On The Way…To Where?

The Advent Worship at Crafton Heights in 2011 will consider the various people who wind up gazing in the manger.  On the first Sunday of Advent, we considered the Magi, who had to leave home a long time before they ever thought about Bethlehem.  

Our texts for the day included Isaiah 60:1-7 and, of course, Matthew 2:1-12.  

I would imagine that there are very few in the room this morning who are unfamiliar with the Gospel reading.  The story of the wise men, the Magi from the East, who came to worship the Christ child is one of the most enduring images of our holiday celebration.  This is one of those comfortable stories that we expect to hear in this room at least once a year…although those of you who pay attention to the church calendar might be surprised to hear it in November, on the first Sunday of Advent.  We are more accustomed to seeing the three kings in January, as we celebrate Epiphany.

Yet as I mentioned to the children, the Wise Men belong to Advent, too, because they had to plan.  They were on a trip that lasted a long time.  We don’t know how long they were on the road, or when they got home.  But of all the people who crowd our nativity scenes, the Magi are definitely the people who had the longest trip (with the possible exception of the angels, but I’m not going to argue about that with you!).

Think about this: what do the wise men have in common with Patrick Daniel Tillman, Jr., Jimmy Swaggart, and Steven Georgiou?  Do you know these men?

Pat Tillman played football – and played it very well – for the Arizona Cardinals.  Following the terrorist attacks on the USA in 2001, he walked away from a $3.6 million contract with the NFL and enlisted in the Army. He served several tours, including both Iraq and Afghanistan, and was killed in action in April 2004.

Jimmy Swaggart was one of the most successful evangelists of the 20th century.  By the mid-1980’s, his television program was carried on more than 250 stations; he had founded the Jimmy Swaggart Bible College, and his empire included a printing plant, a recording and television studio, and a $2.5 million collection of private planes and classic automobiles.  Yet his world collapsed in 1988 when he was photographed at the Travel Inn in New Orleans with a prostitute.

Steven Georgiou was a coffee house singer in Britain who had plenty of talent, but felt uncomfortable with his name.  He said, “I couldn’t imagine anyone going to the record store and asking for ‘that Steven Demetre Georgiou album’.”  With that, he changed his name to Cat Stevens, and became one of the most popular musical acts of the 1970’s.  But in 1977 he converted to Islam, and in 1979 he stopped performing and auctioned off all of his guitars for charity. He entered into an arranged marriage and moved to London, where he devoted his time and energy to his family as well as to studying religion and practicing philanthropy.

Pat Tillman, Jimmy Swaggart, and Cat Stevens.  You have probably never heard those three names in the same sentence before, but their lives bear witness to a common theme: they all chose to walk away from something at which they were successful and to which they gave great worth so that they could get closer to something – positive or negative – that they desired more.  It might have been duty, or sex, or faith that called them – but each of these men felt the strong call of something powerful enough to change the fabric of their lives.

Now, think again about the story of the wise men from Matthew 2.  Don’t they have a lot in common with these other three men?  Look at what they left behind in order to journey to Bethlehem and worship the newborn Christ.

The fastest way to the top of Mt. Sinai?

First, they left their comfort behind.  I want to tell you that when I was in the Middle East last year, I had the opportunity to ride a camel all the way up Mt. Sinai.  And I’m here to say that while riding a camel up Mt. Sinai is probably better than walking up Mt. Sinai, I would never use “comfortable” and “camel ride” in the same sentence.  It took about two and a half hours to get up the trail.  My ideal time in a camel saddle, unfortunately, is somewhere around forty-five minutes.  It is not an easy mode of transportation.

While we don’t know where these Wise Men came from, the fact is that they came from somewhere else in a caravan of some magnitude.  I am positive it would have been more convenient for them to stay at home.

In addition to their comfort, the Magi also left their security.  Back in the East, they were the ones who everyone knew.  They were the folks to whom people brought their problems and their hopes, their fears and their dreams.  They were known.  They were respected.  They were trusted.  But here in Palestine, they are just another group of wealthy foreign tourists.  They don’t know where they’re going, exactly.  They don’t know what they’re looking for.  But they are willing to enter into this new place because they believe that here they will find something – and someone – who will change the world.

