Sunday, September 28, 2008

Saying "Yes" to God with Mouths and Lives

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier today.]

Matthew 21:23-32
This morning, my sermon has two points.

By way of introducing the first point, here are two real life experiences. Experience #1: Back in Cincinnati, I was part of a committee appointed by the thirty-three Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregations in the area there to create a united mission strategy. We were to identify common goals and ways we could work together to share Jesus with others and see our churches grow spiritually and numerically.

In this connection, I was invited to meet with the Church Council of an aging congregation whose membership was dwindling. Attendance on any given Sunday was less than thirty and few of the worshipers were actually from the neighborhood. Finances were in shambles and it appeared unlikely that the congregation would keep its pastor for long. “What steps could we take to improve things?” one woman asked me.

“I can’t be certain,” I told her honestly. “But one thing you might try to do is create a second worship service that would interest the people living in the homes across the street and in the next few blocks.” As soon as I said that, you could see a wall go up around this woman. “Why should we give up what we like?” she asked me. “Keep what you like,” I replied. “But try adding something that’ll demonstrate that you care about your neighbors here and want them to know Jesus. And if that doesn’t work out, try something else with the same aim.”

The rest of the discussion was cordial, but curt. The council thanked me for coming to see them. Within two years, with a mission field of thousands in need of Jesus Christ and His love, that congregation closed its doors.

Every Sunday for decades, the people of that congregation had faithfully worshiped, sung God’s praises through the liturgy, prayed, and said the Creed together. By all exterior measures, they were a faithful Christian community. But something was missing.

Experience #2: Consider the story of a Christian organization called Operation Bootstrap Africa. Headquartered in Minneapolis, it was founded by a Lutheran pastor and his wife, who worked as missionaries in Tanzania. They had been telling others about the new life of eternal forgiveness, hope, and peace that comes to those with faith in Jesus Christ. But they came to believe that something was missing.

That’s when they formed Operation Bootstrap. Their mission was simple: to give witness to their faith in Jesus Christ not just with their words, but also with their actions.

For forty years now, Operation Bootstrap Africa has worked in partnership with the people and government of Tanzania to build more than 3200 classrooms. The organization is now also involved in projects, such as providing youth scholarships, teacher support, student quarters, school desks, and primary health care assistance not only in Tanzania, but also in Zimbabwe and Madagascar. The work of Operation Bootstrap has inspired and uplifted all involved, from the teachers who work hard in primitive conditions to the students who find reason to genuinely praise God and live their thankfulness in a tough environment.

These two stories remind me of the two sons in Jesus’ parable we hear in today’s Gospel lesson. A father has work to be done in his vineyard. He goes to one son who says, “No, I won’t do it,” then thinks better of it and goes out into the vineyard to work. The father goes to his other son, who says, “Yes, I’ll get right on it” and then does nothing. Jesus asks, “Which of the two sons did the will of the father?” Even the chief elders and high priests, the leaders of Jewish religious life who so hated Jesus, conceded that it was the son who initially said, "No," had done the father’s will.

But if Jesus had asked a different question, he might have gotten a dramatically different answer. Bible scholar John Pilch writes about a man who told Jesus’ parable to groups of people in a modern Middle Eastern country and then asked, “Which of the two sons honored the father?” To a person, they said that the first son had honored the father. After all, when the father came to tell him what to do, he had very politely said, “Yes, Dad, I’ll get on it right away.” You see, Middle Eastern culture, ancient and modern, so values the outward show of respect that even though this first son was lying through his teeth, having no intention to honor his father’s will, he had said the right words, shown the right respect, gone through the proscribed hoops.

Now, that may seem strange to us, but this reaction is a lot like the Cincinnati congregation that died. The people of that church certainly talked the talk. But they didn’t walk that talk. They weren't interested in being a church that reached out to others with the Good News of Jesus Christ. They wanted a place where they could be comfortable.

And what makes the story of Operation Bootstrap Africa so inspiring is that it shows real people committed to walking their talk, putting their faith in Christ into action in daily life.

