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Made to Worship: What Shall We Bring?

(a sermon for October 21, 2018, the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost; sixth in a series, based on Micah 6:6-8 and Mark 12:38-44)

“The morning offering will now be received.”

It occurs to me that of all the usual things that get said during our times of worship together, aside from “let us pray,” “Our Father, who art in heaven,” and maybe “please rise and sing,” this is the phrase that’s most likely to be spoken regularly from service to service! And that’s because with a few exceptions throughout the year, there’s almost always going to be an offering as part of our worship!  Oh, there are churches that seek to find alternative ways of dealing with this part of their life together – from creating a faith-based “honor system” that assumes that the good stewardship of their members will happen without having to pass the plate every Sunday, to actually placing several electronic kiosks throughout the church building so that worshippers can conveniently give to the church with their credit or debit cards (no joke!) – but by and large, no matter the size or the tradition of a particular congregation, there’s always going to be a time in the midst of worship in which we are pastorally encouraged to give freely after the manner that we have freely received!

Now some people, as I’ve shared with you before, refer to this part of the service as “the collection” (a label which as you well know, I dislike intensely!); and then there was the man from a prior church I served who ever and always called it “the pew tax,” much to his wife’s consternation!   I even have a clergy colleague who speaks of it to her congregation as “TCB,” that is, “Takin’ Care of Business!”  My preference, of course, is simply to refer to this part of the service as our offering unto God, your and my tangible expression of thanksgiving unto the Lord for all of our many blessings and our continuance of the Biblical tradition of giving a portion of the “first fruits” of our lives back to God.  In the parlance of the Old Testament, it’ tithing, giving 10% of what we have unto God (and that’s to start, friends!); but if not that, at the very least a significant and sacrificial and above all, faithful, gift.

Of course, if we’re being honest, then we do have to acknowledge that there’s a practical component in having the offering: indeed, the financial gifts we receive through the offering and by our faithful stewardship as members of East Church is what keeps this church up and running from year to year (did I happen to mention that next Sunday is Stewardship Sunday?  Just sayin’!). The morning offering is meant for the support our shared ministry as part of our local church, as part of the United Church of Christ and extending out to the whole Body of Christ; and electric and heating bills, snowplowing and (if I might borrow a word from our church treasurer here, gulp!) even pastoral compensation is all part of that!   So there is the practical, real world component to consider here; but nonetheless we need to understand that from the very beginnings of our faith and the life of the church, the time of offering in our worship has always represented the very movement that we’ve been talking about all through this sermon series; going from praise and thanksgiving, to hearing and reflecting upon the Word of God, to finally responding to that Word with lives of faithful service as disciples of Jesus Christ!   And how is the best way to respond but by giving of ourselves in real ways and real time by our time, our talent, and yes, friends, our treasure!

So… as you and I are “made to worship,” it’s not a question of if there will be an offering as we do so; but of your and my response to those words that get spoken each and every Sunday morning: “The morning offering will now be received.”  Ultimately, for us as people of faith the real question is – as it’s always been for as long as people of faith have gathered to worship the Lord – “what shall we bring?” How are we to answer this call to give of ourselves?  Scripture is actually full of insight as to how we might respond to that, but this morning I want to focus on one answer that’s found in this morning’s reading from Mark’s gospel, the familiar story of the “widow’s mite.”

But be aware, though… it may not be the answer you’re expecting!