Of course, we think about the Wise Men as leaving their wealth.  That’s one of the things that we can easily see in the story: we know that they left some costly gifts behind when they visited the Holy Family.  In addition to the gold, frankincense, and myrrh that they gave away, of course, we’ve got to figure in the cost of the trip itself – what percentage of their personal fortune did they spend in order to make this pilgrimage possible?

And let’s not forget that the Magi were willing to leave their accumulation of knowledge behind as well.  These strangers were renowned in their homeland for having accumulated a vast amount of wisdom and learning, and yet they are here because they believe that there may be something more to be learned.  They are open to the idea that they have not figured it all out yet – they were able to leave their answers at home and come and ask some new questions.

Do you see?  They were on the way – they left home believing that One who was worthy of worship could be found – and that would change everything for them.  And so they were willing to leave most of what they had accumulated in their lives in order to find that One Thing, that ultimate Presence and Power, that had eluded them.

Do you see why I think that these Magi are good Advent companions for 21st-century Pittsburghers?  We are here this morning because we confess that there is something more.  We have come from great places…but there is something greater that we hope for.

As Advent begins, we announce to our culture that there is One who is worthy of worship.  And you and I both know that the world around us is looking for something to fill the holes in our lives.  Think about what’s gone on in the past couple of days.  Friday, November 25th was called “Black Friday” because it was such a crazy time of buying and spending.  In fact, we bought more stuff on Friday than we buy on any other day of the year…and it’s ironic because we do that less than 24 hours after setting aside an entire day to give thanks for what we already have.  “Congratulations, America!  You have more than anyone in the history of the world ever has!”  “Great.  Thanks…thanks a lot.  Um, now, can I get some more?”

No matter what we have, it would appear, there is one thing missing…one thing that we can never have… “enough”.

The Wise Men ride off into the sunset in Matthew 2:12.  We don’t know anything else about them…only this telling phrase: “they departed to their own country by another road.”  I suspect that means two things: first, that instead of taking the turnpike, they went over the scenic route, and secondly, that they themselves went home differently.  The time on the road, the time searching, the time they spent together, and the encounter with the Holy Family had left them changed.  They were different men when they arrived in their own towns.  The journey, and that which they had left as well as that which they gained, had changed them.

This Advent, let me invite you to see yourself as someone who is on the way.  Let me challenge you to risk leaving some of what is for the dream of what might be.  Let me invite you to open your heart to the reality that your comfort, your security, your wealth, and your knowledge are incomplete – and that there is One who waits for you and who longs to bring you into a new sense of who you are and who you can be in this world.

In a few moments, we’ll be sharing in the sacrament of Communion.  Typically when we do this, we sit in our seats and wait for the elements to come to us.  We receive them in the midst of our own comfort and location.  But this morning, we are going to invite you to come forward to receive the Lord’s Supper.

Already today, you have left your home.  You have left your stuff behind; many of you have left family, friends, and other scheduled activities to participate in worship.  Wonderful.  In a few moments we will invite you to come forward, and when we do so, let me ask you to leave even more of your stuff behind.  Don’t bring your purse or your bulletin or your cell phone with you.  Leave that stuff in the pew, and come forward – bringing nothing – to receive the elements of communion.

Don’t do that because we are here to worship the bread or the cup – but do so because that is a physical way to demonstrate a spiritual truth: we are sustained in this life and in the next, not by the stuff we manage to accumulate or even the people who tag along with us, but by the presence of the living Christ.  As the Magi found the Christ child worthy of their worship, so we, too, confess that He alone is worthy of our worship.  Our lives may not be as noteworthy as those of the wise men, and certainly not as dramatic as the three examples we considered above, but we, no less than any of these other people, have the chance to leave behind that which does not satisfy in order to gain that which will.  In this room, at this time, through these elements, Jesus the Lord promises to be present to you.  That is something worth traveling for.  That is something worth having.  That is something worthy of worship.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

A Nice Problem To Have

Worship at Crafton Heights Church on Sunday, November 13, featured an exploration of the topic of extravagant generosity.  In doing so, we were led by readings from II Corinthians 8:1-7 and Exodus 36:2-7

Earlier this week, we began to plan the 2012 Adult Mission Trip.  As we did so, we heard the sobering news that the place we’ve gone for the last two years, McAllen, Texas, has recently been designated as “the poorest place in the USA”.[1] To those of us who have traveled there, it’s not a surprise – the official poverty rate is 33%, and only 62% of the adults graduate from high school.  It is a difficult place to visit.  But less than 200 miles up the road is the town of Corpus Christi, Texas, and the story is a little different there.  In the 78471 ZIP code, the average income tax return lists almost $800,000 in annual income – or nearly 23 times the average household income in McAllen.[2]

If you’ve seen the news, you’ll know that the folks in the “Occupy” movement are raising this issue as if it were something new.  The truth is that it is not. Although it is alarming to see it on the increase here in the USA, there has always been a disparity of wealth.  In fact, this morning’s scripture comes from a place where that was true two thousand years ago.

