Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The fruit of repentance . . .

     Like many of my counterparts in the pulpit today, I admit I was tempted to preach on politics.  Rather than tell you that the candidates from one party are better than another, however, I was going to ask you to compare any candidate you support for any office with the description spelled out about the king in our OT text today.  Solomon’s request, I think, demonstrates come of the complexities involved in fulfilling the office of public servant.  Yes, I know we think of kings traditionally as being public servants, but remember, this is God’s anointed king of whom we are speaking.  Solomon’s request for discernment demonstrates that a public servant must live in a tension between humility and assured confidence, between one’s strengths and one’s weaknesses, and even between the self and office.  Being a public servant should be really tough, when we think about it.  As I said, I was going to ask you to compare your favorite candidate to their ability to live in the tensions of public service, but then I realized I had to give us all some hope!  I often preach that God can redeem everything, but I confess I sometimes find myself wondering during this election cycle if He can redeem our political system.

     Then it dawned on me.  There is a great sermon for this week.  There’s a great sermon for politicians, too, but we have none among us.  It did not so much as dawn on me as get pointed out in Bible Study this past week.  We have spent a bit of the past few weeks talking about some of the sins of David.  Last week, in particular, we looked at how David had failed as king and as dad with respect to Absalom.  The king’s job was to teach the people how to live as the people of God.  A father’s job is to teach his son’s and daughters to love and fear the Lord.  With respect to his son, David failed on both accounts.  His son modeled the selfish behavior of his father rather than the heart for which God credits David as righteous.

     Fast forward a few years.  How do we know that David was truly repentant with respect to his failure with Absalom?  How do we know his grief was real?  Solomon showed his love for the Lord by walking according to the instructions given him by his father David.  David’s behavior has truly changed.  He has, given this second chance, truly fulfilled his obligation as king and as father, at least as far as it concerns Solomon.  Given Solomon’s request for a discerning heart, we know that Solomon was actually trying to live as his father taught.  Gone are the selfish requests of his half-brother.  Now, that is not to say that there have not been obstacles.  In particular, Solomon had to kill his half brother Adonijah in order to ascend the throne.  That’s one of those little wedgies that make us wonder whether Solomon is the “larger than life” character that is often described in Sunday School classes.  Another wedgie should be the description that follows the praise of Solomon for walking as his father David instructed him.  Except that he offered sacrifices and burned incense on the high places.  In the beginning of his rule, Solomon does a good job except in this one thing.  Later, he will marry an Egyptian lady and allow her to teach the people about her idols, so Solomon will forget what he was taught.  But, for a time at least, Solomon’s heart is in the right place, and Israel is blessed.

     Speed ahead to our last verse today, however.  And if you walk in obedience to me and keep my decrees and commands as David your father did, I will give you a long life.  You may have missed the sentence gearing up for your “Thanks be to God” response.  But listen to that sentence again.  How could God ever think that David was obedient and that he kept His commands?  Given the sins of David we have discussed the past couple of weeks, how can God make this offer with a straight face?  As I was reading some commentaries on the passage this week, a few authors offered the weak explanation that Solomon was probably never told how Bathsheba became one of David’s wives.  Seriously?  You think that such a juicy piece of gossip could ever be kept quiet, even under threat or pain of death for speaking of it in the presence of the prince?  Me either.

     No, what makes David obedient and what ought to impress us about his work with Solomon is the fruit of humility.  What do I mean?  We have spoken of the difference between the good kings and the bad kings in God’s people.  Good kings endeavor to keep His instructions.  Bad kings are selfish.  Of course, kings other than Jesus fail.  So how does God deal with them and their sins?  The same way in which He deals with ours.  When kings such as David repent, truly repent, how does God respond?  Mercifully.  With the sin of David in our minds, how do we know that he repented?  By how he raised his son Solomon.  David works with his son to teach him God’s instruction.  How do we know that Solomon has inward ingested David’s instruction?  By his request of God.  Solomon recognizes those tensions I mentioned earlier and that he is not gifted to do the job without God’s grace and help.  So he asks for discernment or wisdom.  Solomon is humble before God and asks for His help.  And God is pleased with Solomon’s request, so much so that He gives Solomon those things which must have tempted Solomon.

     But, we are left with an important question.  Whither the humility?  How is this humility understood and taught?  Repentance.  Simply put, brothers and sisters, all this humility arises out of David’s understanding for his need to repent of his sins.  Whenever David is confronted by God with his sins, he always begs God’s forgiveness.  Unlike His Lord who will come after him, Jesus, David recognizes his need to repent of those things he does wrong.  And, if God does not choose to forgive him, then he will have no hope.  How many times in the Psalms does the psalmist remind the reader that none of us could hope to stand before God, were God to remember our sins or other things done amiss? Those psalms, brothers and sisters, were composed by authors well aware of their standing before God.  Those psalms, brothers and sisters, are often attributed either to David or to Solomon.

