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Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Character of Christ: Priority for the Poor (Matthew 25:31-46)

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31 “Now when the Human One comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne.32 All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right side. But the goats he will put on his left.
34 “Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. 35 I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. 36 I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’
37 “Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? 38 When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
40 “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Get away from me, you who will receive terrible things. Go into the unending fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink. 43 I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’
44 “Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and didn’t do anything to help you?’
45Then he will answer, ‘I assure you that when you haven’t done it for one of the least of these, you haven’t done it for me.’ 46And they will go away into eternal punishment. But the righteous ones will go into eternal life.”

We continue in our “Character of Christ” series as we look at Jesus’ priority for the poor.  In a world where many overlook and ignore the poorest of the poor, Jesus is once again showing his character is counter-cultural – that what we do to the least in our society, we do to him.

For some reason, when you start talking about issues like wealth and poverty, income inequality and systems of economic injustice, everyone seems to have an opinion.  Maybe because it’s such a hot topic in our current political climate that to even bring up the topic is to start a heated debate, but that’s not what we’re here to do.  We’re not here to advance any particular party platform; but we are going to let Jesus have his say on the issue.  If that makes you uncomfortable, you have two options – you can either take it up with Jesus, or, you can think about why it makes you uncomfortable, and see if that discomfort isn’t an opportunity to grow.

All of us can relate to Mark Twain, who said, “It ain't those parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”  Money was one of Jesus’ favorite topics.  Jesus had much to say about wealth, poverty, and in particular, how the relationship of those who “have” with those who “have not” is less an economic issue than a spiritual one. 

Personally, I wish Jesus had said a little bit less about money than he did.  My life would certainly be easier and more comfortable if Jesus knew or cared that it’s not polite to talk about money.  Who does Jesus think he is, anyway, to tell me what to do with my money?

Of course, if we believe what we say all the time that every gift comes from God, that what we have, what we’ve earned, including the ability to earn it, belongs to God and that we are stewards over it, entrusted to use our resources in a way that loves God and our neighbor, well, if all of that really is true, then maybe Jesus is entitled to his opinion, after all.

Money is so personal to many of us – it was then and it is now – and because it’s so personal, it’s like a direct link into the deepest recesses of our hearts.  Jesus teaches us to give freely of what we have, to share it with those who have less, because when we do, we are sharing with Jesus himself.

Jesus said, 35 I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. 36 I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’
37 “Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? 38 When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
40 “Then the king will reply to them,‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’

Friends, if you’re looking for Jesus, start giving and serving.  You’re more likely to find Jesus there than in anything I or anyone else tells you here in church.  Sunday morning is NOT the main event!  Living lives that reflect the generous love of Jesus – that’s the point, folks!  Our worship on Sunday morning is the launching point, the foundation of a whole host of things we do throughout the rest of the week to give our lives in service for others as Jesus gave his life for us, and then we come back the following week to celebrate what God has been up to, before we are equipped to go out, yet again, and look for the face of Jesus reflected in the faces of those we serve.

Worship is supposed to change us – our behaviors, attitudes, and priorities, and it’s my aim every time we gather to give you something that equips you, or teaches you, or inspires you to somehow live your life differently; if we walk out of church pretty much the same people we were when we walked in, well, then all of this was apparently for nothing!

Finding and following Jesus isn’t simply a matter of going to church, but being the church – the living, breathing, moving, growing, risk-taking, mistake-making, relationship-seeking, serving, sharing, giving, hands and feet of Christ in the world.  Like the hokey-pokey, that’s what it’s all about!

Over and over again, the Gospel, the very life and teaching of Jesus, shows a priority for the poor.  Jesus himself was poor, Jesus identifies himself among the poor, he is in constant solidarity with the poor, and he put the question to each of us, “Hey, if you really mean it when you say you want to follow me, how about you join me down here – among the poorest, the lowliest, the least, and the last.  If anyone needs me, I’ll be with the poor.”

