Not a Spectator Sport: Matthew 7:24; James 1:22-27

One of my favorite literary characters is Zorba the Greek. Zorba is a daring, brash, risk-taking, fun-loving rascal—all things I admire but am too chicken to try. Zorba is described in the novel bearing his name by Nikos Kazantzakis. The novel is narrated by a character Zorba calls “Boss” because the boss hires Zorba, ostensibly to manage a mining operation for him. In reality, The boss hires Zorba so he can live vicariously through him for a little while.

Zorba is based on a real life Yorgis Zorba that Kazantzakis met on an actual mining venture and the boss, a writer and spiritual seeker/philosopher, is Kazantzakis himself. Zorba chides the boss for being a book worm and “quill driver” because he merely writes about life instead of living it. My love affair with Zorba and Kazantzakis’ other work began 45 years ago when I discovered them in the syllabus of a course on “Theology and the Modern Novel.” I fell for Zorba, but I identified with the boss. I’m much better at observing and reflecting on life than living it in person with gusto.

That same theme shows up in a much more controversial Kazantzakis work, “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Critics of that novel and the movie of the same name mistakenly assume it’s about Jesus being sexually tempted by Mary Magdalene, but they miss the point. Our suppressed attitudes about sex often distract us from more subtle and deeper issues. In The Last Temptation what entices Jesus to abandon his divine mission is not lust, it is the desire to live a “normal,” safe life as a husband and father. Those roles are not wrong, of course, they were just not what Jesus was called to do and be.

On a trip to Boston recently I visited the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. As a child of the ‘60’s it was good to relive a bit of that turbulent period of history. There is the expected pro-Kennedy bias to the museum, of course. There was no mention of the young, martyred president’s human frailties or moral weaknesses. Like all mortals, especially powerful ones, he had has share. But there was also a sense of altruism and service in the Kennedy-Johnson policies so sorely lacking in today’s populist political posturing. JFK’s “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” may sound like a cliché or hopelessly naïve today, but it is far nobler and more Christian than racist slogans to “make America great again.” And it has endured as one of the most famous lines in an inaugural address because Kennedy lived those words he wrote.

No one short of Jesus or Mother Theresa has totally pure motives, but with all their faults, there’s a quality of public service and commitment to justice exemplified in the Kennedys and others of wealth and privilege all the way back to Washington and Jefferson that seems lacking in today’s political atmosphere. JFK failed his physical for military service for a variety of chronic health issues that would have kept most of us on the sidelines. He didn’t have to and probably should not have gone to war. But he used his privileged status, not to avoid service, but to pull strings and join the navy in spite of his medical problems because he felt it was his duty. He’d lived in Europe as a young man in the ‘30’s and knew first-hand the evils of Nazism while most of America was still in favor of isolationism.

After the war Kennedy felt called into politics, not for what it could do for him, but for what he could do for his country. He was already a twice published author and Pulitzer Prize winner (for “Profiles in Courage”) but chose not to be a safe and comfortable spectator/quill driver and instead became an active participant in causes he believed in passionately.

Kennedy’s achievements in his 1000 day presidency are truly remarkable: avoiding nuclear disaster in Cuba, signing the first nuclear arms control agreements, launching the Peace Corps, taking on organized crime, and advancing civil rights and social justice causes than extended American ideals in very significant ways.
He made mistakes in Southeast Asia and domestically, but one does not have to agree with every action or consequence of his policies or legacy to affirm the altruistic spirit of his life. He overcame great physical pain and ultimately gave his life for the country he loved because he chose to be a “profile in courage” instead of just writing about others who did.

In another part of the JFK library is a display I didn’t expect devoted to the life and works of Ernest Hemingway. I was surprised by that until in good quill driver fashion I had time to reflect on why the two share that space. The factual/historical explanation is that Hemmingway’s tragic suicide in 1961 occurred during JFK’s presidency and Kennedy helped assure that Hemmingway’s papers and original manuscripts were collected and preserved.
With all the cold war, domestic and political turmoil on Kennedy’s plate, I asked myself, why would he take time to preserve some quill driver’s papers? My guess is because like Kennedy, Hemmingway was not just a writer; he was a larger than life Zorbatic actor in the narratives he wrote about. He was able to write about the horrors of war because he lived them as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross in WWI. Like Kennedy he foresaw the coming of WWII because he lived in Europe and described the Spanish Civil War as a precursor to another world war.