     Have you ever considered the importance of repentance?  Truly considered?  Imagine the powerful image of the king begging God for forgiveness.  Given what you know about other ANE kings, can you imagine them asking God for forgiveness?  What if you were one of God’s people?  What would that say to you if the king, God’s anointed king, were to ask God for forgiveness?  Given his son’s humility before God, can you imagine how personal those stories of God’s mercy and God’s forgiveness were between this father and this son?  Can you imagine?  You should.  You see, brothers and sisters, the asking for and granting of forgiveness is one of the greatest tools you and I have in our boxes to reach the people outside our faith.  You and I understand, or ought to understand, the joy and the hope that comes through a God who accepts Christ’s offering for our sins.  You and I ought to moved to music and celebration and joyful outreach because we know what it means to be a redeemed people!  And you and I, like David before us, can speak with authority, experience, and humility, of God’s grace in our lives.

     At the beginning, I half-joked that I wanted you to compare your favorite potential public servant to the description in today’s passage.  When is the last time your favorite candidate or candidates every admitted they were wrong, let alone that they sinned?  When is the last time your favorite candidate or candidates confessed that they acted selfishly and not for your welfare nor the glory of God?  Now, this might make you uncomfortable, why are you so passionate about your candidate/s and often so silent about your God?  Why are you so quick to share on Facebook or Twitter or over coffee which candidate/s you think is great or awful, but so unwilling to account for the joy that you have in Christ in conversations and other interactions with human beings away from here?  Maybe, just maybe, the politicians are not the problem.  Maybe, just maybe, the problem lies with us.  Maybe we should be modeling this behavior described of David, emulated in Solomon, and made possible in our Lord Christ, as our collect reminds us this day.  Until you and I and all other Christians improve in our willingness to repent and to forgive, maybe we are getting the politicians we deserve.  Lord have mercy . . . 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

O my son, O my daughter . . . !

     This was one of those weeks when I thought I was being pushed towards a sermon by people outside the parish.  I suppose, upon reflection, it began a couple weeks ago with the discussions with people not in our parish about the events in Aurora, CO.  As with any tragedy, people strolled into church wanting to know where God was in the midst of that shooting.  Some, angry or disbelieving, just wanted to make their point that God is impotent.  Others were genuinely trying to come to grips with the idea of a holy, righteous and good God and the events of that terrible night.  Just as those conversations began to die down, we had someone attack a Sikh temple, of all things, and kill several members and a police officer, all in the apparent name of racial superiority.  Finally, and perhaps more influential in today’s sermon, I have been privileged to meet several teens attending AA.  Now, before you all sin by becoming judgmental about those youths, let me tell you briefly that none of the three drink at all.  All have watched members of their family turn to the bottle and have seen, far better than the vast majority of us, the destruction such activity can have on an individual and a family.  They come when they are stressed and tempted to turn to alcohol.  In some cases, the only solution to problems or stresses that has been modeled to them is the drinking of a loved one.  They come to remind themselves that God loves them, that God has a plan for a them, and that the bottle offers neither a solution nor love, only far more pain and suffering.  Hopefully, you’ll understand as I get into this sermon why worried that I was preaching a sermon that might feel a bit preached at instead of to.

     But then 8:00am happened, and I realized what I was saying today needed to be heard within this congregation as well as without.  I want to take you back to the civil war reading we have in Second Samuel this morning.  Those of us who do not know the history might be surprised that there was a civil war in Israel.  Others of us might be surprised that David mourns the death of his usurper son in such a public and deep way.  I will try to help you understand what is happening here so that you can see its application in your life.

     If I ask what was the big sin of David, nearly everyone in here can recite it to me.  No doubt we all know the sin of David with Bathsheba and his sin against her husband, Uriah the Hittite.  For more than two and a half millenia, David’s sin has remained prominently linked to his name.  How many of us, though, know the curses that resulted from that particular sin?  When Nathan makes it known that God knows David’s sins, he also pronounces God’s judgment against David.  The fruit of that union in adultery will die, we are told, and so it happens.  God also tells that David that He will allow the family to split the kingdom and bring civil war to his people.  We read about the fruit of that particular curse this morning.  Absalom has seen his father, David, becoming a withered, weak old man.  As the heir presumptive to the throne, all Absalom has to do is wait for David to die ad the throne will be his.  But, like so many in history, Absalom chooses to take matters into his own hands.  He plots treason.  Initially, he is nearly successful in killing David.  David is forced to flee Jerusalem, so great is Absalom’s seeming success in the beginning.  Many of the military commanders switch to Absalom and the promise of riches and power in his service.  There are many harrowing moments.  Though God promises that David will not die yet, the reader is often left to wonder how he will ever escape with his life, let alone raise an army to restore himself to his throne.

