Sunday, August 29, 2010

Life Together: Serve One Another

We are in our second week of our Life Together series – trying to navigate life in community, to live out what God has called us to be.  Last week we encouraged one another; how did it feel to seek people out to encourage them?  I thought it was great; before I’d even left this building, I saw you rushing to encourage each other.  It was good, and I hope you keep it up. 

What kinds of things did you do to encourage others?  Did anyone come up with anything creative? Did you use words, or did you think of other ways to encourage as well?  One of the most encouraging things that I saw actually didn’t come as a response to last week’s message. Back in January, I preached a message in which I included a story from the late Mike Yaconelli, in which a young woman in his congregation, in response to a sermon about God’s unconditional love, decided they ought to have a welcome dinner for the carnies.  Well, that stuck with some of you, and you decided that we could do the same thing. 

I love that you automatically went to “how can we serve, too?” It encourages me to see you taking a message that I preached or an illustration that I shared and then running with it, allowing God to lead you to serve others.  That’s our topic today as we continue doing Life Together: Serve One Another.

In our culture, service has become anachronistic – a relic of a bygone era.  Who remembers when there weren’t “gas stations” but “service stations” – at the same place where you bought your gas, someone could also fix your car?  And you didn’t pump your gas; it was “full service” where someone came out, pumped your gas, washed your windows, checked your oil, and took your payment, right there at the pump. 

We all like good service – when we’re at a restaurant, when we’re dealing with customer service, when we’re at home, or even when we’re at church.  While there are some people who are gifted in serving one another, for the most part we experience the opposite.  People aren’t clamoring to serve.  In fact, more often than not, people are clamoring to be served.  People want positions of authority and power, not so they can serve others, but so they can have other people do that for them.  In Matthew 20, we find James and John’s mother coming to Jesus and asking him to give her sons positions of authority in his kingdom.  At that, Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Matthew 20:25-28

Did you get that?  Jesus ascribed greatness to those who serve.  I think we sometimes forget this; we emphasize gifted people who are pastors, teachers, or musicians, and we forget that true Christian leadership is servanthood.

Paul reminds the church in Galatia to serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. (Galatians 5:13b-15). Serving one another is what it means to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus didn’t just talk the talk; he walked the walk. Jesus didn’t just tell us to serve; he showed us.  As Christians, our goal is Christ-likeness, which means we are supposed to act like Jesus Christ!  He is our perfect example of serving. Philippians 2:6-8 reminds us that Jesus: who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!

Remember that Jesus did this for us while we were still sinners.  He didn’t wait until we’d gotten everything together.  Because of this, Jesus can tell us to (literally) “go the extra mile” – to even serve people we don’t know or don’t like. Why?  Because we’re not merely serving them; we’re serving Him.

In Matthew 25, Jesus tells a story about the end times, when He will separate people as a shepherd separates sheep from goats.  He will pronounce those on his right “blessed” For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. (Matthew 25:35-36).  When they questioned as to when they had done this, he answered,I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.

It should be clear to anyone who has read the Bible at all that servanthood is central to the message of Christianity.  But there are pitfalls to avoid when it comes to service.

The first pitfall is when we miss the point.  There are people who go overboard in serving.  They are always serving, and they have a great heart for serving, but they miss out on what God has for them because they’re always serving.  In Luke 10, Jesus went to the home of his friends Mary and Martha.  In fact, we read that Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed.  Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42) 

Some of you know what Martha felt like; you’re always serving, and you’ve missed the “one thing” that is needed.  You serve so much that you don’t spend time at Jesus’ feet, worshiping Him, adoring Him, listening to Him.  And what’s worse: you get resentful and mad at the people who are sitting with Jesus.

Now we’ll get to the second pitfall, which I’ll call “me.”  This comes when you serve for the accolades.  You make sure you pick the most visible area and time to serve.  Make sure it’s not the late shift; it’s got to be when everyone is there.  “Then they’ll see me working and they’ll be all impressed at how awesome I am.”  Or you serve in an area just long enough to say you’ve done it, but then you tell everyone all about it. This goes hand in hand with giving to the needy: Jesus tells his followers not to announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men.  I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.” (Matthew 6:2) Instead, we are told “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

Which reward do you want?  That people know you did something good, or the reward God has for you?  Don’t make service be all about you.   Quite the contrary: Ephesians 6:7 tells us to Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men.
               
