Monday, July 27, 2009

This week's sermon: People as Priority II

Speaking the language of love and service is louder than any spoken word.

My good friend and brother in the Lord Method is an example for all of us to follow. He was our driver while we were in Burundi. He spoke no English, and we spoke no Kirundi, but he found ways to communicate his love for the Lord and his love for us through acts of service. Method drove us through the Burundi hill country on our historic tour, and when we stopped at a church he came in and sang with us and played the drum. When we did not speak the same language, he gave us common words we could use to understand each other and even an inside joke. The road to Abeka, Congo was the worst road Method had ever driven, and some of our team had gone to Abeka before we arrived in Burundi. Whenever we would hit a bump in the road or particularly big pot hole, he would say, “Abeka!” By the end of the trip we would say it too. We didn’t speak Kirundi, and he didn’t speak English, but we knew Abeka meant hold on, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride!

When he bought sugar cane for his seven children, he cut some off and gave some to us. When we went shopping in the market, he bought us sweet potatoes so that we could experience that Burundi treat. When we were looking at cloth, he helped us find the best quality. When we were negotiating with the merchants, he would help us get a good price. He showed us all the best places to find fabric, hand-crafts, tools and other souvenirs throughout the market. All with a smile. All with love. All in service to us out of a brotherly love in Christ. He took care that we had safe travel, he protected us in public places. He spoke no English, and we spoke no Kirundi, but we understood his language of service and love.

Megan Frazier taught him how to say, “You are my sister!” and he would say that to us. On the last day our whole team was together, we told him, “Tura kunda Method!” which means “We love Method!” in Kirundi. He was so surprised and shocked that we learned his language just to tell him that we loved him that he laughed with joy and put his face in his hands. When we went, we spoke no Kirundi and he spoke no English, but together by loving each other in the Lord and acts of service and kindness, we found we understood each other just fine.

1 Corinthians 9:19-23 19 Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

There are people in our lives that God wants us to reach for the gospel. Sometimes, though, it seems like they are so different from us that they speak a different language. But we are not to give up. We are not to use their differences as an excuse to walk away and leave them in darkness. Rather, we are to show them the love of Christ in ways that go beyond language and culture. Like the ways that Method cared for us while we were in Burundi. He helped the older ladies out of the van, he helped to carry luggage and tie it down in the trucks and the jeep. He sacrificed some of his income to buy us special treats of sugar cane and sweet potatoes. It is the same way that Christ reached out and healed the sick, fed the hungry, and touched those with leprosy. These actions show caring and love no matter what language you speak or what culture you are in.

When we interact with those who are different from us, we are to even take on their language and culture to show them Christ’s love. In this way, my brother Method would say, “You are my sista!” and we told him, “Tura Kunda Method!” We learned enough of each other’s language to communicate and connect in the most basic way. While we were there, Method wore a stars and stripes jacket, he wanted to show us that he identified with us. It is the same way that Christ came and not only taught mankind in his divine form, no he emptied himself and took on flesh. He lived among us, pitched his tent among us. Christ came and spoke our language and learned our culture to show us his love.

The apostle Paul is telling us in this passage that just like Christ, our goal should be to demonstrate God’s love for mankind in whatever way the people we are with will understand. We need to find out what interests them, what their needs are, what their cultural patterns are so that we can present to them the message of the gospel in a way they not only understand, but are excited to accept.

Dave Robinson at the closing session of Ministry Conference yesterday said this—“The ultimate goal is not missions, or ministry, but worship. We are to be about the business of bringing more people to worship at the feet of our awesome, majestic God.” That is our job. To present God, his love, his mercy, his holiness before people and bring them to a place where they are fellow worshipers with us. That is the great commission, to go into all the world and preach the gospel, to make disciples.

Sometimes we forget that all the world includes our neighborhood. All the world includes our workplace. All the world includes our family. All the world includes every sphere of our life, it includes every person in our life. Don’t let something as small as language and culture differences get in the way of you fulfilling the purpose God has for you—to share the gospel where you are.

I heard an interesting statistic this week. One third of the world is Christian. That is a lot. That is huge. That means that if every Christian were to win two people to Christ who had never heard, we would be done, and Christ could come back. The problem is that not every Christian sees it as his or her job to spread the word. We have lost touch with the Great Commission, and somehow we believe salvation ends with us. But salvation is a cycle where a person gets the gospel, God gets the glory, the person grows to maturity and then repeat. That person shares the gospel, God gets the glory, another disciple grows to maturity and repeat.

The command to go and tell; the statement that we will be his witnesses—they apply to every believer. We are all to tell; we are all to bear witness. No one gets off the hook. And the way we share the gospel is to become like Christ, to put aside our own culture and language and take up those of the people around us. Then we can speak their language, then we can communicate the gospel. Then the message can be embraced and Kingdom of God is built.

Monday, July 20, 2009

This week's message: People as Priority

Matthew 22:37-40.
While we were in Burundi, it was easy to be overwhelmed by the conditions people live in. It was easy to become numbed by the statistics that 90 percent of the people live in poverty on less than $2 a day; that as many as 1 in 16 people have AIDS; that the average life expectancy is just over 50 years. I personally struggled to have compassion on individuals when surrounded by so many who are in need. Why am I telling you this? I want to share with you something that has been on my heart since we neared the end of our time in Burundi. It is this: Jesus made people a priority.