You know the story:  Jesus is there at the temple in Jerusalem, taking the position of a fly on the wall as he watches the faithful bringing their offerings to the temple treasury during this celebration of the Passover.  And of course, from this vantage point he can see all the rich and powerful sauntering in, showing off their fine clothes and making dramatic gestures as they put their large yet ostentatious gifts into the treasury receptacles.  To this display of largesse, Jesus is profoundly unimpressed; but then, up walks this elderly woman, identified in scripture only as “a poor widow,” who quietly takes out two small copper coins – worth a half a cent each, if that – and places them into the receptacle and walks away without a sound.  A tiny offering, just a mite, made even smaller in comparison to all the other, much larger offerings that had been made that day; but this is the gift that Jesus praises over and above anything that the rich and famous offer up because, Jesus says, “all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Truth be told, however, there’s more to it than that.  It’s worth noting that just prior to Jesus sitting down to observe what was happening in this “service of offering” at the Temple, he’d actually been railing against the hypocrisy of the scribes; the scribes who, remember, were the educated class of religious leaders and were thought of as those who were pious and wise and deserving of respect (or perhaps more accurately, those who at least liked to think of themselves in that way!).  And yet, nonetheless, the scribes were also the ones who flaunted all of that; they were the ones “who like[d] to walk around in long robes, and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces,” the ones who sought out the best seats in the synagogues and who loved sitting at the head table during the temple feasts, and who would do whatever they needed to do assure themselves a comfortable life in the seat of religious authority, even if that meant “devour[ing] widow’s houses.”  I dearly love how D. Mark Davis, a biblical scholar and an expert in New Testament Greek, describes these so-called religious leaders:  as “Pretentious Pretenders Pressuring Penurious Penniless Pensioners!”  And if that glorious alliteration weren’t enough, Davis adds that Jesus’ words about “devouring widow’s houses” actually was a very intentional and rather sharpened play on words on Jesus’ part, for the sad truth was that these scribes, all for the sake of preserving their own power, were feasting as much on the resources of the poor as much as that which was on the menu at the Passover meal!

So it’s wonderfully fitting that even as Jesus is right there, teaching his disciples all about the scribes’ hypocrisy, selfishness and utter abuse of power,  here comes this elderly, powerless and impoverished widow; quite literally bringing her “two cent’s worth” as her offering to God and it’s everything.  It’s everything she had to live on, it’s her whole life; she walks up to that offering receptacle and gives it to God and she does it faithfully and unselfishly.  It’s a monumental gift, to be sure, and utterly sacrificial, but the question is why? Why would she make that offering if that was all she had?  Karoline Lewis, professor of biblical preaching at Luther Seminary in Minnesota, wonders about that.  Was her offering made “out of obligation,” she asks.  “Respect?  Demand? Expectation? Religiousity? Piety?  All of the above?”  After all, the reality of the time and of the religious belief and tradition that righteousness would be related to one’s sacrifice at the altar!  No, this was different; Jesus could see that and so can we. In the end,  yes, the widow gave because she needed to; but she needed to because something deep within her knew that what she was doing, what she was bringing before God would “manifest itself in something beyond herself.”  It was her response to the very essence and the power of God in her life and in the world.

Not bad for a couple of copper pennies!

It turns out, you see, that it’s not the amount of the gift that matters as much as the way the gift is given.  In other words, the begrudgingly “generous” gift from the one who has money to burn might fill the offering plate but has far less meaning than the modest but heartfelt gift from the one who literally didn’t have two pennies to rub together; it’s the difference between reluctantly making a contribution and truly giving an offering unto the Lord, offering up your whole self in praise and thanksgiving for all that God has done in your lives!

What all this means is that whatever the gift we need to consider the motivation for our giving.  Because ultimately, you see, our offering is all about the grace of God and what we do with we received.  Scott Hoezee writes that “we all live immersed in the… grace of God in Christ” and that everything we do in the Christian life – including giving to the offering plate – is an outflow and an overflow of that grace.”  That grace, says Hoezee, “allows us to rest easy by taking joy in whatever we are able to do for God.  Grace gives us the freedom to be who we have become as new creatures in Christ.  We use our gifts and give of ourselves not because of some stern external obligation or pressure or because we’ve been made to feel guilty as we are manipulated by the church.  Instead we are free to be who we are, free to let the Spirit move us along in ministry.”

And what that all means, friends, is that every Sunday morning after we’ve prayed together as a congregation and I say a few words that lead up to the regular admonition that “the morning offering will now be received,” we’re not setting forth the requirement of doing the right thing and putting a few dollars in the offering plate.  What we’re doing is presenting the opportunity to let all that we’ve received in the love and care of God in Jesus Christ overflow into the life we seek for ourselves, for our church and for the world.

