Friday, October 10, 2003

Are You Foolish Enough for Faith?
[This the latest installment of a column called Better Living, which I write for our local community newspaper.]

God is looking for a few fools. Are you willing to be one of them?

My wife, our two kids, and I arrived in Clermont County, where we still live, thirteen years ago. We came to start a new congregation. We'd been called to do that by our denomination and we thought it was what God wanted us to do. The denomination provided us with a house–later purchased by the congregation we started, Friendship Church, and later still, purchased by Ann and me. For a few years, our denomination also gave some financial support.

We knew a total of six people in the area. There was no congregation. There was no church building. There was no church bank account.

Often, in those early days, people spoke to me in tones usually reserved for those whose minds have been clouded by dementia. People thought I was crazy to have left a secure and fulfilling pastorate of a thriving congregation in northwestern Ohio in order to start a new church with no certainty of success.

The ones most convinced of my craziness were other pastors. Most seemed convinced that there was no way a new church could be started in Amelia or Clermont County. They either thought that there were too many churches already, not enough people, or that nobody would want a Lutheran church around. "It'll never get off the ground," one told me, "but I guess you should be credited for trying."

All these people were right. I was crazy and with God's help, I'll always stay a little crazy. The God made known to the world through Jesus Christ gets things done through people who are crazy enough to follow Him. The first century preacher and evangelist Paul told a church he'd started that he and his colleagues, "...are fools for the sake of Christ" (First Corinthians 4:10).

But here's where people were wrong about my sanity. They all assumed that there are places where God is absent, situations in which God is impotent or incapable or unwilling to bless us. But as long as we're "crazy" enough to follow God, God can reach us with His blessings.

In the Bible, ancient King David writes, "Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in Sheol [the place of the dead in Hebrew thought], You are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there Your hand will lead me..." (Psalm 139:7-10).

And Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, spectacularly promises all who dare to follow Him: "I am with you always, to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20).

Do you have any places or circumstances in your life that could be improved with God's presence?

A marriage that isn't working?

A child you can't seem to reach?

A dream that neither goes away or seems within your grasping?

Whatever the circumstance, be crazy enough to believe that God can be with you and cares about you and will help you. Call on God in the Name of Jesus Christ for His help and presence. Promise that you'll be faithful to God and then find a church home where you can be encouraged in your faith. God will always answer those kinds of prayers.

God doesn't promise that we'll be successful in every thing we try to do with his help. Our prayers won't always be answered in the ways we envision. But we can know that God is for us, no matter what happens. I believe, for example, that God still would have been with me and loved me even if He hadn't caused Friendship Church to grow and to thrive.

But no matter how personally strong we may be, no matter how resourceful, intelligent, or physically durable, until we're crazy enough to lean on God, we'll never experience all that this life has to offer. And until we ask the God Who comes to us in Jesus Christ into our lives, we'll never experience how great it is to live each day knowing that forever and always, we belong to an eternal God!

Sunday, October 05, 2003

Purpose Driven Living:
Service to God and Neighbor,
Put on Earth to Make a Contribution
Matthew 20:17-28

(shared with the people of Friendship Church, October 5, 2003)

A young woman was doing her college application when she read this question: “Are you a leader?” She felt she needed to be honest and so she answered, “No.” When she dropped her application into the mailbox, she was certain that her answer would result in her being rejected by the college. But a short time later, she got a reply that said, “We have reviewed numerous applications and, to date, there will be some 1, 452 new leaders attending school next year. We have decided to accept your application because we felt it was imperative that they have at least one follower.”

Everybody wants to be a leader. But few want to be followers. Everybody wants to bark out orders. But few want to serve.

Ever since sin infected the whole human race, that’s been true. One day during His time on earth, Jesus pulled His closest followers–the twelve we call apostles–aside. He had something He needed to share with them, a private tutorial. One can only imagine the intense emotion that the God-Man Jesus was going through as He told His closest friends on earth what was going to happen.

“We’re going to Jerusalem,” Jesus says. “There, I’m going to be rejected by the religious leaders and the people. The Roman government will go along with their sentiments and kill me, exacting My life on a cross. On the third day, I’ll rise again, offering life and hope to a human race that, without faith in Me, lives under an eternal death sentence. But through Me, people can live forever with God!”

That’s a dramatic announcement! But the disciples, caught up in their own selfish personal agendas, are oblivious to the tortures and death that Jesus says He will undergo. They’re even oblivious to the incredible promise of a resurrection for all with faith in Him. Instead, two of Jesus’ followers–James and John, grown men–send their mommy to make a request of Jesus. Apparently viewing Jesus as some rising superstar, she says, “When you pull off your beer hall putsch, Jesus...when you win this recall by overwhelming numbers...when you’ve scored the top box office smash... become the number one requested hit on TRL...when all the power, cash, and popularity are yours, could you see to it that my boys are your Cheney and Rumsfeld, one on your right and one on your left?” This woman may have been the prototypical tennis mom, vicariously climbing the ladder of success and fame through her boys. But Jesus looks past her and right at James and John. “You two are clueless!” Jesus tells them. Then He asks, “Do you have the capacity to drink the same bitter cup I’m going to swallow?” By this, Jesus meant, “Can you take the hatred of the masses, the beating, the tortures of the cross, the denial of the self for the love of God and others?” Oblivious still, James and John breezily say, “No problem.”

