Friday, May 18, 2012

Go Beyond Others' Expectations...You'll Smile!

Yesterday, my wife and I went to buy a few items at Giant Eagle. As we headed toward the self check, I spotted a display of DVDs. Among them were several titles by Leslie Sansone, the inventor of the simple walk at home workouts Ann and I really enjoy. One title looked especially good to us and the price was just $7.99.

We tossed the DVD into our cart and headed for the checkout. The last item I scanned was the Leslie Sansone DVD. As I did, the computer-generated voice said, "9.99." I touched the button on the computer screen for assistance and within seconds, a store manager appeared.

I explained what happened and she said, "Go ahead and complete your transaction, sir, and meet me at the register ahead." At the register, she hit some buttons and was handing my receipt to me when my wife, more alert than me, said, "You gave us the DVD for free?" "That's right!" she said, "have a nice evening and enjoy the workout."

Even if Ann and I didn't already love Giant Eagle, we would have become fans at that moment.

I've since learned that what the manager did is corporate policy.

But can you imagine what the world would be like if we did always did more than was expected of us?

What would happen in our families and marriages?

In our businesses and churches?

Based on what Ann and I felt as we left Giant Eagle yesterday, I can tell you there would be a lot more smiling faces. (The fun thing is the manager smiled too. It feels good when we go above and beyond people's expectations of us!)

Jesus once said that those who follow Him are to love even their enemies and to pray for the people who persecute them for their allegiance to Him.

At one level, that makes sense: The believer in Jesus knows that because of God's great charity, we're forgiven for our sins and Christ has given us a relationship with God that lasts eternally. We can afford to be loving and to pray for those who hate us. We know that nothing can separate us from the love of God given through Jesus!

Still, loving and praying for enemies is a countercultural and, really, who in this world would expect a person to do such crazy things?

But Jesus goes on to explain: "...if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?...And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?..." When we fail to love our enemies and pray for those who give us a hard time in life, we're no different from everybody else. But, Jesus calls those who want to follow Him into eternity, to be different. In Matthew 5:48, He tells His followers to "be your heavenly Father is perfect," meaning abandon the fractured, self-protecting ways of this world and embrace the wholeness and self-giving ways of God Himself.

Company policy at Giant Eagle set that manager free to be more considerate of two customers than we expected her to be.

Jesus Christ sets those who believe in Him free to be the people of love and consideration that we want to be, that God made us to be.

Loving enemies and praying for those who hate us way may not change the minds or hearts of those who experience our love. But then again it might.

And having permission to go above and beyond others' expectations like that is a wonderful thing!

If you confess that Jesus is your God and King, you are among the most free human beings on the planet. (Even when your enemies are powerful people who put you in jail for your faith in Christ!)

So, use your freedom!

Go ahead, right now: Do something loving for an enemy, pray for those who persecute or ridicule your faith. It will make you smile!

[Be sure to look at the passages from Scripture that you can click onto from the links above.]

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Love and Obedience

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

John 15:9-17
Sometimes, you’ll hear the recording of a 911 call on a news report. If the caller seems to be in distress or danger, the 911 dispatcher always tells the caller to stay on the line until help arrives. “Stay on the line!” they sometimes almost plead. I’ve yet to hear a caller tell a dispatcher, “You can’t tell me what to do. Buzz off, buddy!”

When a person’s life is at risk, it’s unlikely that they’ll disobey the orders of a person who can save them.

Yet, day in and day out, all kinds of people tell God, the only One Who can save them from sin and death, to buzz off. They may not be so crass or impious as to say that out loud, but there are lots of people, even people who identify themselves as Christians, who, by their lives and actions, shake their fists at God, cut themselves off from God, and tell God. "You're not the boss of me! Buzz off!"

Today’s gospel lesson, is part of the long Farewell Discourse from the Gospel of John that starts in John 13 and extends through John 17.

In last week’s gospel lesson, words which immediately precede those in today’s lesson, Jesus begins to use the word abide, a word meaning to remain, to continue.

Jesus uses it again today. Please turn to today’s lesson, John 15:9-17. Look particularly at verses 9-12. Jesus says: “As the Father loved Me, I also have loved you; abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full. This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

Jesus is telling all of us who follow Him: “Don’t hang up! Stay in touch with Me. Maintain your contact so that you can keep receiving the blessings of my love for you. Stay in touch so that you need not face eternity naked and judged in your sin, but covered, clothed in my forgiving grace, worthy through Your faith in Me to enter eternity with God. Only I can save you. Obey My Father and Me: Live in My love. That’s My commandment.”

I suppose that when preachers start talking about loving God and loving others, we risk sounding like a Hallmark card, all mush and misty eyes. But Jesus’ love is more than mere sentiment or thinking nice thoughts.

Jesus’ love for us was so passionate, so consuming, that He voluntarily went to a cross to take the punishment for sin you and I deserved.

And He tells us to live that same kind of love for others--for our neighbors, co-workers, family members, strangers.

It’s a love that sees every person in the world as friends worth dying for. “Greater love than this has no [one],” Jesus says in verse 13 “than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Then Jesus tells us that we’re to love like that: “You are My friends if you do whatever I command you.”

Jesus wants us to abide in His love so that we can know and experience the same joyful love He had for us when He went to the cross to kill the power of sin, not over His life, but over ours.

Now, we all know that Jesus’ love can make a difference in our everyday lives. Christ’s love assures us that the God of the universe Who made everything cares about us and what happens to us.

