Wednesday, October 31, 2012

What Do You Want Me To Do For You?

“What do you want me to do for you?”
This is the very same question that Jesus asked James and John in last weeks Gospel.
In that case James and John want Jesus to give them glory.
They want Jesus to let them sit at his right and his left hand.
But today we have a different answer.
This blind beggar asks for healing, for wholeness.
Most important he asks to see!
The disciples are blind and yet they ask for power and prestige.
This blind beggar at least seems to know what he needs.
Do you?
Do we know what we need?

This is a great question for us to ponder together this morning.
What do we want Jesus to do for us?
What have we come here seeking?

This morning we will be witnesses to the Baptism of Noah.
We will be reminded that at some point in our life we too were drowned in these same waters.
In that moment God claimed us as his children.
And really it is God who continues to serve us.
God continues to care about us and ask is this question, “What do you want me to do for you?”

In 1517, a German Monk, named Martin Luther, changed the world.
He changed the way that people thought about God.
Many people in Luther’s day thought of God as angry and vengeful.
They thought that the only way to appease this angry God was to buy God off.
Luther himself saw God this way.
Luther believed that he was unworthy of God’s care and love.
And Luther wanted to understand.
Luther asked God to help him see.
And he was given insight into God.
God was not angry and vengeful.
God was merciful, filled with grace, and love.
God did not desire our demise.
God desired for us to see.
Luther once wrote, “Anyone who regards God as angry is not seeing God correctly, but has pulled down a curtain and cover, more, a dark cloud over His face.
But in Scriptural language “to see His face” means to recognize God correctly as a gracious and faithful Father, on whom you can depend for every good thing. This happens only through faith in Christ.”
Just to paraphrase what Luther wrote, those who see God as angry do not see God properly.
The problem is not God; it is how we see God.

This morning what we see is Jesus ready, willing, and able to give this blind man what he wants/needs.
This morning I would like you to think about times in your life when God helped you.
Those times in your life when you were down and out, those times you were angry, those times you were lost.
When were those times when God uplifted you?
When were those times when God gave you the ability to see better?

When are those times when God helps us to see mercy instead of judgment?
When are those times when we can see forgiveness instead of revenge?
When are those times when we can see love instead of hate?
Grace instead of law.

There was an article in Newsweek written by Dr. Eben Alexander.
Dr. Eben is a neurosurgeon.
By his own admission he did not believe in near death experiences of people traveling to heaven.
He contracted a rare bacterial meningitis.
It attacked his brain and left him for dead.
During that time Dr. Eben said that he went to heaven.
He explains in the article his experience in vivid and great detail.
In part of his journey an angel sits with him on the wing of a butterfly and tells him three important truths.
The message had three parts, and if I had to translate them into earthly language, I’d say they ran something like this:
“You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever.”
“You have nothing to fear.”
“There is nothing you can do wrong.”

Dr. Eben like Martin Luther was given the gift of sight.
He was able to see an important spiritual truth.
But we this morning don’t have to be a medieval scholar, or have a near death experience.
We can know these truths because they are spoken to us by God every day.
They are spoken this day to Noah as he is washed in these waters.
They were spoken to us on the day of our baptism.

The trick is not to lose that sight to be able to see the world, not through our eyes but through the eyes of Jesus.
Perhaps then all of our life can be like the blind man.
We can bet the one who knows that Jesus can save.
We will be the one who does not let people stop him from screaming and yelling to get Jesus attention.
The one who believes that Jesus can and will follow through on his promises.
Do we still believe it?
Do we believe that Jesus can heal us, save us, forgive us?
It is about sight.
Faith is about being able to see into greater truths then what is presented to us.
Faith is about being able to see.

I used to do this Bible study at a day center for seniors.
There was one woman, Hazel, who came to the Bible study who was totally blind.
But every time she would quote from Psalm 46, “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;
She would talk about not needing her eyesight because she saw God just fine.
Indeed she saw better than most people.
She knew that it was God that really was her resting place, not her health, wealth, or anything else.

