Saturday, March 07, 2009

40-Days to Servanthood: Day 11

Servanthood is the response of a grateful person.

On entering a village between Samaria and His home country of Judea one day, Jesus was met by ten lepers, all begging for Jesus’ pity. In those days, leprosy was seen as a curse. The leprous person was “unclean.” Because of that, the leper couldn’t participate in religious or community life, couldn’t be with family members, couldn’t be touched by anyone, and couldn’t hold a job.

Jesus had pity on the lepers and instructed them to go to the priests in Jerusalem. Levticus 13 and 14 in the Old Testament said that if a priest certified that someone once afflicted with leprosy had become clean, they could resume their former life. The moment the men set out for Jerusalem, they were cleansed. But only one of the men, a citizen of the hated Samaritan nation, came back to Jesus. “He threw himself at Jesus' feet and thanked him,” the Gospel of Luke says. Next, we’re told, “Jesus asked, ’Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ Then he said to him, Rise and go; your faith has made you well’" (Luke 17:11-19).

Notice two things. First, all ten lepers were healed. But Jesus declared that only one of them was made “well”: the person who was thankful. When we gratefully acknowledge what God has done for us through Christ--giving us forgiveness and new life--we are well, no matter what afflicts us. Second, gratitude freed this man from slavery to self. He understood that the world consisted of more than himself; it included the God Who made him, as well as other people as much in need of God’s blessings as he was.

The apostle Paul once marveled at how Christians in Macedonia, in spite of being poor and troubled themselves, “begged...and pleaded for the privilege of having a part in helping God’s people in Judea” (2 Corinthians 8:4). Grateful for Jesus’ death and resurrection that gave them life, they gave of themselves to others. Servanthood is the response of a grateful person.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “They begged us and pleaded for the privilege of having a part in helping God’s people in Judea” (2 Corinthians 8:4)

Friday, March 06, 2009

U2: Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel

The verse melody of White as Snow on U2's newest LP is Veni, Emmanuel, to which the Advent hymn Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel is sung. It's a beautiful melody.

I like it when hymns get used like this. I loved it when, back in 1973, Paul Simon used Herzlich Tut Mich Verlangen, the melody of the Lenten hymn, O Sacred Head Now Wounded, for his American Tune.

I don't like it so much when advertisers use hymn melodies to drum up business, as when Odd Lots sang a jingle to the tune of Silent Night this past December. Tacky.

[The singer is Bryan Duncan]

Listen here. (More information here.)

I also like it when a pop song is turned into a sacred one. For example, take a listen to this great song by Pete Townsend.

Then, listen to how Audio Adrenaline turned it into a love song from God to you and all people.

More about what we give than what we give up

Phil has me thinking again.

Hope from the Never-Changing God

[This was shared with mourners at a funeral for Goldie, a 100 year-old. The funeral was held earlier today.]

Psalm 46
John 3:1-18

When Goldie Flood was born on May 26, 1908, Theodore Roosevelt still had ten months remaining in his term of office as president. The Wright Brothers had taken their first powered flight less than four-and-a-half years earlier. The Spanish-American War had ended just twelve years before her birth. World War 1, World War 2, the Korean War, the War in Vietnam, the Persian Gulf War, and the conflicts in which our country currently finds itself were all in the future. The first Moon landing, the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, and the invention of Hula Hoops, Frisbees, and the Internet were all far-off future events.

The point is: A lot of things have happened during the course of Goldie McDaniel’s life. Presidents, wars, recessions, and a great depression have come and gone. The maps of the world have been erased, re-written, and erased again.

But some things have never changed.

The Bible says: “The steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him…” [Psalm 103:17]

It also tells us about God, Who took on human flesh in Jesus Christ, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”

No matter what changes have happened in the past one-hundred years or will happen in the next one-hundred years or for however long there are descendants of the Flood, McDaniel, McCartney, or Schenk families walking this earth, God will remain unchanging and will always be available to those who dare to turn from sin and separation from God, toward forgiveness and life with God.

Jesus was visited one night by a religious leader, an old and respected man named Nicodemus. If their meeting took place today, Nicodemus would probably arrive in a stretch limo, attended by guards, and he would be wearing expensively tailored ecclesiastical clothes, festooned with shiny jewels. Yet Nicodemus, this powerful man, was troubled and strangely drawn to the simple carpenter from Nazareth who would eventually prove to be God come to earth.

