Thursday, August 1, 2013

Do This and Please ME (God)

DURING A SERMON one Sunday a few years ago, I opened my Bible to the middle, hoping to find Psalms.  I knew from hours of “Sword Drill” practiced on Sunday evenings while growing up in a Southern Baptist Church that it would be in the middle, but when the pages fell open I had turned to Isaiah, chapter 58.  I was close, but before I could flip the pages my eyes fell on these words in verse eight . . .

…the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.

     God has my back?  Really?  MY rear guard!  What a thought, the glory of the Lord shall be my rear guard.  But how?  What was God saying through Isaiah?  What was God saying to me?
     I’m sure I had read that chapter before.  After all, I had won a pin for reading the Bible through years earlier—but why didn’t this phrase sound familiar, why didn’t this promise register with me? 
     I read on.  The chapter recounts God calling the people to account for false fasting.  In this context, “fasting” referred to a type of offering the people thought (or pretended) to be offering through the piety of their words.  God scolded them in verses 1-5 for “saying one thing but doing another.”  For instance, in verses 3-4 He says . . .

In fact, in the day of your fast you find pleasure, and exploit all your laborers.  Indeed you fast for strife and debate, and to strike with the fist of wickedness.

     But then God lets them know what kind of fast/offering He does expect.  Lives of service to others, but not just “any others” – lives of service to what Jesus would later call “the least of these” – those who are oppressed, hungry, naked, forgotten.
     And He doesn’t stop there, He promises to honor that kind of life of service. In this paraphrase of these promises, listen for the joy of the Lord in those who serve the most vulnerable in society . . .

And when I AM pleased, MY smile of pleasure will warm your face. 
And when I AM pleased, MY joy will heal the broken places in your soul. 
And when I AM pleased, I AM will have your back in any alley, valley or cave. 
And when I AM pleased, I AM will answer your calls for help
     you will know that “I AM is near.”

     Like many, we learned about serving others from the lives of our parents.  We watched them “do unto others” with no expectation of return.  We watched them sacrifice time and money for the poor.  We watched them stand up for the oppressed during the civil rights movement in the turbulent 50’s and 60’s—not an easy thing to do in Central Florida for a white man and his wife, especially a prominent businessman and community and church leader.  But, they did it in spite of threats to our safety, the business, and their reputation. 
     So why did Isaiah 58 impact me so?  I think it “hit me” that this type of service wasn’t something that Christians did when they got around to it, or that we did on Sunday mornings when the missionary told a story of need and we made a love offering contribution.  No, what “hit me” was that serving others, especially “the least of these” was not “one of” the expectations God has for our lives, it is “the main thing” He wants His kingdom here on earth (me, you, us) to do.

Let's Just Imagine

LET'S JUST IMAGINE FOR A MOMENT what might happen in our family, community, nation, and world if all believers helped usher in the Kingdom of God on earth!
     When more people embrace their role in the Kingdom of God here on earth, their minds, eyes, ears, hands, feet and voice will be used to reflect their faith.
     They will use their eyes to look for needs that are unmet, and to watch over those in positions of authority. 

     They will use their ears to listen for the cries of those in pain, and to hear and address the comments that demean those in need. 

     They will use their mind to think of ways to get involved, and to question for themselves what God would have them do for Him.
     They will use their hands to do what is needed, remembering that it is through their hands that Jesus touches the “least of these.” 

     They will use their feet to go where needed – overseas, across the street or into the voting booth – to bring the Kingdom of God to those in need.

     They will use their voice to speak up and out for those without voice, and to hold those with power accountable to remember “the least of these” when making decisions. 

Wouldn’t it be lovely to live in a nation like that!?!

Why Will the Poor Always Be With Us?

THIS PHRASE, SAID BY JESUS and recorded in Matthew 26:11, John 12:8 and Mark 14:7, is too often used to deflect our involvement in serving the poor.  Even though research doesn’t justify this interpretation, just the other day I heard a believer say, “Jesus said there will always be poor so we can’t do anything about it.

     Why would Jesus say this?  Did He want to condemn the poor to eternal poverty?  NO! Even a casual reading of the Bible reveals how close God holds the poor to His heart.  He cares for them.  He commands us to care for them.  He rewards those who do care for them, and His justice will prevail for those who cause the poverty and who ignore those in need.

     Maybe a better way to ask Jesus’ question is, “Maybe the poor are here to serve us, the non-poor?” Let’s explore that idea. What can the poor do for us?

Maybe the poor are always with us to remind us of the blessing of where, when and to whom we were born.  While not everyone was born into a situation of non-poverty, millions in America have been born into crushing poverty with no hope for a change in their life’s arc without some form of help.  And while it is true that most Americans go to bed overfed and overweight, there are still millions who go to bed hungry.  The best way to avoid poverty in America is to be born well.

Maybe the poor are always with us to give us the opportunity to serve them in their need.  Jesus said He came to serve and He set the example for His followers to serve others; and in so doing we become like Him.  The poor need help, and we are God’s plan to deliver that help. While I believe that God can command it and the poor will be rich, I also know that God has provided resources, mostly through the human story, to satisfy the needs of all who live, wherever they live.

Maybe the poor are always with us because serving others, especially the “least of these” always blesses the giver.  There is a difference between a “gift” and a “bribe.”  A gift is something given, or done for another, without ANY expectation of return.  A bribe is something given to influence the conduct of another.  If we expect recognition or reward for giving a gift it ceases to be a gift – it becomes a bribe.  So it is with serving others.  If we seek thanks, recognition or reward for helping others we are not serving as Jesus commands; and the poor usually cannot return the favor other than to say “thank you.”  But serving others in a genuine giving attitude does have its own reward.  It just feels good to do the right thing.  The experience of truly giving to others blesses the giver with a joy not found in other ways.  True giving, is a way to glimpse and reflect God’s own heart.

Maybe the poor are always with us so we can gain perspective on our own economic condition.  The more I feel sorry for my own economic situation, the more I need to see the poor.  For instance, I have $25 in cash in my wallet which is more money than 50% of the world’s population will see in two weeks.  If I wrote a check for $1,000 that would be more money than 2.7 billion people have for a whole year.  God’s perspective sees all people as the same, sinner and righteous, poor and rich, sick and healthy – all are created in His image and He loves them all alike.  And while the resources aren’t evenly distributed around His world, the human spirit of creativity, intellect and compassion are; and He expects us to use what He has given us to usher in the kingdom of God here on earth.

Maybe the poor are always with us to allow us to practice sharing the love of Christ. It’s easy to love those closest to us – our family & friends – but it’s another thing when it comes to loving the hard-to-love.  Maybe that’s why Jesus also said, “Love your enemies,” to challenge us to increase our ability and capacity for loving, and for seeing people the way He sees them?  Jesus also reminded us in His story about the sheep and goats that it is frighteningly easy to miss seeing those in need.  An old sports adage says, “Practice makes perfect,” but it really doesn’t.  “Perfect practice makes perfect.”  So maybe we are to lean on Jesus’ perfection as we practice sharing His love outside our comfort zone.  After all, Jesus left His comfort zone to show us God’s love and to set an example for His followers as His workers ushering in His kingdom.

     Even though the poor may always be with us, we don’t have to like it.  We aren’t asked to accept the status quo of poverty – that’s not what Jesus meant.  We are asked to do something about it – that’s also what He said.

     A favorite poem of mine by Robert Frost, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," closes with words that remind me of what Jesus meant when He talked about the poor:

     But I have promises to keep,
          And miles to go before I sleep,
                    And miles to go before I sleep.