How would it be, I wonder, if we really did view our Sunday morning offering as an opportunity for a true spiritual blessing to take root and grow in the gardens of our lives?  For that matter, since it is stewardship season after all (!), what would happen around here if the pledges and promises we make for the coming year, be they financial or otherwise, not be made so much out of an obligation to the budget but rather as wholly embracing the possibilities of who we are and what we can do in this place as disciples of Jesus Christ and members of East Church?   What if our offering plates became more than merely the receptacle of this week’s (okay, I’ll say it…) “collection” but rather the place where hopes, dreams and prayerful intercession are transformed into Spirit-led action?

Well, beloved, the good news is it can and does happen when God’s grace is involved.  How else do you explain the strong stewardship of the people of this remarkable congregation?  How else can you describe how an initial offering made last year to help “lift the gift” in our church’s operating budget has expanded to the point where on many months we’ve been able to NOT draw monies from our invested funds?  How else could you ever say how, whatever the need happens to be, we have people in this congregation who do step up in miraculous and life-changing ways; and how that transforms us from, as we’ve often been know, from “the little church that could” to “the little church that can… and does.”  Yes, it happens because of your faith and your commitment and your hard work that it happens (and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for that), but ultimately it’s because of grace revealed and responded to.  It’s because of what each one of you brings as an offering, in praise and thanksgiving.  It’s what illustrates, in wonderful and miraculous ways, the words of Micah who says that’s what’s required of is to “do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with [our] God.”

You and I are made to worship… and as part of that, you and I are called to make an offering… this Sunday, next Sunday and truly, on every day of our lives as we walk faithfully with our God.  And as we do, may what we give be matched and increased by how we give, so that by grace our resources will grow.

And always, may our thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Made to Worship: You There, Sitting in the Pew

(a sermon for October 14, 2018, the 21st Sunday after Pentecost; fifth in a series, based on John 4:20-24 and Hebrews 10:19-25)

Maybe you’ve heard the story about the family who, after having gone to church one Sunday morning, were in the car driving home and were, shall we say, evaluating the worship service that day.  And they weren’t exactly being kind:  there were complaints about how the minister’s sermon was boring and way too long, that the choir anthem was horrible, and the hymns unsingable; and then there was a whole lot of talk about all the emphasis placed on money and “the collection!”  “Honestly, I don’t even know why we go to that church,” said the father as he was driving.  And to this, his little boy, who’d been sitting in the back seat listening to all this, said, “Oh, I don’t know; seems to me it was a pretty good show for a dollar!”

Now, let me just say here first that I sincerely hope that that’s not the kind of conversation you have as you’re headed home after worship (!), but also that – one extreme or the other – we never lose sight of what we’re supposed to be doing here!

I say this because as we’ve been working through this sermon series on worship, it’s occurred to me that mostly what we’ve been talking about, at least indirectly, is what I do up here on a Sunday morning as your pastor and as a preacher of the Word of God; and by extension, it’s what the others who help to lead worship in this place do every Sunday morning: it’s Myron and the other Deacons of our church who each week call us to worship and who read scripture; it’s Susan who plays the organ and leads us in song; and it’s the choir and the soloists who offer up a ministry of music to enhance this time we have together with God.  For lack of a better description, friends, we’re the ones who are “up front” leading worship; and while that’s not exactly a performance (nor should it be!), it does suggest kind of a “one way” offering.  In other words, what it might seem like is that morning worship involves all of us up here doing the speaking and the singing and the praying, and you… you’re sitting there in the pew and quietly taking it all in!

And let’s be honest; maybe there are Sunday mornings when our time of worship comes off like that: we lead, you listen, we all go out to have cookies and punch and then go home!  And that’s what concerns me, because our worshiping together is never meant to be one-sided; what we do here is not intended in any way to be a “show,” any more than it ought to be an ecclesiastical lecture on all things biblical and theological!  And understand me when I say this, it shouldn’t ever lead to indifference on the part of anybody involved: the ministers, the worship leaders and most especially the members of the congregation!  This is worship, friends – our time of praise and adoration of the Lord our God made manifest in the person of Jesus Christ – and as such, all of you are as much a part of what’s going on here as we are!  Our Christian worship is in fact one of the most interactive experiences we have as people of faith: as you and I worship together, we pray and we sing and we speak to one another; even as together we speak to God, and as persons and as a community we listen for God speaking to us!