Interesting it is Psalm 46 that Luther used as the bases to write the great reformation hymn, “A Mighty Fortress.”
Hazel, like Luther and Dr. Eben had gained sight.
These last four weeks we have been talking a lot about discipleship about giving ourselves over to God and about serving others.
Today we get the most important part of that equation how God serves us.
That it is God who gives us the insight to see the needs of others.
It is God who makes us whole enough to be able to serve others.
It is God who cares tenderly for all of us.
God says to us today, “What do you want me to do for you?”
God takes care of us so that we can have the strength, ability, and eyesight to be able to take care of others.
God stands ready to help us.
Are we ready to ask for help?

Part of our insight has to be into ourselves.
We have to be able to understand our own limitations.
We have to know that we can’t do it all.
We need help.
We need saving.
We are the blind man by the road asking Jesus for healing and wholeness.
And when we realize that then God is there ready to lift us up, gives sight, and healing.

Today we can go forth and ask God for what we really need sight to see as God sees us beloved children of God, so that we are made whole and healed.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Be Careful What You Wish For

“You do not know what you are asking.”
Most of the time, like James and John, we don’t know what we are asking for.
 We don’t know what we are getting ourselves into.
We have all heard the expression, “be careful what you wish for.”
That is essentially what Jesus is warning James and John about.
To be a disciple of Jesus, to follow Jesus, to be great means to get low and serve others.
This is not something that one can take lightly.
It is not so much that being a disciple is about being perfect.
It is about the calling to serve, and about being a servant of all.
To give of ourselves without thought of what we get in return.

I have seen it many times in people.
They are searching for God.
Wondering where God is for them.
And when they find God they want nothing but to allow God to use their life.
The problem is that once God has a hold of your life there are all sorts of ways we are called to follow.
There are all sorts of things that we do that we never thought we would do.
It is hard.
And here is the hardest thing.
To do God’s will means to serve others.

Let us be honest about something this morning.
It is not always enjoyable to be around other people.
Other people are lazy, rude, and hurtful.
Other people break your heart.

When I went to seminary I remember having this conversation with God.
I asked that God would use my life to help others, to spread the good news.
I had no idea what I was asking.

When I was on internship in Philadelphia I got my first taste of what this would truly mean.
I became friends with some homeless people in Philadelphia.
Especially a man named Clearance.
I met Clearance on the street through the Church’s feeding program.
I began to drive down to downtown Philly on Sunday mornings to bring him to worship with me.
Soon I learned that Clearance had been keeping everything he owned in a storage unit.
And even though he was homeless he had a job.
The pastor of the church, with my advice, decided that we should help.
The Church put up his first month’s rent and security deposit.
It was in an apartment across the street from the church.
I saw Clearance every day after that and I tried to help him budget his money.
Clearance told me he wanted to get gold teeth.
I told him that he needed to pay his rent.
Sure enough the next time I saw him he had new gold teeth.
A week later I got a call from the landlord that Clearance was two months late on his rent.
Since the church signed the lease we were responsible for the money.
Clearance broke my heart.
I got burned.

I see this all the time in people in the church.
Out of desire to do God’s will they get involved in the work of the church.
They serve on committees, on council, and they give of themselves because they want God to use their lives.
But they get burnt out; they get disillusioned that people are not working as hard as they are.
They get upset that people don’t see things the way they do, or that the church does not live up to its ideals.
Eventually they get burnt out.

But Jesus this morning warns us all about what it really means to be a disciple.
It is not for glory.
It is for servant hood, and that is not always pretty.
It does not always live up to our glorious expectations.
I really believed that the church was going to change Clearance’s life.
That once he had a stable place to live and a community that supported him he would turn his life around.
Life is not that easy.
People are not that easy.
Serving real people does not always produce the results we would want.

But what are we to do?
Should we give up?
Should we stop helping others because it is not going to give us the desired results?