     Fast forward to today’s reading.  The final battle is at hand near the forest of Ephraim.  David has raised an army from among those loyal to him.  Prior to the battle, David instructs his generals and soldiers to spare his son Absalom in the coming battle.  Scripture this morning is clear in that it tells us that all the people heard when he gave orders to all the commanders concerning Absalom.  The battle is joined, and things go poorly for the usurper.  The cost of life is horrific--20,000 men are slain, though Scripture says that the forest killed more than the sword that day.  At some point, Absalom sees the defeat and flees.  While fleeing, he becomes wedged in the branches of an oak.  His mule continues on, and Absalom is left hanging by his neck.  When Joab’s men find him, you might expect them to obey David and simply arrest Absalom.  After all, he is hanging there defenselessly.  But no, they kill him.

     When the troops return to tell David of the great victory, a victory that has restored him to his throne, David wants only to hear news about his son.  While the Cushite declares that all enemies of the king should face the same fate as Absalom, David is overcome with grief.  Rather than celebrate the victory with the troops who risked life and limb for him, David goes off to mourn his son’s death alone.  Those of us hearing the words for the first time this morning might be surprised as David’s reaction.  “O my son, Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”  Is this not the young man who rose up against him and plotted treason?  Is this not the same man who killed many of David’s allies?  Is this not the same young man who slept with all of David’s concubines on the rooftop of the palace, in a dual effort to bring David’s sin into the light and to mock his father who is powerless to stop him?  Why on earth does he feel grief over his death?

     Plus, Absalom has committed sins enough to merit death.  Sitting here this morning you might wonder what he has done.  Chiefly, Absalom has plotted treason, has taken into his own hands, the death of God’s anointed.  Though David sinned greatly against Uriah the Hittite, he is still the king.  He is still the anointed.  And David himself has modeled the behavior expected by God’s people in the presence of God’s anointed.  Though Saul plotted time and time to kill him, David never takes matters of succession into his own hands.  Whenever he has the chance to kill Saul and to take the throne by force, David chooses always to wait upon the Lord’s pleasure.  Saul is God’s chosen king.  It will be up to God to keep His promises to David.  David never tries to rush the process.  Plus, unlike his father who repents whenever he is confronted with his sins, Absalom never repents.  Absalom is never sorry for his actions, and so he proves himself an unworthy heir.

     Given all that, you and I might be surprised at David’s grief.  Why should he be so mournful that this selfish young man has perished?  We forget, of course, that Absalom was his son.  We also forget that David’s primary duty was to understand the torah , to pattern his life after its teachings, and to instruct his citizens in the holy, righteous behavior expected by God.  Absalom has paid attention to David, but only to the selfish and self-seeking actions of David.  We might well condemn Absalom for seeking to seize the throne for himself, but was it not David who taught him that such was acceptable behavior when he took Bathsheba?  We might well condemn Absalom for the terrible loss of life in the civil war, but cannot the argument be made that he learned how to take innocent life from his father after the census and even in the case of Uriah?  You see, David’s grief is driven by the fact that he has failed his son.  David has failed to instruct his son Absalom in the ways of the Lord.  He has failed to model a “kingly” example for his own son.  And for his failure as a father, Absalom has paid with his life.

     Those of us who are parents might now understand the emotions raging in David.  David recognizes that his shortcomings, his failures, have led his son to walk apart from God.  Those of us who have had similar experiences can well understand what David is grieving.  Parents and grandparents of those youths at AA certainly understand that they  placed their youth on a bad path.  I cannot describe the sobs.  I cannot describe the fear in their voice.  They, better than many of us, recognize than it is only through the grace of God that their loved youths are not on the same path.  As we have watched the vulture of the press hound the parents and loved ones of the alleged shooter in Colorado, we have seen a glimpse of this guilt.  I am sure those scenes will be repeated as the press hounds the family of the man who killed the Sikhs and the police officer.  What David feels is natural.  Most parents can relate to it, even parents outside the church.  There is, whether we like it or not, a natural tendency to associate horrific acts with bad parenting.  When our children fail, no matter how significant or insignificant that failure is, we parents often feel the failure is a direct reflection of our parenting skills.  Sometimes we are right to feel that guilt.  Sometimes we do contribute significantly to our children’s failures.  If we do not teach children to be polite, they will back talk people in authority such as teachers, principals, and law enforcement.  If we do not teach children to persevere, they might well get a reputation of a quitter.  If we do not teach them the value of a dollar, they may well grow to become spoiled brats or incompetent to manage their own financial affairs.  I could go on and on.  At other times, however, parents are not to blame.  There are countless examples of good parents whose children made terrible choices.  There are far too many examples where parents did a pretty good job and the children chose poorly, destructively, hatefully.

