Sunday, August 30, 2009

Living Belief

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

James 1:17-27
I once received a letter from an evangelist in which he shared the true story of an event that happened in a remote village in Cambodia. In 1999, a Cambodian pastor came to that village to share the good news that all who confess their sin and trust Jesus Christ as their God and Savior have everlasting life. The pastor was amazed to find that the people of the village were, without needing to be convinced, excited and ready to turn from sin and death and to receive Jesus into their lives. One woman knelt down before this pastor, kissed his hand, and said, “We’ve been waiting for you for twenty years!” That pastor was obviously interested in learning what she meant.

Some of you will remember that several decades ago, Cambodia suffered under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. For the Khmer Rouge, mass killings of the Cambodian people were a matter of policy. Many mass graves from that awful time have been found throughout the countryside. In 1979, Cambodian soldiers entered this particular remote village. They told everybody to leave their huts and to dig a huge pit. The villagers all knew that they were digging their own grave.

Desperate, the people began crying out to all the gods or spirits they could remember ever hearing about. While this was happening, one woman remembered hearing her long-dead grandmother mention a particular Supreme Being. Filled with anguish, she began to cry out to the One Who might best understand her suffering at that moment. “Help us,” she cried, “God Who hung on a cross!”

When those terrified people finished digging the giant hole, they noticed that quiet had settled over the whole village. One man finally gathered enough courage to look over his shoulder and was amazed by what he saw. More accurately, he was amazed by what he didn’t see: the soldiers had disappeared into the jungle. From that moment forward, the people of that village waited for someone to come to them and let them know the God Who hung on a cross, Jesus the Christ.

In spite of all the superficial indicators to the contrary, I believe that there are many people among our neighbors who, just like the people of that Cambodian village, want to know the God Who hung on a cross. And they want to meet an actual Christian who is actually following Jesus with a servant’s heart, a heart like that of Jesus.

If you want to know why our world is in such a sorry mess spiritually and relationally and psychologically, the answer is simple: Christians have either turned their faith into a spectator sport or they’re engaged in unnecessary arguments that keep them from doing what Jesus Christ has called us to do or they've soft-peddled the need that all people have to turn from sin and believe in Jesus. We aren’t serving others and aren’t calling others to repentance and renewal. We aren't living out our faith.

Our second Bible lesson for this morning, written by James, one of Jesus’ earthly brothers and a leader of the early Church, reminds us of our calling as followers of Jesus: " doers of the Word [of God], and not merely hearers...Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world."

Christians love to lament how callous, cold, hateful, violent, and selfish the world has become. But, to change the sorry state of our world, we must change the way we live.

We need to tell the truth about sin and forgiveness, repentance and new life that only comes from Jesus Christ.

We need to daily repent of our own sins and daily seek the help of God in resisting temptation.

We need to love and serve others in the Name and in the manner of the One Who hung on a cross.

One night, New Yorker Flo Wheatley and her son, who was undergoing chemotherapy treatment in Manhattan, left the hospital in order to board the subway for Queens. As they awaited the train, Flo tried to help her son keep standing while people hurried by. A “rough-looking stranger” offered to help. He slung the suitcase Flo was carrying over his shoulders and cleared the way for Flo and her son through the crowd. Later, he helped them change trains and to get a cab. Flo learned that the man was homeless. But when she tried to hand him a five dollar bill, he refused it. He simply closed the cab door and said, “Don’t abandon me.”

That became the inspiration for Flo to take on a ministry of service in Jesus’ Name. With winter coming on, she gathered scraps of fabric and created quilts and sleeping bags for homeless people. She and her kids sewed eight sleeping bags that year, each of which Flo’s husband took into the city and gave to people on the streets.

Eventually, Flo was joined by others inspired by her example to form My Brother’s Keeper, providing many sleeping bags and blankets for homeless people each year.

Jesus once said that when we serve those in need, we really serve Him. You and I meet people every day who have all sorts of needs, especially in these rough economic times. Some simply need to be listened to. Others may need a ride to the doctor’s office or help with school work. Still others may need to have their confusion about living cleared up by receiving our simple, clear word about the everlasting life Jesus gives for free to repentant people.

You and I can’t do everything, that’s true. But the fact that we can’t do everything shouldn’t prevent us from doing some act of service in the Name of the God Who hung on a cross.

Let me suggest three things we can do as servants Jesus has commanded and deputized to change the world.

First: We need to listen to others with servants’ ears. When Flo Wheatley heard that homeless man’s words–“Don’t abandon me”–she heard them with a servant’s ears. She set out to find a way to fulfill that man’s request.

Installing servant's ears on our selfish skulls can be difficult. There are times, for example, when I get so caught up in my own agenda that I fail even to hear the things Ann says to me. We husbands, I think, would go a long way toward becoming the servants Christ calls and commands us to be if we would simply put down the remote and listen to our wives and families.

Second: We need to find ways to use every event that comes to us in life as occasions for service in Jesus' Name. After a wedding Ann and I attended a six years ago up in northwestern Ohio, we went to the reception and noticed that on each table, there was a small, discrete note that said: “In gratitude to God for all His blessings, Beau and Susan have made a donation to the Filling Memorial Home of Mercy.” The Filling Home is a home for the severely mentally and physically handicapped in Napoleon, Ohio, funded by Lutheran congregations.

As I read those cards at Susan's and Beau's wedding, I thought, “Wow! What a great idea!” This couple militated against the self-absorption that often goes with wedding days by giving to others. And in doing that, they prompted all of us to think of how we could serve our neighbor.

Third: We need to consider how we can serve in organized service ministries. The Bible says, “Though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.” We can more effectively, faithfully, and accountably serve Christ when we do it together. That was why I so appreciated your participation in the Drive-Through Baby Shower eight days ago.

You’ve probably heard the true story of the young teacher who was working in an inner city school. He had a nice new car and was driving home one afternoon when he stopped at a traffic light. One of his students saw the teacher and his wheels and approached close enough to talk with the teacher while he waited for the light to change. “Where’d you get the car?” the boy asked. “Well, my brother gave it to me,” the teacher said. What the boy said next stunned the young teacher. “I wish,” he said, “that I...could be a brother like that!”

Fact is, no matter what our means, we can all be brothers and sisters like that. Grateful for the love of God given to us through Jesus, we can give of ourselves, we can serve in Jesus’ Name, we can help the world know the God Who hung on a cross, and when we do, we can, one person at a time, change the world for the better.

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