That’s why we engage in missions.  Serving the least of these is not about “seeing how other people live so we can be grateful for what we have.”  No.  And serving the least of these is not simply about “doing good and making the world a better place,” though that is a pleasant byproduct.  Plain and simple, serving the least of these is about seeing Jesus face-to-face.

Sometimes people ask me, “Should we be doing missions locally or globally, and my answer is “Yes.”  It’s not an either/or proposition, it’s a both/and.  Maybe serving right here in the community lights your fire; maybe going halfway around the world is your thing, and honestly, there’s enough need out there that as long as you’re serving somewhere, you really can’t go wrong, and I guarantee you will see Jesus.  See, here’s the thing, it’s about seeing Jesus reflected in those we serve and in those who serve us.  It’s about them hopefully seeing Jesus reflected in us, and together, finding ourselves a bit closer to the kingdom of God.

Alternately, a failure to honor the least of these is a slap in the face of Jesus himself: ‘I assure you that when you haven’t done it for one of the least of these, you haven’t done it for me.’ 46And they will go away into eternal punishment.

Friends, the stakes are high.  Jesus doesn’t present serving the least of these as a good idea or something to do if we feel like it or have the time.  Jesus tells us to serve and to share and to give as if our eternal standing with God depends on it – because it does.

Someone will ask, “What if I give to someone, and they spend it on drugs or lotto tickets or junk food or fancy clothes – wouldn’t it be better for me to give them nothing at all?”

No, and you know why?  What we give someone is between us and God.  Just think, “I’m giving this to Jesus.”  What they do with it is between them and God.  And you know what else?  Jesus has given me a lot of gifts that I probably didn’t use very wisely either.  My guess is that’s true for each of us.  We call that grace.  Thank God that grace didn’t stop in our lives even when we were irresponsible and wasteful and ungrateful – thank God that despite us, God’s grace keeps flowing.  Likewise, the followers of Jesus are called to give as Jesus gave – freely, without condition or bias.

The thing about giving, is that once we give it, it’s no longer ours.  We give up the right to comment on or control how it’s used.  If you’re still trying to control it even after it’s left your hands, then guess what – you didn’t really give it.  You can’t give with a tightly-closed fist; giving requires an open hand – releasing and letting go of the gift itself and our desire to control it.

For me, I’d rather err on the side of grace and be found giving too generously, than to err on the side of judgment and be found stingy.  One day I’ll have to give an account for my life and how I did or did not bless others with what I was blessed with.  One day Jesus will say to me, “I was empty, I was parched, I was friendless and alone, I was vulnerable and exposed, I was trapped and confined – I was all of those things” and I would rather hear Jesus say, “Thank you for helping me,” than have to explain when he says, “Why didn’t you help me?”

So, that’s where the sermon was supposed to end – neat and tidy package.  But you know, God has a really good sense of humor, and often that includes giving me an opportunity to practice what I preach.

I was working on this very sermon on Friday afternoon, when my phone rang.  Somebody looking for money – they had called the church office, gotten my cell phone from the recording, and called me – at home – to ask for help.

You probably know this, but we get calls like this a lot.  We don’t help folks directly with financial help; we support several agencies in town that do, and we always refer folks to them and often get hung up on when we do.  On Friday afternoon, I found myself talking with a 20-year-old man who moved here from out of state a month ago.  He was trying to scrape together enough bus fare to get back home to see his father who had just had a heart attack.  He had $86, and needed $123 total for the bus ticket.  Did I mention I was working on this sermon and contemplating this very concluding question?  I heard myself say, “Tell me where you are, I can help.”

I told Ashley what was up as I put on my shoes, still shaking my head and saying, “Are you kidding me?” – actually, those aren’t the exact words I said, but you get the idea!

As I drove down to High Point, a voice in the back of my head said, “Give him $100.  And I said, “Jesus, he only needs $40.”  “Give him that $100 bill you have in your wallet.”  I don’t carry that kind of cash, usually.  But I received it as a gift a few weeks ago and was saving it to take my wife out to a really nice dinner.  And so I argued, “That money is not for him, and again, he only needs $40.  I’m going to stop at the ATM and get $40 out and this is the end of it.”

