Friday, September 27, 2013

“In Praise of Shrewdness” - September 29, 2013

Text: Luke 16:1-13

An official who worked for the U.S. Army was in charge of purchasing a large quantity of tools needed at various Army bases.  It was a very large order.  The shipment was to be 25,000 claw hammers, 70,000 screwdrivers of assorted types and sizes, and 30,000 pairs of pliers.

Now one would think that a person would shop around a bit to get the best deal, particularly when you are talking about a purchase of this size.  This was not a case of just running down to the nearest hardware store.

We just replaced the computer in Susan’s office, which was about as fast as an abacus, with the difference being an abacus wouldn’t freeze up on you.  While we were at it we replaced the old CRT monitor, which was probably 17 or 18 years old – I think we got our money’s worth out of it.  I got some advice from Joe Parrish and Tom Logue and then went shopping.  I searched all over the internet, and we got really good deals on both a new computer and a new monitor.

I know some of you are the same way.  You want to get a good deal.  We use coupons, we look for sales, we want to get our money’s worth.

Now, if you were to shop for 25,000 claw hammers, it stands to reason that you would want to shop around.  But surprisingly, this army procurement officer only talked to one tool manufacturer.  He purchased the 25,000 hammers at $119.95 apiece, the 70,000 screwdrivers at $39.95 apiece, and the 30,000 pairs of pliers for an even $90 each.

These prices seemed outrageous when auditors later looked at the books.  By then, the official who approved the purchases was gone – he had retired from the military.  And surprise, surprise, he had a new job as executive vice-president for that very same tool manufacturer!

An athletic director at a major university had been approached by various shoe companies, eager to have the university sign a contract for all of its teams to wear their brand of shoes and sportswear.  Unknown to most people, the athletic director was about to lose his job in a scandal that was about to break.  But before the story came to light, he agreed to a multi-year contract on behalf of the university that would pay only about half of what similar colleges had been getting.  A week later, the scandal hit, and the athletic director lost his job.  But he wasn’t out of work for long.  As soon as his severance pay ended, he signed on as marketing consultant with (guess who?) that very same shoe company.

You read these kinds of stories once in a while, and you suspect this stuff goes on all the time.  Well, it’s nothing new.

Jesus told this same story.  A manager had been found to be dishonest, and the owner was about to fire him.  The manager was desperate.  He was too lazy for honest work and too proud to beg.  And so before he was let go, he went to all of those individuals and businesses that owed the company money.  He said, tell you what, we’ve got a special deal going, cash flow problems and all, I’ll discount your bill if you can pay now and we’ll call it even.

The debtors were only too happy to take him up on this generous offer.  So happy, in fact, that the manager was certain they would find a job for him once he was fired.

This kind of thing makes us angry.  We know that corruption is rampant, but that doesn’t make it right.  The government official who paid the exorbitant amounts for tools was basically spending our money--he was robbing taxpayers.  That athletic director was stealing from the university.  And this manager was stealing from the owner.  They put themselves ahead of anyone and everyone else.  They had no scruples, no morals, they were completely selfish.

We read stories like this, in the newspaper or in the Bible, and we are reminded of people or situations we know that are not so different.  It makes us mad.  And then we continue reading this story in Luke, and we are confused.  We are troubled.  Because verse 8 says, “And the master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.”

This is one of the strangest of Jesus’ parables, and that is saying something because Jesus tells some strange stories.  David Lose, a preaching professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, called this “Jesus’ most confusing parable.”  Which made me feel a little bit better – at least I’m not the only one having some trouble here.  You read this passage and wonder, was this story just a sermon illustration gone bad? – you know, you tell what seemed like a good story but then it’s hard to connect what the point is.

It is a difficult enough passage that immediately after the telling of the parable, ending in verse 8, there are at least four different explanations for what is going on here.  We will be looking at the first explanation, which is the one most directly related to the story.

In this parable, the owner had been fleeced by this manager, and don’t forget, this was not the first time.  He was being fired because apparently there had been some monkey business, maybe embezzlement, going on before.  But this owner commends the guy.  What he had done was reprehensible, yet he is commended for it.  He is applauded.

In discounting the debt owed, the steward had secured his own future.  The owner could not go back and ask for more payment – that would have been embarrassing – but he does come off looking generous.  It would be good advertising.  He looks good, the manager improves his future prospects, and maybe the owner was the kind of person who could appreciate the neat trick this rascal had pulled off.

Still, we don’t expect Jesus, of all people, to comment favorably on this scheming, conniving, employee.

In a way, though, this is just like Jesus, to find some good in even unlikely people.  The dirty rotten scoundrels of Jesus’ day, the sinners and tax collectors, the riffraff, somehow Jesus saw some good in them.  In the previous chapter of Luke, in the scripture we read last week, Jesus was hanging out with sinners and tax collectors.  And here, he finds something to commend in this dishonest manager.

Jesus is not holding up this manager as an ethical role model.  He doesn’t exactly say, “Go and do likewise.”  But there is something about this man that Jesus finds appealing.  There is a quality in this scoundrel that Jesus finds lacking in so many of his followers.

The word is “shrewd.”  It’s not a word that has entirely positive connotations, mostly because it is used to describe people who use their shrewdness for their own advantage.  Other translations use words that come across more positively to us: astute, industrious, taking initiative.  Call it creativity, ingenuity, cleverness, smarts, vision, industriousness, whatever you want to call it, this man has it, the government official has it, the athletic director has it, and oftentimes - we don’t.

What Jesus is speaking of is nothing more than the ability or maybe more than ability, the willingness and foresight to look at a situation, make a decision as to what the best course of action is, and act accordingly.  It doesn’t sound like all that much, but for some reason it can be awfully hard.  Some of us get hung up before we even get started.  We never get as far as taking a good look at a situation. We all tend to ignore unpleasantness.  We want to deny that things are not going well or that maybe a change is needed.  The manager was not in denial.  He knew good and well what was coming.

Others can get stuck just looking at the situation.  Looking, looking, looking.  “This is sure a mess, this is a really bad spot we are in.”  It is easy to dwell on studying the problem.  The “paralysis of analysis” it’s sometimes called.  We’ll appoint a blue-ribbon study committee.  We can be well aware that here is a problem yet never really come up with a plan of action.  This manage not only knew what was coming, he was able to devise a plan to address the situation.

And then a lot of us get hung up on the action part.  “Somebody really ought to do this,” we say, or maybe even “I really ought to do this,” but we never seem to get around to doing it.  The dishonest manager went from examining the situation to planning to action.

The manager is commended by the owner – and by Jesus - but not because he is a nice guy.  He is not commended because he is a moral example.  He is commended for his ingenuity.  He perceives the situation very well, takes initiative, makes a plan of action and carries it through.