Jesus lets that pass except to say that as they follow Him, they will taste the same cup. Following Jesus means parting with our own agendas and means letting God call the shots in our means letting go of all those sins that are so fun to means dying to ourselves and putting the God we know through Jesus in first place. It means moving from God is My Co-Pilot to God is My Pilot, My Plane, My Flight Plan, My Control Tower, My FAA, My Master, My Boss, My Dictator, My King. And even after we’ve dared to make ourselves completely subservient to Jesus, He doesn’t promise us front row seats on the fifty yard line of heaven. To James and John He says, “I can’t promise you two that you will be right next to Me in the Kingdom. That’s up to God the Father.”

And then Jesus speaks words that every one who would follow Him should have emblazoned on their memories:

"...whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man [that’s Jesus] came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many."

Over the past several weeks, we’ve been looking at living our lives according to God’s purposes. Up until now, we’ve talked about three major purposes God has for every human being.

First, we’re to worship God with our whole lives.

Second, we’re to cultivate our capacity for loving others by living in deep fellowship and mutual support with the people of the Church.

Third, we’re to put our lives at God’s disposal and let Him work on making us more like Christ.

God’s fourth purpose for us finds us moving from a strong foundation of faith and relationship with God out into the world. Like Jesus, Who came, He says in today’s lesson, to serve and to give, God calls us to do the same. God’s fourth purpose is for us is to serve and to give to others in Jesus’ Name. We’re to be servants.

Giving of ourselves is so contrary to the world’s value system that it scares us. It scares me. It seems unsafe. If I give too much of myself, will there be anything left for me? Author Steve Smith tells about a man who decided to live a safe life. He didn’t love too much because love cost too much and when you love intensely, you may be hurt. He didn’t dream too much because dreaming can bring disappointment. He didn’t serve too much because when you serve, you can get your hands dirty and you can get involved in other people’s troubles. When he died, he showed his life to God—“undiminished, unmarred, and unsoiled by the messiness of a fallen world.” He told God, “Here’s my life, Lord!” And God said, “Life? What life?”

Rick Warren, in his book, The Purpose Driven Life, cites a Danish proverb that tells us, “What you are is God’s gift to you; what you do with your life is your gift to God.” The first three purposes for living that we’ve looked at these past few weeks are all about God helping us to become our best selves. Think of them as the tools by which God turns Jesus-followers into sparkling Ferraris. A Ferrari is a high-toned, first-class vehicle that looks good and can do incredible things on the open road. But if you never slip the key into a Ferrari’s ignition and step on the accelerator, it is as worthless as an engineless AMC Pacer resting on concrete blocks. Warren says, “We are saved to serve.” Christ died and rose for us so that with our lives changed, we can serve God and our neighbor now and in eternity. For the person who has received Jesus Christ as their God and King, this world is not like Bill Knapp’s Restaurant; it isn’t heaven’s waiting room. We have things to do. Followers of Jesus are called to serve and to give!

The president of Trinity Lutheran Seminary when I was there was a man named Fred Meuser. He once told us, “As you grow older and the kids leave the house, you’ll probably find yourselves saving a little more money. But promise yourselves that you won’t leave everything to your kids. Parents who do that don’t do their children any favors. I’ve seen it ruin many people’s lives. Instead, give as much of it away as you possibly can.” Fred obviously believes that the call to give and serve applies to more than just our money. Recently, I saw a picture of him and his wife, now a decade-and-a-half into their retirement, in front of the Florida elementary school where they do volunteer tutoring.

Shortly before she died, columnist Erma Bombeck wrote a column entitled, “What’s saved is often lost.” Other than our relationships with God and with others, there is nothing that we own. Our minds, our health, our abilities, our money, our possessions, our positions—all of these have been put into our hands by God and God expects us certainly, to take care of ourselves and our families with them. But more than that, God expects us to use all of His gifts to us to serve and to give to others. If you’re waiting for the right time to serve and to give, be assured that right now is the right time for a life of service because right now is all that any of us is guaranteed. Andrew Carnegie, one of the wealthiest men who ever lived, made it his goal to give away all of his money before he died. “The man who dies rich,” he said, “dies disgraced.” The same can be said of any of us who haven’t spent our lives serving and giving in the Name of Jesus. We who know Jesus are blessed to live each day in the certainty that, whether we live or die, our sins are forgiven, God is with us through good and bad times, and we are going to live with God forever.

That changes our perspective. I was struck a few years ago when I thanked Debbie Snoke for something that she’d done for the congregation. She told me that she appreciated my thanks and reminded me that she hadn’t done it for me; she’d done it for the Lord.

A poet named David Whyte has written, “I don’t want to have written on my tombstone, when people finally struggle through the weeds, pull back the moss, and read the inscription there, ‘He made his car payments.’” There is so much more to living than shuffling through each day like joyless automatons. All who follow Jesus have been pulled from the pit of death and sin. We’re called to live just like our Lord, to serve and give so that the people around us begin to see the Jesus in us and want Jesus too. We’re called to serve and give so that we live according to God’s purposes and start to live like people made in God’s image are meant to live–in real-life, gut-level love for others. Why would any of us choose to be totaled Pacers when we could be Ferraris roaring down the open road? Today, tell God that you want to be a Ferrari. You want to live a life like Jesus, a life of serving and of giving...the kind of life that matters for all eternity!

[The quotes from David Whyte, Andrew Carnegie, Erma Bombeck, and Steve Smith come from Leonard Sweet's wonderful book, SoulSalsa. The story of the young woman applying to college comes from the e-mailed inspirations authored by Steve Goodier. All other quotes are cited in the body of the message.]