Jesus could see the old man’s yearning. He told Nicodemus that to be right with God and with his own heart, to live with certainty in the midst of all the world’s changes, and to look beyond death with hope, he needed to be born from above.

“How can I possibly be born all over again at my age?” Nicodemus wondered. He wanted to know how he could achieve something so impossible. A few lines later, Jesus told Nicodemus that Nicodemus didn't have to do anything. It was a matter of trust. “For God so loved the world,” Jesus said, “that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

One hundred years is a long time for us. In fact, in nearly twenty-five years of pastoral ministry, I don’t remember having the funeral of another 100 year old. But one hundred years is less than the blink of an eye to God. The strength that it takes to make it through our days, to make decisions, to provide for our families, to simply live at all, comes from this changeless, strong fortress of a God.

And the possibility of having our sins forgiven, of being right with God for all eternity, of living with renewed bodies and minds without waning strength, ill health, or suffering, of living forever in the presence of God…all these possibilities become realities for those who believe in Jesus Christ.

The everlasting God Who wants to befriend all people for all eternity can be our strength even when we feel weak, or defeated, when we grieve and when our plates are full and we feel happy. The Bible tells us that, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.” (Psalm 46:1-3)

As you who knew and loved Goldie McDaniel best take her earthly remains to be buried, remember that God can do more than comfort you. The God we know in Jesus Christ can also give you life beyond the grave and fill you with a life truly living today, no matter how long you live on this earth. Amen

The Promise Beyond All Doubting

[These words were shared with the family and friends of Zerna, a ninety-three year old member of our congregation who passed away on February 26. Her funeral was held on March 2.]

John 11:17-27
I know that today, Zerna’s family and friends have three prevalent feelings.

One is relief that Zerna’s long siege of suffering is done. It was some five months ago that Zerna fell and began the slow, sometimes tortured descent that ended with her passing early on Thursday morning. Zerna is suffering no more.

Another major feeling you have, of course, is one of loss. In the seventeen months since I first met Zerna, I learned what a good-natured, fun, and giving person she was. I learned of her good humor. I learned too, of her deep reverence for God, a reverence so great that even when I took Holy Communion to her in her home, she wanted to stand during the liturgy of Confession and Forgiveness, the Words of Institution, and the Prayers. She did stand, I'm told, when she listened to Saint Matthew’s Sunday morning worship services on the radio.

A third feeling I know that you can feel today is a sense of gratitude that Zerna was a believer in Jesus Christ. Although a gnawing sense of inadequacy caused her to doubt her worthiness of God’s gracious offer of eternity to all who turn from sin and believe in Jesus Christ, Zerna never once doubted the goodness of the God we meet in Jesus. Nor did she ever doubt God’s capacity to give eternity.

In her final weeks and months, the misgivings Zerna felt, from an overabundance of humility, gave way to a full, childlike confidence in Christ. She said goodbye to her children and grandchildren. She even once invited them to join her in singing, Jesus Loves Me.

There were times in recent weeks when Zerna rallied. She was physically strong and in spite of wave upon wave of physical ailments, kept coming back. One day a few months ago, several days after I had conducted the Commendation of the Dead over her bed at the Logan Care Center, Zerna wasn’t in her room. When I asked a staffer about her whereabouts, I was told that Zerna was playing Bingo.

Of course, there comes a time in this life when even the strongest among us doesn’t “come back.” Yet, I’m sure that if you and I were able to ask Zerna whether she would want to be back, she would say, “No.” She was ready to pass, not only to leave a world in which she was consigned to a creaking, deteriorating body, but also because of what the future holds for all who entrust their lives, their pasts, and their futures into the hands of Jesus Christ.

Jesus talked about this future in our Bible lesson from the Gospel of John. Jesus’ friend, Lazarus, has died. When Jesus goes to Lazarus’ hometown of Bethany, the dead man’s two sisters practically bawl Jesus out. “Lord, if you had been here,” they both say, “our brother would not have died.”

Jesus doesn’t argue with them, but says, “Your brother will rise again.” Later, to underscore His power to give life, Jesus will raise Lazarus from the dead. Of course, Lazarus had to die all over again at some later date. But Jesus had made His point, one that would be proven beyond all doubting on the first Easter when He rose from tomb following His own execution on a cross.

It was in this powerful, loving Lord, the God of heaven and earth, of life and death and resurrection, that Zerna placed her trust.

