Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON
I remember the first dollar I earned. I shoveled a neighbor’s driveway after a snowfall. In northern Illinois in December there isn’t such a thing as a “light dusting of snow.”
When I finished the job, the old man came out and inspected the job. Inviting me in for a cup of hot chocolate, he asked me, “What do I owe you for this?” “Whatever you want to pay me,” I replied in the innocence of youth. “Well,” he said carefully, “what if I give you a penny?” Without skipping a beat, I said, “Then that’s what you’ve paid me.” He gave me a crisp one-dollar bill. In 1956 to an eight-year-old boy, it might as well have been a one-hundred-dollar bill. I felt ten feet tall as I shouldered my shovel and went to the next neighbor’s home.
Many winter snowfalls have come since then. But there were two lessons that have remained for me all these years. “The employer sets the expectations for the work and pays the wage,” was the first lesson. “Self-esteem is a by-produce of a job done well,” was the second lesson.
These two lessons are essential for each of us to learn if we hope to be mature adults and effective people of faith. Of course, I had already had glimpses of those lessons from my parents prior to shoveling that first driveway for that first dollar. “If you’d said, ‘you wouldn’t pay me just a penny for all that work!’ he would have given you a penny,” my mother later said knowingly. Having worked throughout high school as a waitress, she knew something about delivering good service for its own sake without the expectation of a tip.
Now, fast-forward to a January 2004 comic strip Zits. First panel —Jeremy (the strip’s adolescent) and Walt (Jeremy’s Dad) stand inside their garage looking outward at waist-high snow. Each is holding a snow shovel. Jeremy speaks: “So what’s the goal here?” Walt replies, “To shovel the snow off the driveway so we can get the car out of the garage.” Second panel—Jeremy speaks: “Got it!” Third panel—Jeremy speaks: “And the direct benefit to me would be what?” Walt replies, “Your Mom and I will be able to continue to center our lives around transporting you all over this city.” Fourth panel—Jeremy speaks: “I’m on it!” Walt’s thoughtfully private response: “It’s all about motivation.” (Zits —Richmond Times-Dispatch, January 22, 2004).
Anyone who has raised children or served as a supervisor over the past twenty years knows that Walt speaks the truth. Egotism and enhancing self-esteem rather than public service and institutional loyalty have become the chief motivators for workers and children. A great cultural reversal has taken place over the past twenty years so that people, especially young people, have the expectation that they set the standards for the work; they have a right to demand a wage regardless of their performance; their self-fulfillment is the necessary focus of the job.
Altruism still exists. Reinhold Niebuhr in his award-winning Carnegie essay wrote:
Altruism, as an abstract principle does not appeal to man. Loyalty to a community is the secret and the power of his altruism. (https://www.carnegiecouncil.org/publications /100_for_100/007) But you’ll have to search for it much like Diogenes.
“That is so much her attitude!” said the mother of a thirteen-year-old girl whom she had brought in for counseling. She was responding to a suggestion I had made for a book on raising today’s teenagers. Get Out Of My Life! But First Can You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall? by Anthony Wolf, resonates just that way with today’s parents. Wolf describes the inflated sense of entitlement so prevalent in today’s teenagers. More importantly, he provides some very specific tactics for regaining control of the situation and teaching your teenager corollaries of those two very important lessons I learned long ago. I am the parent and thus I am the one in charge, is the first corollary. Do the task as expected whether or not you “feel good about it,” is the second lesson.
These principles even apply to ministry, at least the ministry of pastoral counseling. When I have my annual review from the Virginia Institute of Pastoral Care, the first question is this: did I meet the contract for my clinical hours? I can do many things and help numerous people but in the end of each year this is the minimal expectation of the agency—if I wish to work there. Self-esteem, professional prestige, and the thankfulness of people whose hearts and homes have been repaired all come second to this basic question: did I meet the contract for my clinical hours? There was one particularly difficult year when I missed that basic goal by two hours—a year made particularly painful since everyone else got a modest raise. They received that raise because they had fulfilled this primary expectation and the agency made a profit.
