray for them, and I did, but I was struggling through my prayer.  I was struggling because I wanted to ask for healing but I knew in that person’s situation that healing was most likely not going to happen, and I didn’t want to set them up for disappointment.  When I finished, the person told me Dave, don’t be afraid to be bold when you’re asking something of God.  I felt embarrassed at that moment, because I was afraid to ask something bold of God.  That person needed to see me exhibit more than a tentative and timid faith in my approach to God.

4.  Follow God’s agenda.
The crowd has an agenda for Jesus – they wanted him to hurry on to Jerusalem to do what they wanted him to do.  But Jesus had a different agenda – he was going to bring mercy to these two men.

The NIV translation uses a wording in verse 30 that I wish were different.  Most other translations use the phrase that Jesus was passing by rather than going by.  That may seem like a small matter, but it’s really rather important.  When the gospel writers used the phrase passing by in relation it is big.  Really big.  Hugely big.  The reason it’s important is this – in the book of Exodus, chapter 33:18-23, Moses asks to see God.  In reply, God says to Moses that he will place him in a cleft in the rock and cover him with his hand, and as he passes by Moses will be able to see his glory as it passes by – he will see God (you may remember the hymn based on this passage – He Hideth My Soul).  So when Matthew uses the phrase that Jesus was passing by it meant he was about to reveal the glory of God at work in him and that we need to pay close attention. 

What Jesus did was to reveal God’s agenda, which is one of mercy.  The agenda of the crowd didn’t matter; the agenda of God mattered.

If the agenda of God is to show mercy, that must be our agenda as well.

A friend of ours named Scott was a truly unique individual.  Scott was born with hydrocephalus, what is commonly called water on the brain.  Not expected to live more than a few days, he survived into his early 40s.  Scott progressed to about the ability of a five or six year old in his mental ability, but in some ways he had some very advanced abilities.  Even though he had very little eyesight, it was remarkable what he could see.  He could, for instance, identify the members who lived next door just by the way they came out the door.  Before then spoke, Scott knew who they were, just by the way they opened a door and walked onto the porch.  In his final years, when he was in a nursing home, he could tell who walked into his room just by the sound of their steps and the smell of their perfume or deodorant.  When I walked into his room he always called me by name before I ever said a word.  It always amazed me how well Scott could see, even though he could barely see in a physical manner.  Scott could see from a much deeper, more spiritual place, because he was so tuned in to people.

May we be able to see people in such a deep, spiritual way, and thus not miss what is right in front of our eyes.

Monday, March 04, 2013

March 3, 2013 - Walking in the Way of Jesus: Love Over Law

Matthew 22:34-40

Several weeks ago I was in a business in Louisville.  The main area wasn’t very large and I was the only customer at the time.  At the counter, one of the employees was on the phone with another person sitting next to him.  The employee talking on the phone was very friendly to the person on the other end of the line, and his final words before hanging up were I love you man.  As soon as he hung up the phone he turned to the person next to him and said that guy is a real ‘so and so’, but I’m nice to him because he spends a lot of money here.  (Amazingly, after preaching this message, another person told me they experienced the same thing at the same business).  That was discouraging to hear, but it demonstrates how we have robbed the word love of so much of its meaning.

As we continue our series of messages Walking In the Way of Jesus, this morning we come to a message titled Love Over Law.

Someone asked me not long ago what formed my central philosophy of life and faith.  This message is my answer to that question.  Of all the sermons I have preached in this church, or anywhere else, today’s message is the absolute center of my religious belief and philosophy.

Our Scripture reading, as the others in this series, comes from the Gospel of Matthew.  Today we read Matthew 22:34-40.

34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together.
35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 
36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’
38 This is the first and greatest commandment.
39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Matthew says the Pharisees approached Jesus with this question – Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?  because they wanted to test him.  The previous passage tells us the Sadducees had also attempted to test Jesus with a question, but they failed.  The Pharisees would have been wise to learn from the experience of the Sadducees, but they didn’t; they had to learn the hard way.

I am fascinated by how often people feel the need to test other people to see if they are theologically sound.  Some people believe we must meet their belief tests and their theological tests before we are acceptable to them.  Someone asked me not long ago my thoughts about a particular issue.  The issue is one that is a point of conflict in many churches (it wasn’t anyone here).  I am surprised how often I am asked about such issues, but I recognize people ask such questions not because they want to know my opinion, but to see if my answer is, at least in their minds, correct. 