As you bury the earthly remains of this wonderful woman today, I simply remind you of the Savior in Whom she believed and I invite you to trust, as Zerna trusted, the promise Jesus gave to Martha at Bethany:

“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in Me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die.”

May that be your hope, not just for Zerna, but for yourselves. Amen

40-Days to Servanthood: Day 10

There’s a difference between servanthood and slavery.

In the Greek of the New Testament, there are two main root words for servanthood. Doulos and diakonos can both be translated as slave or minister, as well as servant.

But there’s a marked difference between the service offered by one who feels coerced into service--which is what you and I would label as slavery--and servanthood, which is work rendered voluntarily. Slavery is a hateful thing. This is why Christians in England and America were in the forefront of the battle to abolish it in the nineteenth century.

But when one chooses to be a servant, beautiful things happen. We see this repeatedly in the Bible. In the book of Genesis, a slave of Abraham’s secured a wife for Abraham’s son, Isaac, and thereby ensured that God’s promise of a nation and a land from which the Savior would eventually be born many centuries later, would all come true. The slave reveled in his role of being useful to his master, grateful for his role in salvation history and for his master’s care and friendship.

The voluntary servant of God gets to play an important and irreplaceable part in the unfolding of God’s plans.

One of the most interesting people in the Bible is a woman named Dorcas. The book of Acts, which recounts the history of the Church from the day of Jesus’ ascension until about 65 AD, says that Dorcas “spent all her time doing good and helping the poor.” When she died, the whole city of Joppa, where she lived, mourned. In their grief, many of the town’s widows showed the apostle Peter the shirts and coats that Dorcas had sewn for them. Peter prayed that God would bring Dorcas back to life and when it happened, there was a celebration!

Dorcas engaged in joyous service, not as a slave, but as a grateful follower of Jesus Christ.

There’s a difference between servanthood and slavery.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “She spent all her time doing good and helping the poor” (Acts 9:36).

Thursday, March 05, 2009

40-Days to Servanthood: Day 9

Servanthood moves us beyond ourselves.

The classic line of Bette Midler in the movie, Beaches, probably displays our unspoken attitudes. “Enough about me,” Midler says, “what do you think about me?” Experts on childhood development tell us that we come into this world deeply mired in ourselves.

Servants of Jesus Christ embrace a different way of life. They move beyond themselves. As we pointed out yesterday, this begins in Jesus Christ, Who both exemplifies a servant’s lifestyle and will empower those who want to be servants. People who move beyond themselves to be servants display three habits of life that we see in Jesus throughout the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) in the New Testament. (The gospels chronicle the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.) One of my favorite places to observe these three habits of Jesus is in Mark 1:29-39:

Mark 1:29-31: Jesus moved beyond what was comfortable to reach out to someone who was shoved into the corner of life. The fever of Simon’s mother-in-law was more than a physical ailment. Her illness denied her the dignity of her place as the eldest woman of the household, a place that included responsibility for overseeing the entertainment of guests.

Mark 1:35: Jesus reached up to God the Father for the power and inspiration to live faithfully.

Mark 1:38-39: Jesus ignored the easy path of popularity in order to do God’s will. Jesus turned His back on the safe and comfortable to face the path that was difficult and which, He knew, would result in His being rejected and killed (Luke 9:51).

Our call as followers of Jesus is to adopt these three habits of the heart: to encourage those shoved to the side by society; to reach up to God for inspiration, direction, and power; and to ignore the safe paths and be willing to go where we might be unpopular in order to follow God faithfully.

Servanthood moves us beyond ourselves.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “...whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43-45, The Message).

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Servants in the Wilderness

[This was shared during midweek Lenten worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier this evening. It was given as part of our 40-Days to Servanthood emphasis.]

Mark 1:9-15
I was fired from a job once. It happened about a year before I started seminary.

But before that happened, I went to another job where things went well. My supervisor liked the job I was doing and there would be opportunities for advancement. Besides all that, I worked at a place I had always wanted to work: the State House in Columbus.

Nonetheless, I wasn’t happy. I didn’t like my job. It didn’t feel like the right fit for me.

At about the same time, this one-time atheist came to faith in Christ and our home church decided to put me on church council.