This pervasive sense of entitlement has infected the American church for much longer than twenty years. It started with Malcolm Boyd’s book, Are You Running With Me, Jesus? The increasing assumption especially among the mainline denominations has been one of a cafeteria-style approach to religion: we pick and choose the theological truths we agree with and the pieties that make us feel good about ourselves while wondering all the time at our empty pews and vacant hearts. We proudly announce, “God expects us to be faithful, not successful.” But we announce it to ourselves because the crowds hungry for the genuine gospel have gone elsewhere.
Jesus had a different idea and he put it into the gospel’s parable: the master’s (God’s) expectations come foremost, not the slaves’ (disciples’) needs. If our wicks are trimmed and our lamps lit, we will be viewed as doing our job. If we are vigilant and watching for the master’s return, we will be doing our job. If we have kept the books accurately and used our talents wisely, we will have done our job. If we have been attentive to the “least of these my brothers and sisters,” we will have done our job. If we humble ourselves and walk in His way, we will be blessed.
I remember one member from the aforementioned southern church. He was a young pastor from Uganda, and he came to my seminary. He knew what it was to be obediently faithful and to prepare to pay the cost of discipleship: he had fled his home with his family as Idi Amin’s troops drove up in the front yard. They burned his house. They would have butchered his family as a sport if he had remained.
One night at a party, we found a quiet corner and he began to talk about that experience. His eyes took on a quiet strength as he reflected upon that awful night. Then he said, “I will return there some day, knowing that I may have to face the very men who came for me that night. I will face them as a priest and call them to obedience. It is what my Lord expects.”
God has basic expectations of His people that are crystal clear, and we go our own way at our eternal peril. No, I’m not talking about boiling a kid in its mother’s milk or any of the other truly arcane legalisms we trot out to explain away our own unfaithfulness. God talks to the kings of Judah, calling them the “rulers of Sodom” and the people of Judah, naming them “people of Gomorrah” because they had fundamentally wearied Him with their unfaithfulness to His primal expectation of fidelity: “If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword” (Is 1:19). Isaiah’s prior question about the color of their sins is irony and not a promise of grace (Is 1:18).
The long litany of the saints in Hebrews is likewise instructive. There isn’t a slacker among them! Fortunately for the kingdom’s eternal purpose, such faithfulness persists in today’s church—in what is known now as the Southern Church. No, not those churches who suspiciously eye the cars in the parking lot with license plates from New Jersey and greet an outsider with the phrase, “Wasn’t your mother one of the Hampton Culpepers?” I am speaking of those churches who flourish primarily in the southern hemisphere, and who endure persecution. They are churches who impress visiting Americans with their vibrancy and those visitors, upon returning to their home communions, say, “Those Christians have got something we need!”
Yes, they do. It is called “obedient faithfulness” or as Bonhoeffer reminded us in the last century, a willingness to pay the cost of discipleship. To run with Jesus, not ask if He’s running with us.
Jesus, the Eternal Father’s Faithful Son, instructs us about the nature of the Father’s expectation: “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit…for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” Success is defined by being faithful to the Eternal Father’s expectations, which include being ready for the coming of the Son of Man.
The question is simply “Does God Mange our Expectations or Do We Manage our Expectations of God?” If we live up to God’s Expectations, we will find a full life. So how do we understand God’s expectations for us, we simply need to turn to Jesus. Letting God set the expectations can bring us true happiness.
Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON
In Niebuhrian terms, surely, we would have a world which abides by the Law of Love; one characterized by altruism and other-centered acts of self-donation. In Niebuhr’s view, “the pacifists are quite right in one emphasis. They are right in asserting that love is really the law of life.” The Christian ethical idea—as displayed in the life of Christ—calls uncompromisingly for love without qualification. (https://providencemag.com/2017/07/reinhold-niebuhr-problem-paradox/)
Altruism is the principle and moral practice of concern for happiness of other human beings and/or animals, resulting in a quality of life both material and spiritual. It is a traditional virtue in many cultures and a core aspect of various religious traditions and secular worldviews, though the concept of "others" toward whom concern should be directed can vary among cultures and religions. In an extreme case, altruism may become a synonym of selflessness which is the opposite of selfishness.
The word "altruism" was coined by the French philosopher Auguste Comte in French, as altruisme, for an antonym of egoism. He derived it from the Italian altrui, which in turn was derived from Latin alteri, meaning "other people" or "somebody else".