We have been saying this again and again throughout this sermon series: we are “made to worship.”  But what we need to remember is that worship is not merely about our receiving (though it is that!) it is about our giving as well; it’s about our gathering together, yes, in praise and thanksgiving, but it’s also and ultimately about opening ourselves to be sent forth into the world in love and service.  There’s nothing “one way” about this time we spend together; you’re not being “speechified” or preached “at” here.  You’re here to encounter the Spirit of God; perchance to be moved in ways you’re not even expecting at this point.  You’re here to be strengthened and inspired for the living of these days; but then to be empowered and consecrated to be Christ’s disciples in this time and place!

That’s what worship is supposed to be about!  So I suppose that the question this morning is this:  “You there, sitting in the pew… yes, you!  What’s happening with you today as we worship? How are you engaged in this experience?”

What’s interesting, you know, is that Jesus always understood that the “act and attitude” of worship was much more than merely the physical act of coming to church, or even the sacred ritual of hearing scripture read and proclaimed.  For Jesus, worship was and is an issue of the heart of the one who’s worshiping.

Our gospel reading for this morning illustrates this beautifully: it’s actually one small part of a larger story; that of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well.  As you might remember, in this dialogue between Jesus and this woman there’s a lot of talk about living water, and about her life with the five husbands and one to spare (!); but then the subject changes to religion, specifically about the necessity and place of worship.  Pointing to the mountain named Garazim, the Samaritan woman says to Jesus, “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”  Understand that this a question not only about location but also tradition; in essence, the Samaritan woman is asking whether the mountain is an appropriate place to worship, or if it has to happen – as the Jewish leaders of the time required – at the Temple in Jerusalem.  But Jesus, you see, makes it clear that it’s not the location that matters but the motivation.  “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem… the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.”  Or, as The Message beautifully puts it, “Those who worship him must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.”

See what I mean?  Worship is never meant to be a one-sided, self-serving endeavor or any sort of spiritual spectator sport but requires the full participation of those who worship; it is for “those who are simply and honestly themselves before [God] in their worship.”

It’s worth noting here that the word that’s used here by Jesus for “worship” is translated from the Greek word proskuneo, which is actually not only the word used most often in the New Testament for worship, but which also the Greek translation of an Old Testament Hebrew word hishtahvah, both of which can basically be translated in English as “bow down,”  as in bowing down in reverence before the Lord, or (as we will sometimes read in the gospels) bowing down worshipfully before Jesus.  In other words, once again we find that worship is less about the building or the accoutrements or even the liturgy or tradition that we follow, as much as it is the humility and adoration that we bring to the act of worship itself!  Or to put it still another way, there must ever and always be an inner component devoted to what we do here on a Sunday morning, or else the outward aspects of it all mean nothing.  In the words of John Piper, “When the heart is far from God, worship is vain, empty, non-existent.  The experience of the heart is the defining, vital, indispensable essence of worship.”

So… let me just ask again:  “You there, sitting in the pew… yes, you!  What’s happening with you today as we worship?  Where’s your heart at right about now?”

It’s also interesting to point out that by and large in the New Testament (especially in the Epistles) there isn’t a whole lot of talk about worship in the sense of what we’re doing here; there isn’t a whole lot of detail as to how the early church ordered their morning worship.  Rather what we hear about believers gathering together, “as they spent much time together in the temple,” breaking bread together “with glad and generous hearts.” (Acts 2:46)  It’s less about the requirement to worship and more about the opportunity to worship, and what could come of that experience.  Not that being present in that gathering isn’t of vital importance; in the words of our Epistle reading today from Hebrews, “not neglecting to meet together, as it the habit of some, but encouraging one another.”   And did you notice in that passage that part of the very reason we’re to worship involves “consider[ing] how to provoke one another to love and good deeds?”  Another reminder that worship is a two-way experience!  I may well be the one called to stand at this pulpit, leading the service, preaching the sermon and directing the course of things between the call to worship and benediction, but the fact remains that you are the ones who make this worship real by your hearts open to God’s Spirit becoming alive in you so that you – and the world that surrounds us – might be transformed for the sake of Jesus Christ and his kingdom.

