Sunday, September 23, 2007

Proper 20 Year C - September 23, 2007

Sermon – Proper 20, Year C – September 23, 2007

Charles Haddon Spurgeon was a 19th century British Reformed Baptist preacher who remains highly influential amongst Christians of different denominations, among whom he is still known in various circles as the "Prince of Preachers."

At the height of his fame, he preached to thousands in London every Sunday, but he started out passing out tracts and teaching Sunday School as a teenager. He said, “I am perfectly sure,” he said, “that, if I had not been willing to preach to those small gatherings of people in obscure country places, I should never have had the privilege of preaching to thousands of men and women in large buildings all over the land. Remember our Lord’s rule, “whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”

Charles Spurgeon is the perfect illustration for today’s gospel lesson, in which Jesus says, “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much.”

People like Charles Spurgeon inspire many people, but they also discourage many people who ask themselves, “How can I, with my small gifts, do as much for God as someone like this, to whom God has given much greater gifts?”

There was a popular song in the 1950’s recorded by Kitty Kallen called Little Things Mean A Lot. The lyrics start out with:

Blow me a kiss across the room
Say I look nice when I'm not
Touch my hair as you pass my chair
Little things mean a lot
Give me your arm as we cross the street
Call me at six on the dot
A line a day when you're far away
Little things mean a lot

The song celebrates how love is expressed, not in big romantic ways, but in the small everyday words and gestures that mean much more in the long run. In ministry, little things mean a lot too. We are all in ministry, whether we realize it or not, the ministry of the baptized towards each other and towards the world. Any gift we have to give is the Lord’s gift to the world, not our own. We need to realize that small acts of ministry are often the most effective.

I recently read this story online: An elderly widow, restricted in her activities, was eager to serve Christ. After praying about this, she realized that she could bring blessing to others by playing the piano. The next day she placed this small ad in the Oakland Tribune: "Pianist will play hymns by phone daily for those who are sick and despondent; the service is free.” The notice included the number to dial. When people called, she would ask, "What hymn would you like to hear?'

Within a few months her playing had brought cheer to several hundred people. Many of them freely poured out their hearts to her, and she was able to help and encourage them.

Clearly this widow understood that small acts of ministry can have big results. She didn’t say, “I can’t serve God because I am too old” or “I can’t do as much as I used to, so I’m going to sit back and let others do what I can’t” or “I don’t have anything to give that will make a difference in people’s lives.” She asked God to tell her what she COULD do. And by using the gift that he had given her, she was able to be effective in her ministry.

So what gifts are you hiding under your bushel? Ministry can be as big as leading people to Christ like Billy Graham and as small as sending cards to shut-ins. As big as writing books that inspire millions of people like Philip Yancy, or as small as giving rides to church to those who can no longer drive themselves. Little things mean a lot in ministry. So why is it so often we end our ministry before we even have begun?

We are not faithful in little because we are little in our faith. We are our own worst enemies, talking ourselves out of doing what we can by minimizing the effect we can have. We make the mistake of believing that only large ministries can have an impact in the world, when small ministries may actually help people in many ways that large ministries fail. We want recognition, a 100% success rate, and enough time, energy and motivation to keep ourselves going forever. We tell ourselves that if no one notices what we do, that if we fail sometimes at what we attempt, and if we get tired and discouraged, that we are not succeeding.

David McCasland, noted biographer of Oswald Chambers, wrote:

When we long for success, God says, "I will reward you."

When we ache for recognition, God says, "I see you."

When we are ready to quit, God says, "I will help you."

Whether our service is public or private, our responsibility is the same—to be faithful.

Paul, in his letter to the Colossians, wrote:

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.

Whatever you do. Not “in all the big things you do” or even “in all the things you do in church”. There are ministry opportunitites everywhere if you only look for them; holding a door open for someone, telling the waitress at the local diner what a great job she’s doing, or giving your place in line at the grocery store to someone with just a few items. Little things mean a lot.

There’s an old hymn by Kittie Suffield that goes:

1. In the harvest field now ripened,
There's a work for all to do.
Hark, the voice of God is calling,
To the harvest calling you.

2. Does the place you're called to labor
Seem so small and little known?
It is great if God is in it,
And He'll not forget His own.

3. When the conflict here is ended
And our race on earth is run,
He will say, if we are faithful,
"Welcome home, my child, well done."

Little is much when God is in it.
Labor not for wealth or fame.
There's a crown and you can win it,
If you go in Jesus' name.

Proper 18 Year C - September 9, 2007

Sermon – Proper 18, Year C – September 9, 2007
I was watching “The Quiet Man” the other day on television. This is a movie that I’ve seen many times, due to the fact that my husband is a big John Wayne fan. Of all the movies John Wayne made, this is his favorite one. We always watch it when it’s on television and, believe me: it’s on television quite often.

If you’ve never seen it, in the movie, set in Ireland, Mary Kate Danniher, a fiery redhead played by Maureen O’Hara, marries Sean Thornton, played by John Wayne. After the marriage, Mary Kate’s brother refuses to hand over her dowry and the things that had been passed down to her from her mother and grandmother. Their wedding night turns out miserably because Sean can’t understand why those things are so important to Mary Kate. He says, “It seems like a lot of fuss and bother over a little bit of furniture.” She says, “There’s three hundred years of happy dreaming in those things and I want them!”