Jesus bemoans the fact that his followers often lack that kind of ingenuity and industriousness.  “The children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the children of light.”

An interesting legal question was once posed in the Saturday Evening Post.  It seems that one Sunday when the sermon was particularly long, the congregation rushed from its pews as soon as the “Amen” was said.  Faithful Abigail, the only worshipper held entranced by the sermon, was slow in moving and she was trampled.  And so she sued the church for damages.

Abigail argued that “those in charge of the church knew that most of the congregation stampedes after long sermons.”  (I might point out here that I’m pretty sure this was a hypothetical question raised in the magazine.)  Abigail’s’ layer argued that church officials should have recognized the danger in the situation.  Not being prepared to cope with it, they were negligent.”

The church’s attorney made this response: “A church is a non-profit organization manned for the most part by volunteers.  No one has the right to expect it to be run with the smart efficiency of a business concern.  Abigail therefore has no real claim.”

The article asked, "If you were the judge, would you award damages to Abigail?"

What was especially interesting was the characterization of the church: “a non-profit organization run mostly by volunteers...no one has a right to expect it to be run with the smart efficiency of a business.”

The argument essentially was: “They’re just a church.  You can’t really expect much from them.  They don’t really know what they are doing.  They can’t be expected to have the efficiency or creativity or savvy or just plain good sense that others might have.”  The argument was basically that you can’t sue a church for incompetence because nobody expects a church to be competent in the first place.

That is exactly the attitude Jesus was responding to when he told this parable.  “The children of this world are shrewder than the children of light.”

Jesus wants us to be as good as what we do as McDonalds, or Apple, or Coca-Cola.  Why not?  What if we were as committed to spreading the Good News of the kingdom as American businesses are to winning new customers?  What if we were as committed to Jesus’ way of peace and justice and love and grace and forgiveness as Starbucks is to customer service and great coffee?  Jesus wants those who follow him to not simply be nice people, but to make a difference.

One year ago, we were in the midst of our Vision 20/20 campaign.  We interviewed anybody willing to be interviewed, around 70 people in the church, asking for stories about First Baptist at its best and for hopes and dreams we had for our church.  Essentially, we were trying to do what Jesus is speaking about.  We were trying to be smart about ministry.  We were trying to answer questions about how things are and how we would like for things to be, about where God is leading us and how we might head in that direction.

And a year later, we have made some progress.  It is most obvious with the church’s facilities – we have added a rest room at the back of the narthex and we have upgraded our sound system so that we are more welcoming to everyone.  We have a new sidewalk in front and we are doing painting and repair on the exterior so that this is a more inviting place and so we can maintain our facilities.

We have adopted a statement saying that all are welcome here, and that when we say all are welcome, we really mean all.  No matter your age or race or income level - married, single, gay, straight, Cyclones and even Hawkeyes – everybody is welcome here.  Becoming more diverse is not easy, but it is something we are trying to live into.

We are working on being more involved in our community; one of the ways we are doing that is through involvement in AMOS, a coalition of congregations working for positive change in our community, and we continue to explore the possibilities of that relationship.

We are continuing to work on adding more variety and instrumentation in worship.  We’d like to keep the music and the style that is meaningful to many of us even as we add some new sounds.  Again, that is not necessarily easy, but it is the direction we feel called to move in.

Now, we don’t go through that kind of visioning process every year, or every other year.  But it needs to happen regularly, in a more informal way, and now I am not just talking about churches.  When Jesus asks us to be shrewd, to be smart, to be creative, to be astute, to show some ingenuity, part of what that means is to ask ourselves regularly where we are and where God is leading us.  We need to ask how things are, and how things should be.

This is a strange and hard parable, but it seems to me that in a nutshell, Jesus is asking us to be aware, to have vision, and to act with courage.   May it be so.  Amen.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

“Lost and Found” - September 22, 2013


Text: Luke 15:1-10

Several years ago, I went to the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament, held in Indianapolis.  I went with my good friend Bob Grizzard.  I was one of the winners in the ticket lottery, which gave me the right to purchase tickets far, far away in the upper deck of what was then the Hoosierdome, where we could look down on the little ants playing basketball. 

We arrived on Saturday afternoon for the semifinal games.  It was a beautiful spring day, the sun was shining, there was a nice breeze in the air.  We arrived early, just as the doors were opening – because how often do you go to the Final Four?  We got out of the car, I reached in the pocket of my jacket – and there were no tickets.  I went into a panic.  For a moment, I thought the tickets had somehow been lost.  It’s not a good feeling.  Then I remembered that I had put them in a briefcase for safe-keeping.  That would be the briefcase back in our hotel room, 10 miles away.  So we made the trip back to the hotel and got the tickets.  We had arrived so early the first time that we had plenty of time to make it back.

Sometimes, we lose something and quickly find it.  But sometimes, stuff stays lost.  I had an Indiana University sweatshirt that just disappeared.  It was gone for well over a year, and then one day I saw Zoe wearing it.  How did that happen?  And then there are those things that we never find.

The things we lose can be more important than sweatshirts and even tickets to ballgames.  The other day we saw some people looking somewhat frantically for their dog.  Maybe you have had a pet run off – that can be a painful experience.  You can see lost and found ads in the paper, which are mostly just lost ads, and some can be really sad.  Our dog Rudy is a rescue dog – we don’t know a whole lot about his past except that he was a lost dog found in the winter, with a completely matted coat.

Stuff gets lost – all the time.  By inattention or absent-mindedness or just dumb luck - sometimes through our actions and sometimes through no fault of our own.  What is hardest is when people are lost. 

What about you?  Have you ever been lost?  And now by lost, I don’t mean so much lost in the woods or lost in an unfamiliar neighborhood, though that surely happens.  By lost I mean, have you ever been so lost that you thought things would never be right again?  Have you ever been so low that you didn’t think you would ever really know joy or happiness again?  Have you ever been so lost that it seemed you would never find your way back to the land of the living? 

We can be lost in loneliness, lost from heartbreak, lost in grief, lost from our family, lost from our friends.  We can be lost from ourselves.  And we can be lost from God.

We are lost when we are in new and unfamiliar, and maybe intimidating and unfriendly territory.  The things is, we don’t have to actually go anywhere to feel lost – we can stay right where we are while everything around us is moving and changing.

You can be in a new city, or a new school, or new on the job – unfamiliar with how things work, not yet having made friends, and you can feel lost.  You can be trying to learn new material for a class or figuring out how a new job is supposed to work, and it is all confusing.  A person will say, “I just feel lost.”

