Monday, November 10, 2008

Serve Somebody


All through the presidential election, people kept pressing me for my opinion. I decided to remain silent for a number of reasons, not the least of which is my repugnance at the politicizing of the pulpit in recent years on both the right and the left. Also, we have a racially mixed congregation whose unity I want to guard. Finally, I felt I simply did not have the grace and permission from God to speak about it. Now the election is over. So as I prepared for the sermon, I noticed that the Common Lectionary reading included Joshua 24. That’s when I felt permission from God to speak about the present climate of our nation.

You will not find specific praise or blame for any of the candidates in the sermon. Instead, you will see my passion to keep the people of God focused on eternal things and to not allow themselves to be highjacked by transitory things.

Here at Christ Church, we are experiencing an ingathering of people from many walks of life. God is at work in a mighty way. I want us to keep the main thing the main thing: “loving God, loving each other, making music with our friends.”

May God Bless each of you, our new president and our beloved country.

You Gotta Serve Somebody

(Joshua 24: 14-24)

The people of the United States have entered a new era. Future historians will note how drastically our nation’s culture shifted during the years between the bombing of the World Trade Center and the presidential election that we experienced last Tuesday. This shift of our national culture makes many Americans anxious. For them, the changes represent an unmitigated disaster and a lunge toward an uncertain future. For others, the shift represents the opening of new opportunities and a deeper connection with the rest of the globe. Therefore, these Americans view the cultural shift with a sense of excitement

So, we are divided about what these historic changes mean. The truth be told, none of us yet know what they mean. Those who fear the cultural changes worry that their most cherished values may be in danger. Those who celebrate these changes hope that we are stumbling toward a more globally aware and equitable society.

History suggests – and our faith asserts – that both our fears and our hopes of cultural change are often overblown. Nations and cultures go through seasons. The French Revolution, the October Revolution, the Cultural Revolution; the long march, the war to end all wars, the great society; the reformation, the renaissance, the enlightenment; all these great movements announced their arrival with great sound and fury, made their impact and then became the cultural artifacts that our children learn about in school.

After seventy years of Communism, Russia returned to being Russia. After sixty years of Marxism, the Chinese realized that being Chinese was more important than being Communist. The French have been as French without their monarchy as they were before they stormed the Bastille. Neither the League of Nations, The United Nations, or the North American Treaty Organization ever delivered even a fraction of what some people hoped. However, they also did not deliver even a fraction of what some people feared.

I would not for a moment minimize either the fears or the hopes of any American facing the current changes of our culture. Our economic changes are real. The election results are clear. Globalization has overwhelmed our borders and overturned our provincial views of the world. It is therefore impossible (and ultimately irresponsible) to ignore these realities. We certainly cannot live in any other era than our own. If we try to escape our own era of history, we become mere curiosities – like the people who insist on driving buggies and banning cell phones in order to escape the evils of modernity. Nations, churches and individuals do that at the cost of becoming entirely irrelevant.

As your pastor, it is not my responsibility to weigh in on political issues anyway, except when those issues clearly relate to our spiritual lives. However, it is my responsibility to remind you that we are an eternal people and that we serve an eternal God who is faithful in every era and in every culture. Therefore, we do not have to fear any culture; we were made to thrive in them all.

Moses led the children of Israel, out of slavery and into the Promised Land because God was with him. Then he died. Joshua was the nation’s next leader. He conquered the cities and villages of Canaan because God was also with him. When Joshua was an old man, he addressed the people who had followed both him and Moses. The Israelites now lived in very different circumstances than when Joshua was a young man marching from Egypt. The days of slavery were now far behind them. The battles for Canaan had been won. The Israelites were no longer nomads and wanderers. They were a settled people living in their own homes.
As so often happens, the man who had led the Israelites for so many years felt more connected to the era of his youth than to the one in which he was now living. He was fearful that the values that had brought God’s people from a place of bondage to a place of security and safety might be destroyed. The complacent and dispassionate attitudes that often develop when a people are no longer in danger, could undermine the very purpose of Israel’s existence.

Joshua is concerned about these things as he gives his final address to his people. So this passage is an impassioned plea: do not forget the Lord! Do not fall into idolatry and the debauched life styles of your neighbors. Remember that you are the people of God. Hold on to the past as you move on into the future.