After that incident I learned and grew, but I decided this was merely the price of doing God’s work.
This was what it meant to be a servant.
Jesus’ own work was not some glowing success in the eyes of the world.
It ended in him being killed on the cross, a reality that he saw very clearly.
My internship supervisor told me that if he had to do it all over again he would do the same thing.
He told me this is where the church lives in the real world that is often brutal and failing.
I prayed a lot during and after that time with Clearance.
I asked God why this all had to be so hard?
Perhaps some of you have prayed that exact same prayer?

But if you know me now you know that I am still committed to helping those experiencing homelessness.
I am more aware of the limitations of the help we give.
I am more aware of the issues involved in people who are in a long term homeless situation.
But I have decided that if I really want God to use my life I cannot run from serving others because of one bad experience.
I also realize now that the help I offer is just as much for me as it is for others.
I serve and care because spiritually I need to do it.

When we do God’s work in the church or outside of it, we do it because in the serving our lives are glorified.
In the loosing of ourselves we gain greater spiritual blessings.
Perhaps we should realize what we are asking God for before we do it.

The good news in the text for us this morning is that Jesus says that we can do it.
We can share the same baptism that Jesus has.
That is a baptism of giving our lives.
Jesus is baptized to prepare him for his mission in the world.
So is ours.

For me the waters of baptism help to put out the fire during those times when I do get burned.
Our baptism prepares us for a life of having our hearts broken.
Just as Jesus was heartbroken that people do not accept the gift of the kingdom of God so are our hearts sometimes broken by other people.
But it is in realizing that the journey to Jerusalem has greater purpose.
The journey of faith is only amplified and made all the sweeter through those heart breaks.
If we never experience the heart break then we never tried to live in the calling of God.

God gives us the gift of life and what we do for others is our gift back to God.
God calls us to be in this world for each other.
I heard a quote this week that really hit me, "Anyone can find God alone on a picturesque mountaintop, the hiking trail, or the sunset.
The miracle is that I can find God in the company of other people who are just as annoying as I am." 

Sometimes we might have our hearts broken, we might get burnt out, but what Jesus tells us this morning is that if we want to do God’s will we have to do serving others.
We have to be willing to risk to endure, and in that there will be something greater in store for us.
New avenues of understanding ourselves, God, and the world will open up for us.
So let us go out and serve others, so that we can be the greatest we can be for God.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Trying To Thread The Eye Of A Needle

Whenever this text comes up I always feel that it is the preacher’s job to thread the eye of needle.
On the one hand, we have to encourage people to give.
And at the same time not offend anyone, or make anyone feel guilty.
Perhaps Jesus should have said, “It easier for a camel to go through the eye of needle then to preach a good sermon about money.”
But here we are again.
And I feel compelled to talk about money.
You may not know this but money is something Jesus talks about more than any other subject, except the kingdom of God.
More than sex, politics, love, marriage, prayer, faith, heaven, hell, or anything else.
It would be impossible for me to avoid it.
So this morning we are going to talk about money again.
Let us hope I can thread the eye of a needle.

When we hear this story what do we hear?
Often we hear judgment and condemnation.
What we hear is I haven’t done enough, I have not done what Jesus asked.
Certainly I have not done what Jesus asks in this passage which is to sell everything and give it to the poor.
Like last week text about divorce we hear Jesus telling us that we better give all our money away or else.
But a careful reading of the text I think gives a different impression.

It starts with a young man who wants to know, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Think about that question for a second.
You cannot earn something that is inherited.
An inheritance by definition is something someone else earned and gave to you.
The young man’s premise is all off.
Eternal life is a gift only God can give.
Jesus knows this and that is why he tells his disciples.
“For mortals it is impossible, but not for God.”
If you want to work at getting eternal life the demands will be too much.
None of us in this room is going to sell everything they have and give it to the poor.
Yet, we all know through faith that God loves us enough to give us eternal life.
We cannot work to get eternal life.
We simply inherit it, and it is a gift really earned by someone else.