Sean is an American and doesn’t understand the Irish culture which made Mary Kate so insistent on having her “things about her”. To him it seems mercenary and cold, while to Mary Kate, her things represent something much deeper: her self-identity and position in the community.

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus tells the disciples that they must give up all their possessions.

Maybe to us, understanding the true impact of what Jesus was asking his disciples to do is just as hard as it was for Sean Thornton. We live in a very affluent country; in comparison to the way that the Jewish people lived back then, we are fabulously wealthy. Our access to increasingly cheaper goods has turned us into the world’s largest consumer culture. We don’t get as attached to most of our possessions, probably because we have more than we really need and if something gets broken it’s easily replaced. I’ve seen this in my own children; if they break a toy, it isn’t a big deal to them. I contrast my own remembrances of toys that were prized possessions and that I mourned over when they broke. It was harder to get a new toy in our family. You had to wait until your birthday or Christmas because toys were comparatively expensive then, dollar for dollar.

These days most of us are just not as invested in our possessions as someone who had to work very hard just to acquire a nice table or a chair. Those things were much more representative of the hard work done to acquire them and were passed down in the family. Sean doesn’t understand Mary Kate’s need for her “things about her”, at least not at first.

For Mary Kate, her things were the more important to her than her marriage was. She put her possessions first. And that caused many problems.

There’s an old saying, “Well begun is half done.” In the example that Jesus uses, a builder makes sure he has enough money to begin the construction of his tower BEFORE he begins. And so he is able to finish the tower and avoids the ridicule that waits for people who do not finish what they begin. Jesus asked his disciples to prepare themselves for discipleship by giving away their possessions. This showed their commitment to him, a commitment that many failed to make.

But these days, are we required to do the same? This is a frequent question that comes up in Christian circles and a deterrent for many who believe that Jesus meant it literally. After all, someone has to work to make money to give to missions, to provide children sponsored by World Vision, Compassion International, and similar organizations. What are we to do with all of this “stuff” that makes our lives easier and enables us to continue earning to provide for our families as well as to give to the poor? Are we really supposed to give it all away?

When looking over the many passages where Jesus speaks to this issue, it seems clear: if we can’t freely give away what we have, we do not have God first in our lives. If we would have a hard time closing the doors on our houses and walking away if God called us, we are not putting God first in our lives. God does not want us not to have possessions; he wants possessions not to have us. When our things become more important to us than him, there are many problems.

So when Jesus told his disciples to give up their possessions, Jesus was really asking his disciples to put God first in their hearts. After all, this is the first commandment: You shall have no other gods before me. God wants to be first.

Even the passage preceding the stricture about possessions was not strictly about hating “father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself.” It is about putting God first. The word “hate”, when used in the Bible, does not carry the same sort of meaning it does for us. It means “loving less”. So when God says in Malachi 1:2 “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated” he doesn’t actually hate Esau. He just loves Jacob more. When Jesus says we must hate our families, he means we must love them less than we love God. God wants us to love him more than any other.

Like many of Jesus’ teachings, putting God first is more about heart change, rather than physical change. God must be first in our hearts. We must love him more than our families, our possessions and our lives.

Like any true Hollywood classic, “The Quiet Man” has a happy ending. Mary Kate gets her possessions and Sean understands, finally, why they are important to her. Their marriage is saved and they live happily ever after.

As we leave today, may we also have a happy ending. By putting God first in our lives, our possessions will not own us. We will stop worrying about what we will eat or wear. When confronted with the opportunity to give, we will not hesitate. We will begin to lay up our treasures in heaven, not on earth. After all, the earth is the Lord’s, for he made it. Won’t he provide even better for us than we can for ourselves?

Marjorie Holmes, the author of “Two from Galilee” wrote the following prayer which I think sums up our struggles today. May it inspire you as it inspired me:

Help me not to put too much stock in possessions, Lord. I want things, sure. But life seems to be a continual round of wanting things—from the first toys we fight over as children to our thrilled unwrapping of wedding presents to those we buy in our old age. Our concern is not primarily love and friends and pride in what we can do, but things.

Sometimes I’m ashamed of how much I want mere possessions—things for my husband and the house and the children. Yes, and things for myself, too. And this hunger is enhanced every time I turn on the television or walk through a shopping mall.

My senses are tormented by the dazzling world of things.

Lord, cool these fires of wanting. Help me to realize how futile is this passion for possessions. Because—and this is what strips my values to the bone—one of my best friends died today in the very midst of her possessions. She was in the beautiful home she and her husband worked so hard to achieve, the home that was finally furnished the way she wanted it with the best of everything. She was surrounded by the Oriental rugs she was so proud of, the formal French sofas, the painting, the china and glass, the handsome silver service…She had been snatched away while silently, almost cruelly, THEY remain. Lord, I grieve for my friend. My heart hurts that she had so little time to enjoy the things that she had earned and that meant so much to her. But let me learn something from this loss; that possessions are meant to enhance life, not to become the main focus of living. Help me remember that we come into the world with nothing and we leave with nothing.

Don’t let me put too much stock in mere possessions.


Welcome to my Sermon Blog

I recently completed the preaching course offered to Total Ministry participants in the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan and was commissioned to preach in my church, St. Elizabeth's Episcopal in Redford, Michigan. I hope you enjoy the sermons!