It was not the end of it.  I met him in the parking lot of the extended stay hotel he’s been staying in, and we talked for a minute, and I reached for my wallet, handed him one of my business cards, with that $100 bill tucked behind it.  And this young man who had talked a mile a minute looked at what I had handed him was speechless, and I said, “You need to get something to eat on that trip, and who knows what you might need to pick up once you get home, so just take it before I change my mind.”  He started to cry, gave me a hug, and said, “You don’t even know me!” and I said, “No, but I do know Jesus, and I know this is what he wants me to do for you.”

What does it mean?  It may mean that I’m a big sucker and got taken in by a sad story.  And if I did, so be it.  But I think it’s something different.  I think God looked out and saw a need, and God thought, “Well, A.J.’s paying attention to this sort of thing right now, so it looks like this one is his.”

I don’t tell you this so you think more of me or pat me on the back – that’s not the point at all.  I tell you this to let you know that on Friday afternoon, Jesus looked like a scared young man far from home trying to get back to his family.  I wouldn’t be surprised one day to hear Jesus say to me, “I was anxious and far from home and my dad had a heart attack, and you helped me get back home.”

How about you?  Would you like to meet Jesus face-to-face?  You can.  Start paying attention to your opportunities to share and serve and give.  Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to Jesus himself.  Go find Jesus, and do everything you can for him.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Character of Christ: Humbly Hospitable (Luke 14:7-11)

When Jesus noticed how the guests sought out the best seats at the table, he told them a parable. “When someone invites you to a wedding celebration, don’t take your seat in the place of honor. Someone more highly regarded than you could have been invited by your host. The host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give your seat to this other person.’ Embarrassed, you will take your seat in the least important place. 10 Instead, when you receive an invitation, go and sit in the least important place. When your host approaches you, he will say, ‘Friend, move up here to a better seat.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests. 11 All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”

If you come to dinner in our home, we want you to be as comfortable around our table as you are around your own.  When we have overnight guests, we give them a room that is every bit as comfortable as our own, with fresh sheets and towels for their use.  All of these accommodations are part of the practice we call “hospitality.”  Hospitality is really more of an art than a science, and it includes all the measures we take to make other people, particularly our guests, feel comfortable and at home.  Showing hospitality to our guests lets them know that we welcome them, we value them, we are glad and honored to have them with us.

We are in a series of messages on “The Character of Christ.”  Each week, we’re taking a look at a different aspect of Jesus’ character, as we try to put those pieces together to gain a better picture of who Jesus is, what he’s about, and how we who follow him can try on those character traits for ourselves.  Today’s character trait is “Humble Hospitality;” Jesus practiced humble hospitality, and we are called to do the same.  May we pray.

At dinner, the seating arrangement can be as important as the menu.  A bad seating arrangement can set the stage for World War III, or at the very least, an unpleasant dining experience.  You try to keep in mind who is left-handed so you can put them on the corner, who can squeeze in to the chairs on the other side of the table, who has kids who need assistance, and so on.

As the event gets bigger, it gets more complicated – which members of the family aren’t on speaking terms this year, which uncle loves to talk about politics and assumes everyone is as staunchly whatever he is, and what IS the name of your cousin’s current husband, anyway?

There’s also this tricky issue of a social hierarchy, and a ranking, if you will, of seats.  Some people aren’t bothered by that at all, for others, it’s a very big deal.  The reality is, however, that SOMEBODY is going to be seated at the back of the room.  SOMEBODY is going to be closest to the bar.  SOMEBODY is going to be seated near the kitchen.  SOMEBODY has to sit next to Crazy Uncle Charlie, and SOMEBODY gets to sit next to sweet Aunt Edna.

When we attend a wedding as family or friends, we get seated with people in the same category of relationships – the “cousins” table or the “college friends” table or so on.  But when we show up to a wedding reception as pastor, however, we’re a bit more of an unknown variable.  Many times, the couple or their family are the only people who know us, and then we are sort of this wildcard in the seating chart.  We often end up at table of strangers, all of whom know each other because they’re either family or friends already, but who don’t know us.  Typically, as we approach the table, there’s a look of panic on the faces of the people already seated, that you can translate as something along the lines of, “Oh no!  The pastor is sitting with us!  There goes our chances for fun at this party!”