The other part of the me pitfall is when you simply expect others to serve you. We get this a lot in churches; somehow, somewhere we get the idea that the church exists to serve us.  After all, we’re the ones who pay our tithes (or, for some, our 1%), so we ought to get something out of it.  We adopt a consumer mentality and expect people to do things for us and then we’re confused as to why new people don’t come and participate.

The third pitfall to service is manipulation.  Simply put, you serve someone just to get something.  You want them to behave in a certain way, so you go out of your way to be nice to them.  You do stuff for them, you go out of your way to serve them, and then you get really mad when they don’t change.  I hear that all the time when it comes to divorce; one member of a couple works their tail off to serve the other, only to see their partner continue doing the same thing they’ve always done.  And the reaction by the partner who is going out of their way to serve?  They’re devastated.  They’ve got these expectations: “I’ve done all this for you; I’ve gone above and beyond the call of duty, couldn’t you at least…”

We don’t serve people to manipulate them, to get them to do what we want them to do.  Our service isn’t predicated on how they react. 

Instead, as 1 Peter 4:9-11 reminds us: Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve one another, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.  If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God.  If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ.

When it comes to serving one another, hospitality is how Peter describes it.  Some people talk about “Southern hospitality” and I’ll be honest; when we lived in the south, we found this: people are really nice to you on the street, they’ll stop and talk to you in the grocery store, but don’t expect to be invited over to their house.  Southern hospitality only goes so far.  I’ve found this is true in the church as well.  Most of you already have your family and friend structure around you; you don’t need someone else in your circle.  My sister used to call it “breaking into a church” – you’ve got to be an insider to be inside.  This just isn’t a biblical model of hospitality or of serving one another.  I know people who still feel like they’re outsiders after living in town for years and years – because small town hospitality only goes so far. 

Some of you have benefited from the hospitality of others, and you’ve never reciprocated.  And worse, you’ve never even said “thank you” to those who have been so generous.  This is the command for all of us; to offer hospitality without grumbling.  And Peter goes on to say this: whatever gift you have, use it to serve one another. 

In other words, for the Christian, every single gift should be used to serve one another.  It’s not to pad our egos or to make us rich or famous.  That’s not God’s call whatsoever. The goal is this: so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. 

When we serve people, and when people see us serving, they’ll probably initially think “those people are just really nice people” but then they’ll realize that, yes, you are nice, but there’s something more.  They’ll realize that the reason we serve is because of who Jesus Christ is – and our service will reflect our God.  The Holy Spirit is always working to glorify God, so if your service is truly godly service, empowered by the Holy Spirit, that’s what it will always do: glorify God.  Not us. 

Many people have turned away from Christ and from the church when they’ve seen us inward focused and having forgotten to serve.  In his book Forgotten God, Francis Chan asks an important question: “On a scale from one to ten, how much do you love the church? As you look around at your sisters and brothers, do you think to yourself, I love these people so much. I pray God empowers me in some way to encourage these people toward a deeper walk with Him? How much do you care? The Holy Spirit has given you a supernatural ability to serve the people God has placed around you.  If God cares enough about His church to give you this Spirit-empowered ability, shouldn’t you care enough about the church to use that gift for the same purpose?” (p. 86)  He goes on to ask this: How would you be missed if you left this place?  What would change? What difference does your presence here make? What would the church look like if everyone was as committed as you are? If everyone gave and served and prayed exactly like you, would the church be healthy and empowered? Or would it be weak and listless? Forgotten God, p. 91

So, how would we be without you?  Or if everyone served like you do?  God calls us to crucify the flesh – to choose the way of the Holy Spirit.  To realize that we were not meant to be ruled by our fleshly desires and passions (like anger, self-indulgence, immorality, etc.), and we allowed God, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, to remove the central role that these things had in your life.

That’s why Paul can write this in Ephesians 5:21: Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.  Christian service is always submitting to one another.

You might be wondering how to do this: First of all, service starts in your home.  If you are married, your first commitment, after your devotion to God, should be your spouse.  Look for ways to serve your spouse this week.  Maybe it’s just something little, but look for those ways.  If you are a parent, you already serve your children – sometimes you feel like a slave instead of a parent.  If you are a child, (and I’ll define that as “living in your parents’ home”), find some way to serve your parents this week. 

