Thursday, January 1, 2009

Are You Serving?

St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Maquoketa, Iowa

This is the sermon I gave at the Church of the Saviour in Clermont, Iowa on October 26, 2008. The basis for the sermon is 1 Thessalonians 2:1-16.

Bill is a 20 year old college Student. He’s been active in church for 5 or 6 years, he got active because of his youth group. He volunteers as a leader of the youth group on Friday nights. His friends call him Blue because he has red hair.


Violet is a 77 year old retiree. She’s still energetic enough, in bursts at least, to continue her ministry in the church, by doing lots of pastoral care.


Ruby is a little over 29. At least that’s all she says. She’s an IT specialist. She leads a small group and is involved with the outreach ministry in her local church.
Jack is a father of 3 teenagers, an accountant, and in his late 40’s. He’s just old enough to be considered a baby-boomer but young enough to think of himself as a Gen-Xer. He’s a leader of the men’s group at his church as well as being a member of vestry and one of the small groups in the church.


All of these people have something in common. They’re all people with a ministry in God’s Church. And they’re all people who want to know how to serve God better, how to serve God’s church better.


So for them a letter like 1 Thessalonians, where Paul spends a lot of time defending himself by explaining what motivated him in his preaching of the gospel can be a great help.
So what I want to do today is to think about what those four people, along with us, can learn from Paul’s example that will help them in serving others with the gospel.
You can make a fairly good guess from the things Paul says in the first few verses of chapter 2 what the accusations were that these people were making. "He was a weakling. He ran away at the first sign of trouble. We haven’t seen or heard of him since. Obviously the only thing he was interested in was having us support him while he swanned around looking important. And as soon as a bit of opposition arose he headed for the hills; ran off in the dark of night! He was more interested in his own safety than your welfare."
Well, that was probably something like what they were complaining about, because here’s how he answers it.

First: He appeals to their memory of what happened.
He says: "You yourselves know, brothers and sisters." Notice how that phrase, "You know" or "You remember" is repeated over and over again: Sometimes when we’re the object of false accusations we get carried away with defending ourselves rather than stopping and asking a couple of simple questions, like: "Are there any grounds to these accusations?" "Do others see things the way this person sees them?" You see, the accusation may totally unfounded. It may all be in the mind of the accuser. If we look at the facts of the situation we may see that the way we acted was OK.
That’s what Paul says here. He says "Think back to what actually happened. Was my coming to you a waste of time? Was my message just hot air? Did I run at the first sign of danger, leaving you without my support? Of course not. In fact if you think back to when I came to you, it was just after I’d been thrown into jail in Philippi, put in the stocks, beaten, humiliated. But that didn’t stop me from preaching the gospel to you, facing the possibility of further opposition, further suffering. In fact I preached with great courage in the face of that opposition."
What’s more the way he spoke to them was with openness and frankness. That’s the idea behind that word ’declare’. There was nothing underhanded or manipulative in the way he presented the gospel. There was no deceit or impure motives or trickery in the way he spoke. That’s why he can repeatedly call on their memory of what happened. This is a lesson for us isn’t it? Let’s make sure that we minister in God’s church with such an openness and integrity that we can look back later on and say "You know what we were like. You know the way we lived among you. You know the sorts of people we proved to be." And in case you think you can get away with some lower standard than this, remember that people notice what you do as much as what you say, if not more so. But secondly,
He explains his own motivation
In fact he comes up with four metaphors, four pictures to do this.
A Steward
He says "we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel." He speaks because God has given him that charge. God has entrusted him with this great treasure the way the owner of a property might entrust it to a steward. So not only does he not do it for personal gain of some sort, that’s the negative, he does it because God has entrusted him with it. He’s someone whom God has tested and approved.
The idea is of an apprentice who spends the first years of his training being tested on the range of skills required. Or a teacher who goes out on teaching rounds and gets an assessment from the school they work in. Or a medical intern who works under a medical registrar and receives an assessment at the end of their rounds. Once they get through that assessment, once they’re considered skilled enough or trustworthy enough they’re allowed to practice unsupervised. Well now, Paul says, he’s been through his basic training and passed with flying colors He’s received the approval of God and so he’s entrusted with the responsibility of taking the message to others.
So, far from doing it out of the desire for personal gain, his real motivation is to please his master, that is, to please God who’s continually testing his heart.
Now we talk a bit about the need to share the Gospel here at Church of the Saviour. You may be sick of hearing about it in fact. But here’s one reason why we keep on talking about it: because God has entrusted this message not only to Paul, but to us as well. When Jesus told his disciples to go into all the world and preach the Gospel, he also told them to teach others to obey everything that he’d commanded them. That of course included the command to go into all the world. So we also have that call, that responsibility. We too, are stewards of the Gospel.
How can Bill the college student serve the Church? How can we? By being a good steward of the Gospel. Of course, that may mean God will tests our hearts as well? So we need to think about what he’ll find there. Will it be the desire to please him, or the desire to please ourselves? Will it be the desire to see others come to faith, to a living knowledge of Jesus Christ, or the desire to not have our comfortable lives upset?
I’m not asking this to worry you, or to make you afraid, but to encourage you to take seriously the responsibility that comes from having been given the free gift of eternal life in Jesus Christ, from having heard the gospel that sets us free.
Having said that, Paul then goes on to another image, another model from which he draws inspiration.
A Mother
He says: "But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us." I doubt that you could think of anyone who cares for a child more than a nursing mother. And the sort of care that a mother gives her baby is a selfless care. She doesn’t do it out of any ulterior motive. There’s no sense that she’s going to get something out of it. In fact it’s the very helplessness of a baby that makes caring for it so imperative. There’s a difference in the way she loves a little baby and the way she’ll love them when they’re 16 years old, for example. Both will be examples of motherly love, but one will go out of it’s way to do whatever the child needs, the other, if it’s wise love, might tell the child to wake up to them self and start acting their age, or start taking responsibility for them self.
The other element in this picture is the way you don’t expect a mother to be looked after by her child. Rather it’s the other way around. So too, Paul made sure that he wasn’t a burden to those he ministered to. He worked as a tent maker in order to support himself while he preached the Gospel, or he used funds sent to him from other churches so he didn’t need to rely on new converts for his support. He says he might have insisted on his rights as an apostle of Christ, but he exchanged that authority for a mother’s gentleness. And that involved sharing not only financial support, but his whole self because they were so dear to him.
One of the things that are most satisfying in Christian ministry is the close relationships that develop with those among whom you minister. I’m sure if you speak to Marva later about her experience in Swaziland when she returns, I'm sure that she’ll tell you how wonderful it was to share in those people’s lives, to discover people who had become dear to her in just a few days. This is the sad thing about those who refuse to share the Gospel with others: they rarely have the joy of sharing new life with people. The joy of motherhood is only experienced by having a child. I can’t tell you what it’s like. I can only tell you what being a father is like. But by all accounts it’s a pretty good experience, for most mothers at least. Likewise it’s a great experience to see people come to faith and grow in that faith through our ministry.
How can Violet the retiree serve the church or her small group? By caring for those in it the way a mother cares for her young child; by nurturing them, feeding them, loving them with the love of the one who brought them into this world.