Why does all that matter to me? Other than the obvious political connections between then and now, a lot of “normal” life has been going on for me since I last wrote here. Grandchildren graduating, having birthdays, my beloved United Methodist Church going through its quadrennial soul searching and public embarrassment about social justice issues, spring time challenges of yard work and gardening chores, coping with the challenges of aging – mine and my father’s; and all the while wrestling with my own temptation to play it safe, enjoy a “well-deserved” retirement, and avoid the conflicts and confrontations of social activism.

All that is far from a new struggle. Twenty plus years ago I wrote a paper about that tension in graduate school and called it “They Shoot Prophets, Don’t They?” Fear is a great excuse for cowardice. “Normal” life concerns and creature comforts are seductive temptresses to avoid faithful living and prophetic witness. Before retirement I often thought I was compromising my values for a parsonage and a pension. Now that only one of those two remains I feel somewhat less constrained to say what I think and feel.

All of that surfaced for me as I reflected on my Boston trip and the realization that “normal” life has kept me from writing here for the last few weeks. With all the critical issues confronting our world and the church right now, that seems like a shirking of my responsibility as a citizen and disciple. Life is a balancing act of tending to both personal and communal needs, and that is very hard work, at least for me.

Part of our responsibility to the larger community is to be informed and think critically about issues that affect the common good. Far too often we have a very limited perspective and base our beliefs and values on what is best for me and those close to me. It’s much harder to think across class, race and social boundaries to ponder and act on what is the just and right thing to do for all of humankind and beyond that to all of creation. We have a tendency to stay within our different comfort zones because, well, they’re comfortable. Intentionally or unintentionally we tend to live, work, go to school and socialize with people who look and think like we do. Historically when immigrants have come to this country, and that includes all of us or our forebears unless we are Native Americans, from the first settlements in this “New World” different ethnic groups, different faith groups, different classes settled together in different locations.

The American melting pot has in reality been more of a collection of separate but unequal boroughs, ghettos, subdivisions, colonies, and territories, from our inception. Now we are engaged again in that struggle Lincoln described so well at Gettysburg to see if a nation conceived and dedicated to unity in diversity can long endure. Unity does not mean conformity. We tend to forget that when we choose up sides and turn our differences into debates instead of opportunities to learn from each other. Our win-lose culture is based on economic and political systems where in order for one side to win someone else has to lose, even though that “losing” side might be 49% of the population.

We saw this win-lose struggle again at the recent United Methodist General Conference where stalemate and status quo left no one satisfied. A truce was called by the Council of Bishops to prevent division of the church and a special commission authorized to study the issues of sexuality that have consumed far too much time and energy and prevented other critical kingdom work for more years than Moses and the Hebrews wandered in the wilderness. I hope that commission will practice what Krista Tippett calls “generous listening” in her book, “Being Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living.” Her insights are so important I want to quote several passages from Chapter 2: “Words: The Poetry of Creatures.”

“Generous listening is powered by curiosity, a virtue we can invite and nurture in ourselves to render it instinctive. It involves a kind of vulnerability—a willingness to be surprised, to let go of assumptions and take in ambiguity.”

“Our cultural mode of debating issues by way of competing certainties comes with a drive to resolution. We want others to acknowledge that our answers are right. We call the debate or get on the same page or take a vote and move on. The alternative is a different orientation to the point of conversing in the first place: to invite searching—not on who is right and who is wrong and the arguments on every side, not on whether we can agree; but on what is at stake in human terms for us all. There is value in learning to speak together honestly and relate to each other with dignity, without rushing to common ground that would leave all the hard questions hanging.”
“But the pressure of coming to agreement works against really understanding each other. And we don’t understand each other.”

“More importantly, you have got to approach differences with this notion that there is good in the other. That’s it. And if we can’t figure out how to do that, and if there isn’t a crack in the middle where there’s some people on both sides who absolutely refuse to see the other as evil, this is going to continue. There’s a lot of pressure, and it’s much easier to preach to the choir versus listening to people who agree with you. But the choir is already there; the choir doesn’t need us. The crack in the middle where people on both sides absolutely refuse to see the other as evil—this is where I want to live and what I want to widen.”