     One area in which we as Christian parents and grandparents need to recognize our particular failure, repent, and get back to work is in our stewardship of our children.  What do I mean by that statement?  Far too often nowadays, I hear from parents that they made or are making a “noble” choice not to force baptism on their children in an effort to give their children the freedom to choose what belief system they want to follow when they grown up.  The idea is that the parents don’t want to force their beliefs on their kids.  If the kids want to grow up to be Christian, great.  If they want to grow up and be spiritual but not religious, great.  If they want to be atheist, well, that is ok, too.  Never mind the overriding instruction to parents in Scripture that we are teach our children to love and to fear the Lord.  To some people, such a decision seems noble and praiseworthy.  But there is a huge problem.  Most of the parents making these decisions are not active in a church themselves, have no spiritual or prayer life themselves, have little or no time committed to the worship of God.  My question to them is always “How will your child ever learn if he or she is not exposed to the faith in their youth?”  When the vicissitudes of life hit, how will they even know to turn to God based upon the way that you are raising them?  Given that less than half of the population in this country self-identifies as “sort of Christian,” who will know the stories to point them in the direction of God or His Church?  I say this, brothers and sisters, not accusingly but simply in an effort to point out a problem.  Sometimes when I travel and speak to the Church’s involvement in the effort to eradicate slavery in terms of the Exodus event, I am always, always asked what I mean by the Exodus event.  If people do not know the Exodus story of the Old Testament, or Scripture’s claim that the New Exodus event was the cross, how can they ever understand God’s grace in the little events of their life?

     As parents and grandparents and family friends at St. Alban’s, we can all feel a bit of the spiritual wedgie.  How many of us have used the philosophy with our own children, only to see them face life with no concept of the love that God has for them?  How many of us have watched our children, or parents of that generation, take our grandchildren or others of that age out of the church and remained silent?  Sure there are many competitions for the time of families today.  But are we as the “wiser” generation willing to accept that our youth really do not have the time to worship God for a whole entire hour or so each week?  Really?  How many of us have listened to people complain about soccer practice, work during the week, girl scouts, boy scouts, lego club, this, that and the other thing and never taken the time to remind our children that the number one responsibility of any parent is to teach their children how much God loves them?  Our silence, brothers and sisters, carries a cost.  And, like David experienced this morning, the cost of our silence, of our failures to speak boldly to those whom we most love, is born by those who come after and who risk dying outside the faith.

     It might seem noble and informed and praiseworthy not to drag a kid to church each week, but by failing to do so we are already setting our children up for failure.  Every day our children are bombarded with competing world views.  Advertisers teach boys and girls alike that girls are only worth their bodies.  Who they are is how they look!  Advertisers are not at all bashful about bombarding us with the idea that we can have it all, now, and that there is no consequence to borrowing against one’s future for the newest or bestest whatever.  He or she who dies with the most toys wins!  And when they go off to college and face the deconstruction of their worldview which is an integral part of the “college experience,” one of the first things they learn is how ignorant, how superstitious it is to believe in a God, let alone a God who loves them as much as Christ.  What is the countervailing messages that kids are hearing now?  If they are not being raised in the faith, how will they ever learned that they are more than their bodies?  That they are more than their “things?”  That they need sometimes to wait patiently?  And that there is a God who loves them, who knows them, who calls them by name, and who has all those answers they are seeking?

     Yes, brothers and sisters, put in those terms, many of us can relate to David’s guilt.  We can see how he could be moved to such guilt and such deep sadness in the death of his son, despite the fact that his son rebelled against him.  Like David, we know that our failures can sometimes have an eternal dimension, an eternal cost.

     Were we to end there today, brothers and sisters, it might be a fair proposition.  But I suspect many of us would go away feeling like failures.  No doubt more than a few of us might go away recognizing we were a poor mother, a poor father, a poor grandparent, or even a poor priest.  But just as David’s mourning points to our own guilt, his own life reminds us of the pattern which God demands of us.  Though we have spent a great deal of time concentrating upon David’s failures this morning, how is he known throughout Scripture?  A man after God’s own heart.  It seems a curious statement in light of the sins we have discussed this morning, doesn’t it?  And, just for the record, we have not by any means exhausted all David’s sins.  Yet God calls David a man after his own heart.  Why?