Joshua goes on to say that living as a covenant people in any era requires that they make a deliberate choice. He is saying that covenant requires intention, awareness, mindful actions and disciplined thoughts. He understands that one can drift into apostasy but that fidelity to covenant requires an intentional choice. Every generation of believers must make such a decision and then they can adapt themselves to live in their own times as children of God.

“Choose you this day who you will serve,” the old man insists. Then he does what all real leaders must do; he makes his own choice. His choice will not be predicated upon the choice of the people. Although a political man decides what the people think and then makes his choice, a leader chooses his path and then invites others to follow. “Whatever you decide to do,” he says, “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord!”

This is the heart of the matter: we must deliberately decide whether we intend to be people of covenant or if we will merely drift along with the flow of public opinion and popular culture. As Leon Kass so capably points out in the greatest commentary written on the book of Genesis in our lifetime[1], The God of Israel does not base his work on those who do heroic deeds in order to become “men of renown” but upon those who remain faithful to their God, to their families and to the teachings of covenant. These kinds of individuals have the courage to appear insignificant to others as they just do the right thing day after day.” In other words, covenant people live in their own times but are not obsessed with their own popularity. They realize that popularity can be a detriment to one’s character and productivity.

I am not unaware of the importance of the historic events of our times or of the impact of our great leaders. Occasionally, some event really does change the world. Sometimes a person really does galvanize nations into action. However, I want to remind you that great events and great leaders ultimately do not impact the world nearly as much as the small actions of small people who live in insignificant places. Nero is dead and is barely remembered. I dare say that few of us in this room would be able to say when he lived or what he did. That may be deplorable but it is probably the truth. However, what person here will not know who St. Paul was, or what he did?

The Bible implores us, pleads with us, to resist the allure of fame and fortune and to focus our fleeting lives upon making a real difference in the world. The Bible insists that the way we make a difference is by learning and applying the teaching of Holy Scripture to our lives and by organizing our deeds around long-range plans that will rarely come to fruition in our own lifetimes. Covenant people live their lives in service to God and they act in order to benefit their descendents and their neighbors. This way of life is completely contrary to anything the secular world teaches, on either the right or the left side of the aisle. However, it is that sort of kingdom living or “serving God” that ultimately changes the world.

Let me tell you some stories that will illustrate what I mean.

In the gospel of St. Mark, chapter 12, Jesus watched as the people came to the temple to give their offerings. He watched several of them conspicuously drop in great sums and heard the onlookers gasp in amazement. Then he saw one widow bring a mite (approximately two pennies in American currency) and place it in the offering. Jesus stopped to say to His disciples, “the others all gave from their surplus but this woman has given everything she has.”

In a real sense, that woman’s actions impacted the world far more than the actions of the Emperor. I say that not only because of that one widow who gave that small sacrificial offering; I say it because she is merely one of multiplied millions who have given small and seemingly insignificant offerings, year after year, decade after decade and century after century. These accumulated offerings of money, time and action have changed the world. Those who have given the offerings - widows and farmers, maids and butlers, soldiers and carpenters -- are mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts and babysitters of great leaders and of mighty kings. I guarantee you that some Chinese child of some well respected Communist leader is being diapered and loved today by an insignificant Christian maid who makes no money and takes all sorts of abuse. As the years pass, this child will be learning songs and memory verses from the maid whom he will love all his life. Someday, when he is called to leadership, the words of scripture that she taught this child will mold his thoughts and guide his decisions. That is what a “widow’s mite” does. It changes the world because it is a tangible expression of serving God.

Last Sunday, as I was leaving the church, a lady came to me with just such an offering. I have known her for years. I know that her life has been difficult. She has had very little money and has always struggled with poor health. She lives alone and in poor circumstances. She had an accident not long ago that resulted in a financial settlement that she did not seek and did not expect. She was able to use her modest settlement to help pay her rent and to get a more reliable car. However, she also wanted to give something back to the church because the church has helped her several times through the years. It was only when I got home and looked at the check, that I realized it was for $1,000.00!

