“LIVING IN FULL JOY”
Bill Nelson was the hero of our high school. He was one of those people who had it all and did it all. In my freshman year of high school he was a senior. He was the quarterback of the football team. He was a straight A student. He was involved in student government. He was on the school debate team. And he sang in our church's youth choir. He did it all. He had it all.
On one Sunday afternoon in the summer between my eighth grade year and my freshman year, my mother said to me, "Bill Nelson is coming by the house to talk to you." I said, "The Bill Nelson?"
"Talk?" (I was the master of long sentences in those day.)
"Well what about?"
"He will tell you when he gets here."
I felt set up. Bill arrived, and we had a nice chat with each other. At the end of the conversation he said, "Why don't you come with me to youth choir practice and stay for youth group after that?" I sang in the youth choir of my home church for four years. Never once did they kick me out. I was active in the youth group. In my junior year of high school our choir was invited to come to Redlands for the Annual Conference session. Bishop Kennedy preached that evening and gave a call for anyone who wanted to commit himself or herself to full-time Christian service to come forward. I went forward that night.
I look back on that event, and a couple of other events and people, and the grace of God, for the reason I am with you today. I thank Bill Nelson for that invitation. But I still felt set up as I waited for him on that Sunday afternoon.
Now I hear the same kind of thing from Jeremiah. It sounds to me like Jeremiah is saying, "I was set up." He says, "God told me that I was called when I was in the womb. What kind of a chance did I have? I had no choice in the matter. I had to go. Even when I talked to God as a youth, I told him I can't speak. I don't have all those beautiful words." And God said, 'That's okay. I will be with you. Don't be afraid.'" Jeremiah is saying to those who will listen, "It's not all my fault I am here."
My guess is the reason that Jeremiah is saying these things is someone is unhappy with him. He's probably given one of his strong, prophetic sermons, and somebody in the congregation came up after the sermon, and said, "Preacher, how come you say those things to us?" Jeremiah says, "It's not my fault. God called me when I was back in the womb. I didn't have anything to do with this. If you want to blame somebody, you blameGod."
So I want to tell you, when you get unhappy with me, it's not my fault, it was Bill Nelson's fault. If you don't like what I say, you blame him.
What I want you to know this morning, more than anything about Bill Nelson, is to know this: every one of us is called. Every person has a call from God. God calls us to God's self to be in relationship with God. God calls us to receive the love that God is always pouring out to every one of us. It doesn't mean that just the clergy are called. Everyone is called. Everyone is called by God to be in relationship with God. But everyone is also called by God to be in ministry as well, for God calls us to use the grace which we have received, and to allow it flow out of our lives into the lives of others. We are called to God, and we are also called to ministry. Jesus said, "This is the greatest commandment, that you love God and you love neighbor." The love that Jesus is talking about at that point is the love that enables the other person to grow and to become all that they were meant to be in God's design. As we reach out with a love which enables a person's wholeness, their health, and their vitality, we are doing our calling from God. We are all called by God.
I have been talking over the last couple of weeks about five commitments. You probably can say them to me as well as I can say them to you. Those five are:
1. We will participate in worship each week unless we are sick or out oftown.
2. We will grow in the faith in addition to worship. In other words, through some class or small group experience.
3. We will give of our time in Christian service.
4. We will give of our finances in proportion to our income with a tithe as a minimum goal.
5. We will joyfully welcome others on the journey of faith with us.
Today I want to talk about #3, we will give of our time in service to others. Why is serving others a part of our commitment? Why is it important that this be a part of our growth with God? All five of those commitments help us as a congregation to grow, but all five of those commitments help each of us individually to grow in our relationship with God. Why is serving someone else important for our individual growth? Because it's a part of our calling from God. We are called to be apprentices of Jesus, to follow the model that Jesus has given us. When you read through the gospels, you see the model of Jesus is one of teaching, preaching, healing, helping and feeding. All of that is a reaching out to others and serving them. That too is our calling.
In the passage from the fourth chapter of Luke's gospel, early on in the life of Jesus, Jesus has already been preaching and in worship with the people (commitment #1). He's already been teaching the people in the synagogues (commitment #2). Now then Jesus serves the people (commitment #3). The model for this comes right out of the life of Jesus.
We are told Jesus is in Capernaum. He starts out teaching in Nazareth, and he gets helped out of town rather hurriedly after that teaching session. He goes to Capernaum and teaches in the synagogue there. We are told that there were evil spirits in some of the people. He has to drive out the evil spirits. At the end of the Sabbath, the people of the community bring their ill for Jesus to heal. The scripture says, "He healed them all." He did not withhold. He didn't say, "I didn't see you in worship this morning." He didn't say, "You haven't put any money in the plate." "He reached out and healed them all." That is the serving ministry of Jesus. It is the ministry to which you and I are called based on his model. To serve others is a part of our calling, and we never do it alone.
Jeremiah, in his complaining, heard God say, "Don't be afraid. I will be with you." The Spirit of God is always with us. At the end of Matthew's gospel, when the risen Christ appears in Galilee and says to the eleven, "I want you to go out into the whole world," his final word is, "and I will be with you always."