The situation at the middle of the first century was that the main body of Christians in Jerusalem was having a very difficult time financially.  There had been a famine, and people were struggling.  In fact, the Christians there authorized the Apostle Paul to visit churches in other parts of the world in an effort to bring some relief.  Paul appealed to the church in the town of Corinth, not far away from Athens, Greece.  Corinth was a busy town with a lot of commerce.  It sat right in the middle of one of the most important trade routes between Europe and Asia, and Paul knows that the Christians who are there can afford to help out.  They’ve done so before – in fact, he mentions the same offering at the end of 1 Corinthians.  But in our reading from 2 Corinthians today, he revisits the topic and asks them if they are sure that they are doing everything they can to help out those who are struggling.

There was a lot going on in the Corinthian church, but financial need did not seem to be a part of that picture.  Those folks were sitting pretty.  But less than 200 miles up the road things were a little tougher.  The towns of Macedonia, like Thessalonica, Philippi, and Berea, were having a hard time.  The believers there were among the poorest of the poor.  In fact, those churches were struggling so much that when Paul made his initial appeal for help, he didn’t even bother to ask the Macedonians.

But here’s the crazy thing: when the people in Macedonia heard about the troubles that the people in Jerusalem were having, they came to Paul and asked if they could help out.  They literally begged him to take their money.

I know that some of you get out of bed every week and say to yourselves, “You know what would make today great?  If Pastor Dave would give us one of those sermons where he talks a lot about obscure Greek words.  I love it when he does that.”  Well, my friends, today is your lucky day, because in order to see what is going on in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, you’re going to have to polish up your Greek.  I want to focus on four key words in this passage.

First, Paul writes that these poor Christians “begged us earnestly” to participate in this offering.  The Greek word there is parakleseos – and it means “cried out” – they pleaded…they whined and coaxed and nagged…for the chance to give some of their money away.  This was not a polite request – they were lobbying for a chance to give. Parakleseos.

Next, he writes that the aim of all of this begging was that they might have “the favor” of participating in the offering.  You might not have known the word for “begging”, but I know you have heard of the word that’s translated as “favor” here: charis.  In other parts of the New Testament, it’s translated as “gift” or “favor”.  You know the words “charisma” or “charismatic”, I think.  They refer to someone who has a particular knack, or talent, or gift.  The Macedonian Christians thought that helping the people who were struggling was more than a nice gesture – it was a gift that they might receive – the chance to be a part of this great thing was of the utmost importance to the Macedonians.

The third word I want you to consider this morning is the one that you’ve got translated as “taking part in”.  Paul writes that the Macedonians were eager to be koinonian – to be “sharing in” or to be “having fellowship” in this gift.  If you’ve heard the word kononia before, you’ll recognize that it means “fellowship”.  The point that Paul is making in choosing this particular word is that the poor Christians were feeling “left out” because they didn’t have the chance to take part in this offering.  Who did Paul think he was, they were wondering, going around offering people a chance to help out and not including them?  Why would he do that?

And the last word I’d like to highlight this morning is the one that you have translated as “relief”: “begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints.”  The word used for “relief” there is actually diakonias, and it’s more literally translated as “service”.  In fact, if you’ve ever been a Deacon at the church, you’ll know that’s the exact same word.  The Macedonians want to be able to participate in this kind of service.

Now, here is where it really gets exciting, at least to a word geek like me.  That word, diakonias, is used several other places in the New Testament, but the one I’d like to point us to is Mark 10:45, where it’s used twice.  “For the Son of Man did not come to be served (diakonethenai) but to serve (diakonesai).”  Do you see what is happening here?  The poorest Christians in Macedonia saw that they had a chance to be like Jesus – and all they had to do was chip in on the offering!  Jesus was a servant – and they wanted to serve, too.  And so they did.  And they gave.  More than they could afford, most likely.  More than Paul would have expected.  In fact, they gave not only to the poor in Jerusalem, but they helped Paul and Titus out with their traveling expenses, too.  They gave extravagantly and generously.