Not bad advice for Congress and our political process either! But generous listening takes time and critical thinking skills that cannot be achieved in a 5 minute speech or a 140 character tweet. It requires a willingness to practice what we write/preach, to be in the words of Jesus and James, “doers of the word and not just hearers.” I want to simply close with those words and encourage all of us to read them with new eyes and generous ears and pray for inspiration and guidance to be both wise observers and daring actors on the stage of life.

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.” Matthew 7:24

“But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves[a] in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing. 26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” James 1:22-27

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What Are We Full Of?, Jonah 3:1-5, 10

This sermon was written for a Sunday emphasis on what it means to live a missional lifestyle, and our case study from Scripture is one of those negative examples of how not to do that. I asked my son once how it was that he is a better golfer, skier and basketball player than I am when I introduced him to all those sports. He smiled and replied, “Oh, I just watched you, Dad, and saw how not to do it.” I think he learned a lot of life lessons that way from me. And we can all benefit in the same way from the story of Jonah.

Before we get to Jonah, I want to tell you about a pastor who decided one day it would be good for his parishioners and his son to take the 5 year-old with him to visit a local retirement community. The little fellow was fascinated by all the new things he saw – walkers and canes and especially the power wheel chair when one of the residents took him for a ride down the hall. But he was most interested when he went into one room with his dad. Pointing in amazement at a set of dentures in a glass on the bedside table he said, “Dad, the tooth fairy is never gonna believe that!” Some things are hard to believe – and the story of Jonah is one such tale.

Ask most people what they know about Jonah, and you will get “Jonah and the whale” as their response. It’s a familiar story kids learn about in Sunday school, but it is much more than a big fish story (which is what the Hebrew says, not a “whale” per se) if we ask some basic questions, like what was Jonah doing in the water and why was he swallowed by the big fish? And please don’t get hung up on the feasibility of a grown man being swallowed by a fish. This is about theology, not biology.

Jonah is a very short story, only 3 pages, and it makes more sense if read in its entirety. So here’s the abridged version of the whole story to put it in context:
1. God calls Jonah and tells him to go on a mission to Nineveh.
2. Jonah doesn’t want to go and jumps on a ship headed for Tarshish (in the exact opposite direction) instead.
3. God is not pleased and causes a storm at sea, and when the sailors learn that Jonah is the reason for God’s displeasure, they throw Jonah overboard to save themselves.
4. God appoints a big fish to swallow Jonah. (Not to punish him, by the way, but to save him and give him time to reconsider God’s offer.)
5. After 3 days God has the fish spit Jonah out; and Jonah decides this time he’d better listen to God, heads for Nineveh and delivers God’s message that they should repent or else bad things are going to happen.
6. The people of Nineveh heed Jonah’s warning, repent of their sins, are forgiven and saved from God’s judgment on them. You’d think any preacher would be thrilled if thousands of people changed their lives based on one short sermon, right? Not Jonah.
7. Jonah pouts because he really wanted God to destroy the Ninevites, not save them.

So there’s a lot more going on here than Jonah and the fish. It’s a story about a refusal to say yes when God’s mission is very clear. The message from God to Jonah couldn’t be more straightforward and direct: The 2nd verse of chapter 1 says, “Go at once to Nineveh,” and those orders are repeated verbatim in our lesson for today. There is no failure to communicate here – just reluctance to obey. Frederick Buechner says, “Lying to God is like sawing the branch you’re sitting on. The better you do it, the harder you fall.” Saying “no” to God is pretty much the same thing; so why would Jonah even try? And why do we?

We all have different reasons and excuses for failing to live missional lives. To consider Jonah’s rationale for disobeying God requires a little history lesson. Nineveh was the capital of Babylon, a hated enemy of the Hebrew people that had overthrown Israel years before and carried many of their people off to Exile. So what Jonah was being asked to do was take a warning to the people of Nineveh so they could be forgiven and spared from God’s wrath. It may help us to identify with Jonah to know that Nineveh sat about where the modern city of Baghdad is today.

