Sunday, August 31, 2003

Changing Your World: Through Service in Jesus' Name
James 1:17-27

(shared with the people of Friendship Church, August 31, 2003)

In a recent letter to supporters of his ministry, evangelist Ron Hutchcraft 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 trust Jesus Christ as their God and Savior have everlasting life. The pastor was amazed to find that the people of the village were, almost 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, it was a matter of policy to kill en masse. To this day, mass graves from that awful time are being 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 mass 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 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 thousands of people among our neighbors who, just like the people of that Cambodian village, want to know the God Who hung on a cross. They want to meet an actual Christian who is actually following Jesus with a servant’s heart, a heart like that of Jesus.

Instead, we Christians get hung up on superficial, unimportant things.

This past week, the cable news networks have been full of the controversy over the removal of a monument commemorating the ten commandments at an Alabama court house.

Let’s think about this for a second, folks. Where in the New Testament can you find a place where Jesus demanded that the Roman government erect a monument to His particular religious beliefs? The answer is nowhere.

Jesus was too busy loving, preaching, teaching, praying, giving, worshiping, healing, and serving to get caught up in needless controversies. Jesus never tried to force Himself down people’s throats; He loved them into relationship with Him!

In fact, this Ten Commandment monument controversy bothers me for several reasons.

First of all, I’d be willing to bet that 90% of the people who are so hot to trot for this monument couldn’t name all ten commandments if they had to.

And secondly, if people expended one-scintilla of the energy they’re using to protest and complain and petition and lament the sorry spiritual state of our nation and instead, loved and served their neighbor in Jesus’ Name, the sorry spiritual state of our nation and our community would change for the better.

If you want to know why our country 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.

Our 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."

To change the sorry state of our nation and world, we must change the way we live. We need to 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. Some simply need to be listened to. Others may need a ride to the doctor’s office or help with school work. 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 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 my wife says to me. Just this past week, Ann asked me if I had taken care of something which she had spoken with me about twice...and that I completely forgot about! I didn't even remember her talking with me about it.

When we listen with servants' ears, of course, we need to also be listening for needs that God has peculiarly designed us to fill. Ever since I was a little boy, I've taken an interest in politics, government, and public affairs. I ran a congressional campaign when I was twenty-two years old, for years.

In spite of that interest though, until a few years ago, I had been uninvolved in anything political since becoming a pastor. But a few years back, when our local school district was desperate for funds and had levy and bond issues on the ballot, I volunteered to participate in the campaign. I ended up helping put together the strategy and advertising for the campaign...and we won.

A few years later, the school superintendent asked me to chair the levy renewal campaign. After some heavy-duty praying and hard work, we ended up getting 72% of the vote.

Now, I'm getting involved in the levy campaign for the local Mental Retardation-Developmentally Disabled agency.

I've decided that just as I ask the people of this congregation to serve God and neighbor apart from what they do at work or in their home lives, I need to be willing to use my talents as a campaigner in a volunteer capacity.

Each of us who follows Jesus needs to find the ways of serving others that fit our personalities and God-given talents. Not everyone of us can sew like Flo Wheatley. I can't, for example. That's why I volunteer my services as a campaigner.

Second: We need to find ways to use every event that comes to us in life as occasions for service. After the wedding Ann and I attended a few weekends 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, as some of you know, is a home for the severely mentally and physically handicapped, run by the Lutheran Church, up in Napoleon, Ohio. 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. Carol Barrett has lots of great ideas for fun and meaningful ways we can serve our neighbors as part of Friendship's outreach for Christ. You can volunteer to get involved in those ministries of service with her.

I also hope that you’re continuing to pray with me about where in the world we might go on a short-term mission trip in 2004. Since I last discussed this with you, I’ve been in contact with a Christian ministry called Short-Term Evangelical Missions. In a few weeks, I hope that I can report to you about the possibilities for you and me to go on a servant trip.

You’ve probably heard the 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 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 change the world for the better.

[I appreciate the inspiration for this series provided by the pastors and staff of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church of Burnsville, Minnesota through their Thematic Programming publication.]