Rebecca Ann Sedwick, age 12, was found dead at an abandoned concrete plant about a mile from her home in Lakeland, Florida.  She had been the victim of online bullies.  She had reportedly received messages on social media from a circle of girls that she was part that said things like, “Why are you still alive?” and “Why don’t you go kill yourself.”  After enduring that kind of abuse for months, she finally took her own life.  12 years old.

Polk County, Florida Sheriff Grady Judd told reporters, “She appeared to be beat down... And quite frankly, the entire investigation is exceptionally disturbing to the entire investigative team.”  12 years old.

Rebecca's mother, speaking with a local TV reporter, said, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do next.  I just lost my world.”

The Center for Disease Control reports that nearly 1 in 6 high school students have considered suicide, and 1 in 12 has attempted it.  Oh yes, we can be lost.

There are many ways to get lost in life.  Pastor and noted author, John Killinger, tells the story of a man who is all alone in a hotel room in Canada. The man is in a state of deep depression.  He is so depressed that he can’t even bring himself to go downstairs to the restaurant to eat.

He is a powerful man, the chairman of a large shipping company.  But at this moment, he is absolutely overwhelmed by the pressures and demands of life, and he lies there on a lonely hotel bed far from home, wallowing in self-pity.

All of his life, he has been fastidious, worrying about everything, anxious and fretful, always fussing and stewing over every detail.  And now, at mid-life, his anxiety has gotten the best of him, even to the extent that it is difficult for him to sleep and to eat.

He worries and broods and agonizes about everything, his business, his investments, his decisions, his family, his health, even, his dogs.  Then, on this day in this Canadian hotel, he hits bottom.  Filled with anxiety, completely immobilized, paralyzed by his emotional despair, unable to leave his room, lying on his bed, he moans out loud:  “Life isn’t worth living this way, I wish I were dead!”

And then, he wonders, what God would think if he heard him talking this way. Speaking aloud again he says, “God, it’s a joke, isn’t it?  Life is nothing but a joke.”  Suddenly, it occurs to the man that this is the first time he’s talked to God since he was a little boy.

He is silent for a moment and then he begins to pray.  He describes it like this: “I just talked out loud about what a mess my life was in and how tired I was and how much I wanted things to be different in my life.  And you know what happened next?  A voice!  I heard a voice say, ‘It doesn’t have to be that way!’ That’s all.”

He went home and talked to his wife about what happened. He talked to his brother, who is a minister, and asked him: “Do you think it was God speaking to me?” The brother said, “Of course God is speaking to you.  That is God’s message to everybody.  That’s the message of the Bible.  That’s why Jesus came into the world - to save us, to deliver us, to free us, to change us and to show us that ‘It doesn’t have to be that way.’”

A few days later, the man called his brother and said, “You were right.  It has really happened.  I’ve done it.  I’ve had a rebirth.  I’m a new man. Christ has turned it around for me.”

Well, the man is still prone to anxiety.  He still has to work hard.  But, now he has a source of strength.  During the week, he often leaves his work-desk and goes to the church near his office.  He sits there and prays.  He says:

It clears my head.  It reminds me of who I am and whose I am.  Each time as I sit there in the Sanctuary, I think back to that day in that hotel room in Canada and how depressed and lonely and lost I felt and I hear that voice saying, ‘It doesn’t have to be that way.’

In our scripture from Luke, Jesus has been encountering criticism.  Well, what else is new?  There were those who didn’t like the company he kept.  “Why are you hanging out with sinners and tax collectors?” he was asked.  The Pharisees and scribes who questioned him felt like he should be with upright, respectable, religious people, not common sinners.

So Jesus tells them a couple of stories.  Actually, there are three stories he tells here in Luke chapter 15 about seeking what is lost – there is a lost sheep, a lost coin, and then a lost son.  The story of the lost son is known as the parable of the prodigal son.  The first two parables, the lost sheep and the lost coin, are in our scripture for today.

First, Jesus says, which of you, if you had 100 sheep, wouldn’t leave the 99 behind to go look for the one sheep that was lost?  Or what woman, if she had 10 coins and lost one, wouldn’t turn the house upside down looking for that one coin and then call her friends and neighbors to tell them she had found the lost coin?

Who here wouldn’t do that?  Well…to be honest, NONE OF US would do that.  It just doesn’t make sense.  Why leave 99 sheep alone and unprotected to go look for one lost lamb that has probably already been eaten by wolves anyway?  What does Jesus mean, who wouldn’t go do this?

And I’ve got to be real honest: if I phoned the neighbors and woke up the dog to tell them the missing quarter showed up, they would think there was something seriously wrong with me.

Put in a different kind of setting, what Jesus is asking is this:

“Which professor among you, if you have a student who is having difficulty in Introductory Physics, will not cancel all of your appointments and projects for the coming semester and put the grant-writing on hold and go search out the student in the dormitory, and spend every evening, late into the night, working with that student, until, on the day of the exam, the student makes an A?  And when that student makes an A, will you not run to all of your departmental colleagues and say, “Come party with me!  The one who was a complete idiot in physics has now made the best grade in the class!”
Do you get the picture?  This is clearly something wrong with this shepherd.  To care that much and give that much and risk that much for one little lamb either means that you’ve got a few screws loose… or that you have a love and compassion that go beyond anything we can imagine.

We have heard these stories so many times that they can lose their zing.  We can miss just how radical, just how outrageous some of Jesus’ parables are.  The stories Jesus tells in Luke chapter 15 tell us that none of us, none of us are lost to God.  None of us are beyond the reach of God’s grace.

The problem with the Pharisees and scribes who were questioning Jesus’ behavior and choice of friends is that they had put the world into such neat little categories.  They were in, tax collectors were out.  They were good; those who didn’t measure up to their idea of good were bad.  They were the ones God really loved; those who couldn’t do as many spiritual calisthenics, God didn’t have time for. 

The problem is that they failed to see their own lostness.  They failed to understand that we can all lose our way, and we all stand in need of God’s grace.

“Amazing Grace” is maybe the best-loved hymn, and I think part of its power is that it speaks us personally.  It doesn't say, "Y
ou are lost and I am found.”  It says, “I once was lost but now am found."  It speaks of continuing to live and grow in God’s grace.  “Through many dangers, toils and snares I have already come; ‘tis grace hath brought me safe thus far and grace will lead me home.”  Our experience of God is not a one-time event but a lifetime of living, and if we are honest, there are those moments all along the way when we may feel a little lost.

God would leave the 99 to go after one lost sheep.  God would search and search for that one little coin.  We might feel like there are billions of dollar out there, CDs and stock certificates and mutual funds, gold and silver bullion and plenty of hundred-dollar bills, and we are just a lowly nickel or maybe a not-so-shiny penny.  But God is like the woman who turns the house upside down until she finds that one coin, and then celebrates.

