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?