     The simply truth, brothers and sisters, is that David repents of his sins.  Unlike Saul and Absalom and countless others who “make mistakes,” David simply repents of his sins.  Each time he is confronted by God or God’s prophet, David recognizes the charge, repents, and begs forgiveness from God.  That’s it.  And for his willingness to humble himself before God, what happens to David?  Though he least deserves it, David is honored by God.  God swears an everlasting covenant with David and promises that a son will come forth to rule rightly and justly for all eternity.  That’s right, David will become a great, great grandfather of Jesus of Nazareth!  Talk about grace.  Talk about mercy.  Talk about undeserving love.

     One of the lessons not imparted by those who avoid church like the plague and who try to give their children the freedom to choose when they get older, as if those kids don’t have that choice when they grow, is this understanding of guilt, repentance, and forgiveness.  Each of us, every single person with whom we will interact over the course of our lives, will fall short and sin.  Some will do so more abundantly than others.  One of the reminders of David’s pattern of life is what God expects of us when we sin.  It sounds far too easy, sometimes, to admit one’s sins and ask for forgiveness, but that is all God requires of us.  As Christians, we understand the need for forgiveness and its true, unique cost; and so, at our best, we are quick to forgive others for the harms done to us.  What is the lesson of the rest of the world?  How are the youth outside the church taught to think and feel when they are wronged?  Some choose to isolate themselves.  Some choose not to risk really caring for another individual.  Some become experts at carrying a grudge and settling a score.

     All of this, all of this understanding of repentance and forgiveness admittedly hinges upon one simple fact: that He came down from heaven, died for our sins, and was raised to new life!  Absent that, our pattern of life makes no sense whatsoever.  If His Incarnation, death, and Resurrection are not true, then we are most of all to be pitied because we have been living a self-denying life for no benefit.  If what Scriptures teach us is not true, then we are deluded and worthy of scorn and derision.  But what if it true?  What if He did come down, die, and was raised just like we are told and taught?  What if all of that is true?  To what kind of eternal life are you commending your loved ones when you withhold instruction, when you withhold wisdom, when you all the world to teach them rather than the Lord who died for them?  Are you truly loving them?  Are you truly serving them?

     Brothers and sisters, do you believe it?  Do you believe the Good News of God in Jesus Christ?  Do your children know that you do or would they be surprised by your sudden declaration?  Do your children’s children know it, or would they, too, be surprised to learn that “you are one of those people?”  How about their friends who have come over for a visit?  It may seem a cruel thing to ask that question and give us space to answer it for ourselves on a lazy summer morning.  But cruelty is knowing the truth and keeping it to yourself.  Just ask David this morning.  Just ask any parent who wishes he or she had “a do-over” with respect to his or her kids.  You and I have that possibility of restarting relationships each and every day because we know what Christ has done for us and our relationship with God.  You and I can repent of our failure this moment, recommit ourselves to sharing His story within our families, and remind our loved ones that He loves them far more.  Will they all start showing up at church next week?  Perhaps not.  But then, in many of our cases, our complicit silence has given them permission to skip for some time now.  All we can do is repent before God and them and beg forgiveness.  Then, as always, it is up to Him and His grace.


Monday, August 6, 2012

Sinews and ligaments working for the glory of His body . . .

     God is always good.  It’s just that some weeks He is way better than normal.  The week that we read Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, and his discussion of the body lived out in the world I get several big reminders of what that life looks life.  I know this will make for a bit of a longish discussion, and frustrating for those not here, but they are stories that need to be told as they remind us of what the Gospel life looks like lived out in community.  I will also say that I thought it was important to share for reasons of encouragement and for reasons of a simple reminder -- you are that important to Him!  That last bit dawned on me a few times this week but was driven home this morning just to make sure I did not miss it.  During the course of the week, as people were in and out and participating in some of these stories, I tried to point out what was happening in their lives.  Too often I heard not me.  Too often, parishioners wanted to believe that their contribution was not really that important.  I only gave $25.  I only offered her a cup of coffee.  I only prayed for her. -- as if these contributions were not meaningful for the recipient.  Luckily, our readings this week were about the gifts and ligaments in Ephesians, so I had many built in sermons.