The offering that this economically challenged woman gave last week was given to help the people of this church who may run into temporary difficulties in the next few months because of the economy. When I told Bill Spencer (the leader of NarrowGate Ministries) about this offering, he said, “I want to add $500 to that fund.” Trish and I also decided this week to make a sacrificial gift toward the fund. What the church will do with this money is keep our people solvent and stable through the challenges ahead. If someone has trouble with a light bill or a car payment, we can help them. Naturally, we will first help those who have been faithful to the congregation. This will help keep our church financially sound. It is also the way scripture instructs us to care for people – “to the household of faith first.” We will also pay close attention to our widows, single moms and others who work hard but can barely keep their heads above water. If we all pitch in, no one should be devastated by this temporary downturn in the economy.

I am not going to make a big deal about contributing to this fund. You have already been giving generously. Our tithing has increased and our mission’s commitments were almost $250,000 for the coming year. So this is not a sales pitch or a marketing ploy. We will take whatever money comes in and then we will disperse whatever we receive. However, I do want you to know that this woman’s gift was a holy thing and that it is the sort of action that Jesus said changes the world. It demonstrates, far more than my words, the lordship of Christ.

There is another story that the gospel writers tell about a boy who offered five loaves and two fish to Jesus when a multitude had run out of food. (You can read the story in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of Mark.) The Lord’s disciples looked for food but the little boy’s lunch was all they could find. They also reported that they did not have enough money to buy food. But they found out that Jesus knows how to make much out of little!

He still does!

For over a year we have been engaged in a philosophical debate in this country about the role of government. Many Americans believe that it is not government’s place to care for the elderly, the poor or the sick because the government has no capacity to distinguish those who are truly in need from those who simply refuse to work.

If this is our view, then as Christians we must become even more responsible to care for our own widows, sick and elderly. We can hardly rebuke the state for trying to care for people if we refuse to step up to the plate to care for our own families or our own church members. So let us resolve to do this. Let us resolve to put action behind our words. Instead of speaking bitterly of those whom we believe are asking the state to do what the state cannot do, let us demonstrate with our money and our actions what a responsible and Christian community does. Perhaps the nation needs some good examples of how things ought to work.

This is an essential part of what it means to be a person of covenant: to demonstrate our discipleship in deeds as well as words. We don’t yell at people; we serve people. We don’t theorize; we act.

As the elderly Joshua spoke to his people, he urged them to decide who they intended to serve. When they insisted that they wanted to serve the Lord, he urged them to get rid of their idols and ungodly practices. He was teaching them that following God is much more than merely praising God in song and word.

Serving God is about applying God’s words to everyday life. That’s what one lady did in our church last week with her check. She was not acting from compulsion or guilt; she was full of joy because she was finally able to contribute. It was her attitude as much as her gift that changes the world.

I believe her gift is a seed. I believe it will encourage many of us to give sacrificially so that everyone in this community can weather the storm. If we do what God teaches us to do, none of us will need the government to help. That will become a testimony to the world that we practice what we preach. That’s what a “widow’s mite” does; it grows small seeds into big fruit.

Of course, a “widow’s mite” is not always money. Sometimes it is a small action or a short word.

In early 1960, the Evangelical community was terrified at the possibility of a Kennedy presidency. John Kennedy was a well known Roman Catholic and there were all sorts of dire predictions circulating about how the Pope would be secretly taking over the government and so forth. So, although I was from a family of union organizers and coal miners, they all intended to vote for Richard Nixon.

As you know, John Kennedy won the election.

A few days later, after the election, I was singing a jingle I had learned at school about John Kennedy. It was not very flattering but not all that bad either – just a cute campaign jingle form the Nixon campaign.

My father will probably not remember stopping me and taking the opportunity to teach me how godly people deal with authority.

“Son, Christians do not speak ill of the leaders of their country."

“But dad,” I protested, “I thought we voted for Nixon.”

“The election is over now,” he said. “The Lord decided to appoint Senator Kennedy to the presidency. Now, it is our responsibility to pray for him. Four years from now, we will get another chance to vote. Until then, Kennedy will be our president and we will respect him.”