And now, Paul says to the Corinthians, you ought to know this.  You don’t want to miss your chance on this.  This is amazing work that is taking place.  You want to be a part of this.  You want to be like Jesus and the Macedonians.  So do what you can.  Serve. Give.

I wish that I could say that I learned this kind of generosity from reading the Bible.  But that would be a lie.  Let me tell you where I saw people begging to give in this way: it was in Malawi, Central Africa, which is regularly ranked as one of the poorest nations in the world.

After worship, this little fellow told me I should keep the eggs, but he asked for the bowl and the sawdust back so he could use them again...

Now, you know that I’ve been to Malawi a lot, and I’ve preached in a lot of Malawian worship services.  And it’s not uncommon for people in Malawi to want to share something of what they have with those who come to visit.  One of the most meaningful offerings I’ve ever witnessed was the little boy who came forward to share five eggs with Pastor Dave – eggs he’d carefully brought all the way from his home.

But once – and only once, in dozens I’ve preached in Malawi – a church paid me in cash.  It was in a very remote prayer house, miles and miles from the nearest paved road.  Near the end of the service, one of the elders came forward – barefoot, and holes in his shirt – and he gave me a handful of cash he had collected from his fellow worshippers.

I know that it seems hard for us to imagine this, but there are places in the world where people simply do not have cash.  The villages of Malawi are places like this. Everyone is a subsistence farmer.  You grow what you need, or you trade for it.  Paper money in these villages is a rarity, to be saved and used only when you go to the big city.  And here was this poor man, in a country where the per capita income is about $200/year…and he’s offering me cash.

How could I take that?  How could I accept a gift like that in a place like this village? I started to refuse, but my friend Ralph M’nensa sternly said “No!” and told me to smile and put the money in my pocket.  Later that day, he said, “Look, Dave.  You are the first American to ever visit this congregation.  Your church sent you all the way from America to Malawi.  These people don’t know how much that cost, but they know that it’s a lot, and they want to help.  Do not take away their ability to give.  Let them have a part in your visit.” And so, I did.  Later, we shared that cash with some of the elderly in the next village who were literally starving to death – but I learned what it means to be an extravagant giver while singing hymns in a grass building in one of the poorest places on earth.  The Malawians in that village were sisters and brothers to the people in Macedonia.

Here’s the funny thing: a couple of months after getting home from Malawi, I got a letter from the IRS telling me that I had to have all of my taxes audited.  They said, “We see how much you say you make, and how much you say you give away.  That can’t be true.  You’re making that up.”

And I had to explain to those nice people in the government that they just don’t understand. I am not generous.  Compared with what I’ve seen, I can’t declare myself to be any kind of a giver.  I have always, always, always had enough.  Compared to the people I’ve seen…I am not a giver.  I’m trying, but I am not there yet; not by a longshot.

Today we conclude our series on the Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, and we consider the habit of extravagant generosity.

You know what generosity means – it’s what we’ve been talking about all morning.  When we put the word “extravagant” in front of it, we are saying that it’s a generosity that is lavish.  Overflowing.  Abundant.  In fact, often when we use the word “extravagant” we often mean, “too much”.

That’s the kind of giving we see in Exodus.  Moses has been on the mountain talking with God, and God, in addition to telling Moses that he’s the leader of this nation, and that he’s got to take them into the promised land and set up a new system of government and worship, gives him lots of specifics as to what kind of lamps and gold furnishings he’s supposed to make.  Now, it’s not recorded in scripture, but I bet that Moses had to be thinking, “What the heck?  Do you not remember that for the last 40 years, I’ve been a shepherd?  Where am I going to get all this gold?  And how will I make all this furniture?”

And God says, “Relax, I’ve called Bezalel and a few others to do this.  They are amazing.”  So Moses tells the fellows what they are supposed to make, and they’ve got to be thinking, “All this stuff out of gold and precious gems?  Are you crazy, Moses?  Do you forget that we’re all escaped slaves here?  Where are we going to find that kind of bling?”

Moses calls for an offering.  And the people respond.  In fact, they respond so extravagantly that Bezalel comes to Moses and he says, “Make them stop.  These people are bringing too much!  We’ll never get any work done if the people don’t stop giving!”