Each person matters greatly to God.  Each one of us is of great value.  And there are no degrees.  Those questioning Jesus thought they were the ones God really cared about.  And God cared about them, but God also cared for those sinners and tax collectors.

There is a story about a girl who was deeply troubled.  She became increasingly rebellious, increasingly distant.  Her parents were worried about her and didn’t really know what to do.  Late one night the police arrested her for drunk driving.  Her mother had to go to the police station to pick her up.  They didn’t speak until the next afternoon.  Her mom broke the tension by giving her troubled daughter a small wrapped box.

The daughter nonchalantly opened the box and found a little rock inside.  She rolled her eyes and said, “Cute, Mom, what’s this for?”

“Read the card,” her mother instructed.  Her daughter took the card out of the envelope and read it.  Tears started to trickle down her cheeks.  She got up and lovingly hugged her mom as the card fell to the floor.  Written on the card were these words: “This rock is 200 million years old.  That is how long it will take before I give up on you.”

We are never lost to God.  God never gives up on us, not even in 200 million years.  God keeps looking and searching and calling to us until we are found.  Because each one of us is precious.  Each one of us is valuable.  Each one is a person of great worth.

It can be hard to believe that about others.  There are those society has deemed worthless, beyond hope, lost.  They are not lost to God.

But sometimes, the person we have the hardest time seeing as valuable and cherished by God is our self.  We may feel lost at times, but we are never lost to God. 

David Haas’ hymn says it so well:
Do not be afraid, I am with you.
I have called you each by name.
Come and follow me, I will bring you home;
I love you and you are mine.

(Thank you to John Sumwalt for illustrative material.)

Saturday, September 14, 2013

“Did Jesus Throw Mom Under the Bus?” - September 15, 2013

Text: Luke 14:25-33

I will be the first to admit: this is not exactly a cheery scripture reading.  I’m sure we could have come up with something a lot better, a lot more fun and hopeful and encouraging, for our first regular Sunday of the fall, the first day of church school classes.

I looked in my files and I could be wrong, but I don’t think I have ever preached on this passage before.  Which seems odd, because it is a well-known passage and I have been doing this for a while now.  The problem is that Jesus’ words just sound so harsh – so rude.  “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

Are you serious?  Being a Christian means we hate our family?  Hate life itself?  I thought we were supposed to honor our father and mother.  I thought we were supposed to love and protect and care for children as we raise them in the faith.  I thought we were supposed to choose life. 

Clearly, Jesus is using hyperbole to make a point, but still.  It just feels a little over the top and, well, inappropriate.

To “hate” is a Semitic idiom meaning to turn away from or detach oneself from.  It does not mean that you detest and despise a person – it had nothing of the feeling of “I hate you.”  Jesus is saying that in our network of loyalties and commitments, our commitment to Christ and to the gospel takes precedence and in fact redefines our other commitments.  Compared to following Jesus, we have to “hate” these other things.  

“Hate” is a strong word, but we can use it in the same way.  Like some of you, I play fantasy football.  In a nutshell, you draft a team of NFL players and then get points based on how these players actually do in real-life games. 

I am in a league with some friends – it has essentially been the Grizzard family + Dave league, and this year we needed another player.  So Susan agreed to do it if it would save the league.  The day of the draft, she was wondering how it all worked, so I suggested she do a mock draft.  If you are really serious about it, you can do mock drafts to practice selecting the players for your team.  Before the NFL season started, you could go to the ESPN website any time of day or night, and within a couple of minutes be in a practice draft with 9 other random people who might live anywhere in the world.

Well, Susan took my suggestion.  I told her to just click on “mock draft.”  A minute later, she asked, “Do I click where it says ‘live draft?’” and without looking at her computer I said, “Yes.”  Which of course was the wrong answer.  She hadn’t intended to, but Susan had joined another fantasy football league with 9 guys she didn’t know who, it is pretty safe to say, are into football more than she is.

Now, I should say that she came out of her draft with both the highest rated running back and the highest rated quarterback.  She won her first game easily, with more points than anybody in her league.  She also drafted a team and won her first game in the league she meant to be in with me - which is more than I can say.

If you are really serious about it, there are all kinds of blogs and articles about fantasy football.  One popular column is called Love/Hate.  (Finally, some relevance to the sermon.)  This involves players that the writer, Matthew Berry, either really likes or really doesn’t like for that week.

He will love these players and hate those players.  But he is careful to explain what “hate” means.  It simply means that it may be a tough week for them, maybe they have a bad matchup and he doesn’t think they will do as well as they generally do.  So when he says he hates Eli Manning and Joe Flacco, it doesn’t mean he thinks they are terrible people, or that they are not great football players.  It just means that in his opinion, it’s not going to be their best week.

Now, I never thought I would use a fantasy sports analyst to explain Jesus, but if Jesus wrote a Love/Hate column, every week he would say the same thing.  This week, I love God.  I hate my friends, my family, my kids, my colleagues, my job, my car, my house, my boat, my fantasy football team – you get the idea.

Does Jesus want us to throw mom under the bus?  No.  Does he want wives to push husbands over a cliff, as a newlywed bride is accused of doing in Montana?  Definitely not.  Does Jesus want us to care for our families, be faithful friends, and loyal and dependable members of our communities?  Of course.  Jesus’ teachings make all of this clear.  But all of these things must take second place.  Following Jesus has to come first.

Jesus was clarifying – for both the newcomers in the crowd as well as those who had been following him for a while now - just how total the commitment to him must be.  Faith in Christ leads us to love others -- family and friends and strangers and enemies and outcasts -- with the same all-in, self-sacrificial love that Jesus showed.  But that deep, committed faith in Christ that leads us to love others has to come first.

One of the keys to this whole story, it seems to me, is the very first line.  “Large crowds were following him.”

Jesus knew that big crowds were not necessarily an indicator of success in his ministry.  Jesus was becoming a kind of celebrity, and crowds were coming out because it was the “in” thing to do.  Folks were jumping on the bandwagon.  Jesus was going viral.  He was the most searched for term on Google, the most popular hashtag on Twitter. 

If we started having overflowing, capacity crowds here at First Baptist, standing room only, I probably wouldn’t start a sermon series on hating your family or dumping your possessions.  But Jesus didn’t ask for my advice.  Jesus is a truth-in-advertising kind of guy.  Big crowds are showing up, and Jesus wants people to know what it is they are signing up for.  He wants them to know what following him really involves.  He didn’t want hangers-on who were there because of the crowd, because of the coolness factor.  He wanted followers who were truly committed.