And if you want the name for what that is, friends?  It’s worshiping God “in Spirit and truth.”  And it’s what God seeks from us in our worship; yours and mine, here and now.

And when you think about it, that’s the kind of worship that doesn’t need a sanctuary to be real or to be transformative; indeed when the name of the Lord is invoked and the heart’s all in, every bit of life can become an act of worship.  That’s definitely not to say that this sacred place in which we gather is not the appropriate and glorious place for us to worship, for indeed this is a place where we do gather with the communion of saints past and present.  But my point is that are “made to worship,” and our worship encompasses the whole of who we are before God.

So… “you there, sitting in the pew… who are you today as we gather here in worship before God?”

I must confess that I adapted the title of this morning’s sermon from a beautiful reading written by the late Ann Weems, “You – Sitting in the Pew Next to Me.”  Her piece was written as inner dialogue between two people sitting next to each other in church and who are realizing that despite the fact that they’re part of the same congregation and see each other every Sunday at worship they really don’t know each other well on anything other than a surface level; certainly not in a deeply spiritual sense.  And that matters; because toward the end of this reading, it’s the question of one another’s faith that resonates the most:

“You – sitting in the pew next to me – What are you really doing here?  Do you believe in Christ Jesus?  How much?  Enough to risk? How much of a risk?  Risk your reputation?  Risk your family?  Your money?  Do you?  Do you believe in Christ?  Or is Christianity a convenience?  Something to fill in on consensus forms, something one just goes along with, something undemanding, something nice… Do you believe?  Do you know what you believe? Will you share it with me?  Or are you just another person in the pew I’ll never know?”  (Ann Weems, from Reaching for Rainbows)

You know, the fact is that I believe in my heart of hearts – and I hope that by now you know this about me (!) – that our morning worship together does not need to be so formalized, so cut and dry that it ceases to be both joyous and enjoyable.  I do believe, very strongly, in following a liturgy of Word and Sacrament; but let me also say that whatever the liturgy and however the style of worship, it also needs to come alive!  And for that, it needs singing, shouting, laughter and above all, Spirit! It can be – and at times, I believe – ought to be… fun!   Even the tears we share as God’s people in this place – and there have been a few as of late – need to be awash with the joy of the Lord.

But at the end of the day and at the benediction, what makes what we’ve shared here truly the act and attitude of worship comes down to the ways our hearts will be moved to speak and to walk and to live in true adoration of God.  I hope and pray that what you take with you this morning, and from every time we gather together in worship, will be a faithful and loving heart; for that is what will make all the difference.

Thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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Made to Worship: Bringing the Good News

(a sermon for September 30, 2018, the 19th Sunday after Pentecost; fourth in a series, based on  Deuteronomy 6:1-9 and Romans 10:8-18)

Under the heading of not-so-vital statistics, out of curiosity this week I went to my pastoral records and discovered that as of this morning I will have preached a grand total of 1,697 sermons as a minister and teacher of the gospel.

Whoa!

Now, this number mostly accounts for Sunday morning services over thirty-plus years working in the church, and doesn’t include all the eulogies, wedding meditations or other messages that we pastors tend to bring to various and a sundry church and community gatherings.  But even considering that, all things being relatively equal, understand that this represents a total of over 34 thousand minutes – that’s 566 hours, folks (!) – standing behind some pulpit or another preaching a sermon that for better or worse I had spent most of the previous week preparing (I don’t even want to think about how many hours that entailed!).  And I realize that’s a whole lot of time spent not only by me, but also by you and by so many others who have sat in these pews listening to what I’ve had to say week in and week out; so let me just take this opportunity to say thank you for your patience!