Jesus loved to gather around the table and share a meal, according to the Gospel of Luke.  Throughout the Gospel you’ll find him at many different tables, sharing many meals with many people.  He eats with his disciples and close friends and with great crowds of strangers.  He eats with tax collectors and sinners and with scribes and Pharisees.  Given that one of the images of the kingdom of God is of a great banquet, that makes a lot of sense.  A potluck supper may very well be practice for heaven, because a good meal is a foretaste of the kingdom of God.

In our text for today from the 14th Chapter of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is at a dinner party, and based on what he observes, he offers some advice to both the host and the guests – showing honor and respect to our guests and to one another, in other words, about hospitality.

Growing up, everyone in the family had assigned seats around the dinner table.  I don’t know that they were ever actually assigned, but we always sat in the same seat.  Dad at the head of the table, then moving clockwise was my Mom, my little brother, me, and my two older sisters.

About the time I turned 12, we were about to sit down to dinner one night, and Mom and Dad announced a new seating arrangement – my oldest sister and I were to trade places, because apparently my appetite had grown to adolescent proportions, and by the time the food was passed to my sisters, they were not, in their opinion, getting enough to eat.  Never mind the breakfast cereal issue we talked about a few weeks ago, where my sisters always got to breakfast first and left me with only crumbs of my favorite cereals – and no I don’t want to talk about it – but the seating arrangement was changed to make sure everyone got enough.

Jesus was at a banquet, where he observed the guests jockeying for the best places around the table.  Into a world where everyone is trying to secure the best spots for themselves, Jesus says, “Hey, try something different.  Don’t take the best spot for yourself.  Take the place of least honor, least privilege, least convenience.  Make room, the best room, for someone else.”

I know a lot of people who have a really hard time with this particular teaching, especially those who have worked hard and climbed higher and done well for themselves in this life.  Rank has its privileges, after all, and why would I want to give those up?

Because that’s part of following Jesus.  Jesus tells us what life is like in his kingdom, where, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last” (Matthew 20:16), and “the greatest among you shall be your servant” (Matthew 23:11), right down to the concluding verse of today’s text:  “All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up” (Luke 14:11).  The life of faith involves coming to believe and practice these very things.

I guarantee we cannot practice hospitality without humility.  It means letting go of what we feel we’ve earned or deserve or are entitled to and giving that up so someone else can have it.  Humble hospitality is a character trait of Jesus, and of those who follow him – it involves making room for others, and not just any room, the best room! 

One of the best, most concrete ways a church can practice hospitality is in our parking lot.  Robert Schuller was once asked, “What is absolutely essential for a church to grow?” and he responded, “A good parking lot.”  And that’s true.  A church can have outstanding preaching, great music, wonderful programs, a heart for missions, and warm fellowship, but if people can’t even find a spot in the lot, they’re never going to get out of the car, walk in the building, and experience what we have to offer.  Hospitality starts before anyone ever walks through the door.

That’s why we added visitor parking back in the fall.  Other than the handicap spots, our visitor parking are the best spots in the lot – closest to the door, least amount of walking required, straight shot in whether to the fellowship hall for 9 am worship or the sanctuary for 10:55.  We have taken the best spots we have and handed them over to our guests.  We’re saying, “Those aren’t for us anymore, those are for our guests.”

If you are a guest here, from the very moment you pull in the parking lot, we want you to know that room, the best room, has been specially prepared just for you.  Our members care so much about you that they are willing to sacrifice a little of their own convenience so you can have the best spot.

Hospitality goes beyond designated visitor parking.  We’re starting to have a really good problem around here – more and more Sundays, we’re running short on parking.  I’ll take that problem every day of the week and twice on Sundays, which works out well for our schedule!