Author Brendan Manning tells the story of an Irish priest walking through his parish one day when he saw a peasant on the side of the road, praying. The priest was pleased and said, “You must be very close to God.” The praying man thought about that for a moment, smiled, and said, “Yes, He thinks a lot of me!”

God thinks a lot of you, too. And when we know how much we’re loved by Christ, we’re no more inclined to tell Him to “buzz off” than is a person talking with a 911 dispatcher. When you realize how desperately you need Christ, you want to abide in Him. You want to stick close to Him. Abiding in Him isn't a grim commandment when you think about it, but an undeserved and infinitely valuable treasure!

But, that’s the easy part of being a Christian. It’s easy to let the God we know in Jesus Christ to love us. There’s a harder part.

That’s the part Jesus talks about in verse 12 of our lesson. He says: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

The way we remain connected with Christ is to do what He tells us to do: To love others just as He has loved us.

But as was true of Jesus, Who went to the cross to give away His love, for us, loving others entails more than thinking warm thoughts about others.

It entails obedience to God’s commandments--the commandment to repent and believe in Jesus, the call to keep the ten commandments, the great commandment to love our fellow believers--even when everything within us wants to do what we want to do, to seek our own pleasure and our own ease, to go it alone.

That’s the hard part of being a Christian!

Author Philip Yancey tells about Mother Teresa's appearance at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC during the Clinton years. Yancey says that Mother Teresa was, “… [r]olled out in a wheelchair, the frail, eighty-three-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate needed help to stand up. A special platform had been positioned to allow her to see over the podium. Even so, hunched over, four-feet-six-inches tall, she could barely reach the microphone. She spoke clearly and slowly with a thick accent in a voice that nonetheless managed to fill the auditorium.

“Mother Teresa said that America [had] become a selfish nation, in danger of losing the proper meaning of love [which she defined in this way]: ‘giving until it hurts.’"

Love is giving it until it hurts. Not just your money, but your whole life.

That’s what Jesus commands us to do, to love as He has loved, to love others until it hurts.

To be honest, I don’t much like that definition of love. I want to think of myself as being a loving and giving person. And I want others to see me in those ways, too. But I don’t want to love so much that it hurts.

And yet sometimes when love really is love as Jesus loves us, it will hurt.

And that is hard. When I was a young pastor, a seasoned pastor gave me a warning. "A pastor who doesn't love the people of his parish is worthless," he said. "But brace yourself: Sometimes the people you have loved and cared for most sacrificially, the people in whom you have poured your heart and soul will be the very ones who turn on you, cause trouble with your church, talk about you most viciously behind your back." Maybe because people hate facing people before whom they've been so vulnerable and human, whether because of tragedy, difficulties, or sin that bent them so low they felt that they had to talk with their pastor, I have found that pastor's warning to have been warranted. Sometimes the people on whom a pastor has expended the most time and the biggest investments of Christ's love and grace are the people who become the pastor's biggest thorns in the flesh. But a pastor who doesn't love the people of his parish is worthless.

The people we love or serve in Jesus’ Name may not love us back.

The people we love may die or move out of our lives.

But remember this: When Jesus commands obedience to God’s commandments even if it hurts, He doesn’t ask us to do anything that He Himself wasn’t willing to do!

When Jesus went to a cross for you and me, it was no picnic. And He says that to maintain a connection with Him that will sustain us and encourage us through bad times and good and give us the assurance of eternity spent with Him, we’re to love in the same way.

Love entails sacrifice. It entails risk. It also entails obedience to Jesus command to live His love.

“The men of Block 14 were digging gravel outside the Auschwitz concentration camp in July 1941,” writer Harold J. Sala says. “Suddenly the sirens began to shriek. There’d been an escape. That evening [the fears of the other prisoners] were confirmed: [the escapee] was from their block. [That meant that their Nazi captors would take it out on them.] Next day, the block’s six hundred men were forced to stand on the parade ground under the broiling sun. ‘At the day’s end,’ [a reporter named Connie Lauerman later said], ‘the deputy commander, Fritsch, arrived in his crisply pressed uniform, and shiny jackboots to announce the fate of the terrified men in dirty...prison suits. “The fugitive hasn’t been found,” barked Fritsch. “In reprisal for your comrade’s escape, ten of you will die of starvation.”’

“The men slated for starvation were selected. One of them...a Polish army sergeant, was sobbing, ‘My wife and my children.’ Then a Polish Franciscan priest, Maximilian Kolbe, pushed his way to the front as...guards sighted their rifles on his chest. ‘Herr Kommandant,’ he said, ‘a request.’ ’What do you want?’...’I want to die in place of this prisoner,’ [he said, pointing to the sobbing man]...’I’ve no wife and no children...’ [There was] a stunned silence, and then [the commandant said curtly,] ‘Request granted.’”

What would cause a man to sacrifice himself like that?

Simply, he was obedient to the command to love that comes from the One he knew had loved Him on the cross. Maximilian Kolbe loved because he had been loved by Christ and through that love, was confident that beyond the grave, Christ would keep on loving Him eternally.

Do you have that confidence this morning? Are you certain enough of Christ’s love for you and your connection with Him that you can love others, even those you find unlovable, until it hurts?

Thank God that our obedience to love others like Jesus loved us probably won't call us to die a martyr’s death, though we can't say for sure.

But we will certainly be called to love as Christ loved nonetheless and it’s only as we remain obedient to that call that we will stay connected to Christ.

Today and every day, may we remain obedient to God’s commandments and live in the love Christ gave us on the cross. Amen