Do we really believe that God “puts up kings and removes kings?” if we do, then we must manage our emotions and pray fervently for President-elect Obama as he makes his selections for cabinet positions, ambassadors and all of that. We must pray also that God will send people into his life who fear God. This is the way Christians behave.

I learned this from my father in 1960. I have tried to manage my attitudes toward national leaders accordingly. I was dismayed by the movie ridiculing President Bush that came out recently because it violates the honor of our highest office and it is an ungodly and heathen act to ridicule and humiliate someone who is trying to wrap up a most difficult term of office. I pray the movie becomes a disaster and a disgrace to its producers.

I hope I am making myself clear this morning. We are a people who order our lives and attitudes differently than the unbelievers. We are called to deliberately think and act differently than those who do not know the Lord.

Tuesday is Veteran’s Day. We will honor those who serve our country in the armed forces on that day. That is important in my family. My uncles all served in World War II. My wife’s uncle was killed in the Normandy invasion and her cousin was severely injured in Vietnam. I have a son-in-law serving right now in Iraq. So I know that when we ask people to put their lives on the line on our behalf, they deserve our respect – not only while they are on duty but when they return home.

All those who want to follow Christ must also “put their lives on the line.” It is possible that years of prosperity and comfort have made us numb to the seriousness of being covenant people. It is possible that some of us have allowed immorality and greed to take over our lives. Well, now is the time to get that stuff out of our lives. It is time to choose. We all have to serve somebody; it’s time to decide who that will be.

God is obviously doing something powerful in our church. He is asking us to get serious about our service to Him. We may feel we have little to offer – perhaps merely a “widow’s mite” but let us offer that “mite” today. Tomorrow, let’s give it again. Then, let us do the same thing the following day.

If we all do what we are able to do, God’s work will go forward in this, or in any other era or culture. At any rate, as Bob Dylan said many years ago, we all have to serve somebody. It may be the devil, it may be the Lord, but we have to serve somebody!

You may be an ambassador to England or France,You may like to gamble, you might like to dance,You may be the heavyweight champion of the world,You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls

But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed

You're gonna have to serve somebody,Well, it may be the devil or it may be the LordBut you're gonna have to serve somebody.

You might be a rock 'n' roll addict prancing on the stage,You might have drugs at your command, women in a cage,You may be a business man or some high degree thief,They may call you Doctor or they may call you Chief

But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeedYou're gonna have to serve somebody,Well, it may be the devil or it may be the LordBut you're gonna have to serve somebody.

You may be a state trooper, you might be a young Turk,You may be the head of some big TV network,You may be rich or poor, you may be blind or lame,You may be living in another country under another name

But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeedYou're gonna have to serve somebody,Well, it may be the devil or it may be the LordBut you're gonna have to serve somebody.

You may be a construction worker working on a home,You may be living in a mansion or you might live in a dome,You might own guns and you might even own tanks,You might be somebody's landlord, you might even own banks

But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeedYou're gonna have to serve somebody,Well, it may be the devil or it may be the LordBut you're gonna have to serve somebody.

You may be a preacher with your spiritual pride,You may be a city councilman taking bribes on the side,You may be workin' in a barbershop, you may know how to cut hair,You may be somebody's mistress, may be somebody's heir

But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeedYou're gonna have to serve somebody,Well, it may be the devil or it may be the LordBut you're gonna have to serve somebody.

Might like to wear cotton, might like to wear silk,Might like to drink whiskey, might like to drink milk,You might like to eat caviar, you might like to eat bread,You may be sleeping on the floor, sleeping in a king-sized bed

But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeedYou're gonna have to serve somebody,Well, it may be the devil or it may be the LordBut you're gonna have to serve somebody.

You may call me Terry, you may call me Timmy,You may call me Bobby, you may call me Zimmy,You may call me R.J., you may call me Ray,You may call me anything but no matter what you say

You're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You're gonna have to serve somebody.
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.

Copyright ©1979 Special Rider Music; Bob Dylan

[1] The Beginning of Wisdom, Leon Kass, Chicago University Press

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The political vote is a nonconstitutional privilege established by the U.S. Congress in order to protect certain zones of privacy. And while the elucidation of truth may in fact be relevant, it nonetheless must yield to our superior right to remain silent.

These rights must be safeguarded and preserved.