Last Sunday, someone came in and told me, “We got the very last spot in the very back of the lot!”  And that’s great, but I couldn’t help but think about the folks who pulled in after they did, the ones who didn’t get the last parking space, the ones who didn’t come in and join us in worship, the ones whom God loves very much and who need to be welcomed into a loving community like ours, yet who turned around and went back home, thinking, “I guess they don’t have room for me.” 

Friends, that’s a problem.  One that needs to be solved.  As far as the city is concerned, we’ve already built more facility and parking on these 2.5 acres than they would let us get away with now.  It’s a problem that’s going to get worse as we continue to grow.  It’s a problem that’s going to get worse when Horse Pen Creek Road is widened and we lose a dozen parking spaces.

Capacity isn’t determined by the size of the building.  It’s determined by the availability of parking.  We will run out of parking spaces long before we run out of seats.  Would you believe that parking could be the thing that limits our growth?

But there’s an easy solution.  One that doesn’t cost us anything, that doesn’t require us to build or buy anything at this time.  There are over 400 parking spots next door at the YMCA, and yes, though the Y is open and there is a church that meets there, they are nowhere near “full” on Sunday morning.  There’s even a sidewalk that connects the two properties.  I park over there every Sunday – rain, snow, or shine – one less car in our lot means one more space for someone else.

So here’s my challenge to you, should you choose to accept it: join me over there.  Especially if you are physically able, take a place of less honor and convenience for yourself, and make room, the best room, for someone else.  Instead of that person finding the lot full and turning around thinking, “I guess they don’t have room for me,” let them know that we do.

It’s good for us to remember whose church this is.  Not mine as the pastor, not the District Superintendent’s or the Bishop’s, nor the members.  This church is Christ’s church, and our aim here is to do what Jesus wants us to do.  Jesus already told us what that is – to go and make disciples.

It’s why we need to keep making room.  The Gospel is about making room – God making room for all of humanity in God’s family, everyone ending up with a better room than we deserve.  Jesus made room for us when we had done nothing to deserve that spot – amazing grace, indeed – and the Gospel continues when we make a place, the best place, for someone else to be welcomed into the family.

You see, in the kingdom of God, the best seats are the cheap seats.  Jesus is telling us to leave our ego-centric seats of man-made honor and privilege.   Jesus is asking us to give up our seats – our self-important seats, our judgment seats, and move to a better place, a godly place, a more honorable place.

Jesus invites us down to the place where he so often puts himself: in the seat of the servant.  It’ll be a new perspective, but I guarantee it’s one that will bring the kingdom of God a little closer.  Jesus said, “All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”

If you really want to see Jesus, you can’t beat the view from the cheap seats.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Why "Creation" vs. "Evolution" is the Wrong Starting Point

"Zing!"  "Take that!"  "That oughta shut them up!"

So went the volley of commentary on this week's much publicized debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham on "Creationism" and "Evolution."  Mr. Ham advocates a position of "Young Earth" and a literal 6-day creation model as outlined in the first chapters of the book of Genesis; Mr. Nye advocates a more Darwinian Evolutionary model of creation that played out over billions of years.

So sets the stage for each side to fire zingers back and forth at each other, each making their case for their position, each side feeling their spokesperson had, at one point or another, fired the silver bullet that completely obliterated the case of the other.


I know, some people get really excited about it - "Faith vs. Science - the showdown to end all showdowns, who will emerge victorious and settle it once and for all?" - but I find that this "vs." language sets up a false adversarial relationship between the two.  So long as we continue to view Faith and Science as locked in some sort of eternal showdown where one will emerge as a winner and the other a loser, I fear we all lose, regardless of what "side" of the debate we stand on.

It's the very concept of a "debate" - us vs. them, either/or - that I find troubling.  What if, rather than opponents in a debate, we saw Faith and Science as partners in a conversation?