Put yourself in Jonah’s place. Fill in your own favorite enemies: Democrats, Tea Partiers, Islamic extremists, the religious right or left, your bitter athletic rivals, unethical business competitors, lawyers, former spouses – whoever it is that you would like to be the very last people God would forgive. That’s exactly who Jonah is being asked to save and why he dares to defy a direct order from God.

I have been blessed by hearing good preaching this month. Pastor Tom Slack started the New Year off right for me with a sermon on the prologue to John’s Gospel. What struck me that day was the verse that says “The word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” And just 2 verses later, “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” I’ve been journaling and praying ever since about what it looks like for us, for me, to be full of grace and truth. Our other fine preacher, Mebane McMahon, added to the dialogue with her sermon the next week on the baptism of Christ and how we are all beloved children of God. She added another piece to the puzzle the next week’s sermon on the story of Eli and Samuel and how being beloved children means listening when God speaks.

In Jonah we have someone who doesn’t just fail to listen to God, he rebels and does the exact opposite of what God tells him to do. Why do we do that? It never turns out well. Reflecting on those January sermons my take on why Jonah and I and many of you fail to live a missional lifestyle is because of what we’re full of – or NOT full of. The Scriptures don’t tell us for sure why Jonah ran away. Chapter 1 says he tried to flee from the presence of the Lord. He needed to read Psalm 139 which asks the very question, “Where can I flee from God’s presence?” The answer is nowhere, because there is nowhere in all creation that God isn’t.

We aren’t told but we can imagine why Jonah does what he does. Maybe fear – he was being asked to go into enemy territory. Are there places or people God is asking us to be in mission that we are uncomfortable with or afraid to go? Maybe Anger – Jonah admits in the end of the story that he’s mad at God for forgiving his enemies. He says, “I knew you were a God of mercy who would repent and forgive these slime balls. They don’t deserve it.” (That’s a loose translation, by the way.) Are there people we don’t think deserve God’s grace and mercy? Do we hoard the good news of the Gospel – thinking if we share it there might not be enough for us?

It seems pretty clear to me that Jonah is full of anger or fear or vengeance or judgment, or some combination of those poisons. And that’s why he can’t obey God’s call. When we are full or even partially full of guilt, jealousy, doubt, insecurity, bitterness, pain, there’s no room for us to be full of grace and truth. Those negative feelings are like an anchor that keeps us stuck where we are and unable to go where God wants to send us.

It’s like this story about a blacksmith with a seemingly insurmountable problem. He just didn’t fit the macho stereotype of a blacksmith. He was strong and very good at his craft, but he was very, very short of stature. As a result, he was very unsuccessful in the dating game and was quite lonely. Until one day a beautiful young woman appeared in his blacksmith shop with a horse who had thrown a shoe. It was love at first sight for the smithy, and he could tell the feelings were mutual. So he took all the time he could and did the finest job he had ever done on shoeing a horse. As it was drawing time for his new love to leave, he desperately wanted to kiss her and could tell she would welcome that. But there was a big problem. She was a full head taller than he.

Just as he was about to give up yet again on romance, the blacksmith had a brilliant idea. He led the young woman by the hand to the corner of his shop and jumped up on the anvil where he had just hammered her horse’s shoe into perfect shape. Standing on the anvil, he was able to look into her beautiful brown eyes and kiss her.

The two of them fell madly in love and were inseparable for weeks and then months. Everyone in the village assumed they would soon announce their engagement to be married, and the young woman was waiting expectantly for her little beau to pop the big question. Instead, without warning, he announced to her one fine spring afternoon that he was going to have to end their courtship. She was devastated and confused. She asked him why? Didn’t he love her? Was it something she had done or said, or not done or not said? To each question he just shook his head until she was begging him to explain his sudden change of heart. Finally he said, “My dear, I do love you very much, but you see, dragging that darn anvil around everywhere we go is killing me!”

Like that anvil worry, fear, guilt, anger – whatever you are full of is an unnecessary burden that no longer needs to drag you down. And we don’t have to break up with God. Just get rid of the burden. We can give those things to God. That’s the truth that sets us free to say yes to God’s mission and purpose for our lives! No matter what our excuses have been none of us are beyond God’s redeeming love. If God can forgive the enemies of his chosen people who destroyed Jerusalem and carried God’s people off into Exile, then God can certainly forgive our reluctance to share our faith with the least and lost. And your Nineveh may not be as far away as you think. The person sitting next to you may need your support. Your mission may to someone in your own family or neighborhood or it may be somewhere further away.