Secondly, service continues in your church.  Many of you already serve in awesome ways, in front of the crowd and behind the scenes. If you’re not serving, find an area where you can.  Find people you can show hospitality to.  Maybe someone who is new in the community or the church community.

Third, service must move outside the walls of the church.  If we were meant to be a closed little group, limiting our service to only “us and ours” would be fine.  But we were meant to be a light in the darkness – to share Christ with the world.  When people look at the Church, they are supposed to see Jesus.  This is why our food pantry is so important.  This is why it’s important to participate in Vacation Bible School.  This is why serving at the Foundation Dinners is important.  Because people won’t usually just see Jesus in a vacuum.  They’ll see Jesus when they see His people serving them, showing them His love.

As we go, let us serve one another – as God commanded us.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Life Together: Encourage One Another


These days there is a growing trend of “spiritual but not religious.” Another way of saying it is: “I don’t have to go to church to be a Christian.” While I agree that I hear from God in different (sometimes unusual) ways, and often while I’m running alone, that is only one small segment of my spiritual life.  The truth is those who think they can live the Christian life apart from others are simply deluded.  I’ve heard an illustration that fits; a pastor went to the home of a church member who hadn’t been to worship in a while, one of the “I don’t have to go to church to be a Christian” crowd.  The man invited the pastor in, and they went and sat in front of the fireplace. Silently, the pastor took the fireplace poker and pulled a hot coal out of the fire and onto the hearth.  As they watched, it slowly changed from red hot to white to black as it cooled off.  Without saying a word, the pastor again took the poker and slid the coal back into the fire.  Immediately it glowed red-hot again.

Anecdotes and illustrations aside, though God calls individuals (just look at the Apostle Paul’s conversion if you want a good example), God’s purpose is calling a group of people to be His.  When God spoke to Abram, He didn’t just say, “Hey, I want you to leave your family and follow me.”  He told Abram, “I will make you into a great nation.” (Genesis 12:2a).  He went on to tell him, “All peoples on earth will be blessed trough you.” (Genesis 12:3b).  If you’ve been through the Progress of Redemption Class, you know that God’s purpose has always been about a people, not just a person.  All of this stems from the fact that God isn’t a loner.  God is always in community.  Even before the creation of humanity, God was Three-in-One, Father, Son, Holy Spirit. 

So one of our biggest tasks is to learn to live in community with one another.  Thankfully the Bible has a lot to say about community.  This week we’re going to start a series called Life Together in which we discover some of the “one another” statements in the Bible. 

Now, many of you know that I spend a lot of prayer time running.  Or a lot of my running time in prayer.  Some of you see me running – there are some of you I see more often than others.  You might not know that I love to run an easy run on Sunday morning; I’ll put the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir on my iPod and get my praise on while I’m running; that always puts me in the mood for worship! 

About a year ago, some friends introduced me to a running website called dailymile.com.  I didn’t really want to join – I wasn’t training for anything in particular; I was just running and would run 5K races whenever I felt like it, but on a whim, I tried out the site… I started making friends with other runners and getting to meet up with some of them for group runs.  On one of the runs, my friend Greg decided I needed a nickname, so he dubbed me, “Rev. Run” – so I changed my profile name.  What I expected to get when I went to that website was to have somewhere to log my miles, but I found something else.  I found encouragement.  I honestly don’t get all that much encouragement from non-runners who can’t believe that I would run double-digit mileage or who yell out “Run, Forrest, Run” (honestly, do you think you’re the first one to yell that to a runner?).  But it sure is encouraging to hear from other runners and to talk about things like pace and marathon strategy and fueling and stories that only other runners would appreciate.  It’s because of this affirmation that I’ve decided I can (and should) run another marathon.

Here’s the tough part; I’ve often felt more affirmation and encouragement from my online friends at dailymile.com than I generally receive from the church.  Part of the problem is that sometimes we church people seem a little unclear about our roles and our purpose. 