So, there I was, twenty-six years old, a new Christian, an elder, and chairperson of the evangelism committee. I took on the one task nobody else in the congregation seemed to want to do—calling on the inactives and going door-to-door to invite the unchurched to worship with us.
I loved every minute of it!

At the same time I was going to work and feeling that what God really wanted to do was become a pastor.

But that concerned me. One night, after a council meeting, I spoke with our home congregation’s pastor. I told him that I thought that maybe I was being called to pastoral ministry.

“Uh-huh,” he said, betraying a total lack of surprise on his part. (You see, he’d figured out that I should become a pastor long before I’d even thought of it.) “But...” I went on. “But, what?” he asked me, with slight impatience. “But I got fired from my last job and, although my boss really likes me at my new job, I’m not really excited about it."

I thought that my pastor would be shocked or something. But instead, he just said one word with a question mark: “Yeah?” I took that to mean, “So what?”

“Well,” I told him, “I don’t want to be going to seminary if there’s even the slightest chance that I’d be doing it just to run away from jobs I don’t like.”

My pastor sighed, fixed me with a stare, and then asked me this: “Have you ever thought that your getting fired from one job and landing in another one that you do capably but don’t like is God’s way of telling you, ‘Quit messing around and start doing what I want you to do?’”

Now, I can’t begin to express the impact of those words on me, folks. Years of confusion, self-doubt, and even self-recrimination were suddenly dissipated and destroyed by my pastor’s words. The wilderness of confusion about what God wanted me to do—at least for the next twenty-nine years of my life—were ended.

I’m convinced that my pastor was sent to me at that moment in my wilderness wandering and ministered to me—I mean, he served me by being a faithful servant of God in that moment, speaking a truth of God that set me free from my uncertainty.

Our Bible lesson ends the account of Jesus’ time in the wilderness with these words: “The angels waited on Him.” The word translated as waited literally means served. The angels served Jesus, the One Who said that He came not to be served but to serve all of us; the One Who washed the feet of His disciples on the night of His arrest; the One Who died on a cross for all of us.

Here’s the point: Whenever we go through the wilderness times of our lives, God sends servants to help us through.

And He sends all of us who follow Christ to be those servants who help others in their wilderness times.

True story: Joe had just learned he had cancer. Joe’s wife called the pastor and after chatting for a time called the husband to the phone to talk. They spoke briefly, but the pastor knew his empathy could only accomplish so much. Joe needed to talk with someone who had gone through cancer, knew what it was like, and could be a living example of how to go through thw wilderness of that disease.

So, after putting down the phone, the pastor called Bill, a cancer survivor in the congregation. The Pastor knew that Joe would still need his listening ear and the prayers of the congregation to help him face whatever loomed ahead. But he was also wise enough to know the limits of his own competence. He asked Bill to reach out to Joe. Bill was the servant who helped Joe make it through the wilderness.

We respond to the amazing and undeserved love of Jesus Christ, a love that gives new life to all who dare to turn from sin and turn in trust to Him, by offering up lives of servanthood to God and others.

We become God’s ministers in the wilderness times that people experience. And there are lots of people experiencing the wilderness right now. There are neighbors who have lost or may soon lose their homes through foreclosure. People without jobs. People who are hungry. People who are simply dealing with uncertainty. Throughout Lent, being God’s ministers to a hurting world will be our emphasis, our call, and, I pray, our passion.

In the wilderness: Our call is to rely on God. When we do, we’ll also be called to resist the temptation to walk away from God and called as well to pass the tests of character God uses to shape us for our missions in life. And, just as God serves us and cares for us as we make our ways through life, we’re called to be servants of God who bring God’s care and comfort to others.

Let’s be absolutely committed to pursuing the journey of servanthood throughout these forty days of Lent and all our lives!

Get on Your Boots

So far, this is my favorite track on the newly released U2 album, No Line on the Horizon. I was looking for a live version I saw somewhere, though I don't think the one below is what I remember seeing. It's funny because while I prefer this live version to the recorded one on the CD, the harmonies here are definitely off. Perfection isn't always perfect.

The melody for the verses of Get on Your Boots reminds me a lot of Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited.

40-Days to Servanthood: Day 8

Servanthood begins in a relationship with Jesus Christ.

In light of that, I have a question for you: How is your relationship with Jesus Christ? Please don’t misunderstand. Your involvement in our congregation is wonderful. It’s good that you’ve been baptized. Through Baptism, God has claimed you as a child of God. It’s good when you’ve been confirmed, received Holy Communion, and heard God’s Word. But significant and life-giving though these things are, it’s possible for people to treat them like religious hoops. Faith in Christ isn’t about hoops, though.