Be open to surprises about where God leads you to discover your mission. In 1997 Bill Gates thought he was on a mission to bring computers to people in developing countries until he visited Africa and saw firsthand the abject poverty and the ravages of malaria and tuberculosis. He realized there were far more critical needs there than internet connectivity. He found a new mission and he and his wife Melinda started their foundation which has for 17 years donated millions of dollars to build hospitals and schools for impoverished people all over the world.

When wrestling with a call to a new mission, remember that it’s natural to feel nervous and fearful whenever we try something new and different. They call it moving out of your comfort zone – because it is! Susan Jeffers has written a very helpful book called Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. That’s easier said than done, but very good advice. I saw some good advice on Facebook recently about working out early in the morning before your brain realizes what you’re doing. In a similar vein, I’ve also found that it helps me when tackling a new challenge to do it quickly before I have time to realize I’m afraid.

So what does Jonah do after his mission in Nineveh is over? We don’t know. At the end of the story he’s pouting, caring more about a dead gourd plant that had been shading him from the sun than 120,000 people in Nineveh. Like many Biblical stories, the ending of the story is left up to us. That’s because more important than an old fish story from long ago is your story and mine, and the next chapter of those stories is waiting to be written.

My wife and I were participants in a very intense personal growth seminar a few years ago, and something there stirred up some anger in me which I directed at one of the workshop leaders. She listened to me rant awhile, and then she said very quietly to me, “You know, Steve, you don’t have to be angry. It’s a choice.” It was one of the best Aha moments of my life – to realize for that I don’t have to be controlled by my emotions. I can choose to respond differently. Is that easy? Of course not. My wife can tell you I still have a long way to go in changing that 60 year-old habit. But old dogs can learn new tricks; it just takes us awhile. We can change and allow ourselves to be filled with grace and truth that empowers us to live the mission God has for us – whatever that is.

Let me share something that has worked for me lately. When facing a challenging situation I try to remember to pause and ask, “How would I respond to this situation if I were filled with grace and truth?” It’s a form of “faking it till you make it,” a small way of practicing a missional lifestyle; and if I keep trying, with God’s help, to live AS IF I am full of grace and truth, that lifestyle will eventually become a new habit.

What are you full of? If you don’t like the answer to that question, the good news is you don’t have to spend time in a fish’s belly to turn your life around. All you have to do is say yes every day to the one who is Grace and Truth.

[Originally preached at Northwest United Methodist Church, Columbus, Ohio, January 25, 2015]

Welcomed In, Sent to Serve

I was privileged to be invited to share some memories of my time as a student at the Wesley Foundation at Ohio State University recently. The occasion was Alumni Sunday at Summit United Methodist Church as we celebrated 60 years of ministry to students and the university community in the building at 82 E. 16th Ave. in Columbus. Summit church was created in the late 1970’s by a merger of the Wesley Foundation, Indianola UMC and University UMC. The Scripture for the day was the Prodigal Son story in Luke 15.

I identify with the prodigal son because my first memory of visiting this building when it was the Wesley Foundation was as a scared little kid lost on a huge campus. OK, I was 20 years old and a junior – but it was my first quarter on main campus after two safe years of living at home and attending the Lima Branch, as we then called it, of OSU. The year was 1966, and less you think I was a total wuss, you must know that my lecture classes that quarter in University Hall were bigger than my entire high school student body, and the number of students at OSU was about 6 times the population of my home town.

I was homesick for my mommy and without being able to name it also for a God I felt at home with. Having grown up in a loving United Methodist congregation, my parents had told me the Wesley Foundation was a place I would be welcome. Had my parents known what radical ideas and people I would encounter here they would probably have sent me to the Baptists – but thanks be to God, they didn’t know any better.