The Spirit of God goes with us when we go in service to others. It's not just the Spirit of God that helps, we help each other as well. Last Thursday night some of us went up to the Claremont School of Theology as a part of Joy Price's internship program. Dr. Phil Amerson, whom you heard here last year, is the new president of Claremont. He told us about an experience out of his own ministry when he was the pastor of Broadway Church in Indianapolis. Margaret Hadley was his lay leader. He said after one Sunday morning when he had preached and he had been a little pointed in the sermon, he heard in the hall outside of his office Margaret and another parishioner talking. This other parishioner said, "Oh that Phil is just like the last preacher we had." Phil said that he could tell by the way she said it it was not a compliment. Margaret said, "No, Phil isn't. Phil is a Jeremiah. Phil will weep with you."
Phil said he felt pretty good about that. He thought, "Wow, Margaret really likes me." He said he turned around and there was Margaret in his office. She was in his face, and her finger was wagging at him. She said, "Don't you ever do that again." He said, "Margaret, what?" She said, "Don't you ever do something difficult without having some of us praying for you." Friends, we don't go into Christian service all by ourselves. We go with the Spirit of God, but we go with each other, and the prayers of each other. We are called to serve, but we don't do it alone.
When we serve we grow in our own spiritual lives as well. We put our faith into action. We can see by our hands, our action, our words, and our deeds what faith means. We are reminded and stretched by our very actions, by seeing ourselves at work with those around us. We witness to the faith to others as well. Remember that fifth commitment to reach out joyfully and invite others on the journey of faith? Often times if you reach out to somebody who is not in the church, or not exposed to the Christian faith, and you say, "Come to worship with me," they are going to be very hesitant. But if you say, "Come and work with me as I mentor," or "Come and work with me as I help at the homeless shelter," they can do that out of their humanitarian concern for someone else. They can take the first step of service, then perhaps later take the step of faith in Christ. We can strengthen our own spiritual life, and the spiritual life of others, as weserve.
To serve also means that we can engage in theological reflection. We can look at the calling upon our life and say, what does this calling say about the character of God, the nature of God? Why is it I need to be doing this? What is there in God that pushes me in this direction? What is it that God sees in me that calls me to use my gifts and do this thing? Friends, all of that is good, because it begins to integrate the head, the heart, and the hand. If the head is going in one direction, and the heart in another, and the hands aren't doing anything, we aren't integratedpeople.
To serve others also forces us to be dependent on God. I cannot tell you how many times I have found myself doing something and saying, "Oh Lord, you had better help out. I don't think I have the skill to do this. I don't think I have the strength to do this." You realize that in all of your life you are dependent on God. You can't do it alone. You are forced back into realizing there is something bigger than you, even in reaching out to one other person.
There are wonderful models of people who give their whole lives in service to others. Albert Schweitzer comes to mind. Simone Weil comes to mind, as does Mother Teresa. Many cannot give full time service. We have families, jobs, and other responsibilities. But if there are 3600 members of this congregation, think if each of us just gave an hour a week, 3600 hours of serving other people just out of this congregation. Think of that. Think of the power of that witness in this community. Think of the number of hours given in mentoring, as Donna mentioned earlier. What a wonderful experience, not only for the receiver, but also for the giver. Think of all that we can do through the food ministry of this congregation. Think of all that we can do through Habitat, or through Prison Fellowship, or through Metro, or through any of the other ways that we combine with other congregations to affect our community. Think of the impact we can have on young people's lives in the Church through Sunday School, and the youth group. Think of the impact you can have if you become a part of our newly developed lay calling team for hospital visits. Or if you make afghans, or write notes, or become a BeFriender. There are so many ways to share your gifts, whatever they are. Think about volunteering in your local public school: elementary, high school, college. It doesn't matter. Friends, there are college students who need to be read to as much as first graders, especially those for whom English is a second language. The way people grow the fastest in their knowledge of a language is to see and hear the words together. You read to a college student, you reinforce their learning patterns, and you show the love of God. There are so many ways we can be involved in Christian service. It is Christian because it is the spirit of Christ that motivates us to do it.
Kenneth Mitchell is a pastor in Jacksonville, Florida. Early on in his life as a young adult he worked on the loading docks of several trucking companies in Jacksonville. He said it was hot, grueling work. What made it endurable were the people with whom he worked. One of those people was Rufus Kidd. Rufus came one day, and said, "I've received my Associates Degree in Transportation. I'm going to look for a full-time job now." That very day posted on the bulletin board was a notice that the company was finally opening up to minorities. Mitchell encouraged Rufus to go and apply. Rufus was an African-American. He went and applied for a job. Several weeks later Mitchell saw him again, and said, "Rufus, did youapply?"
"Yes I did."
"Well what happened?"
"Well I had an interview and they offered me a job. They offered me a job in sales. They offered me a car. They offered me a steady salary and commission on top of that. I could travel all over the southeast. But Ken, I turned them down." Mitchell said he had a big smile on his face. "I turned them down because if I did all that traveling, I couldn't teach the singles class at my church. I just told them, I will wait for a job where I can stay at home and continue my ministry, then I will work full time for you."
You see, Rufus Kidd had it right. When we commit ourselves to Christian service we grow in our experience of God, and we live in the fullness ofjoy.
Thanks be to God. Amen.