Part of the reason Faith and Science come up with such different answers is because they are asking fundamentally different questions.  At the risk of over-simplification, Science tends to ask "How" questions, while Faith asks "Why" questions.  One conclusion doesn't have to be wrong in order for the other to be right - take for example, a kettle boiling on the stove.  One explanation may be that the kettle is boiling because heat has been introduced to the kettle from the stove, and the heat has caused the metal of the kettle to rise in temperature.  The heat is then transferred to the water molecules inside the kettle.  As those molecules get hotter and hotter, they move against each other faster and faster, crashing and careening off each other like some sort of molecular demolition derby.  They keep getting hotter and crashing into each other more and more violently until finally some of the water molecules crash so hard off each other that they go flying off altogether and escape as what we know as steam.  That process explains the boiling kettle.

But could it not also be true that the kettle is boiling because I would like a cup of tea?

Both explanations are true.  The validity of one claim does not cancel out the other.

I think the same is true of Faith and Science.  Sometimes, they reach such vastly different conclusions because they are asking fundamentally different questions in the first place.  But the claims of one need not be a threat to the claims of the other - unless we choose to make them adversaries.  We are the ones who turn what should be a conversation into a debate.

As a person of faith, what I often see are my brothers and sisters who contort the Bible and other sources of our faith by interrogating them with questions they were never designed to answer.  It's like using the wrong tool for the job - sure you might be able to muscle it and get the results you desire, but usually you end up mangling the tool and botching the job at the same time.

I think that's what happened among people of faith who treat the Bible like a science textbook. We end up asking the Bible to explain and "prove" things it was never designed to answer.  Take the Bible's first book, Genesis.  The word "genesis" means "beginnings," and so Genesis is a story of origins - particularly the origins of the human family in the context of our unique relationship with God.

The beginning of Genesis is beautiful poetry, with a steady, thunderous, rhythmic cadence that even comes through in the English translation.  Like all poetry, it is rich with symbolism and metaphor, dividing creation into six proverbial "days," with the climactic refrain of, "And there was morning, and there was evening, the first (second, third, etc.) day," concluding each stanza of the poem.

Beautiful!  The poem is not a blow-by-blow factual account of how the created world came to be, but rather a rich treasure trove that witnesses to a God who is powerful, creative, artistic, and relational.  It doesn't seek to prove God's existence, but presumes it  (In the beginning, God . . . ), and then tells us of our special place in all of God's creation, how we are imbued with the same creativity and capacity for love as God because we are created in God's image, how we are given a specific responsibility to care for creation and one another, and to be in relationship with God.  The rest of the Bible is the story of how we fail, time and time again, to do just that, but all the extraordinary lengths to which God continues to go to help us do what we were designed to do in the first place.

But reading the first part of Genesis as a "how-to" manual for creation is holding it up to a standard it was never intended to defend, interrogating it with questions it is not designed to answer.  It's like using the wrong tool for the job, both the tool and the job end up mangled.  Treating the Bible like a science textbook robs the Bible of its true beauty and inspired power.

Science and Faith are only adversaries if we make them so in our own minds.  I think they are actually better friends than we realize.  Allowing them to be partners in conversation rather than opponents in a debate makes them both infinitely more interesting.  I am perfectly comfortable allowing Science and Faith to reach vastly different conclusions because I recognize that they are starting with fundamentally different questions.  Nothing in the conversation is a threat to me or what I believe.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Character of Christ: Compassion for the Crowd (Matthew 9:35-38)

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35 Jesus traveled among all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, announcing the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every sickness. 36 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were troubled and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The size of the harvest is bigger than you can imagine, but there are few workers. 38 Therefore, plead with the Lord of the harvest to send out workers for his harvest.”

If you’re just joining us today, we are in the middle of a series of messages on “The Character of Christ,” and we’re looking at various character traits of Jesus Christ – who is he, what is he about, and what does that mean for us?  Our goal in this series is for all of us – whether we’ve known Jesus for a long time or are still making up our minds about him – to get to know Jesus a bit better, so we can follow him a little closer.  This week’s character trait is “Compassion for the Crowd.”  Jesus was filled with compassion for the crowd, and we who follow him are called to the same.  May we pray.

So the big news story this week, especially here in the South, was winter weather.  As someone who grew up in Buffalo, I am no stranger to winter weather, and by the age of 17, had mastered the art of “slide turns,” intentionally putting my Dad’s Ford LTD into a fishtail slide going around corners so as to have enough momentum to bust through the snowbanks without getting stuck.