What’s interesting is that while I certainly can’t give you specifics as to the subject and content of every one of those sermons, there are some that I do remember very, very well.  I’ll never forget, for instance, the first sermon I ever preached as a pastor of a congregation: it was entitled “I’m No Hero,” with the main illustration having to do with a television show that was running at the time about a reluctant superhero (and to this, I can only say, Oy veh, what was I thinking?)  More seriously, though I will always remember preaching the Sunday after 9/11 when all of us – pastor and congregation were clamoring for a word of hope in those very sad and uncertain days.  There were also a couple of messages over the years when I felt particularly compelled, albeit somewhat fearfully so, to bring forth some measure of biblical truth in the midst of some rather contentious situations within the congregations I was serving at the time.  And there have been a few times when despite my own best efforts but by a great abundance of God’s grace sometimes the truth that needed to be espoused at a given moment actually got spoken aloud and even better, was heard with open ears and loving hearts; and honestly, that’s pretty memorable and feels pretty good!

Preaching was one of the first things that attracted me to the ministry (way back in high school, if you can believe it!), and all these years later it still remains a favorite part of what I do.  It can be exhilarating, fulfilling, often disconcerting, sometimes headache inducing and occasionally life-changing, all at the same time (!); but that’s what keeps this task of preaching a wonderfully exciting and utterly joyous thing for me!  Of course, there is also many a Sunday morning that I step up here utterly unconvinced that there will be anything at all of value, spiritual or otherwise, coming forth from my tongue that day; but that’s a discussion for another time!

Either way, however, I will tell you that each and all of these preaching experiences have one thing in common:  and it’s that each week, after the sermon has been written and preached and the service is finished, it’s immediately time to start the process all over again for next Sunday; part of what a colleague of mine refers to as “the pesky, perpetual, predictable and persistent return of the Sabbath!”  You see, the truth is that a sermon, mine or anybody else’s, does not exist for the sake of itself – ultimately, it is not meant to exist as a stand-alone oration nor as some kind of pastoral dissertation on all things religious and theological – no, the sermon has always been intended to be but simply one facet of the whole “act and attitude of worship,” and as such is linked to everything else we do here in the midst of this service:  our prayer and our praising, our times of singing and silence and sharing, and most profoundly in the reading of holy scripture.  What I’m doing here, you see – and what we’re all involved in as we worship together – is nothing less than the “Proclamation of the Word:” God’s Word.

Our text this morning from Paul’s letter to the Romans actually begins and ends with this truth: first that “the word of faith that we proclaim” is near to us, “on [our] lips and in [our hearts],” and concluding with the assertion that “faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.”  What that means is that there is always to be a natural progression from acknowledging and embracing the faith that’s inside of us to being sent forth into the world to proclaim the truth of it in and through our very lives!  And you’ll notice that by and large that’s also the direction that our worship takes: we begin with an act of praise (usually a song or a hymn, followed by a prayer of invocation) that serves to bring forth the faith within us so that it might become the praises of our hearts and voices; but eventually we pause to hear and to reflect upon God’s Word so that afterward, when the final hymn is sung and we say the benediction, we might be sent forth strengthened, encouraged and empowered to truly be God’s people in the world!   So in many ways, it’s this “proclamation of the Word” – be it a sermon, a message or any one of a number of other forms of faithful communication – that makes this hour more than just a random group of people who come together on a Sunday morning to share a few moments of fellowship and inspiration for the living of these days; it’s that proclamation which truly sets us apart as the Body of Christ and what makes us the Church with a mission of love in the world!

And if you’re thinking right now that all this is a pretty tall order for any preacher (certainly, this preacher!) who is called to speak for 20 minutes, give or take, on a Sunday morning, you’re right.  But remember also that the proclamation of which I speak has as much to do with hearing as it does speaking.  As John Webster of the University of Aberdeen in Scotland has written, the church is “not first and foremost a speaking community but a listening community… the church speaks, because it has been spoken to.”

 Faith, you see, comes from what is heard… and so what’s important about this part of the service, for me as well as for you, is listening!