But I think there is something even more profound about this discussion that Jesus has with this young man.
We are told that Jesus “loved him”.
It is out of love that Jesus tells him to sell everything that he has and give it to the poor.
It is not because Jesus is trying to be spiteful or trying to make the young man feel bad.
Jesus loves this young man so much that he wants to help him.
Jesus wants him to have the full life that he is seeking.
And that full life is not about just half of who we are; it is about everything that we are.
And God cares about our entire being.
God cares about our material being as well as our spiritual.
In fact, the two in Jesus mind are connected.

We try very hard to put our life into categories.
I am at work now.
I am at home now.
I am on vacation now.
Now I am doing a religious thing.
And so we compartmentalize things.
But our life is really about wholeness.
And so our faith life cannot be divorced from our regular life.
That is part of what Jesus is trying to convey to the young man.
But remember it is not out of spite but love that Jesus says this.

You see we hear the text all the wrong ways.
We hear judgment and demand, and what Jesus meant was invitation.
What we hear is, “You should be giving more to the church.”
But what Jesus is saying is, “Follow me and give up your life.”
And those words are spoken in love.

The reason Jesus talks so much about money is because it is often the stumbling block to a full life and a full relationship with God.
Money becomes the reason to or not do something.
I see this many times.
Well, we could do that but we don’t have the money.
I am not talking about buying things but doing things that can really impact on people’s lives.
I would love to help other people but I just don’t have the money is not a good enough reason.

My friend’s dad told me that he had a pastor who would say to his congregation.
On such and such a day I am going to give my money sermon so feel free not to come on that Sunday.
He suggested that this was a great way to handle the money sermon.
I think if I did that I would be doing you all a great disservice spiritually.
I would be robbing you of the invitation that Jesus makes to us all to give our money out of our own need to give.
I would be robbing you of the wholeness that we truly seek.

There was a humorous cartoon once in which a preacher was about to baptize a man.
In the first frame the preacher said,  
“Remember, Bob, everything that goes under this water belongs to God.”
In the next frame as  Bob is being baptized he’s holding up his clenched fist with his wallet.
This is sometimes how we compartmentalize things.
God you can everything except my wallet.

I think people don’t like sermons about money because they have come across as the Church saying I only want your wallet.
The truth is we give because we want to, we need to.
Jesus loves this young man and wants to help him understand that God desires all of us.
But even when we give all we have that does not earn us favor.
The favor is already given.
God loves you if you give nothing.
Our giving is our response to what God gave us.
It is the response to the gift.

There are some theologies out there that tell people that what God wants is for you to be rich and successful.
Here is quote from the television preacher Joel Olsteen, “It’s God’s will for you to live in prosperity instead of poverty.” 
That might sound great.
But it is not what Jesus is offering this morning.
Jesus is offering us full life where God is the center of our lives not our ability to earn money.
Jesus is offering us a life free from the demands of the have to haves.
I have to have this or that.
Instead, we are offered a freed life filled with I get to.
I get to give to others.
I get to give my money away, because I don’t have to anything.
I don’t have to keep up with joneses.
I get to live, isn’t that much more freeing.

I believe that the church has done a real disservice to people.
We have on the one hand made people feel guilty about what they give or don’t give.
And we have done nothing to help people live a life of abundance and thankfulness.
So this is not a stewardship sermon about giving more money to the Church.
This is a stewardship sermon about living the life we all want to live.
About being free to see our abundance and give out of it.
It is about living in the joy of knowing our blessings.
About not being judged for who we are, because others will judge you.
They will not like the way you dress, or what you buy.
But God loves the whole you the way you are.
Jesus loved the young man for his sincere desire to have a full relationship with God.
I know that all of you desire that same relationship.
And my message is simple, you don’t have to do anything God loves you now for who you are, and because of that you get to give in joy.

I hope this morning I have threaded the eye of the needle.
So that you all feel free and not judged to live in God’s love and give freely.