     This objection, that we don’t really have anything to offer the body in its mission, is true on the one hand.  As we have explored the Scriptures, particularly in the Bible studies but some times on Sundays, we have been reminded that when we approach the throne of Christ, we bring absolutely nothing to the equation.  There is no “Hey, I’m not that bad.  You should want me in your kingdom, Lord.”  No, for each and every one of us, we bring nothing to that transaction.  That is why it is called grace.  And were God to be satisfied simply with saving us from sin and death, we’d have no right to complain.  But grace in our Lord is abundant.  And for reasons known only to Him, He chooses to work His plan of salvation through people like you and me.  Compared to Him we are insignificant.  But His love of us, and His gifts to us, make us significant.  What do I mean?

     Our week, of course, began with the return of Amanda from Tanzania.  After a bit of an adventure--diverted airplanes, blown out landing gear tires, an unsuccessful effort to convince her parents that these were God’s signs that she should stay and minister in Tanzania--the mission team had made it home.  And Amanda had begun to open up about some of their efforts in Tanzania.  I will tell very few of her stories.  You will need to drag those stories out of her in the weeks and months ahead.  But one stuck in my mind in relation to this use of the gifts and the working of the body of Christ described by Paul.  We can almost see the ligaments and the gifts working together to reach the forgotten people of Dar.  

     The St. Luke’s mission team returned to the slums in Dar es Salaam.  As those of you who read the blog know, Amanda and the rest of the team headed into the slums with food stuffs, medicines, and prayers.  To Amanda’s surprise, some of those whom she visited again this time remembered her and the other members of the team.  Amanda said there was a mix of joy, surprise, hope, and any number of other emotions on the parts of those whom they visited.  All thanked the team profusely for their prior gifts.  Many thanked the team for their prayers.  A couple had even been healed of their disease.  And a few had even become Christian.  While the mission team’s efforts to feed, get some medical care, and to just spend some time among the outcasts in that country were laudable, the goal of these efforts is to evangelize those on the margins of life.  The Anglican churches in Dar es Salaam do a fabulous job with follow up.

     After the team has come through, the members of the church follow up.  They visit those visited in the slums (and others, of course), to see if there is anything to be done.  Are there new prayer requests?  Is there some food?  Are there any questions about the Christian faith?  Naturally, questions about why arise.  Why do they come here?  Why do they and you even care about us?  We have heard these kinds of questions many times as we have served people in our midst.  And their answers are remarkably similar to our own.  We love and serve you because He first loved and served us.  Think about it on a worldly scale.  Many of you here helped get Amanda there.  Almost all prayed for the team’s safety and success.  That effort was combined with the efforts of two other parishes in two other diocese, one on an entirely different continent.  Different gifts, different resources, different spoken languages; yet one mission--the building up of the kingdom of God!  Amanda is a sixteen year old girl from Iowa.  Nobody else on this trip is significant in any way.  I can assure you that there is not yet a saint among them.  Yet, look at their impact on the lives of those living in the slums.  To them, she was mzungu when she appeared in their doorways.  Now?  Blessed are those who bring the Good News!

     Another of those stories was more for me.  I was approached by an ecumenical partner in Human Trafficking this week who wanted to know if I knew that James R. W. Stott was an Anglican.  If you read Facebook, you know the story.    This partner wanted to know how a church can produce a James R. W. Stott and a John Spong.  When I reminded this partner that Stott was simply one of our luminaries, that we boasted the likes of CS Lewis, J I Packer, NT Wright, Alister McGrath, and a host of other great theologians.  This partner was, of course, even more confused.  Stott happens to be one of his favorite commentators, but he had heard of nearly all these.  How can you produce theologians like those and one like him?  Half-jokingly, I told him we could talk about it over a beer one day.  That statement produced another question: Why do you all celebrate the Eucharist so much and why do you insist upon drinking?

     What followed was one of the more bizarre results from a conversation that I have ever had.  I ended up in a sacramental theological conversation with a partner whose faith tradition is not particularly grounded in the sacraments.  Now I will say I had to be sharp.  His tradition is not necessarily steeped in the sacrament, but it sure is in Scripture.  I will confess that it helps in such discussions to have some clear instructions and activities of our Lord.  For this partner, drinking was clearly a sin, at least prior to this conversation.  Afterwards?  Let’s just say it is a work in progress.  I reminded him of our Lord’s first miracle in Cana, I reminded him of the image of the wedding feast, and I reminded him even of our Lord’s statement that He will not drink of the cup of joy until He has finally established His kingdom.  Combined with the dominical commands that we eat His flesh and drink His blood, I was in pretty good shape.  The real fun began when we broke out the Greek.  Nowhere in literature is the Greek word oinos ever translated as grape juice.  Now think of how bizarre this was.  You have me, raised outside the sacramental traditions, arguing with someone similar to a younger me about the propriety of wine and the Eucharist.  Who makes this stuff up?  Better still, as we ended, he wondered aloud why drinking was so frowned upon in certain Protestant circles.  The word seemed clear in Greek; yet many treated it like a sin.  Pointing him back to his initial question, I reminded him that he now knew how a church can produce a Stott and a Spong, a Lewis and a Pike--in the same way the Church can produce those who follow Christ’s command about the Eucharist and those who don’t.

