A New Thing
Matthew 25: 31-46
New Year’s day, 1/1/17
I saw a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon that seemed very apropos for New Year's: Cartoon
Will this year be different? I saw a meme that said "The mark of an effective church is not how many people come but how many live differently as a result of having been there." Does our church, or more importantly, does our faith move us to live differently?
Moving to a slightly different place with this: There are many ways to pray and many people pray in different ways. But one thing I’ve been thinking about is that there is a difference between prayers that focus solely on ourselves and our needs and wants and prayers that are really about what God calls us to care about. Both are important, so I’m not telling you that you should only pray for other people, or that you should only pray prayers of gratitude. Again, all our thoughts, feelings, concerns are important to share with God. But as we grow in our faith, I think more of our prayers become for and about others. And as we continue to grow in our faith, our prayers expand to being more about those we don’t even know. I want to give one specific example. There is a subtle difference between loving God for our own happiness and loving God because we simply and truly love God. “God help me to find what it is you are calling me to do,” is really a question about me. It is a question that invokes God, but it is still about me. “God, how can I serve you? Where would it be most helpful to you for me to be and what would serve you and your people and your world the most for me to do in that place?” is slightly but profoundly different. That difference, between turning to God to make our lives whole, and turning to God so that we might serve God and help God make the world whole, that is the difference between asking God to be with us and to follow us in our journeys, and instead choosing to follow God and be with God in the journey God wants for us to have. I know this is again, a very subtle difference. But the difference is important.
The genre of music called “Praise music” which is Christian Rock and usually played at more contemporary services, especially ones devoted to younger folk: youth and younger adults, is a relatively (in the big scheme of things) new kind of music. As a result, it is often theologically shallow. It doesn’t mean I don’t love it. I do love it. But most praise music is asking God to help us, love us, be with us, guide us for our sakes. Music matures just as theology matures as we age. So as the young people who began the praise music genre are maturing and getting older, the words they put in their songs are beginning to have more depth and maturity as well. It doesn’t mean the old words aren’t still important. But my focus for this coming year is going to be on how we can truly serve GOD, beyond our own needs, beyond what we hope we will ‘get” from God in return. Another way to talk about this is to identify two arms of the cross. There is the arm that goes up and down: that is between you and God. The arm that goes horizontally is about loving each other. But that arm takes longer to find, to develop: that is a part of our faith, again, that takes time and depth to mature into. Back to praise music, there is a wonderful praise song called – “Let Them See You in Me”. The words are, “Let them see You in me, let them hear You when I speak, Let them feel You when I sing, Let them see You, let them see You in me.” I love it because it is my wish, it is my goal, always, to have others see, experience, come to God because of me, who I am, what I do, how I act in the world. But it is still a song about the person singing it. Why not just “let them see You, God – alive and at work in the world?” “Let me do your will in this place so that it is a better place”? No, it remains a song about the person singing it. It is still the person standing on the street corner praying so that all may see them praying, the one Jesus told to go pray in private instead. It is not the subtle, behind the scenes work of God. The people who do the most amazing work of God are not usually people whose names we know, but instead they are those whose names we don’t know, those who do their work quietly. They do their work without recognition, not because they are being humble, NOT because that is what the Bible tells us to do, but because they just simply are no longer focused on themselves and instead are completely, wholly and fully focused on God. They aren’t thinking about recognition or popularity or being known because they are too busy simply doing the work of God.
Christian Piatt in an article called, “Five ways I’m the worst at following Jesus” put it like this (with slight editing because of language): “My biggest concern at the moment is that though a lot of us claim to “be Christians,” or even to follow Jesus, a lot of us don’t spend much intentional time trying to figure out what that means and what it looks like in daily life. We try not to be too (horrible) to other people, try not to kill, steal, adulterate (is that even a word?) or worship graven images. We try to love, and to accept love — though we still hurt each other. A lot. The world is messed up and so far from realizing the fully kingdom-inspired image of wholeness and reconciliation to which God invites us. And at least in my theological world, that’s on us, not God. I believe, with all of my being, that the audacious vision of God’s kingdom, here and now, isn’t something we sit around and pray for God to make real for us. Like Jesus said, we can (and should) collectively do greater things than even he did. When people experienced healing in his presence, he never said, “Hey, I did that!” Rather, he always told them that it was their own faith that made them well. That’s pretty amazing to consider. And inspiring. And terrifying. So here I am, not so much trying to be Jesus, but trying to at least follow his life, teaching, and example better. And in taking my own personal inventory, I can see that I… (am less than fantastic at it). That doesn’t mean I’m giving up, but it’s clear I have plenty of work to do.” (1)
What can you do this year to make this year different? Some of the things that occur to me include: Random acts of expressing God’s love in the world. Acting out God’s love because that is what God calls us to do. Doing this not to get credit, or to be seen even as an amazing person of faith, or even to lead others to God by showing yourself as an example. But doing love, expressing love, acting out love because you love God and want to do the best for God and for God’s people.
I want to end by sharing with you a story told by a woman on FB. She wrote:
Our 14-year-old dog Abbey died last month. The day after she passed away my 4-year-old daughter Meredith was crying and talking about how much she missed Abbey. She asked if we could write a letter to God so that when Abbey got to heaven, God would recognize her. I told her that I thought we could so, and she dictated these words:
Will you please take care of my dog? She died yesterday and is with you in heaven. I miss her very much. I am happy that you let me have her as my dog even though she got sick. I hope you will play with her. She likes to swim and play with balls. I am sending a picture of her so when you see her you will know that she is my dog. I really miss her.
We put the letter in an envelope with a picture of Abbey and Meredith and addressed it to God/Heaven. We put our return address on it. Then Meredith pasted several stamps on the front of the envelope because she said it would take lots of stamps to get the letter all the way to heaven. That afternoon she dropped it into the letter box at the post office. A few days later, she asked if God had gotten the letter yet. I told her that I thought He had.
Yesterday, there was a package wrapped in gold paper on our front porch addressed, 'To Meredith' in an unfamiliar hand. Meredith opened it. Inside was a book by Mr. Rogers called, 'When a Pet Dies.' Taped to the inside front cover was the letter we had written to God in its opened envelope. On the opposite page was the picture of Abbey & Meredith and this note:
Abbey arrived safely in heaven. Having the picture was a big help and I recognized her right away.
Abbey isn't sick anymore. Her spirit is here with me just like it stays in your heart. Abbey loved being your dog. Since we don't need our bodies in heaven, I don't have any pockets to keep your picture in so I am sending it back to you in this little book for you to keep and have something to remember Abbey by.
Thank you for the beautiful letter and thank your mother for helping you write it and sending it to me. What a wonderful mother you have. I picked her especially for you. I send my blessings every day and remember that I love you very much. By the way, I'm easy to find. I am wherever there is love.
Love, God” (2)
The person who chose to respond to the little girl’s letter with that kind act of caring for this four year old girl was acting as God’s hands in the world at that moment. Their name remains unknown, their actions remain anonymous. But what incredible good they did for that girl, her family, and all of us who have heard this story.
What is in front of you to be done? Can you do it simply because you love God? If you do, then 2017 will be a different year. It will be a ‘new thing” that God has created because God will have created that new thing IN YOU. And that is an awesome and wondrous thing to consider. Amen.
2. This was posted on Facebook which means it is hard to put a correct footnote in here since if you aren't on Facebook you won't be able to see it. But Snopes actually quotes this too, as an accurate story. So here is the Snopes version: http://www.snopes.com/glurge/abbey.asp