There is a price we pay for most everything we do.  Choosing one thing means not choosing something else, and there are costs and consequences to our decisions.  Jesus wants us to know up-front what the cost is.

We weigh the costs of our actions and commitments all the time, even if we don’t give it much conscious thought.  Jesus gives two examples of this.  The first is from rural life – a man builds a tower.  Towers were often built in vineyards to watch for thieves and for predatory animals.  Before building the tower, he has to make plans and figure the cost.  How much for materials, how much for labor, is the cost worth the value of having a tower.

The second example is of a king planning for war.  He considers the size of his army, the probability of victory, and if it doesn’t look so good he presses for a peace agreement.

Whether you are a farmer or a king, you have to be able to estimate the cost.  And so do we.

A student goes to class, and the first day is just awful.  She decides that a course with this professor would be a huge mistake, and she drops the class.  The transmission is starting to go out on your car, and you decide it is not worth sinking another dime into your 96 Impala.  You are invited to serve on a board.  What is the first thing you do?  You ask how often it meets, how much time is involved.  We all weight the cost. 

A couple of weeks ago a subway line in Brooklyn was shut down because of kittens playing around the rails.  They stopped the trains to save the kittens.  City workers had a heck of a time corralling these kittens – it was like, well, it was like herding cats.  Think about the cost of that decision in terms of commuting schedules of hundreds of people, not to mention the economic impact.  As you can imagine, there were those who estimated the cost differently.

On a national and global basis, we are weighing the costs in regard to Syria.  What is the cost of continued diplomacy, what is the cost of targeted strikes, what is the cost of trying to negotiate an agreement on turning over chemical weapons?  For whatever place a person might come out, there are the same questions: Is there enough cause?  Enough weaponry?  Enough political capital or will?  What is the cost of doing something and what is the cost of doing nothing?  Are there possible unintended consequences?  What is the cost in terms of innocent lives?  We are all the time determining the cost. 
 
A few weeks ago, a young man named Michael Hill walked into a Georgia elementary school.  He was off of his medication for a mental disorder.  He had an AK-47, more than 500 rounds of ammunition and nothing, he said, to live for.  He took a staff member named Antoinette Tuff hostage.

You have probably heard the story.  With amazing calm in the face of great danger, Antoinette Tuff talked Hill down in her school office.  She spoke calmly to him and she empathized with him.  She told him how she had thought about committing suicide a year earlier when her husband had left her, and that everybody has bad days.  She started by calling him “sir,” and in a short while, she was saying, “It’s gonna be OK, baby.”  She may have had a chance to make a run for it and save herself, but doing so likely would have meant that others, probably children, would be killed.  The care and concern she had for this young man were very genuine, and when he finally laid down his weapon, she said, “I’m proud of you.”

She counted the cost, and as Jesus puts it here, she “hated” her own life – meaning she was willing to set it aside to save others – and indeed to save this troubled young man.  But it wasn’t just on that particular day that Antoinette “counted the cost.”  She had no doubt been “counting the cost” day after day, for many years, making one choice over another in as she formed the kind of character that would see her through when she needed it most.  Antoinette Tuff said that what got her through was her faith – what she had learned at her church.  She had learned how to stand strong and prevail even in the midst of pain. 

That kind of strength does not just come overnight, but through a lifetime of making choices.  Prayer over going it alone.  Gathering with others for worship and mutual support and accountability rather than choosing one of the countless other options available to us.  Choosing to see the world through the eyes of others rather than choosing self-absorption.  Choosing to see a troubled person as a child of God rather than as a worthless individual.  Choosing to consider the lives of children and teachers and staff rather than just her own life.

We do it all the time, estimating the cost as Jesus asks us to do.  And there is a cost of discipleship.  There may be a cost in terms of ease and comfort, in terms of wealth and possessions, in terms of relationships, even with those closest to us.  There may be a cost in terms of personal security or popularity or professional reputation.  Because Jesus asks us to make all of these things secondary to living the gospel – to following Jesus’ way of loving God and neighbor.

Jesus is not talking about earning our salvation through hard work and sacrifice.  God’s grace is a gift we cannot earn.  This is about the character of our lives.  Jesus is saying that like anything else worth doing, discipleship takes time and energy and practice and hard work.

Jesus is asking us to look at the long arc of our lives and determine what really matters, what is really important.  And the thing is, when we seek first the kingdom of God, as Jesus puts it elsewhere, then rather than throwing mom under the bus, we so often find that this commitment to Jesus and to Jesus’ way of self-sacrificial love improves the quality of our relationships.  When we are not trying like crazy to accumulate stuff, when we are willing to let go, so often we find that we have enough and we are freed from being controlled by our possessions. 

These are not the easiest words of Jesus.  They are hard to digest.  But you know, we sacrifice for all kinds of things.  For our jobs, for our careers, for our kids’ soccer teams, for our friends, for our GPA, for a tolerable living situation with our roommate, for peace in the family.  We sacrifice for a new car or a beautiful house or a fabulous vacation. 

Jesus is asking us to sacrifice for the sake of what truly matters.  Jesus is asking us to sacrifice for his sake, for the sake of the gospel, and that when we do that, we will have the proper perspective and be better able to deal with all of these other concerns. 

Lancelot Andrewes was a scholar and bishop in the Church of England in the 16th and 17th centuries.  He wrote concerning committing ourselves fully to Christ, above all other concerns:

I give myself to you Lord, I give myself to you.
All that I am
All that I have been
All that I hope to be,

I give myself to you Lord, I give myself to you.
In joy and in sorrow
In sickness and in health
In success and in failure,

I give myself to you Lord, I give myself to you.
In darkness and in light
In trouble and in joy
In time and for eternity,

I give myself to you, Lord,
I give myself to you.  
Lancelot Andrewes' words of long ago were restated in that modern day classic, "The Hokey Pokey."  To really be Jesus' disiples, we have to put our whole selves in.  Amen.

Friday, September 6, 2013

“The Family of Faith” - September 8, 2013

Texts: Romans 8:29, Ephesians 2:19-22, Galatians 6:9-10, Acts 2:44-47
Worship Under the Trees service

Presbyterian minister Patrick Willson tells about the place his grandfather grew up, a tiny town west of Ft. Worth called Dido, Texas.  (Story told in “Pass the Bread, Tell The Story,” Pulpit Digest, Sept.-Oct. 1998, p. 79-80).  There isn’t much there now, but 100 years ago it was a community center for ranching and farming people in that area.  There was a post office, a store, a cemetery and a school, and on Sundays, people came together to be the church in Dido.