My answer is generally the same – I don’t worry about it.  Especially as I get older, I find there are many arguments that just don’t stir much interest in me any longer.  It’s not that I don’t care; it’s just that I care about something else much more.  Some churches, for instance, are totally absorbed in debates about Calvinism, or whether or not they are of Reformed theology, or what passages of Scripture are to be taken literally and which ones are figurative, and on and on such debates go.  I don’t mind talking about those questions, but I have to admit I don’t get very excited about them or overly interested in them.  I can’t get excited about them because there is an issue about which I care much more, and it is this – we are called, as the people of God and as his church to love God and love others above and beyond every other matter, and if loving God and loving others is not at the absolute core of who we are then we have moved away from what was of the greatest importance to Jesus. 

That’s it.  That’s the absolute center for me.  That’s the absolute foundation, I believe, of who we are to be as followers of Jesus, and if churches continue to be held captive to all their various arguments they will eventually fade away into either irrelevance or oblivion, and rightly so.  If love is not central to the life of any church, if anything other than love takes over as the heart and soul of a congregation, it is better for that church to fade into irrelevance or oblivion because it has become nothing but a hindrance to bearing witness of who God really is.  When anything other than love finds its way to the center of the life and mission of a church, it becomes, in my opinion, heresy and idolatry.

In my opinion, it’s not secularism that is the biggest challenge facing the church.  And it’s not a lack of belief or a lack of faith that has brought about a decline in church attendance in Western society.  I believe, as strange as this may sound, it is in great measure the fault of the church itself, because the church, in far too many instances has allowed love to slip away as its foundation and the core of ministry.  In too many instances churches have chosen law over love, seeking to control the lives of others, seeking to tell them how to live, how to think, and how to act, when we are called to love.

The love of Jesus was so radical that it can be hard for us to wrap our minds around it.  Jesus had an incredible love for people, and not just some people.  Jesus loved the most unlovable people of his day and he challenged us to do the same.  In Matthew 5:46-47 he challenges us with these words – If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others?

This is why there is such an easy pull toward legalism and rules in churches, because they are far easier than love.  I can follow a rule that tells me not to kill someone, but that doesn’t require much beyond a little restraint.  But it’s much, much more difficult to love some people.  Rules and religious laws do not require all that much of us, while love requires a great deal from us.

Now let’s get a bit more personal about this.  Let’s take love out of the theoretical realm and put it into the world of everyday life.  Notice the pronoun Jesus uses – with all your heart, and your soul, and your mind  Love your neighbor.  He makes this very personal.  Love is not about what someone else is doing, but what I am doing.

The love of which Jesus taught was not just some feel good, mushy kind of love.  It wasn’t a greeting card type of love.  It was a love that was, in fact, very controversial.  Jesus advocated for a love that made some people very angry, angry enough to want to kill him.  And it was a love without any qualifications.  When he calls us to love our enemies, he means it.  How do we love our enemies when we struggle so mightily to love those with whom we disagree?  Can a left-wing Democrat and a right-wing Republican love each other?  Can a gun-toting NRA member and a tree-hugging environmentalist love each other?  Can we love the coworker who took credit for our idea and thus got the bonus and the raise?  Can we love the person who broke a confidence and shared a personal detail about our lives with others?  Can we love the person who did something to break apart a relationship?  Can we love the person who is even now coming to our minds as the person we cannot – or would not – ever dream of loving?  I want to be honest and say I struggle mightily in this area.  Even as I say this, there are people, and situations, and hurts that arise in my mind that are great hindrances to my ability and willingness to love.

My mother-in-law used to live on Tybee Island, Georgia.  After she had lived there for a number of years I had an interesting realization one day.  It’s a rather small community and I thought I was very familiar with the community, but one day as I was driving down the street I passed one of the churches on the island.  I suddenly realized I hadn’t paid much attention to that church before.  Church has been my life, for all of my life.  I generally notice every church I pass, and sometimes I stop and go in them and look around, just out of curiosity.  I had driven by this church dozens of times and never gave it a single thought.  It made me wonder, how many people drive by it and never give it a thought?  How many people drive by this church and never give it a thought, or even pay much attention to its existence.

Too many times churches get wrapped up in controversies and issues that just don’t matter, and it’s no wonder, then, that so many people walk or drive by our buildings and never give them another thought.  But when we love like Jesus, they’ll notice.  They may think we’re crazy, but they’ll notice.