Jesus once told His disciples: “Whoever believes and is baptized is saved; whoever refuses to believe is damned” (Mark 16:16). Here, Jesus acknowledges the importance of Holy Baptism. It’s the entry way to life with Christ and with Christ’s holy community, the Church.

But this doesn’t alter our need for faith in Jesus Christ. It’s faith, or trust, in Christ that saves us. Jesus told a teacher named Nicodemus: "This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn't go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again. Anyone who trusts in him is acquitted; anyone who refuses to trust him has long since been under the death sentence without knowing it. And why? Because of that person's failure to believe in the one-of-a-kind Son of God when introduced to him.” (John 3:16-18)

Faith is a gift that God builds in the lives of all who are willing to believe (First Corinthians 12:3). But grasping, keeping, and growing in that gift requires a trusting reliance on God that is foreign to our nature and which only God can foster within us.

If you have any doubt about your relationship with Jesus Christ, stop right now and tell Him, “Lord: I surrender my life to You. Send Your Holy Spirit to help me believe as well as I can. I want to be Yours. I want to repudiate my sin. I want to live with You forever. Thank You, Lord, in Jesus’ Name. AMEN.” If you meant that prayer, you’re ready to walk the road of servanthood.

Servanthood begins in Jesus Christ!

Bible Passage to Ponder: “...anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new. The old life is gone; a new life burgeons! Look at it! All this comes from the God who settled the relationship between us and him, and then called us to settle our relationships with each other. God put the world square with himself through the Messiah, giving the world a fresh start by offering forgiveness of sins” (Second Corinthians 5:17-19)

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

40-Days to Servanthood: Day 7

Servanthood is a byproduct of a surrendered life.

That may seem strange given the life style of deliberate servanthood we've discussed so far in this series. We’ve said that:
  • God’s goal for your life is for you to be like Jesus.
  • Above all, Jesus means for you to be a servant.
  • The life of a servant, servanthood, is an active way of living.
  • Servanthood is the clearest sign of greatness.
  • God made you for servanthood.
  • God values servanthood more than anything.
Human beings are naturally “religious.” We think of God as a cosmic Santa Claus “making a list, checking it twice,” all in an effort to find out “who’s naughty or nice.” We think that if we’re nice enough, God will be forced to let us into heaven or answer our prayers or bless us.

But the Bible says that “everyone has sinned and is far away from God’s saving presence” (Romans 3:23, Good News Bible). Religion can’t save us. Nor can our acts of service. There’s only one thing that can save us from sin and death and restore our relationship with God. “God puts people right [with God, their neighbors, and themselves] through their faith in Jesus Christ...” (Romans 3:22, Good News Bible).

Do you remember the Bible passage around which yesterday’s reading was built, Matthew 25:31-46? If you don’t read it carefully, you might think that the “sheep” made themselves acceptable for entry into heaven by accumulating servanthood merit badges. Wrong! They were surprised by Jesus’ invitation to enter His kingdom. “Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?”

What made the sheep acceptable to heaven was their faith in Jesus Christ. Once they surrendered their lives to Jesus, He began to change them and their lifestyles. Servanthood was an outgrowth, a result, of their surrender to Jesus Christ. Servanthood was the sign of their faith in Christ. Servanthood is a byproduct of a surrendered life.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life” (John 3:16, The Message).

A Look at This Coming Sunday's Bible Lessons (March 8, 2009) (Part 1)

[Regular readers of Better Living know that, each week, I try to take a look at the lessons on which worship for the subsequent Sunday will be built. I do this partly to clarify my own thinking, but also to help the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, the congregation I serve as pastor, to get ready for worship. Because we use a lectionary (that's a plan of Bible readings) associated with the Church Year, a version of which is used by most Christians in the world as they worship each week, I hope that others will find it helpful, too.]

Second Sunday in Lent
March 8, 2009
The Bible Lessons:
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Psalm 22:23-31
Romans 4:13-25
Mark 8:31-38

Prayer of the Day
O God, by the passion of Your blessed Son You made an instrument of shameful death to be for us the means of life. Grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ that we may gladly suffer shame and loss for the sake of Your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, Who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen

General Comments:
1. Go here for a discussion of Lent. (In spite of the title of the linked piece, it contains quite a bit of information about Lent.)