Going to church on Sunday was a big event.  Early in the morning, wagons would be loaded and teams hitched, and then came a trip of perhaps several hours along wagon-rutted roads to the schoolhouse in Dido, where they met.  They didn’t have an organist, didn’t have a Board of Deacons, didn’t even have a pastor, but there were Bible classes and hymn singing and the people gathered to talk about their lives and their faith.

On rare occasions an itinerant preacher would come through, or perhaps a nervous young student from one of the seminaries in Dallas or Ft. Worth.  A preaching service was a major event and lasted all day.  After the regular Bible classes in the morning, the preaching service would begin.  They would sing maybe twenty hymns and then settle in for an hour and a half or two hours of preaching.  (When the preacher only comes around once in a great while, you want to get your money’s worth.)

After the preaching came a light lunch, and then everybody would get down to the serious business of visiting.  Ranches and farms were miles apart, travel wasn’t easy, and Sundays were the only time anybody saw each other.  Women would swap recipes and maybe work on quilts as they visited.  Men would talk about crops and lie about fishing.  Children would play together and have a big time.  More industrious souls might weed the cemetery or work on a fire for the evening barbecue, which was the big meal of the day.

After the barbecue, since they had the preacher around, there would be another preaching service.  But before the service, the younger children were bedded down in the backs of family wagons to go to sleep.  It had been a big day and they were tired and needed to rest.  The older children and teenagers, however, were expected to attend the evening service and at least appear to be paying attention.

One night, while the service was going on, Patrick Willson’s grandfather, then a teenager, snuck out of the service with his friends.  They crept quietly out to the wagons, where the children were sleeping.  When they reached the wagons, they lifted the sleeping children from the wagons and switched them around.  And at the end of the preaching service, everyone hitched up the horses and drove long miles into the night, carrying each other’s children.  A couple who had no children might suddenly be parents.  A family might go home and have two little boys instead of two little girls.  The mother who had been praying for a daughter would have one.

People were scattered.  Some lived a couple of hours away from the schoolhouse in Dido and now had children who belonged on the other side of Dido.  So they just kept the kids for the week.   For that week, the children were theirs – theirs to love and to feed and to work; theirs to care for.

Because of changes in transportation and changes in the way we do church – we miss out on opportunities like those teenagers in Dido, Texas had.  (Although I am sure Patrick Willson’s grandfather got in serious trouble.)  But for me, that is a wonderful story, and it can teach us some very important things about being church.

One of the ways the Bible speaks of the church is as a family.  The family of God, the family of faith.  The scriptures that Aiddy and Kaylinn read use that kind of language.  What does it mean to be the family of faith, the household of God?  A lot of what it means is illustrated by that group gathered as the church in that little Texas town.

In the first place, the church is people, not buildings.  In Dido, they didn’t have a church building, so they knew that they themselves, the people, were the church.  They understood that when they gathered together, they constituted the church.

Now there is nothing wrong with buildings.  They can be important.  We are putting a lot of energy and effort and investment into our building.  The new rest room at the back of the narthex is now open for business, and that is worth celebrating.  We could have had a blessing of the bathroom service, but I’m not sure how that would have worked, and it’s probably just as well.  The new walk in front of the church looks great.  The flowers in the planter along the ramp are beautiful – thank you to Beth for that.  You may have noticed that the sanctuary window sills have been repaired and painted, the doors have been painted, and the painters are just going to keep going with exterior repair and painting.

The building needed all this attention.  But the danger is getting so wrapped up in the building that we lose sight of the church.  The church is made up of people, and those folks in Dido, Texas knew that.

As we meet outside here this morning, we are every bit as much the church as when we meet in the sanctuary.  The church is people.

I heard of a church that was having their morning service out on the front lawn, like we are today.  It happened to be an Episcopal church.    At a time for the passing of the peace, the priest, trying to be a bit more informal for the outdoor service, said, “Not let’s all greet the church.”  What happened was, everybody started waving at the building and saying, “Hi, church.”  Well, the building is not the church.  We are the church.

The church is people who worship together.  Worship is at the heart of who we are.  Giving praise to God and gathering together in God’s presence is what makes us the church.  A lot of people may have picnics and cookouts and get-togethers of various sorts today, but it is worship that makes this gathering different.  It is worship that makes us the church.

Worship orients our life as followers of Christ.  Sometimes we speak of worship as “rehearsal for life.”  In worship, we remember who we are, we connect as a community with the God who has created us and called us and loved us, and it is through worship that we truly become the church.

The church is people who worship together, and the church is also people who eat together.  That’s right, eating together is important for us to be the church.  Read through the Bible, and it is amazing how prominent meals are.  Jesus is all the time eating at someone’s house or going to a wedding feast or talking about a banquet or feeding the 5000.  The scripture in Acts makes it clear that sharing meals together was very important to those early Christians.

Just as family mealtime is important, meals together as a church are important.  The Lord’s Supper is the meal of the kingdom, and we share in that regularly as a part of worship.  Communion draws us together as God’s people.  But a potluck meal on the front lawn also draws us together as God’s people, and when we understand it that way, eating those barbecues sandwiches and baked beans and corn casseroles can be a holy time.

And so, the meal following the service today is not just something tacked on to the day’s festivities; it is important as a church for us to share meals together.  For that little gathering of folks in Dido, Texas, meals were an important part of their gatherings.  There are all kinds of meals we share together as a church family – Christmas dinners and potlucks, men’s breakfasts and women’s lunches, college student suppers, third Sunday lunches, choir parties.  All of this is important, because as we share meals, we share our lives, and this is central to our life together as a church.

The church is also people who play together.  Maybe that’s not what you were expecting to hear today, but play is important for all of us.  It is important in families.  Some of your best memories with your family may have to do with fun times together, maybe family trips or maybe time just spent goofing off.  It is important for the church to play together too, and to have a playful spirit.  It is important not to take ourselves too seriously.

If God’s people can’t enjoy being together, why would we even bother?

We live such busy lives and we run from place to place, appointment to appointment, and finding time for anything can be difficult.  But when we rush to church and rush home and have no time together, no time for play, no time to really share life with one another, we are the poorer for it.  To really invest in one another’s lives, we need to play.  Thinking back to that little church in Texas, the time for visiting and quilting and swapping stories was an important time.

And then the church is people who work together.  We need a balance in life, and we need a balance in our families, and it is important to both play and work.  I like the story of those folks in Dido because they did both.  They swapped recipes and fishing stories, but they also cooked and prepared meals and pulled weeds in the cemetery.  We don’t think of today as a work day, but there is actually a lot of work that goes into something like this: chairs and tables have to be moved, a sound system has to be set up, lots of cooking is involved, planning is involved.

The work of the church goes on every day.  It happens as individuals give time and energy in serving in the ministries of the church, but it also happens as we live out our faith in our daily lives. 

