For the last several weeks now we have been talking about the commitments that people make when they commit to growing in their faith and living in the world as a part of a United Methodist Faith Community. When people make these commitments they pledge to support Christ’s work in the world through their community of faith with their prayers, their presence, their gifts, their service, and their witness.
As we have spent some time each week reflecting on each of these themes, we have explored two key realities. On the one hand we have looked at these themes as key spiritual disciplines, the practice of which helps us as individuals better grow into who God desires for us to be. At the same time we have looked at these themes as keys to be practiced within a community of faith for the sake of Christ’s work in the world through the church. This morning we continue this series of messages reflecting on the reality that we are better together.
Three weeks ago as we began this series we talked about prayer as a foundational spiritual discipline that allows us to connect with God and others. If you remember anything from that sermon I hope it is this – there aren’t right and wrong ways to pray. Prayer can be speaking or listening. Prayer can be out loud or silent. Prayer can be public or private. As we pray we grow in our awareness of who God is and who God is calling us to be. As we pray with and for others our relationships with them deepen and strengthen as well. All of these things are important realities, but at the core is the truth that there aren’t wrong and right ways to pray.
Two weeks ago now we talked about the importance of being present with others in a community of faith. In that conversation we talked about the importance of being physically present, of being in worship each week and of being engaged in the life of the church. We also talked about the importance of being more than just physically present – of being mentally, emotionally, and spiritually present as you come to better know others in this community.
And last week we talked about the important spiritual discipline of giving a portion of our income back to God’s work in the world through the church. Giving with intentionality and regularity is an important discipline because it helps us structure our relationships with God and with material things in a healthy way. It does this by reminding us of the reality that everything we have comes as a gift from God. When we return a fixed portion back to God it makes the statement that we want to be defined by that relationship with God over and above any other thing in our world.
In this conversation last week we named the tithe, giving 10%, as the ultimate goal, but acknowledged that the key discipline that helps form us as individuals is to give with intentionality. You were encouraged last week to take a step toward the tithe for 2012. If you don’t currently give with intentionality, be intentional about giving a set amount each week in 2012. If you do give a fixed amount you are encouraged to find ways to take intentional steps toward the tithe in the coming years, maybe a one percent increase each year until you are tithing.
If you have been with us through the last three weeks I also hope that you are keeping in mind an important theme that I want to keep emphasizing through this series. These messages are not designed to induce feelings of guilt or shame. Though guilt and shame are often used as motivators in religious institutions, I don’t believe that they are ultimately helpful or healthy.
Your call to support Christ’s work in the world with your prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness, is an invitation. It is an invitation to a way of living that can be freeing and exciting. As we talk about these things I don’t want you to feel driven or pressured by a sense of guilt or shame. Over and above everything else, I invite you to practice these disciplines for your own sake, so that you might become increasingly aware of God’s amazing and endless love for you and so that you might continue to grow to be who God desires you to be.
Today we turn our attention to the fourth of five promises that people make when they commit to being a part of a United Methodist community of faith – to support Christ’s work in the world by serving. To guide our conversation this morning we are going to look at two texts that I imagine are familiar to many of you, texts that address the idea of serving or doing works of mercy or justice in the world. The first of these texts is James 2:14-18, I want you to hear it again…
14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
18 But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith.
This text, especially verse 17 and the sentiment that faith without works is dead, has been often misused. I have heard pastors and speakers misconstrue it to imply that we have to earn God’s love or God’s favor by serving and I hope that you’re becoming increasingly uncomfortable with that notion. I hope that you are increasingly settling into a sense of peace with the reality that God loves you exactly the way you are. You are accepted and loved, unconditionally.
So with that reality in mind, let’s take a look at this James text and see if we can’t unpack it just a bit. In verse 14 the question is asked, “Can faith save you?” It is helpful to understand that the question here isn’t really about eternal salvation. Earlier in the book, James makes the statement clear that it is the implanted word of God that is able to save souls. The question of works, or of serving, is a question about how to effectively live out our faith in the world, not a question of how to earn or achieve or prove our faith.