2. The color associated with Lent is purple. Purple, as most children learn, is the color associated with royalty, making the color appropriate for this season that culminates with Jesus' "enthronement" on the cross and the confirmation of His kingship with His resurrection on Easter.

But how exactly did purple come to be associated with royalty, wealth, and power? Purple dyes were the most costly to create and so, the most costly to buy in the ancient world. Only kings and others of great wealth could afford to have anything with purple in it.

In the Roman Empire, the wealthiest and most powerful members of society--the senators--were the only ones who could incorporate purple into their garments. They did so with purple stripes on their togas. (Only the elite could wear togas in public. Others wore simple tunics.)

Purple dye was created from the "glandular fluids of certain types of sea snails in the eastern Mediterranean, known collectively as murex snails." (Since Christianity emerged in Palestine during an era dominated by Greco-Roman culture, you might also be interested in reading The Ancient City by Peter Connolly and Hazel Dodge for fascinating descriptions and illustrations of everyday life in ancient Rome and Athens.)

3. Unlike many Sundays in the Church Year, there is a connection between the first lesson (from Genesis) and the second lesson (from Romans). (The Psalm isn't really counted as a lesson, per se.) The lesson from Genesis recalls a covenant that God made with Abram (later Abraham) and Sarai (later Sarah) to become the ancestors of a generations of believers. What did Abram have to do to be so blessed? Believe in the promise and the promise-maker.

In Romans, Paul underscores that this is all that's required of us today: To believe in the God made known definitively and authoritatively in Jesus.

We cannot earn, any more than Abraham could, the status of righteousness, rightness with God, and with it eternity with God and the presence of God in our daily lives now. That comes as a gift which God confers on sinners who turn from their sin (and its control over their lives) and instead, trust or believe in Jesus (and His control over their lives).

More on the individual texts later in the week.

Monday, March 02, 2009

40-Days to Servanthood: Day 6

God values servanthood more than anything else.

In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus tells the story of the final judgment when He, the “Son of Man,” will return to the world. Jesus says that standing before Him will be two groups of people, characterized as “sheep” and “goats.”

To the sheep, He’ll say: “Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what's coming to you in this kingdom. It's been ready for you since the world's foundation. And here's why: I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was homeless and you gave me a room, I was shivering and you gave me clothes, I was sick and you stopped to visit, I was in prison and you came to me.'”

Later, Jesus says, He’ll turn to the goats and tell them: “Get out, worthless goats! You're good for nothing but the fires of hell. And why? Because--I was hungry and you gave me no meal, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was homeless and you gave me no bed, I was shivering and you gave me no clothes, Sick and in prison, and you never visited.'” (taken from The Message paraphrase)

There are three things you need to notice about this account. The first and second ones we’ll talk about today and the third will be our topic tomorrow.

The first: Jesus extols the sheep because of their servanthood and condemns the goats because of their failure to serve. Servanthood is the highest virtue in heaven. For we who pray, “Your will be done on earth as in heaven,” this is especially important.

The second thing: Jesus says that whenever the sheep fed the hungry, gave water to the thirsty, provided shelter to the homeless, clothed the naked, or visited the sick or imprisoned, they were really serving Jesus Himself. This tells us that the key to being a servant is to view each person we encounter as though they were Jesus.

God values servanthood more than anything.

Bible passage to ponder: “’I tell you whenever you did this for one of the least important of these brothers of mine, you did it for me” (Matthew 25:40, The Good News Bible).

Sunday, March 01, 2009

The Wilderness Scenario

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

Mark 1:9-15
One of the factory jobs I worked as a young man was on the DMS 350 production line at Lennox Industries in Columbus. We made the largest whole building air conditioning and heating unit Lennox manufactured at the time.

On this line, at another station, was a guy named Paul. To eat our lunches or take our breaks, just about all of us on the line, including Paul, would sit together, squatting close to the floor on the conveyor tracks on which we moved the sections of our HVAC units from workstation to workstation. Paul would mostly listen to the conversations that happened then and whenever a lull hit, take a drag on his cigarette and say knowingly, “Yeah. Live in hope. Die in despair.” (He was real ray of sunshine!)

Paul must have said that thirty times a day. He said it so many times that I came to think that he actually believed that that was the human story. He thought that all of us are condemned to live in hope and die in despair.