     Naturally, I saved the best example of the body of Christ working together for last.  those absent will miss some of the subtleties and hidden themes, but I trust that those present can fill them in.  I received a phone call early in the week from another HT worker.  She had a grandmother raising four grandkids who seemed to know us.  this HT worker was a wits end about what to do.  The lady in question was involved with an alleged slumlord who was not fixing up the property in question.  In particular, the water heater was probably bad.  Now, our partner did not want us to waste money getting a new one (no reward for the slumlord), but she wanted us to fix the leak, if possible.  You see, the water bill for this lady on fixed income had spiked to $600.  Something had to be done.

     As it turns out, you and I have served her many times in the past.  She knew a church on this end of town that used to help her out.  We stretched her food stamp dollars, we gave her extra food, and we even provided a holiday meal or two.  Apparently, we were wonderful servants in this lady’s mind.  When she would pass through with her grandkids, we had lots of friendly people giving her food.  Sometimes, we offered to pray for her when she shared her doubts and fears of raising four grandkids after the untimely death of her daughter, their mother.  We even carried her groceries out to the car and waited on her the one time she was late.  We invited her and the kids to church and to water wars.  Any of that sound familiar?

     So, in a moment of desperation, this worker called us and asked if I could help.  After dismissing Larry, who would have replaced the water heater at his own expense, I turned to our newest bored retired man, Grant Curtis.  Suffice it to say there is way more going on behind the scenes than I will write, but Grant was perfect for the job.  He went down to look at the damage to see what we were getting ourselves into.  After wading through the darkness, the water, and the Rodents Of Unusual Size that have taken up residence in this house, Grant found the problem.  Not only did the water heater need to be replaced, but so did a couple valves and some pipe.

     After talking it over, it seemed better to replace the water heater despite the possibility that a slumlord would benefit.  So, Grant and I made a couple calls.  Thanks to your generosity and the generosity of some outside the parish, we raised almost exactly enough to replace the water heater.  As of this moment, we are a few dollars shy on the money for the pipes and the valves, but nothing truly significant.  Now, a family has hot water and no leak.  Speaking of which, did I mention that Iowa American waived all but $50 of that bill for this hardship case?  They did.

     And all of that would be a great story by itself, but those directly involved know the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey used to say.  This particular story is almost like a nexus.  There are far more spiritual discussions being caused by it than I am will to put to paper.  But, suffice it to say, those on the inside are simply awed how God can use faithful service and obedience to reach into the lives of people, one lost soul at a time.

     At the beginning of this sermon, I mentioned that God’s grace and His use of faithful obedience combined with grace was driven home this morning for me.  I know our 8:00ers like to pretend they are staid and stodgy.  They get a bit of a reputation for being grumpy and gruff.  In some cases, that is well earned.  But talk to me before 8:00am and you might find me grumpy and gruff.  Nevertheless, they are an intentionally welcoming community.  From Jackie to Judy from Don to Larry from Mac to Vern--they are all very intentional in showing hospitality and welcoming strangers.  This morning, a new girl appeared in their midst.  Those of you who are active in church functions know that there is a new Chinese family in our midst.  It turns out that they are not a family.  There are at least four different families represented in that group that comes.  But they come because those at 8:00am are welcoming, speak slowly, and allow them the freedom to make their faith journey at their own pace (their words).  There is no expectation that they will do anything other than worship God.  Amazingly, only one of them is baptized.  The rest are trying to make a decision about their faith.