It’s interesting to note the context in which Paul speaks to the Romans in our reading today is actually one of some level of frustration.  Paul, you see, is anguishing over the fact that despite the truth of the resurrection, most Jews of the time were still seeking righteousness through the law for their salvation rather than through faith in Christ.  For Paul this was inconceivable and what’s more, unnecessary:  after all, there is “no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him… everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”  But, and this is where Paul gets to the heart of the matter, “how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed?  And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard?”  And “how can they hear if nobody tells them?  And how is anyone going to tell them, unless someone is sent to do it?” [The Message] 

It all comes down to the proclamation, you see; it’s all about “bringing the good news” to those who would have ears to hear!  And let me tell you; the anguish that Paul was feeling for those who would not receive that graceful gift of salvation that comes in Christ remains the anguish in this day and age!  I cannot begin to tell you the number of instances and number of people I meet who, once they realize what I do for a living, are very quick to dismiss what and who it is I represent.  “I’m not really into religion,” they’ll say to me, or else something to the effect that while I seem like a nice guy and everything, they don’t want to come to church and be “preached at,” and I’m never sure how to respond to that except to explain that while that might be the “style,” shall we say, of others that’s not what we’re about as a church and certainly not what I’m about as a minister!  I always come away from that kind of conversation not only feeling badly that I couldn’t “close the deal,” so to speak, but also wondering how people like that can come to faith in Christ when they’ve never truly heard that truth, that Word, proclaimed!

But then I remember that faith comes through hearing… and hearing the “proclamation of the Word” can take a variety of forms and comes from a variety of people.

Last week, what with the beginning of Sunday School, I found myself reminiscing about all the Vacation Bible Schools Lisa and I were involved in at various churches over the years.  One year that I remember very well, the program happened to be centered around the story of Moses and the Ten Commandments. And I, in a shining example of casting against type, was drafted to play the role of Pharoah; which meant, of course, that all week I was generally and rather joyfully verbally and physically abused with all manner of plague, and, moreover, all that week every time a kid requested that I let God’s people go, I would have to vehemently and angrily refuse in a highly Shakespearean manner!

In truth, it was a lot of fun (as you know, I can be a ham at times!), the kids enjoyed it, and the great thing about VBS every year was that there were always a lot of kids there who weren’t part of our church, or any church for that matter.  And to bear witness to what was often these kids’ very first awareness of God’s presence and power in their own lives was an amazing thing that got revealed to us in strange ways.

To whit, about six months later, I was volunteering at a story day at our local intermediate school; I’m walking down the corridor, guitar in hand, and way down the end of the hall I spy this little head bobbing in and out of the doorway of the school office.  And as if he were doing a double take, a second later, out pops that head again, and smiling this incredible grin as he comes out to the hall, this boy spreads wide both his arms and cries out way too loudly, “LET MY PEOPLE GOOOO!!!”

They never asked me to volunteer at the school again… I don’t know why… (!)

Yes, it was one of those anonymous, “unchurched” kids who’d turned up at VBS the summer before, one of these children who’d heard this incredible story of God’s power and love for the first time, and six months later… not only remembered, and was still thinking about it!  The whole thing made me laugh; but it also got me to thinking about how a little bit of good news was brought to that little one; how the Word was proclaimed and perhaps took root and grew in that very unique and special way.

Maybe it happens in a sermon; but it might also be revealed in a Sunday School story or a children’s ministry, or else a choir anthem or a prayer request shared; or for that matter, maybe it all happens in some random act of kindness or simply a kind word spoken at just the right time.  But who knows how the word might actually be proclaimed until it happens?   What is it that Frederick Buechner wrote about how the love of Lord gets through to those who seeking out faith?  He says that for every believer, there’s this incredible moment of divine awareness when the love of the Lord has hit them from the top of their head to the tips of their toes.  Who knows exactly when or where or how that may happen; but, Buechner writes, maybe for one seeker, “the moment that has to happen is YOU.”

And the point of all of this is that before that moment happens, you and I need to be here and worshiping, listening to God’s Word proclaimed; opening ourselves to the Spirit’s leading so that we might bring that good news with others.   For we can never truly know the impact of speaking to others that which we’ve heard in faith and in love.  What we all hear in this time of worship can be the very message that will change a heart forever; it can be the thing that will bring change and peace to a world in need of need of both!

So let us not hold back; let us go forth to share the truth that is ours in Jesus Christ.  As it says in Deuteronomy about the commandments, “Recite them to your children, talk about them when are home, and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.”  Truly, as it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

Thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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