We are the church when we gather on a Sunday morning, whether we are in the building or out here in the front yard.  But we are also the church when we have the neighbors over for a cookout on Monday, or Tuesday night at the softball field, or Wednesday at lunch with colleagues, or Friday when we visit a friend who has been sick.  The church is the people, not the building, and we are being church when we are serving – loving God and loving our neighbor – both inside this building and outside the walls.

As a family of faith, we worship together and share meals together; we play together and work together.

The church is people – people who are related though Jesus Christ.  Romans 8 speaks of Jesus as the firstborn in a large family.  Through Jesus we are all brothers and sisters.  We are related to one another.

In the story Patrick Willson tells, I thought it was great that when those families got home and looked in the back of their wagons and found they had the wrong kids—or were shocked to find they had kids, period – that they didn’t just turn around and take the kids back to the right home.  They were so much a family that they just took it in stride.  I’m sure those boys who switched the children paid for it, but I can also imagine some of those parents kind of enjoying it.  They may have had somebody else’s kids, but in a sense the children they had that week were their kids, because they were all part of a family.  Through Christ, we are all family.

As we meet outside today and share a meal together, this might be reminiscent of a family reunion.  And in a way, it is.  There is a sense in which every time we gather together, it is a family reunion.  Every Sunday, as we join in worship, it is a family reunion.  Here at First Baptist we are one branch of the family, and there are other parts of the family gathering together this morning all over Ames and all over the world.

Some of you are newer to First Baptist, and some may be here today for the first time, and we are delighted that you are here.  But whether a first-timer or a 50-year member, we are family.  We are family because Jesus Christ makes us family.  In Ephesians 2 we read, “You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and members of the household of God...with Jesus Christ as the cornerstone.”

Being family means we all have something to contribute.  In healthy families, everybody does their part.  Somebody has to cook and clean and mow the lawn and do laundry and pay the bills.  In our church family, God gives us all gifts to share for the good of all – skills and resources and time and love and encouragement and joy.  As a friend of mine liked to say, everybody has a say, and everybody has a do.

Being family means that we are always welcome.  I can drive 10 hours to southern Indiana and go back to the house I grew up in, and I’m home.  I’m welcome.  We’re always welcome in God’s house, even when that house is made of flesh and blood people who meet on the front lawn.  There are those times when we may feel as though we are far away from home, but God always stands with open arms to welcome us.  We are family.

Perhaps you are here today and kind of trying out this whole church thing and you’re not sure really about it.  (That’s OK – there are those days when I’m not sure about this church thing, either.)  But what makes the church the church is that it is God’s.  This is God’s home, God’s family, God’s people, and God invites and welcomes us into the family.  It’s not up to us to say who is in and who is out; God says, “Everybody is in.  You are all my children.”

Like any family, we are far from perfect.  We fail God and we fail one another and we even fail ourselves, but God’s grace is greater than any of that, and we are always welcome home, always welcome in God’s family.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.


Wednesday, September 4, 2013

“Laboring in Vain?” - September 1, 2013

Texts: Isaiah 49:1-7, Matthew 5:13-16

The beginning of the school year always makes me reflect on my own school experience.  Walking across campus, going to class, working int he lab, going to football games.  I hear students talking about classes they are taking, and unless it’s physical chemistry it makes me want to be back in class.  Well, until I really think about it.

Because when I reflect on it, I think of things like a paper I was typing in seminary--it was about 40 pages, with footnotes and all of that fun stuff.  I had been researching it for weeks and now was typing it on a computer, which was something new to me, and new to most people.  It was amazing – you could make corrections, change paragraphs, rearrange sentences, it would even check your spelling and help with footnotes.

I had bought my computer used from a guy named Kirk, a student in our campus ministry group at Virginia Tech when I worked there doing a campus ministry internship.  Kirk was ahead of the curve as far as computers went.  At Tech, students could buy the new IBM PCs at a big discount, and when he bought one, he sold me his old computer for $500, which was a pretty big investment at the time.

It was an amazing machine, but it didn’t do everything, and as I worked on that paper I learned a very valuable lesson: it is possible to lose information that you put into a computer.  Now that wouldn’t happen with a typewriter, but it did with computers, and especially this one.  It was a Radio Shack Model TRS-80, but everybody called it a trash-80.  I saw one just like it several years ago at the Smithsonian Institution. 

Computers are exponentially more powerful today than they were in the 1980’s, but it can still happen: you can lose your work.  Perhaps you have worked for hours meticulously writing a term paper and then suddenly it’s gone and you have to start all over.  All that work for nothing.  It’s enough to make a person cry.

It’s not just computers.  You spend an afternoon or more putting together some new toy you’ve bought.  A bicycle or a gas grill or a yard barn.  You are almost done when you realize you left out an important part and you can’t fix it without taking the entire thing apart.  There is this terrible feeling of having done all this work and taken all of this time--for nothing.  Or maybe you have spent hours baking a culinary masterpiece that burns or falls apart or won’t rise like it’s supposed to.  You feel like you have labored in vain.

We find these words in our text from Isaiah.  This comes from the second of what are called the four “Servant Songs” in Isaiah.  This servant of the Lord had been called and equipped – and fell flat on his face, felt like his work had been all for nothing, his efforts a waste of time.

Labor Day weekend is a good time to think about the work we do in relation to our faith.  Your work may be whatever it is you do to earn a paycheck.  But maybe not.  If you are a student, think of that as your occupation.  But in a broader sense, think about the things you do that matter to you and others.  Your work might be parenting, or neighboring, or volunteering, or caring for loved ones.  Some of the most important work we do continues throughout our lives.

My dad worked his entire career at Whirlpool, making refrigerators.  He was a repairman and inspector on the assembly line.  Sometimes I envy those whose job involves making things and fixing things, because you can actually see the results of your work.  At the end of the line, you have this nice, finished appliance. The same is true of farmers--you plant, fertilize, cultivate, and finally harvest--you get to see the results of your work.

Those of you who work with people rarely get that luxury.  Many of you are involved in both teaching and research, and in a sense these are completely different fields.  In research, you may see concrete results of your efforts, but in teaching, you may never know the results.

A pastor told about a church member who was an alcoholic.  For years, she and her family had suffered because of her disease.  Finally she got up the courage to do something about her illness.  She would go to an alcohol treatment center, if she could find the money and get help with her family while she was away for the month of treatment.

The church mobilized.  Sunday School classes got involved and brought over meals.  Three generous people in the church paid for the whole month of treatment.  For a month the whole church pulled together. 

It seemed like a miracle, and for 2 or 3 months, her recovery did seem miraculous.  But then she stopped going to her AA meetings.  In another month, she was drinking again.