The Apostle Paul reminded the church in Thessalonica about their salvation through Jesus Christ, who died for us so that we may live together with him. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing. (1 Thessalonians 5:10-11).  Though the church was suffering through persecution and temptation, Paul recognized that they were encouraging one another.  The kind of encouragement that the Thessalonian church was doing was the kind that builds each other up. 

You might be surprised at the number of church people who believe their God-given role is “the Complainer.” No matter what’s going on, no matter how great things are, you can find something to complain about.  And, yes, the Complainer has been around for a long time.  In Numbers 11, the Israelites have left Sinai, and the people began to complain. Now the people complained about their hardships in the hearing of the LORD, and when he heard them, his anger was aroused. Then fire from the LORD burned among them and consumed some of the outskirts of the camp. (Numbers 11:1)  Is there any question as to how God feels about complaining?

I’ve said it before, and no doubt I’ll say it again: God despises gossip.  Telling “concerned information” is not godly.  It is not holy.  It is poison, and it’s one of the ugliest sins in a church, especially in a small town.  We give God a black eye and a bad name when we gossip and when we allow gossip.  My mom always told me if I didn’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.  That goes doubly for you who are tempted to gossip.  Use these litmus tests if you are tempted to tell something about someone else: 1. Have you verified the information with the person in the story?  In other words, do you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it’s true?  2. Do you have permission to tell the information?  If both of these criteria aren’t met, don’t tell.  If someone says to you, “I probably shouldn’t tell you…” just cut them off by agreeing, “No, you probably shouldn’t.” Gossip doesn’t have to be untrue, but it’s just as wrong and hurtful, even when the information is true. And don’t come in couching your gossip as a prayer request. If it’s gossip, it doesn’t belong in the mouths of Christians at all.

We know complaining and gossip aren’t encouraging; what does it look like to build someone up?  The first thing that has to happen to build someone up is you have to notice them.  That might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s the first step to encouraging someone.  Two weeks ago I was at my high school reunion, and I met lots of new people.  Not just spouses, but people I can’t remember ever meeting before. Some of you graduated in classes of 50 people or less, so it might seem strange to not know someone, but there were 500 in my class.  Unfortunately that meant that there were people you just didn’t know – and people you never noticed.  There were some people who were easily noticed – and some who went out of their way to be noticed.  But there are others who aren’t so easily noticed.  I know that some people don’t want to be noticed; they want to come in and check us out, but here’s the thing: I’d rather us err on the side of being too friendly than not friendly at all.

This doesn’t just mean we should notice newcomers to our services; we need to notice one another.  It can be hard to get an accurate picture of exactly who is here and who isn’t here from week to week – that’s why we’re asking you to sign the attendance pads.  Honestly, it can help you out of the uncomfortable position of not knowing someone’s name and having to ask it, even though you’ve been sitting in the same row for years.  Just look in the attendance pad as it is passed back down the row.  Or you can go all “Mission Impossible” and sneak back in and look where someone else was sitting…  

This brings me to an important point.  The most beautiful word in any language is the sound of your own name.  So learn people’s names!  This is vitally important to encouragement; it’s an important early step to affirming and caring for someone.  I’m really not very good with names, so I’ve had to work really hard to learn names. It helps to use the names multiple times in the conversation and to even make an association that will help you remember.

Learn facts about people; it’s really affirming when people ask relevant questions –when Sherry Moyer asks about my mom’s health, that’s a reminder that she cares.  Listen to people.  Actually pay attention to them.  Follow up when they’ve shared something with you.  If they’ve shared a prayer request, ask them about it.

In the past month, I’ve had a couple people tell me that they just didn’t feel like they had any connection to the church, and that they weren’t being encouraged at all – they felt like they were out on their own.  I’ll remind you that connection goes two ways – if you don’t take advantage of any of the opportunities that we have and just expect everyone to know you and encourage you, it doesn’t usually work that way.  As it is, however, most of us can use a little work on encouraging one another.  One thing I’d like to highlight is that encouragement is not just something we do on Sunday morning.  It’s hard to make it through all the people we’d love to greet and reconnect with if we only see each other on Sunday mornings!  I’ve figured out that there are some people only want to have church on Sunday.  Don’t encroach on my week.  The problem is that when Sunday does come around, many of you haven’t seen each other for a week, and we only have so much time during the greeting time and there’s no way to catch up with your friends, let alone new people.  What would happen if we all committed to calling someone this week to check up on them?  Maybe writing an encouraging note to someone? You might never know how your words affect someone, how one simple encouraging statement might be exactly what someone needs.