But our Gospel lesson for today assures us that you and I can live our lives by a different scenario. Instead of “live in hope, die in despair,” the scenario for the life of a Jesus Follower goes this way:
  • live in the confidence that comes from God,
  • face the wilderness with God’s help,
  • emerge alive and whole for eternity.
I want to talk about each of those pieces of the Christian's life scenario.

First: Live in the confidence that comes from God.

Our Gospel begins with Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptizer. As a I pointed out a few weeks ago, John’s baptism at the Jordan River is different from the baptism that we undergo. John’s baptism was a symbol of repentance. The thousands who came to the Jordan to be baptized by John were symbolizing their intent to live repentantly, a life toward God and away from sin. It was an action done by the baptized.

But in the baptism instituted by Jesus, it’s God, not us, who is the primary actor. In our Baptism, God claims us as His own children for all eternity, end of story. We may choose to walk away from God, but God, on His part, will never revoke His claim of us as His children.

This, when you think of it, is foreshadowed in what happens at Jesus’ baptism by John. Unlike what happened with all the other people who came to the Jordan to declare their intention to live for God, God acts. Just as Jesus is emerging from the water, a voice booms out from heaven, “You are My Son, the Beloved; with you, I am well-pleased.”

At your baptism and to you, today, God says much the same thing: "You are My beloved child; with you, I am well pleased!"

When I was a college freshman, I asked to borrow my dad’s car so that I could go out on a date. Dad tossed the keys my way and as he did said, “Remember just one thing, Bub. She’s a person, too, Treat her with respect.”

Now, my dad had no idea who the girl was that I was going to take out. But he knew me. In that action and in those words, he reminded me that I was his son and no matter what temptations or tests might come my way, I could draw on that relationship and all that it entailed to be the person I had been nurtured and raised to be.

As Jesus was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness, He must have felt something like I felt as I slid in behind the wheel of my day’s car. He must have felt empowered by His Father’s love, ready to deal with the uncertainties of life, to do so with integrity, and to know that no matter what, He was still His Father’s Son. All who have been baptized in Jesus Christ can live in the confidence that comes from belonging to God!

Second: We can face the wilderness with the help of God.

It’s interesting to me that in our lesson, Mark says that after Jesus was baptized, “the Spirit [God the Holy Spirit, third person of the one God] drove [Jesus] into the wilderness” and that there, Jesus was tempted by Satan.

After reading about Jesus receiving the ringing affirmation of heaven while being baptized in the Jordan, you might expect to read next that people threw a ticker tape parade for Jesus and made Him king. Instead, Jesus goes into the wilderness. The word in the New Testament Greek for that place is eremos, literally, desert. Jesus went into a barren desert, surrounded, Mark says, by wild beasts. And He did that not necessarily because that was where He chose to go. Who, after all, would choose to go to a place like that? He was driven there by the Holy Spirit so that He could be tempted by Satan.

It hardly seems an honor befitting Someone just described by heaven as “[the] Son…the Beloved.” Jesus would have every reason to feel like the man in one of Abraham Lincoln’s jokes who had been tarred and feathered. Asked how it had felt, the man replied that if it weren’t for the honor of the thing, he would have been just as happy not to experience it.

From The Small Catechism, we good Lutherans have learned that God indeed tempts no one. But God will allow us to be subjected to temptation in order to test us.

Every time the devil, the world, or our sinful flesh tempts us to do anything that harms God, our neighbor, or the minds and bodies God has given to us, our faith is also tested and tempered. And every time we resist temptation, our faith is made stronger.

And, make no mistake about it, resisting temptaion isn’t a matter of willpower. Take a toy from a baby you need to bathe and you will see that we all are born with strong wills. We cave into temptation not because we lack willpower. Instead, we lack what someone has called “won’t power”: "Won't power is the capacity to say things like:
"I won’t eat that second piece of chocolate"
"I won’t gossip about my co-worker"
"I won’t be so critical of my child"
"I won’t cheat on the test"
"I won’t have sex with that person to whom I’m not married"
"I won’t laugh at someone’s bigoted joke"
...and then to make those resolutions stick!