Similar to last week’s conversation regarding giving and the previous week’s about presence, we don’t serve to earn God’s love, we don’t serve to earn a reward, we serve as a response to all that God has done for us, as we experience God’s love an outpouring of that should be a natural desire to share it with others, those in our own communities and around the world. As we experience the blessings of God’s love, as we experience the life that comes from God, we are called to share that love with others by being in service to God and Christ through the church and in the world. A faith that shares the blessings of God with others through service in the world, this is a faith that is alive!
The second text that I want to spend a bit of time looking at this morning comes from the gospel of Matthew. This scene is the final piece of the final teaching in Jesus’ public ministry as recorded in Matthew. Immediately following the conclusion of this scene, in the beginning of Matthew 26, Jesus begins to instruct his disciples to make preparations for the celebration of the Passover. The location of this scene, at the end of Jesus’ public ministry, leads some commentators to claim that what Jesus is sharing here is of the utmost significance in his ministry, that it is to serve as the culmination of all that he has taught and done. Hear these words again…
31 ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
This is commonly referred to as a judgment parable and it clearly tells a story about a time of judgment, a time when people will be held accountable for their actions in this life. Jesus says that there will be a time when the Son of Man comes and divides people as a shepherd divides sheep and goats. To those at his right hand the king will say, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Those who serve, those who feed the hungry, those who clothe the naked, those who visit the sick and the imprisoned, are referred to here as “you that are blessed by my Father” and I want to invite you to think about this in what might be a new way for you this morning.
Often this text is read and interpreted to imply that if we serve then God will bless us. But I find myself wondering, might this understanding have it backwards? Might it be that at the time of judgment God will not choose who to bless based on behavior, but rather that at the time of judgment God will know who has been open to and receptive of the blessings that God has already given by the extent to which people have served as a response to those blessings? Might it be that it is not God doing the separating at the time of judgment, but that it’s us who does the separating each and every time we fail to respond to God’s love and share it with others?
One of the commentators that I read this week, Eugene M. Boring, framed it in a way that I thought was helpful when he said, “the thrust of this scene is that when people respond to human need, or fail to respond, they are in fact responding to, or failing to respond, to Christ.” As we experience God’s love we are to respond to that love by sharing with the world.
We as individuals are better when we practice the spiritual discipline of serving just as we are better when we pray, when we are present in the community of faith, and when we give. Serving Christ in the world helps define who we are and how we understand God to be at work in our lives and in all of creation. At the same time we as a community of faith, as a church seeking to do Christ’s work in our community, are better when individuals come together and serve together.
Katie Ussery grew up in this church and with the exception of a few years at college has called Tonganoxie home and this church her faith home for all of her life. Katie is a small business owner here in town. She is also very involved in giving of her time to the church. A few months ago now Katie told me a bit about some of what drives her to give to the church in the various ways that she does. She said it simply, “As a small business owner, there are some months where finances are incredibly tight and I’m not able to contribute much to the financial life of the church. However, I can always make pancakes for my church family.”
Katie understands the importance of serving Christ through the church as one of the ways that we’re called to work together as a community of faith. We sat down with her a couple of weeks ago and asked her to share a little bit about her motivation for serving through the church and I want you to hear what she had to say…
One of the things that excites me about viewing our commitments to the church in such a holistic ways is the understanding that it then allows for different people with different gifts and different resources available to them to support Christ’s work through the church in different ways. I shared a couple of weeks ago that there are some who because of health concerns aren’t able to be present with us in worship, but that they often are some of the greatest supporters of the church through prayers or giving. Katie’s story also illustrates this idea well. I love the idea that as a small business owner she doesn’t always have a lot to contribute in terms of financial resources, but that she can always serve, that she can always make pancakes for the church.
And so in closing this morning I want to reiterate the good news of God’s love for us. God loves us, period. Exactly the way we are. God has richly blessed us and we are invited to share those blessings through the church. As individuals we are better as we practice the discipline of serving. As a community of faith we are better when everyone pools their resources and talents. We are better as we serve together.