So, what was the first thing to greet me at the front door of this building? A warm smiling face? Not really. Instead there was a huge statue in the foyer of a 10 foot Abraham holding a big knife about to kill his son Isaac because God had told him to do so. Not exactly the kind of father figure one would rush home to. I realized later that that story of how God saves Isaac is a great metaphor for how God redeems us from very frightening situations in our troubled world, but at the time it was intimidating and too much like the wrathful God I had been taught to fear as a child.

My understanding of the nature of God began to change the next quarter when I got a phone call from Glenda Cail, a member of the Wesley Foundation staff. She invited me to a student gathering at her apartment on a cold January Friday night. It would be a gross understatement to say that no other women were inviting me to their apartments, and it sounded better than another night of bowling with my roommate. So I went to that gathering, and Glenda’s simple act of hospitality changed my life.
I met my future wife at that gathering, and I found at the Foundation a new home where I felt welcome and safe to explore the first serious theological challenges in my life. I remember in particular a book study led by Bill Trudeau on James Michener’s book The Source that introduced me to new and exciting ways of thinking about the nature of God, fellowship with guys in the Methodist service fraternity, STE, and my senior year living in Wesley House where everyone made a commitment to practice living as best we could according to Christian values.

Wesley House was exactly the kind of experience I needed. I grew up in a good Christian family, but one where the motto was, “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” It was quiet at our house a lot. Wesley House was a 180 degree turn where the philosophy was more like Ephesians 4:5 where we are encouraged to “speak the truth in love.” It was a place where it was not only ok to disagree and express our feelings, it was required. All 20 of us met every Sunday night up in the Hackler Lounge with “Whitie” (Lloyd White) and Jack Shepherd, a chaplain from Riverside Hospital who may have invented tough love. They facilitated open, honest discussions of whatever issues were going on at the house and how they could be resolved in a collaborative way that was fair to everyone involved.

Maybe the President and Congressional leaders should try living in that kind of covenantal arrangement? There must be room at the White House for Mitch McConnell and John Boehner to move in. But seriously – the atmosphere of hospitality and honest safe communication we experienced here in the turbulent 60’s and 70’s wasn’t just good for personal faith development, it was critical for helping us become engaged and active citizens in a time of social transformation.

The Wesley Foundation was a safe place where we were nurtured, but also challenged to go out from this place to witness and practice our faith in ways that helped create a more just society and world for all of God’s children. Wilfred Cantwell Smith defines faith as “feeling at home in the universe.” The Foundation helped me feel at home in this big university, it introduced me to the social gospel, and prepared me to move on to the challenges waiting for me in seminary at MTSO and beyond.
I think what my years at the Foundation meant to me was best expressed by Jason Leighton, one of the MTSO students who helped plan this service. Jason said that without the theological challenges and growth he had through his campus ministry experience as an undergrad he thinks his head would have exploded when he got to seminary. Thanks Jason, I can’t sum it up any better than that.

I mentioned the Hackler Lounge earlier, and I want to pay a special tribute to Darold Hackler for whom that room is named. “Hack,” as we called him, was the founding director of the Wesley Foundation who served in that capacity for over 20 years. He was critical to the very existence of this place even though his name doesn’t get mentioned as often as others. That’s because “Hack” was a quiet, behind the scenes leader. He took care of the administrative details – kept the bills paid the Bishop happy so all ministry and programs could happen here.

So as we celebrate 60 years of student ministry in this building, I’m grateful for Darold Hackler and all the other leaders who have and continue to serve here. And I am thankful that after 60 years Summit is still a place where all of us prodigals are welcomed and nurtured and prepared for the challenges of being agents of transformation in the world.

SIGNS OF LIFE: MINISTRY OF GIFTS, Mark 6:30-44

We’ve had a series of medical emergencies during Sunday morning worship at our church this winter when it was necessary to call the emergency squad.  This has happened so often we’ve thought of asking the EMT’s if they’d like to join the congregation.  After all, they’ve been more regular attendees than some of our members!

I suppose that’s why I dreamed the other night that they came again, but there was a major difference in my dream.  Instead of one ambulance, a whole herd of them arrived in our parking lot, and they loaded up the whole congregation and took us to the ER to check our congregation for signs of life.  Ironically we had just finished singing the old Methodist hymn, “And Are We Yet Live?” when we heard the first sirens.