Can you imagine that?  If after the sermon today, Cheri stood up and said it was time for the offering and Kate Lyden said, “Nope!  Stop!  Don’t even ask.  We’ve got way too much money as it is.  Tell ‘em that they’ll have to give somewhere else.  We can’t use that money here.”

It could happen.

Beloved, let me invite you to a lifestyle of extravagant giving.  You have the opportunity, today and every day, to stand shoulder to shoulder with a group of escaped slaves whose love for the Lord prompted them to give more than anyone even knew that they had.  You stand alongside impoverished and marginalized Christians who longed to follow Jesus with their wallets, not just their words.  You are connected to the church in Malawi, that is growing like crazy, in part because they have learned to be generous.  That’s your family I’m talking about, folks.

You’re going to get a letter in a day or so.  And in that letter, there will be a request for you to think long and hard about what you plan to give to the Lord’s work through this congregation in 2012.  You may be a part of some club that collects dues.  You live in a nation that pays for its programs by taxation.  This is neither.  This is an opportunity for you, as sure as the one that Moses and Bezalel put before the Israelites or that Paul put before the Corinthians.  It’s a chance for you to take part in the gift of service that happens here every day.

Think about what goes on here because people give: there are more kids on youth retreat this morning than we’ve had in years.  What about the ministry of prayer that has changed people’s lives?  Or the food pantry that sustains so many families?  There are ministries of discipleship and teaching, of music and finance, of nurture and compassion…all because people have responded to God’s call to be generous with their time, and their skill, and yes, their money.

I am appalled by the tremendous gap between this world’s “haves” and “have-nots”.  I will be honest and say that I do not understand all the things that have contributed to that reality, and I do not understand the “Occupy” movement.  But I’m not waving signs.  And I’m not camping out.  And I’m not giving up.  The protesters in recent weeks use that word, “occupy”, to mean, I suppose, “to take possession or control of”.  To take.  I’m not interested in “occupying” anything.  But I am delighted to “inhabit” this space, on this street, in this community.  “Inhabit” – “to live in or among.”  To have fellowship in. Koinonia.

Paul wrote to the church in Corinth and said, “Look friends, don’t be left behind.  You want to get in on this.”  It is my deep privilege and honor to invite you to inhabit this fellowship of diakonias, this service of Christ.  I am humbled to stand among you, and hope that you will join me in giving with joy.  In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

In The Zone

In worship at Crafton Heights Church on 11/6, we continued our seasonal emphasis on the “Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations”.  This week’s topic: Risk-Taking Mission and Service.  Our Scriptures included Isaiah 58:6-12 and Luke 9:18-27.

Those scripture passages bring two wildly different stories to mind – stories from different times, continents, and languages.

Bartleby the Scrivener (click on the link to read the whole story) is probably the best short story that you’ve never heard of, written in 1853 by Herman Melville, who also wrote a little piece called Moby-Dick.  The narrator of the story is an elderly lawyer who has a practice on Wall Street helping wealthy men deal with their affairs.  In fact, he describes himself in this way:

I am a man who, from his youth upwards, has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best. Hence, though I belong to a profession proverbially energetic and nervous, even to turbulence, at times, yet nothing of that sort have I ever suffered to invade my peace. I am one of those unambitious lawyers who never addresses a jury, or in any way draws down public applause; but in the cool tranquility of a snug retreat, do a snug business among rich men’s bonds and mortgages and title-deeds. All who know me consider me an eminently safe man.[1]

In these days before photocopies and computer, the narrator needs an additional copyist, or scrivener, in his office, to help duplicate the many documents with which he must deal.  He is delighted to hire a young man named Bartleby, who impresses his new employer with fine work and a steadfast presence in the office.  One day, however, the boss asks Bartleby to do a task and the copyist simply responds, “I would prefer not to.”  No reason, no protest, simply, “I would prefer not to.”

As time passes, this becomes a more frequent refrain: Bartleby is summoned to a task and instead of actually doing it, simply says, “I would prefer not to.”  After some time, it becomes apparent that Bartleby is not actually doing any work at all.  Not only that, it is discovered that Bartleby has begun to sleep and eat in the law offices – apparently preferring not to even leave the premises.  This is so frustrating that the narrator decides to fire him.  He informs Bartleby that his employment has ended, and the response is predictable. “‘I would prefer not to quit you,’ he replied, gently emphasizing the not.