For most of us that is not a shocking concept, but I want us to look at how that translates to our lives. How do we make people a priority as Jesus did? The first step to making people a priority is addressing the biggest obstacle to our seeing the people in front of us, that is classifying everything as an “issue.” We have all kinds of “issues:” social issues, political issues, moral issues. We like to talk about issues, and who wouldn’t? Talking about issues only requires that you have an opinion, and who doesn’t have opinions they like to share? Issues are convenient like that, they give us an outlet for our opinions, but they keep us distant from the people to whom those issues have a daily impact.

What are the biggest issues right now? You can answer (Poverty, Healthcare, Homosexual Marriage, War, Abortion…). Issues we are all prone to have an opinion about, now I am not going to ask your opinion on those issues, but if I did, I think we would find as many differing opinions on those issues as we have people in this room! And some of our opinions may be right, others wrong, but what we do in discussing issues is put people to the side. When we debate issues we not only set aside the people directly affected by those issues, we often also set aside the person with a conflicting opinion--the one that is different from our own.

Issues separate, isolate, and cause us to grasp tightly to our own right-ness. You have seen it, a friendly conversation that turns ugly when one of these issues is brought up. Immediate division, and both parties walk away nursing their pride and each telling themselves that they are the ones in the right.

Issues do something else for us, they allow us to have an opinion without having to take responsibility for taking action. Can you solve the issue of poverty? Can you stop abortion? Can you eradicate war? No, of course not. By choosing to see only issues, insurmountable issues, problems too big for us to tackle as individuals, we give ourselves permission to do nothing. So what is the answer? The answer is to do what Jesus did.

He never addressed only issues, he addressed people. He didn’t react to issues, he reacted to people. He never responded to the enticement offered by religious intellectuals to enter the debates over issues, instead he redirected them to the people in front of them, or even closer to home: he redirected them to their own humanness.
Jesus never addressed the issue of poverty, but he fed the hungry who were before him.
Jesus never addressed the issue of healthcare, but he healed the sick before him.
Jesus never addressed the issue of sexual immorality in culture, but he told the woman caught in adultery to go and sin no more, and the woman at the well that he could give her living water springing up to eternal life.
Jesus never addressed the issue of Roman oppression, but he told the challengers to give to Caesar what bears his image, and give to God what bears His.

At every turn, Jesus points to the people and makes them the priority over issues. He does this in his words, teachings, and actions. The biggest statement of this is in the two greatest commandments that Jesus says sums up the law and prophets, or on which the law and prophets hang: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. He did not say that the two greatest commands were to join the right organizations and have the right opinion on all the pertinent issues. Although sometimes we act as though these are the commands he gave.

Instead of seeing the people around us and responding to their needs, we join organizations that will address the social issues of the world. Sometimes this is even how we see our church membership. Instead of responding to the people affected by AIDS, those torn apart by divorce, those haunted by abortion, we form an opinion on an issue and keep the hurting people at arms length. “But we can’t fix those problems they are too big for us!” You protest. Yea! You got the message. Issues are too big for us, problems are too big for us, but each of us has the ability, in Christ, to reach out to the person next to us and show them love, compassion and grace. And that is what Jesus calls us to do.

In his book, The Star Thrower, author Loren E. Eisley talks of the early morning when he finds himself with "writers block", he decided to take a walk along a sandy beach where hundreds of starfish had been washed up on the shore overnight.
"I awoke early, as I often did, just before sunrise to walk by the ocean's edge and greet the new day. As I moved through the misty dawn, I focused on a faint, far away motion. I saw a youth, bending and reaching and flailing arms, dancing on the beach, no doubt in celebration of the perfect day soon to begin. As I approached, I sadly realized that the youth was not dancing to the bay, but rather bending to sift through the debris left by the night's tide, stopping now and then to pick up a starfish and then standing, to heave it back into the sea. I asked the youth the purpose of the effort. "The tide has washed the starfish onto the beach and they cannot return to the sea by themselves," the youth replied. "When the sun rises, they will die, unless I throw them back to the sea." As the youth explained, I surveyed the vast expanse of beach, strectching in both directions beyond my sight. Starfish littered the shore in numbers beyond calculation. The hopelessness of the youth's plan became clear to me and I countered, "But there are more starfish on this beach than you can ever save before the sun is up. Surely you cannot expect to make a difference." The youth paused briefly to consider my words, bent to pick up a starfish and threw it as far as possible. Turning to me he simply said, "I made a difference to that one." I left the boy and went home, deep in thought of what the boy had said. I returned to the beach and spent the rest of the day helping the boy throw starfish in to the sea."

As individuals, hanging onto issues is a comfortable way to avoid taking action. We have the excuse that the problem is so big there is nothing we can do that will matter. What a relief that Jesus does not call us to solve issues, but to love people. Jesus doesn’t expect us to save the world, but to introduce people to the one who can save their souls and heal their wounds. Living in that kind of love requires us to give up our comfortable place of righteous superiority and to get down in the trenches.

Paul puts it this way in Philippians: Philippians 2:3-8 (NRSV)
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.

If we are going to do what Jesus did, and live life that impacts those around us, we need an attitude change. Our attitudes have to be the same as Christ before our actions can follow suit. How do we get there? Paul tells us in Romans 12:2 to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, which only comes as we lay our lives down in living sacrifice—our acceptable act of worship before our Holy God. In surrendering ourselves, our pride, our right to feel self-righteous; in allowing God to come in with his Holy Spirit and renew our way of thinking, we can begin to see the people around us. We can begin to see the small part that God calls us to play in the lives of those around us that makes such a huge impact on their lives for eternity. Then, and only then, people become our priority, issues fall to the wayside, and Christ’s Kingdom is built.