In the ER there was another patient in the cubicle next to ours, and HIPPA privacy laws or not, I could tell from the conversation I overheard through the flimsy dividing curtain that it was another congregation.  From the pieces of conversation I got between the doctors and nurses, I knew that other patient was in trouble.  They were checking the vital signs and none sounded good:

  • Spirituality – detected in the brain but not in the heart
  • Mode of Worship– luke warm and dropping fast
  • Small group involvement – below normal
  • Loving Community relationships– compound fractures and divisions
  • Evangelism and outreach – barely detectable

Pretty soon I heard the steady hum of a heart monitor that had flatlined.  I heard someone, I guessed the hospital chaplain, explain the death by quoting parts of the New Testament letter of James.  I questioned his bedside manner, but the words rang true –“Be doers of the word and not merely hearers…Faith without works is dead.”

That got me to wondering.  When new people first enter our church building do they see those signs of life?  Do they experience the final vital sign that is our topic for today — a congregation that shares God’s gifts in ministry and service to others?

Mark 6 says the disciples came back from their mission trips and their evangelistic efforts at school and work and “reported to Jesus all that they had done and taught.”   How different would our lives and our church’s life look if we intentionally reported to Jesus every day what we did that day for the good of God’s creation and God’s children?

Please note, I celebrate all the wonderful ministries our congregation is already doing – the ones going on for years, decades, some even for the 177 years we’ve been here.  And I love the new ministries, like the Knit Wits (who make warm hats for homeless folks) or our Kids Morning Out program that reaches out to the smallest members of God’s family.     So this isn’t about a guilt trip – those don’t ever take us anywhere God wants us to be.  This is about examining our hearts to see if we are discerning correctly what God wants us to be doing here in this place as a church in 2012.

One of the Jesus tests for answering that question comes from Matthew 25 where Jesus reminds that what we do for the least of our sisters and brothers is what we do for Christ.  Sometimes the least of us go to great lengths to hide their needs from others and from God.  The least could be someone who appears to have the most.  I read in the news this week that actress Jennifer Aniston spent—are you sitting down–$141,000 last year to maintain her youthful appearance.  After being shocked and angry at what she spent on hairdressers, personal trainers, a private nutritionist, and laser peels (I don’t even want to know what that is), I wondered if anyone is also ministering to her spiritual needs.  Is anyone sharing with her the good news that God loves her just the way she is without spending all that time and money on her exterior image?

The ministry of gifts is the rubber meets the road vital sign for the church.  Health professions measure our health by checking blood pressure and heart rate, weight and cholesterol.  What yard stick do we use to check how alive we are as a congregation?  Is it good enough to be doing better than the Presbyterians or Baptists?  Or more than our unbelieving friends and neighbors?  Sorry, Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook that easily.  Jesus himself is the gold standard, the best model of servanthood and the sharing of gifts.

Look at how Jesus lives that out in the familiar miracle story of the feeding of the 5000.   First, Jesus sees the crowd as they get off the boat on the way to a much-needed spiritual retreat.  Mark tells us that Jesus and the disciples were so busy ministering to the crowds who pressed in upon them to be healed and taught that they “had no time even to even eat.”  That’s way too busy.  Jesus sees the weariness and the need for a time away to rest and renew.  So they get in a boat to cross the lake, but the crowds saw them leaving and started texting and tweeting to their friends; so when Jesus and the disciples got to their destination to get away from it all – it was all there waiting for them.

How does Jesus respond to the needs of the crowds clamoring for time with him?  What we’d expect – he sees they are like sheep without a shepherd and he has compassion on them.  That’s all well and good.  I have compassion every time I see a homeless person standing by a freeway off ramp holding a “will work for food” sign.   I pray for them or even give a little cash, but then I quickly move on to my intended destination.  Not so our mentor servant Jesus.  He responds to the need he sees and postpones the R&R he and his boys really needed and were counting on.  He sees and feels the spiritual hunger of the crowd, and he teaches them.  He doesn’t toss a pious platitude to them or say “take two proverbs and call me in the morning.”   He sits down and listens to them, teaches them until the sun begins to set and his disciples interrupt to say it’s time for supper.