But where does the power to do that come from? I once read the memoir of a pastor who, in his younger years, had a terrible weight problem. “I couldn’t stop eating,” he confesses. He felt horrible about it. "Here I was a pastor," he said, "telling people to treat their bodies as God’s temples. I told them to rely on God for their sense of self-worth and yet I was so wracked by self-doubt and self-pity that I used food to make me feel good, at least until I caught sight of myself in the mirror or stood on the scales." Then one night, this pastor was praying and crumpled on the floor in tears, telling God that he didn’t know what to do and that he needed God's help.

Within days, a caring parishioner showed up for a heart-to-heart talk with that young pastor. He taught him about nutrition and exercise. He got the medical attention he needed. Today, that pastor is in his eighties and you would never guess from looking at him that he had ever struggled with overeating. He took his first step to recovery when he admitted that he couldn’t control his own will and needed God's help.

Jesus survived the temptations and tests He endured in the wilderness because He knew how to do something we don't do very well in the United States. Jesus knew how to surrender. He relied on God and, our text tells us, “the angels waited on him.”

Whatever test and whatever temptation you face in life, God can and will send his angels to wait on you, to care for you, and to help your test become a testimony to God’s faithfulness.

Finally: Followers of Jesus can emerge from their tests more alive and more whole for eternity.

When Jesus came out of the wilderness, fortified by the help of God, strengthened in His dependence on the Father, He was ready to begin His ministry. Whatever tests or temptations you face, whatever wilderness you may be enduring, God stands ready to help you to say no to sin and say yes to the good news that Jesus has for us all, the good news that those who turn from sin and trust in Him have life with God forever.

Back when I worked in the factory, I wasn’t a Christian. I wish that I had been and that I could have developed a friendship with Paul and shared with him the good news that we have as followers of Jesus Christ. I would love to communicate to him today that as a Christian, I’m living a life scenario that includes the confidence that comes from knowing that I belong to Jesus Christ today and always, the awareness that Christ’s followers can face the wilderness no matter what, and the certainty that when we repent and trust in Christ, we look forward to eternity with God.

May you always remember that this is God’s scenario for your life!

40-Days to Servanthood: Day 5

God made you for servanthood.

Paul writes in the New Testament, “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Ephesians 2:10).

Followers of Jesus Christ know that they have been set free from sin and death. But not many followers of Christ realize that by their faith in Jesus, they have also been set free for a way of life, a life of servanthood.

Why would we want to be servants? It has to do with our design. Psalm 139:13-16 confesses to God, “You created every part of me; you put me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because you are to be feared; all you do is strange and wonderful…When my bones were being formed, carefully put together in my mother’s womb, when I was growing there in secret, you knew that I was there--you saw me before I was born...” We are all products of God’s careful design.

Built into us is a desire to be part of a community of caring in which each of us contributes something of ourselves to the good of others. This need for community and mutual servanthood is part of what it means to be created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26).

Back when human beings fell into sin, the first thing they did was point accusingly at others for their wrongdoing (Genesis 3:12-13). Their community with God and others was broken. God’s mission from that time to this has been to restore our impulse to community and mutual service. The greatest commandment, Jesus says, is to love God and to love others as we love ourselves. Servanthood is love in its work clothes.

God made you for servanthood.

Bible passage to ponder: “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Ephesians 2:10).

Letters to My Non-Churchgoing Friends

I wrote this series of "letters" for a newspaper that carried my column in the Cincinnati area when we lived there. I hope that these too, will be found helpful and maybe spur some good, respectful dialogue between Christians and non-Christians:

Letter #1 ("I don't need the church to be a Christian")
Letter #2 ("Worship is boring")
Letter #3 ("The church is full of hypocrites")
Letter #4 ("The church only wants my money")
Letter #5 ("I'm not good enough to be in church")
Letter #6 (Finding Community, Meeting God)
Letter #7 (Why can't I find a church that believes what I believe?)
Letter #8 ("I was disappointed by the church")
Letter #9 ("I can't get my spouse interested in church")
Letter #10 ("What is sin anyway?")
Letter #11 ("What is justification?")

Why I Believe Christian Faith is True

This seems like a good time to trot out a series I wrote under that title several years ago. I hope that you find good food for thought here, no matter your view of Christian faith:

Why I Believe Christian Faith is True, Part 1
Why I Believe Christian Faith is True, Part 2
Why I Believe Christian Faith is True, Part 3
Why I Believe Christian Faith is True, Part 4
Why I Believe Christian Faith is True, Part 5
Why I Believe Christian Faith is True, Part 6