Of course, I call North Carolina home now, and have been here for over 11 years, at this point, where the perspective on winter weather is, shall we say, different.  I wrote a blog piece this week about how the southern panic around snow used to make me laugh, but how I have gradually come to understand it, and even embrace it.  Every time it snows down here, I find myself on the precarious bridge of interpretation to my Yankee friends and family, trying to help them understand why 2 inches of snow here is a bigger deal than 2 feet back home, including things like how the snow here usually has at least some component of ice mixed in, and how we don’t have the fleet of equipment here to deal with it, etc. etc.  You can go to my blog and read it for yourself, if you want.

By now, we all know what happened in Atlanta – how the entire city turned into an icy parking lot when the snow hit, a snowpocalypse, if you will, and thousands of people, like the city itself, ended up frozen in place wherever they happened to be at the time.

To me, the real story are the strangers who went out of their way to help the folks who were stranded – opening their homes and businesses for people to have a warm place to sleep overnight, people who packed food and hot drinks and supplies and just wandered out to the highway and began passing them out.  In a matter of hours, 46,000 people joined a Facebook group called “Snowed Out Atlanta,” in an effort to communicate where there were needs, where there were resources, and how to get those two things together.

Strangers helping strangers, folks looking out upon the crowd of people right around them and being filled with compassion – sorta reminds me of Jesus.

In today’s Scripture from the 9th Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is a on a multi-city preaching tour, announcing the good news of God’s kingdom, healing and teaching, and as he does, the crowds continue to grow, and Jesus had compassion for the crowds.

That got me thinking about how much time we spend among the crowds – out in stores and restaurants, on highways and in airports – how much of our time is spent among that mass of humanity whose names and faces and stories we do not know, and neither do they know ours.

Early in my time at Duke, I was walking across campus with a friend from a small town in Mississippi, and he did, what I thought, was the strangest thing – he made eye contact with and said “Hello” to the people we passed.  I explained to him that I was used to walking along, aware of my surroundings, but never making direct eye contact with people walking past or otherwise acknowledging their presence, and he said, “What do you boys call that up there?” and I said, “We call it minding our own business.”  He said, “Where I’m from, we just call that ‘rude.’”  I explained to him that where I was from, what HE was doing would have been completely unnerving to people.

How often do we take notice of the people in the crowds?  My guess is, “Not very often,” or when we do, it’s in terms of our annoyance with how these strangers are getting in our way and interfering with what we plan to do.  “Why are all these people in line at the grocery store – I have places to be and things to do,” perhaps not realizing that the people in line behind us might just be thinking the same thing about us.  Or, “why am I the only one who knows how to drive – if you slow pokes would just move over to the right like you’re supposed to and let me by”. . . my wife pointed out to me that I’ve said that one pretty much verbatim on more than one occasion.

What if we were to respond to the crowds more like Jesus does?  Not with hostility or annoyance, not with “stranger danger” or blind indifference, no – “When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were troubled and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36).

Jesus doesn’t blame them for their situation, he simply recognizes that, like sheep without a shepherd, they are prone to wander and stray and find their own path, because no one is there to guide them.  Jesus is not annoyed that the crowds are lost and troubled and helpless, nor is he indifferent to their plight.   Jesus shows compassion.

Compassion is like a deep feeling of empathy, it’s that emotion we feel in response to the sufferings of others that motivates us to help.  It’s a gut feeling – you know how sometimes you feel something down in your gut – down deep in the very center of who you are – that’s how compassion is.  Now, as the Bible talks about having compassion, it’s actually quite a graphic concept.  Let me see if I can get the point across and still keep it polite.  The idea in the original Greek is that Jesus was moved with compassion in the same churning way your bowels might move when whatever is in them is headed either north or south.

Jesus sees the crowd – that nameless, faceless, mass of humanity, each scattering off in their own unshepherded direction – Jesus sees the crowd and his gut churns with compassion – with deep, abiding love for them, and for you, and for me.