Altruism in biological observations in field populations of the day organisms is an individual performing an action which is at a cost to themselves (e.g., pleasure and quality of life, time, probability of survival or reproduction), but benefits, either directly or indirectly, another third-party individual, without the expectation of reciprocity or compensation for that action. Steinberg suggests a definition for altruism in the clinical setting, that is "intentional and voluntary actions that aim to enhance the welfare of another person in the absence of any quid pro quo external rewards". In one sense, the opposite of altruism is spite; a spiteful action harms another with no self-benefit.
Altruism can be distinguished from feelings of loyalty, in that whilst the latter is predicated upon social relationships, altruism does not consider relationships. Much debate exists as to whether "true" altruism is possible in human psychology. The theory of psychological egoism suggests that no act of sharing, helping or sacrificing can be described as truly altruistic, as the actor may receive an intrinsic reward in the form of personal gratification. The validity of this argument depends on whether intrinsic rewards qualify as "benefits".
The term altruism may also refer to an ethical doctrine that claims that individuals are morally obliged to benefit others. Used in this sense, it is usually contrasted with egoism, which claims individuals are morally obligated to serve themselves first.
When I was an atheist, sin was never an issue to me. I wasn’t particularly aware of it. I didn’t really experience guilt. But when I became a Christian….whoa. I found out there were things I was doing that God did not want in my life. I also became aware of the need to love others, to read the Bible, to pray, to witness, to disciple others, etc. And at times I thought, “It was way easier being an atheist.” Now that I knew God, I felt a tremendous sense of responsibility to please him with my life. I would read the Bible, read a command, and it seemed that verse after verse I could honestly say, “Yep, good idea. I need to do that more.”
Here it is: God does not demand perfection in you. God is not expecting you to measure up. God never thought that you could live the Christian life, nor does he expect that you could actually meet his holy standards. If he thought that you could, he wouldn’t have come to earth to die for you. But he did.
Jesus said to the crowds, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” So, it is true that God’s laws, his commands, require perfection. And if we were to be accepted by God based on living up to his commands, we would have to be perfect. No wonder Jesus came to save us from the penalty of our sins!
Ok, now that you are a Christian, do the rules change? Does God now have a long list of expectations for you? No. Now you may think, “Wait a minute. The Bible is FULL of commands. You can’t read a paragraph without being told what to do.” That is true. But while God gives you commands, he also tells you that you can’t fully obey them. In fact, he tells you that the harder you concentrate on trying to obey them, the more that you will see your sin. Also, the harder you try, the more you might feel like a failure, deserving of God’s judgment and condemnation, and thus the more distant you will feel from God. (https://www.startingwithgod.com/struggles/expect/)
The lithographs of the Twelve Apostles by Dr. Kenneth Wyatt grace the hallway at the Virginia Conference Center of the United Methodist Church. Beside each lithograph is a small plaque detailing some of the legend associated with each apostle and the circumstances under which Dr. Wyatt met his contemporary model. Three times a year, candidates for the ministry in the Virginia Conference walk down this hallway, meeting with various committees of the conference to assess their readiness for ministry. Like the real apostles, Wyatt’s models come from all walks of life: truck drivers, cowboys, high-walking iron workers, teachers and a man on vacation with his family. Reading how these apostles lived and how they died reminds anyone who answer’s the Lord’s invitation to discipleship: walking with Jesus will cost you everything that matters in your life and walking with Jesus will become the only thing that matters in your life. These lithographs form a fitting reminder along this passageway into ministry and into the Christian life. .
Membership in the Church of Scotland plunged 22 percent between 1994 and 2002, but one pastor says it’s time to drop a few more names off the rolls. In a letter to his 600 church members, he suggests that those unwilling to attend, give, read the Bible, and evangelize should “reflect upon member vows” and decide “whether or nor they wish to remain members.” (Ted Olsen, The Church in Absentia [Christianity Today: January, 2004]).
Hungary’s National Radio and Television Council (ORTT) has suspended the license of a radio station which called on Christmas Eve to exterminate Christians. The ORTT said it had banned Budapest-based Tilos Radio from the airwaves for 30 days while excluding the network from applying for funds for half a year “as a final warning.” (ASSIST News Service [January 22, 2004]) .