Ok, another need has arisen, this time not spiritual but physical hunger.  Notice the difference between Jesus’ response to this need and that of the disciples.  The disciples are anxious to get on with their own agenda.  They say, “Let’s send them over to Chipotle or Subway so they can buy themselves some food.”  “ Nope,” says the Lord.  He looks Peter and John and the others right in the eye, and he says, “YOU give them something to eat.”     And what does he get from the disciples?  Excuses.  “We don’t have that kind of bread, Jesus; we’ve barely got enough for ourselves.  There must be 5000 of them.  We can’t possibly feed them all!”

Jesus says, “Go, and see what you’ve got.  Check out your available resources.”  Jesus asks us to take that kind of inventory too.  What do we put on our list?  We don’t think about all the gifts we have as a congregation.  The big ones are obvious – the music program, the mission trips, the weekly trips to serve a meal to the homeless, Sunday school teachers & youth leaders, committee chairs – but what about the gift of a friendly smile to a stranger, the ministry of calling a child by name so she knows she matters, setting up chairs for worship, rocking an infant in the nursery.  And the ministry of gifts is an even more effective witness when we do it away from the church building.  Forgiving a rude driver on the road or giving up your spot in line at Kroger’s to a harried father with 3 squirmy pre-schoolers in tow – those are gifts of ministry to God’s children.  And let’s not overlook the gifts of ministry children offer us –their curiosity, pure innocent honesty, exuberance and energy.  In the Gospel of John’s version of this miracle (John 6) the food Jesus uses to feed the masses comes from a little boy in the crowd.

It is a gift to grow food for the hungry in your garden or to lead a community organization, mobilizing efforts to change things in our society and world that are unjust or just plain wrong.  We all have unique gifts,  and our call is to take whatever God has gifted each of us with and re-gift it to those who need it.

So the disciples report back to Jesus with a meager 5 loaves and 2 fish.   They give it to Jesus; he blesses it – offers it to God and has the disciples share it with the crowd.  Not only does everybody get food to eat, Mark tells us that they all are satisfied.  And not only that, there are enough leftovers to feed the next hungry people already coming down the road.

In the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 7), Jesus says, people will know us by our fruits.  [I held up a beautiful large red apple in one hand and a very black, over-ripe banana in the other]  What kind of fruit do we want to be known for?

Remember we’re not talking about buying new expensive gifts, just sharing the talents we already have.  When he feeds the multitude, Jesus doesn’t ask the disciples for more than they have – that would be terribly unfair, but he does ask us to trust him with ALL that we have – whatever that may be.  There’s a great example of the miraculous results the  spontaneous ministry of gifts can have in a short documentary on you tube about a little known part of the events of 9/11.  “Boatlift: The Untold Story of 9/11 Resilience” tells how immediately after the towers collapsed thousands of frightened people were desperate to get away from ground zero.  They had no idea what other attacks might be coming.  But the subways and bridges were all shut down, and as the film’s narrator Tom Hanks says, “Many people realized for the first time that Manhattan is an island.”  The miracle is that 500,000 people were evacuated from Manhattan in just 9 hours by a group of volunteer tug boat and ferry boat captains who saw a need and put out a radio plea for other boats to join them.  They had no plan, no organizational chart.  Dozens of good people simply decided to share the resources they had available – no more, no less – and their gifts bore great fruit.  (For the full story, go to  www.youtube.com/watch?v=MDOrzF7B2Kg.

When they do the EKG to check on the heartbeat of Jesus followers at Jerome Church, what fruits will they know us by?   What can we report to Jesus that we have done in the past and will do today to feed the spiritual and physical hungers of his children?

The bottom line is this – when the time comes for Jesus to check my spiritual vital signs he’s not going to ask me why I didn’t take my canoe to help with the boatlift on 9/11, or why I didn’t sing like Josh Groban, or minister to the desperately poor like Mother Theresa.  Those gifts belong to others, not me.   All Jesus is going to want to know is if I’ve been the best Steve Harsh I could be and used the gifts and talents God gave me to show God’s love and mercy to my sisters and brothers

Jesus will remind me that life isn’t Facebook.  We can’t just push a button and unfriend the annoying or the needy.  We are called to share the gifts of ministry with them all, the least and the most of them – the poor and the poor in spirit — to share with them all the gifts we’ve been given.  And when we do, miracles happen, and it is more than enough.