When we read these words of Isaiah, our ears latch on to the prophet’s honest but despairing cry: “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” 

The fact is, most everybody who has really tried to do something worthwhile has known this feeling.  If you’ve ever tried to teach a class so that everybody understands the material and is excited about the subject, or if you’ve tried to mentor young people and make a difference in their lives, or ever tried to reach out to someone going through a hard time and help them, or if you’ve tried to live out your faith in the workplace and be a positive witness for Christ to your co-workers, or if you have tried to stand up for what you believe is right when it isn’t necessarily the popular thing, then deep down you have probably said with the prophet, “I have labored in vain.”

There was a pastor who tried to measure the effect of preaching on people’s racial attitudes.  He designed a questionnaire intended to measure his congregation’s opinions on race.  Then he preached a series of six sermons which in some way attempted to apply the gospel to the issue of race in America.  A very worthy undertaking.  After the sermon series, he gave the same questionnaire.  He found that his congregation was 2.5% more racist after the series of sermons.  Laboring in vain.

Sometimes, we feel like our labors have been for naught, but it is really too early to know.  At the time, I would have told you that Miss Lilly, my 4th grade teacher, was the worst teacher ever.  The absolute worst.  Nobody wanted to be in Miss Lilly’s class.  She was legendary at Oak Hill School because her class was so hard and she was so mean.   

In 3rd grade, I made a smattering of grades--some A’s and B’s, some C’s, D’s in writing.  But in 4th grade, with Miss Lilly, I made straight A’s.  Looking back, I’m sure that Miss Lilly scared me into being a good student.  And in eighth grade, you could still tell which students had Miss Lilly in 4th grade, because they were better in math.

I’m not necessarily recommending her methods, which would get a teacher in serious trouble nowadays, but she really made a difference for her students.  I never told Miss Lilly that, and I doubt that many students ever did.

William Willimon, longtime chaplain at Duke and now a Methodist bishop, told about someone who was a great Sunday School teacher--the best he remembered from his teenage years.  He treated the teenagers like adults, talked about problems in his business.  Willimon remembered loving his class.

So when he saw this man at a gathering a few years back, Willimon went up to him and mentioned his memories of that class.  “Yeah, I remember that class too,” said the man.  “Worst class I ever taught.  Dull students, surly, behavior problems.  Yeah, I remember that class.  I told the Sunday School superintendent after two years, ‘Please don’t ask me again.’  The whole thing was a failure as far as I was concerned.”

Sometimes our failures are not really failures.  Sometimes we have to look for something greater than immediate, quantifiable results.

I think of Ann and Adoniram Judson, the first Baptist foreign missionaries, working in Burma for years without a single convert.  Nothing to show for all their work.  Their labor, it seemed, had been in vain.  Yet today, because of their efforts, there are millions of Christians in Burma, now known as Myanmar.  Because of the brutal repression of the military regime, thousands of refugees from the hill tribes are coming to our country.  They are mostly Christian and largely Baptist, and these immigrants are starting many new ABC churches as well as joining and bringing new life to existing churches.

We cannot always see the results immediately.  I pray that someone thinks of me the way I think of Miss Lilly.  (Not as mean old lady, but as someone who made a difference in their life.) 

The servant in Isaiah cried out that his labor has been for nothing.  But God saw things differently.  God does not ask for success, God asks for faithfulness.  And the servant had been faithful.  The servant had sown the seeds.  And the servant’s cry of lament leads to an affirmation of God: “Yet surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with God.”

Tomorrow is Labor Day, and few things affect us as much as our work.  Some of us here are looking ahead, thinking about how to use our gifts and talents and abilities, how to invest our lives, dreaming about the kind of career we might want.  Some are happily working in an occupation, others not so happily, others just counting the days until retirement.  Some are looking for work, or for meaningful work.  And others in retirement may look back on a career, maybe with satisfaction, maybe with mixed feelings.

But the work to which we are called is more than a paying job.  We are called to be disciples.  We are called to be parents, friends, neighbors, caregivers, coaches.  We are called to compassion, called to justice, called to faithfulness.  And again, we can feel like our labors have perhaps been in vain, but so often it is too soon to know.  I have a friend whose daughter is in a kind of rebellion, and it is hard for him - after years of parenting, it really hurts.  But I have a feeling that the love and care that he and his wife have put into raising their daughter has not been in vain.

I have observed people working in jobs that were very routine, that would not seem to careers where you can really make much of a difference.  But through the joy and compassion and life a person shared with customers and clients and co-workers, they made a huge difference.

In our scripture, the servant feels like a failure, but God instead sees faithfulness.  And the servant’s apparent failure, the laboring in vain, led to a promotion.  “It is too light a thing,” God says, that you should serve God by restoring the “survivors of Israel.”  “I will give you as a light to the nations,” to all the peoples of the earth, says the Lord. 

This past Wednesday was the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, and we especially remembered Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  King did not start out by speaking to a quarter of a million people in Washington.  It all began with the Montgomery bus boycott.  King was a 26 year old pastor, the new guy in town, and wound up a leader of the movement partly because others weren’t willing.  There was a time when King felt like a failure, felt he couldn’t go on.  But then came a powerful, tangible sense of God’s presence and God’s call.  And a local concern became a regional issue and a national issue and led to historic changes in our country. 

Martin Luther King in time understood his calling not simply as working for equality for African-Americans in the South, but as working for God’s justice for all people everywhere.  At the time of his death, he was in Memphis working for the rights of poor people.

We may sell ourselves short.  What we may see as laboring in vain may be very valuable.  It may be just the kind of work God needs.  And it may lead to something greater.

Our New Testament lesson comes from the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus is speaking to his disciples, to a small band of followers.  These were not people of means or influence.  These were not the leaders of society.  And they lived in an occupied nation, a kind of backwater place.

Jesus says to them. “You are the salt of the earth.  You are the light of the world.”  It is audacious.  It is almost shocking when you think about it.  He doesn’t say, “You can make somewhat of a difference in this particular area of Galilee.”  He doesn’t say, “I’m counting on you to influence your friends and family in a positive way.”  Under the circumstances, if Jesus said that, it might have been ambitious.  But he says, to his followers then and to you and me right now, “You are the salt of the earth.  You are the light of the world.”  Our calling is a lot bigger than we could have imagined.

Well you know, the world has to start somewhere.  The world begins right where we live and work, and as we labor, we need to know that we are part of something much bigger.  All work that increases knowledge and hope and goodness, all work that builds up, all work that provides for human need, all work that can bring joy and happiness, all work that alleviates suffering is God’s work.  Through that work we are salt and light to the world.  

You are the salt of the earth.  You are the light of the world.  Remember that.  Amen.