Eventually, the lawyer is so frustrated in his attempts to remove this fellow from his offices that he simply gives up and moves his practice to a different location.  Two or three days later, the new tenants at his former office come looking for him, wondering what they are to do about this strange man who won’t leave.  The narrator can offer no advice, and so Bartleby is arrested.  The lawyer, who is at once angry and strangely drawn to this odd man, goes to visit him in prison, and discovers that he isn’t eating any food.  He pays someone at the prison to make sure that Bartleby is given enough food to eat, but when he returns a few days later, he discovers that Bartleby has died of starvation – apparently because he would prefer not to eat.

The story concludes with the narrator reflecting on Bartleby’s condition and his inability to choose anything, as he sighs, “Ah, Bartleby!  Ah, humanity!”

Melville makes the point in this story that a person – even a singularly gifted and capable person – when left alone with only his own particular preferences, will die.  When all we get is what we choose, it will kill us.

Yet I find that too often, I long to be Bartleby. There are so many times in my life where that simple, unexplained phrase, would be so pleasant to use!  “Dave, would you be willing to paint the basement?”  I would prefer not to.  “Dave, I need you to take the car into the shop.”  I would prefer not to.  “Mr. Carver, those wisdom teeth are pretty bad, and we’ll need to take them out.”  I would prefer not to.

Isn’t that freedom? Isn’t that liberation?  To only get to do that which I prefer? To be unencumbered by the world around me and always, only choose my own adventure?  I’m not so sure.

Isaiah is calling to the people of Judah.  They’ve gotten pretty good at running a worship service in the temple there – evidently, the music is pretty good, the sermon is fine, and the offering is quite literally smoking.  But the prophet says, “Your worship is not acceptable to God.  You are not demonstrating God’s care for the poor or the oppressed.  Quit gossiping and empty talk, and show your love for God by the way that you love your neighbor.”

The people’s response, evidently, echoes Bartleby.  “You know, we would prefer not to do all that.  Those aren’t really ‘our kind’, God.  Can’t we just go to church instead?”

Jesus, spending time with his disciples, finally allows them to name the fact that he is, indeed, the Messiah.  This is great news!  God has heard us!  Things are going to happen!

But before they can celebrate, Jesus says, “You know what this means, right?  It means that the cross lies ahead.  And not just my cross.  Your cross, too.”

Seriously, Jesus?  Because, um, I would prefer not to die like that.  Can we come up with some other options?  Let’s do a little more brainstorming and put a few more ideas out on the table…

A couple of years ago I attended a fascinating lecture on the topic of child development and faith.  The speaker said that one of the key tasks of early childhood was learning to get good at doing what you don’t really want to do.  It seemed a little crazy to me to hear it in that way, but the more I reflected on it, the more sense it made to me.  As you grow up, one of the skills that you have to develop is learning to do things you don’t want to do.

Remember your mother telling you to clean up your toys, or be nice to Uncle Walter, or sit quietly in church?  If you, as a three year old, were given to eloquence, you might have stared thoughtfully at your parent and said simply, “I would prefer not to.”  Yet as you grew, you came to realize that maturity can mean slogging through the hard stuff some days.  You learn how to go out and shovel the walks, or clean up the pet’s mess, or balance your checkbook, or visit your great-aunt in the nursing home.  On any given day, you might prefer not to do any of these tasks…but sometimes, in the grace of God, we can see some good that grows from these chores.  You find that you like being able to get out of the house on snowy days, or that you enjoy walking barefoot in the clean grass.

Visiting your friend in the nursing home wasn’t originally in your “comfort zone”, but when you’ve done it a few times, you can recognize that there is a value there – there is some good that comes, even if you might not have chosen it initially.  This makes sense, right?  Growing up means that we get good at doing things we probably didn’t want to do, but found that we needed to do anyway.

The same thing is true spiritually. We need to grow up.  We need to learn how to do those things that we might not have chosen, but which are important nevertheless.  In the church, we call that “mission”.

As we continue our series on the Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, today we consider “Risk-Taking Mission and Service”.  If you’re a part of the group that has done the reading, earlier this week you encountered this:

“Mission and service refers to the projects, efforts, and work people do to make a positive difference in the lives of others for the purposes of Christ…Risk-taking pushes us out of our comfort zone, stretching us beyond service to people we already know, exposing us to people, situations and needs that we would never ordinarily encounter apart from our deliberate intention to serve Christ.”[2]

Out of our comfort zone…people we don’t know…situations we wouldn’t normally encounter?  I would prefer not to.  I mean, there’s a reason it’s called “the comfort zone”, right?  Because I’m comfortable here!  Don’t ask me to change my thoughts, habits, or practices…

Except you can change those things.  And it can be amazing.