Point #1: God is looking for believers who walk the faith they talk. In Old Testament times, God expressed frustration with His people through the prophet Isaiah, when He said, “These people draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me…”

At another place in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus warns, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”

Now, we must be careful here. Jesus isn’t saying that if we do good things, we all get into heaven. But He is saying that if He is truly our Lord, if we really have repented for our sin, really do believe in Him, and really seek to follow Him, all of that will be evidenced not just in the words we say on Sunday mornings, but in the lives we lead on Mondays. God is looking for believers who walk the faith they talk.

Point #2: God will show up in the lives of those willing to welcome God into their lives. Remember that Jesus first told this parable to the chief elders and the priests of the temple who indignantly asked Him by what authority He had thrown the religious extortionists whose presence they had licensed out of the temple. Jesus scorned them for not being willing to acknowledge His authority. They honored God with their lips, but when confronted with Jesus, God in the flesh, they wouldn’t say “Yes” to Him. Yet, tax collectors and prostitutes who had spent most of their lives saying, “No” to God did acknowledge Jesus, believe in Jesus, and follow Jesus.

This is sometimes difficult for we good religious people to understand or accept. We can get so comfortable with talking our faith without acting on it, that we’re surprised by the fervor exhibited by people God has touched.

At a conference years ago, I heard Lutheran pastor Don Abdon speak of sharing the Gospel with a person he’d never met before. As Abdon told this man more about Jesus, the man became increasingly receptive. (Now, keep in mind, that Abdon wasn't forcing a bunch of Bible verses down this man's throat! The man was, with increasing excitement, asking Abdon to share more with him about Christ.) After a while, Abdon asked the man, “Would you like to confess faith in Jesus right now?” He enthusiastically said, “Yes!” Abdon was so unprepared for that response that he found himself asking the man, “Are you sure?”

And sometimes the unwillingness of Christians to believe that God shows up in the lives of who they deem as unlikely people can be almost nasty. Another Lutheran pastor, Brian Stoffregen, tells about receiving a telephone call in his office one day. Here's some of what Stoffregen wrote about it:
[The call was from a woman I don't know.] She had been active in a church...Her husband hadn't been involved in church. He lost his right arm in an accident at work. While in the hospital, he had a life-changing experience with God, who had given him the choice of going or staying. He decided to stay. His life has been changed. Prior to his experience, his wife had said to him -- and she didn't know where it came from: "When you see my mother (who had died), don't go with her." With hindsight, the wife is certain that such words could have only come from God. Her life and her understanding of God has changed. The difficulty that she is having, and why she called me..., is that people from her church -- even close friends -- [couldn't] buy her husband's experience with God. "God wouldn't do something like that for someone who didn't believe in Jesus," [seemed to have been] the essence of their message to her. [Or,] "It must have been the devil speaking to him." [Or,] "Going with that person must have meant going to hell."
That woman's fellow church members were like the chief elders who, Jesus said were in similar disbelief about the responses of the tax collectors and prostitutes, first to John the Baptist and then to Jesus. They couldn’t believe that these sinners would say, “Yes” to repentance or “Yes” to a gracious, forgiving God! But God always shows up in the lives of of those willing to welcome God into their lives. God will even show up in our lives!

One of the questions I’ve been asking people at the Getting to Know You Dinners here at Saint Matthew is, “How do you see God at work in the life of this congregation?” I can tell you that the God we know through the crucified and risen Jesus is truly present and working among us. I was moved at last month’s dinner, when a certain Homecoming Queen* mentioned that through Saint Matthew, she was learning how to place herself and her life in God’s hands. God really does show up in the lives of those willing to welcome God into their lives.

And who of us knows for sure all the ways in which God wants to show up in our lives? I surely don’t! That’s exactly why I urge you in your prayer time not only to ask what God is up to in Saint Matthew, but also to ask, “God, what are you up to in my life?" And,"What do you will for me in my life and what do you will for Saint Matthew’s life?” After you’ve prayed that prayer, be prepared to be surprised by God. Be prepared to walk the talk of your faith.

And every day, remember those two points: God is looking for believers who walk the faith they talk AND God will show up in the lives of those willing to welcome God into their lives.

*She is a seventeen year old member of Saint Matthew, as is another member of the Homecoming Court.

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