Thirdly, Paul likens himself to a father and here there are again a number of elements involved.
First he says "You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God." Like the traditional father he’s acted as the breadwinner of the family. He’s worked hard to provide for his children.
We know from 2 Corinthians that the Macedonian churches suffered from extreme poverty. So it would have been an incredible burden on them to have to support Paul and Silas and Timothy while they were there. But instead Paul decided to work to support himself and his ministry, just as a father goes out to work to support his household.
But his action as a father is more than just that. In fact if that were all a father did he wouldn’t actually be much of a father would he? No, Paul acts like a father in the example he gives, through his purity and righteousness of behavior. Again he’s referring back to the question of his motives. He hasn’t acted with ulterior motives. Rather he’s acted like a father, having only his children’s interests in mind, showing them how to live as disciples of Christ.
Again, the way he operated was by "urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory." In those days the father was the one whose job was to educate his children, to train them in the family business. So just as a father might do this by urging and encouraging and pleading with his child to do better and especially to lead a life worthy of the family, so Paul has urged them to lead a life worthy of God.
How can Jack the accountant serve the church or his men’s group? By living a life of integrity; by being a leader whose Godly life is an example to others; by urging and encouraging others to live a life that’s worthy of God the way a father encourages his children.
Before we go on to Paul’s final metaphor let me just say that it’s interesting that Paul takes on himself both those traditional pictures of parental roles. Some people have read into passages like this a theology of parenting that assigns one role to women and one to men, but Paul in fact takes on both roles in his own ministry. So perhaps he’s indicating the fact that those traditional roles aren’t fixed; that it’s possible for a father to feed and nurture his children, for a mother to teach and encourage and urge her children to greater effort. Anyway that’s probably a discussion for another time.

Finally, Paul describes himself as one who proclaims the word of God. That is, he comes as a herald passing on a message from the king. The word gospel in fact was used for proclamations of great events brought by heralds from the king or the emperor. So when he says "When you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers" he’s reminding them that he came as God’s herald, as a prophet sent from God to bring them a message of great news from the king.
Sometimes Christians get embarrassed at the thought that we have this message that must sound so strange to people. We imagine what they must think when we talk about God appearing as a human being, or Jesus dying then rising again. And we might even think we look foolish presenting this message, let alone wondering how it will ever have an impact on our rationalistic culture. But here’s the great assurance for us. We’re simply acting as God’s messengers, God’s heralds. And the message we’re presenting is one of great importance to those who hear it. It’s the sort of message that should be accompanied by a fanfare of trumpets. A new king is reigning and that king calls his people to return to him. Some people may think we’re nuts or ignore us as being irrelevant. Some may even treat us badly, as they did Paul and the converts in Thessalonica. But this is God’s message and, as we’ve seen over the last couple of weeks, he already has those he’s chosen, waiting to hear the call, waiting for the herald to appear and announce this message from the king.
So how can Ruby the IT specialist serve the church? By proclaiming the message of the gospel; by being a herald of the King, by bringing new people into God’s kingdom or encouraging others to do so.
Whether you see yourself as a steward of a great treasure in the Gospel, a mother, caring for, feeding, nurturing, her children, a father, providing for, teaching, encouraging, urging his children to live Godly lives, or a herald announcing great news of a king whose reign is forever, the way to serve the church, the way to serve God in the Church, is to build it up by proclaiming the Gospel, by helping those who come to faith to grow, and by encouraging them to become mature believers who in turn can bring others into the kingdom.


Amen.

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