Risk-taking mission and service is a good thing.  Not because it always feels good, or leaves you with the warmth of an Indian-summer day.  Not because it’s always easy and allows you to feel good about yourself.  But because it’s right.  It is what we were made for.  And we get there by growing up and making choices about staying in, or venturing out of, our comfort zones.

I mentioned that these passages reminded me of two stories.  The first was about our friend Bartleby.  The second is one I learned in Korea last week.

On the observation deck, the tourists peer across the DMZ into North Korea.

The border between North and South Korea is the most heavily-fortified in the world.  Stretching along the 38th parallel is a single strand of barbed wire, insulated on either side by about a mile of what is now uninhabited wilderness, and then big fences and walls and gun placements as the different halves of that peninsula face off against each other.  The border is known as The DMZ – the Demilitarized Zone, and I was privileged to walk along it for a few hours.

But the border is more than just walls and wire.  There is no phone, no e-mail, no internet communication with North Korea.  The people who live there are sealed off from the rest of the country and the rest of the world. I mentioned my impressions of my visit to the DMZ with one of my Korean hosts, and she told me that her family had come from the north just before the border closed.  Her father had moved the family south more than fifty years ago because they were Christians, and it was increasingly difficult to worship Jesus in the North.  They built a home in Seoul, and then the border closed, cutting them off from their entire extended family in North Korea.

I asked if she had any family in the North, and she said that she had no idea.  Her father is still alive, and the hardest day of the year for him is his birthday, when he sighs, and spends the entire day in prayer, wondering why he has been given freedom when whatever family he has is still behind the DMZ.  My host told me that her father has been saving his money so that when the Koreas reunite, he can build a church in his home village.  “He made me promise last year,” she said, “that if he dies before the countries reunite, that I will build the church.”

I have to tell you that when I first heard this story, I felt terribly guilty!  I mean, here’s a family that has left their home and all their possessions so that they could worship freely, and to be honest, I would prefer not to show up in worship some weeks, or prefer not to do the reading for the week, or prefer not to help sort out the food at the food pantry.  I felt really small.

But then, I came to see that this family’s story is, in fact, our story too.  Many of us are in the room this morning because our relatives left a place of persecution in order to find a place of freedom.  They chose to worship, and those choices have given us a whole range of options that are a blessing to us.  They left whatever comfort zone they had, and that gave us the chance to participate in God’s world in meaningful ways.  Because I stand in a line of people who have thought about these things, I am free to grow more deeply in my faith every day.

So think about your life.  Where is there a place that you could step outside of your comfort zone in the area of mission and service?  Maybe you see that we have the PreSchool here, and you can call Cheri and say, “I’m not sure exactly how you can use me, but would it help if I came by to read to the kids this week?”    Maybe you could speak with Jessica about the possibility of spending a couple of hours a week at the afterschool program.  Maybe you could join in some visits to the homebound, or help sort food at the food pantry.  Somehow, you can grow.  Where will that be?

I’d like to ask you to humor me for a moment.  Just stand up – both feet on the floor, and raise your hands as high above your head as you can.  Good.  Now, reach higher.

You see!  I asked you to reach as high as you could and you said you did.  And then I asked you to reach higher, and you did.  How can that be?  What’s the message?  Are you all liars – low-balling your ability to reach when I ask you to?  I doubt it.  Or is it that we have resources that God has given us that might just be untapped – that we are capable of more than we might imagine, if we are willing to grow in the ways that God has put before us?

By God’s grace, beloved, grow in faithfulness.  Reach into new places in the days, weeks, and months to come – realizing that you may have to leave your comfort zone behind.  Where you end up might just surprise you.  The things you find growing in your life will probably be a blessing to you and to others. Amen.

[1] “Bartleby the Scrivener” by Herman Melville.  Online edition at http://www.bartleby.com/br/129.html, published July 1999 by Bartleby.com; © Copyright Bartleby.com, Inc.

[2] Robert Schnase, Cultivating Fruitfulness (Abingdon, 2008), p. 61.