Sometimes we have a misconception about what encouragement actually is.  Many of us grew up with our parents telling us that we could be anything we want to be.  When I was in 7th grade I tried out for the basketball team (along with pretty much every other boy in the class).  I thought I might just be the next NBA star – I had a wicked hook shot that always worked against my brother in the driveway.  Guess what: On the last day of tryouts, I got cut.  It was pretty devastating to me, but honestly I didn’t need someone encouraging me by saying, “The coach doesn’t know what he’s doing.  You should be on that team.” Real encouragement might have been directing me toward another activity where my skills and talents could shine.  Or showing me some basketball skills I could work on through the year to maybe make the 8th grade team.
    
In his letter to Titus (Titus 1:9), Paul writes: Encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.  This is important, because often people, wanting to be encouraging, end up saying things that aren’t true (or helpful).  It drives me nuts when I hear someone being “encouraged” that the reason they’re still sick or poor is because they aren’t praying enough. Or when someone important dies and some of your “well-meaning” friends say things like “God needed her more than we did” or “I guess God needed another angel” or other clich├ęs.

If you want to know how to encourage someone with sound doctrine, you’ve got to know sound doctrine.  Try encouraging people with scripture.  Here are some affirmations that Pastor Perry Noble posted to his blog:

1.      I believe there is more God given potential in you than you realize. Ephesians 2:10: We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

2.      I believe God has a plan for your life… one that He is revealing in steps because if He revealed it all at once our minds would explode. I Corinthians 2:9 No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.

3.      I believe that you can do exactly what God has equipped and empowered you to do. Philippians 4:13 I can do everything through him who gives me strength.

4.      I believe God uses ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary things. Acts 4:13 When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and took note that these men had been with Jesus.

The goal of encouraging can be seen in Hebrews 10:24-25: Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.  Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another- and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

These two verses are awesome.  It starts out “Let us consider how” – meaning there isn’t just one way to encourage.  Some of you are really creative – figure out unique and special ways to encourage someone. 

Then we move on to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds.” If your encouragement just serves to stroke someone’s ego, it’s worthless.  The goal is to spur each other on to love and good deeds.  When Jesus says that the greatest commandment is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”(Matthew 22:37, 39) – the author of the letter to the Hebrews sums it up as “love and good deeds.”  So our goal isn’t just to love God and love neighbor; it’s also to help others love God and love neighbor.

To continue in Hebrews 10, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing” is directly contrasted to “let us encourage one another.” You can’t encourage one another if you’re not meeting together. Plain and simple.  The people who have been the most encouraging to me are the ones who have intentionally been in the closest proximity to me.  In New Knoxville, I met with four other pastors every week for encouragement and accountability. It was really encouraging to meet with them… but without meeting together like we did, we never would have given each other permission to speak truth into our lives.  And let me say something about cultural context of this verse: we often think of it as “keep coming to church” but in the early church, they were meeting together every day, both in the Temple courts and in each other’s homes.  That’s why the author of the letter to the Hebrews can say Encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sins’s deceitfulness.  (Hebrews 3:13)

The last thing I want to leave you with is this: encouragement is not always easy.  There are people who just don’t take encouragement well.  When I started working with a youth group in Chicago, there was one kid who was just hard.  We were playing basketball, and he was pretty good, and I told him so.  His response: “So?” So I made it my goal to say something nice to him every week.  I never got a positive response.  But encouraging one another isn’t just our path to making someone act the way we want them to.  We encourage one another because God tells us to.  That’s all we need to know.  God tells us… our job is obedience.

Don’t wait to encourage someone.  None of us is promised tomorrow; we’ve only got today.  Some of you don’t like assignments, but doing Life Together requires more commitment than just listening to a message on Sunday, so you have an assignment.  Your assignment is to encourage someone different every day this week.  You can be creative in how you do so; you can use social media, letters, the phone, skywriters, whatever.  I’ll ask you to pray over this assignment; you might find that God leads you to specific people who need His touch through you.