     This morning, a new girl appeared in our midst.  She was in a panic and frustrated.  She was trying to explain to me through a language not her own the feeling that God was reaching for her.  What made it worse was that her family back home was totally unaccepting of her new-found inquiry.  She was worried that when she went home, they would work hard to convince her she was crazy.  Maybe she was.  Before she had begun attending a Bible study, she would have considered her story nuts.  But here she was, really believing what she was telling me.  Now she was at St. Alban’s asking what she could do to find her answers.  Naturally, I offered to baptize her.  We discussed the role of the sacrament and the significance of the act.  She demurred at this time, but she was thankful for the offer.  I suggested some other things she could do to help nurture that feeling such as praying and continuing to read the Scriptures.  I even offered to get her a Chinese one, but she preferred to read it in English as none in her family would be able to know what the book was.  As we prayed and were ending our discussions, I asked this girl why she came today and had not with her (I presumed) sister and mother previously.  It was then that I learned that the ladies who had been attending sporadically were not family.  The older lady rented rooms to the younger ladies to avoid scandal for the younger ladies.  The younger ladies are here getting degrees and working to pay the bills (yes, I made sure they were not slaves and were free to come and go--I could not help it).  From time to time, they felt the need to come to church.  One of the earlier ladies had been Christian, sought and found us, and dragged others with her from time to time.  When things were weighing on the younger ladies, the older lady would suggest coming to church.  Although she is not a Christian, she finds that we at St. Alban’s are welcoming and not to antsy about questions.  She felt like she and any girls she brings can explore the faith at their own pace.  And, in her words, sometimes she felt a peace or calm while here that she could not explain.  This young girl, who asked me not to put her name in public because the internet is read by family and authorities, had been studying God’s word in a Bible Study class.  She said they taught her much, but they did not encourage questions.  She had come because she had questions.  She felt His pull; she was not ready to embrace Him yet; but she needed to know that both her feelings and her concerns were real.  In a way, she needed a sanctuary where she could ask those questions and not be judged or condemned for not responding the way we would all want.

     Paul today, in his list in the letter to Ephesus, recounts the gifts of the Holy Spirit to members of the Body of Christ.  He gives titles and names to them, but you and I are called to exercise them in our daily life for His purpose and His glory.  So often, we labor faithfully and never get to see the results of our work.  From time to time we might wonder whether our faithful obedience has any meaning, whether we really matter.  From time to time, however, He gives us that glimpse of His amazing grace and His amazing plan.  In this week alone, in our daily parish life, you and I have been reminded that it is possible for us to travel halfway around the world and play an integral role in the witness of the Gospel just as it was in the days of the early Church.  More amazingly, it is still even possible for members of the world to travel halfway around to find themselves among us, listening to our own tales of His faithfulness and our own questions.  Better still, what’s more amazing, is how He can bless us and others better than we can ever ask or imagine.  It has been a year since we were forced to stop serving our community through Angel Food.  A year.  I know many of us never saw the numerical results we wanted, and the fact that it ended convinced us that we may never.  Yet here we are, a year later, hearing how one whom we served for nearly three years is using our faith service to reach into the life of another human being!  No doubt every one who spoke to that lady wanted her and her children to join us.  No doubt most were disappointed that she chose not to.  How many times did you ask her?  How many times did your pray for her?  How many times did you serve her?

     By worldly standards, you might think that you failed.  Yet look what God is still accomplishing through your faithful service, prayers, kind words, and the like.  Because of your loving service and faithful obedience in spite of the unrealized result, He is using her to grow His kingdom through the addition of yet another!  Who knows how many ripples like this are out there!  Certainly God does.  And Paul’s letter today reminds us of our calling to exercise faithfully the gifts He has given us.  Though we may not see it today, next week, next month, next year or even this side of the grave, the faithful exercise of those gifts is what He uses to grow His kingdom.  Just as there are no second class citizens in His kingdom (all are first born sons and daughters!), there are no useless or inferior gifts of the Holy Spirit.  God gives us what we need.  It becomes our responsibility to use them joyfully and confidently in the knowledge that He will use them for His purposes, the redemption and salvation of the world!

     And lest I forget, some sitting here may be wondering about the squandered resources.  Father, you just gave a slumlord a new water heater.  You just wasted our money.  Certainly, we thought and prayed about that before proceeding.  But just as we could not ever foresee that our faithful service of the one family would lead to their determined effort of evangelism on the part of the one who called us for help on their behalf, we do not know what God will do with this story in the life of the slumlord.  Perhaps he or she will be motivated to ask those big questions.  Perhaps he or she will wonder why a group of people would ever reach out to help an easy mark rather than take advantage of her.  Perhaps the slumlord will simply scoff at our gullibility and keep on going to the bank to count his or her wealth made off the practice of abusing those most vulnerable.  We know, too, how that ends.  The fact of the matter is that it was never our money.  It was always His.  And while some of the funds came from within this parish, not all of them did.  Some came from outside this parish, signifying to us that we were on the right path, that we were working to bring Him honor and glory through our sacrificial service of others.  Who knows?  Maybe He will use our service and willingness to give away what we have to attract those who made up the difference into His kingdom.  His ways are not our ways.  Thanks be to God!  It is our job simply to gather, to thank and worship, and to serve others to His honor and glory.  This week, this week especially, we have all been given some special insight into His purposes.  How will you use your gifts this week to honor and serve Him?