Perhaps Rev. Lovejoy from The Simpsons said it best, that, “There is more to being a minister than not caring about people!”  Though he said it sarcastically, being a minister, whether clergy or a layperson, indeed being a Christian means that we are called to care so much for others that we are literally sick to our stomach at the needs around us.  Would it come to pass that we might have that same, intense compassion for the crowd that Jesus himself has – that we would learn the names of the nameless, the faces of the faceless, become friends to the friendless – that we might look upon “the crowds” around us, and feel their needs as acutely as our own.

For Jesus, compassion isn’t simply a feeling – it necessarily leads to action.  It is not enough to simply feel: Jesus calls us to respond and do something about it.  In the Scripture, just as soon as it tells us how Jesus was filled with compassion, in the very next sentence he is telling his disciples about the work they will have to do in order to bring in a harvest.  For Jesus, these are not two different topics, but one-in-the-same, for the harvest of which he speaks is none other than humanity itself.  The harvest is great – a harvest of wandering sheep who need to hear the voice of The Shepherd and be embraced in his loving arms.

Yet Jesus says that the laborers are few.  He needs more help.  He is calling you and me to join him in his efforts to reach the world.  He still wants people to hear the good news that God loves and cares for them and wants them to experience his love and the love of a caring fellowship, but they will never hear unless others tell them.  Jesus Christ wants a child taught, but that child will never learn unless a teacher emerges to teach.

How many churches do you know that express a desire to grow – more people, more members, more souls reached for Jesus.  They may even be praying for growth, yet I wonder how often God’s response is, “I have already prepared the harvest, but I need you to go out and get it!”  I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know much when it comes to agriculture, but I am pretty sure that the harvest doesn’t just walk in and plop itself down on our plates!  You’ve got to go out there and get it!  Otherwise, it’s like going fishing and expecting the fish to jump right into the boat without having to haul in the nets.

We have good news to share – new life in Christ which is good news to all people.  The world is full of people – a crowd, if you will, for whom Jesus has such compassion that he went to extraordinary lengths to show them his love, even giving his own life for them.  It is not enough for us to simply open the door and hope or even pray that some of the crowd might wander in.  It is not enough for us to set up the banquet table and hope that some of the harvest blows in.

Friends, God has prepared the harvest, but we’ve got to do some of the legwork. There is at least one someone whom each of us could – and must – bring safely to the love of God.

I guarantee you we can never reach the crowd until we first have compassion for them, until something within us moves and stirs to feel and care about the weight of human need all around us.  I remember talking to one man – sort of a grumpy Gus – about why more people didn’t come to church.  He was angry, hostile even, saying, “Why don’t these people know they’re supposed to get up and come to church?  We see them every Sunday on our way in – running, walking the dog, hanging out at the park, in coffee shops, and restaurants.  What’s the matter with these people that they don’t come to church?”

It took everything within me to not say, “Good question, angry, judgmental man with the scary vein popping out on your forehead: I wonder, as you do, what’s the matter with them, that they don’t want to come and  hang out with you on a Sunday morning?”

What that angry man needed was a gut check.  Sometimes we all do.  Jesus had compassion for the crowd, for they were troubled and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.  The thing about lost sheep, is that they often act like lost sheep.  You can’t get mad at them about that!

Christians have compassionate attitudes to such people rather than carping criticism or petty faultfinding against others. Compassionate people do not threaten others with hell and damnation, they simply respond with gut-busting love to the needs around them.  Mother Theresa said, “If you love people, you don’t have time to judge them.”

If they don’t know, it’s because we haven’t told them.  That’s not on them, it’s on us.  If they’re not here, it’s because we haven’t invited them.  If they have stayed away because of fear of judgment or condemnation, it’s because someone, somewhere, fell down on the job of showing them compassion, and so we need to pick up the slack.

Jesus said, “The size of the harvest is bigger than you can imagine, but there are few workers. Therefore, plead with the Lord of the harvest to send out workers for his harvest.”

Friends, let this be your gut check: Have some compassion.  And then get to work.