An international Christian organization believes that Iraqi Christians will have at most a two-year window to operate in the open before an Islamic government assumes power and forces those believers underground. Voice of the Martyrs, a Christian ministry dedicated to the persecuted Church, has had several teams visit Iraq, including one that just recently returned. (Chad Groening, Iraqi Christians Have Pessimistic Outlook [January 2004])
“The real import of dread is to be sought in an infidelity to a personal demand of which one is at least dimly aware: the failure to meet a challenge, to fulfill a certain possibility which demands to be met and fulfilled…It is the sense…that a man is not giving his life back to God.” (Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer [Image Books: New York, 1971], pg. 97).
“TWO WORDS – ‘never again’ — sum up the most important lesson that civilized men and women were supposed to have learned from the 20th century…Which brings us to North Korea…It is not exactly news that the communist regime of Kim Jong Il has sent millions of North Koreans to early graves. Estimates back in 1998 were that as many as 800,000 people were dying in North Korea each year from starvation and malnutrition caused by Kim’s ruthless and irrational policies. World Vision, a Christian relief organization, calculated that 1 million to 2 million North Koreans had been killed by “a full-scale famine” largely of Pyongyang’s creation.” (Jeff Jacoby, An Auschwitz in North Korea. OrthodoxTheology.org, 2/08/2004).
The Iraq War has divided our people. There are those who seek peace at any cost and those who seek peace through strength. There is a third view that gets little press. It is peace through Christ Jesus. “Our destination as Christians is not some particular place, but a new way of looking at life—the Christ way.” (Edward L. Tullis, Shaping the Church from the Mind of Christ (Nashville: The Upper Room, 1984), p.49). What would a war policy look like that was not a doormat nor a bludgeon, but one based upon the love of our enemies?
When patriotism is carried to an extreme, an attempt is made to replace God with the state. In Rumors of Another World: What On Earth Are We Missing?, Philip Yancey notes how the communist Soviet Union attempted to discredit belief in God, so that people would be taught to place all their faith in the government. During the reign of Stalin, kindergarten teachers would instruct the children to close their eyes and pray to God for a bag of candy. Of course, no candy appeared. Then the teachers would urge the children to pray to Stalin. As they did so, the teachers placed a bag of candy on each student’s desk. The teachers would then conclude the lesson by telling the students that prayer never gets you anything. Rather, the lesson is to always trust the nation’s leaders to provide for your needs.
Where patriotism prevails, all evil tends to be isolated in one’s enemies. Such was the case during the Civil War. In Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural, Ronald C. White, Jr., comments on how both the North and the South viewed each other as malefactors. The Union felt righteous in criticizing the Confederates for their rebellion and slavery. At the same time, though, the Southerners clung to the belief that their cause was just, because they contended that they were the ones acting in the spirit of the freedom of 1776 in severing ties with what they considered a tyrannical and hypocritical federal government.
While many people consider themselves patriotic, many lack a thorough knowledge of national affairs. In The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith, Alan Wolfe observes that Americans generally lack familiarity with the legislation and policies that are at stake when elections are held. In the same kind of way, although many people consider themselves to be religious, many lack a basic grasp of the essential facts of the Christian faith. For instance, 58% of Americans cannot name five of the Ten Commandments. Just under half know that Genesis is the first book of the Bible.
Patriotism is not a major trait among many young people. In fact, a large number of children are ignorant of even the most basic elements of American history. According to the Herald Tribune (7/2/03), U.S. Representative Roger Wicker was visiting a high school in his district and decided to give the advanced-placement history class a pop quiz. He was not impressed with the results. Wicker asked the seniors to identify some of the unalienable rights that are named in the Declaration of Independence. When his question was initially met with silence, he tried to prompt the teenagers by saying, “Among these are life....” One student blurted out, “Death?” None in the class managed to name “liberty” and “the pursuit of happiness.” Many teachers worry that if students grow up uninformed about democracy, democracy may eventually perish. A nationwide assessment that was given to students in 2001 yielded similar poor results. Six in ten high school seniors were rated as lacking a basic understanding of American history. Among fourth graders, three out of four could not name which branch of government passes laws. Most thought it was the president. The correct answer, of course, is Congress. Among twelfth graders, more than half thought that Italy, Japan, and Germany were U.S. allies during World War II.
One of the ways we express our patriotism is through the paying of taxes. Yet that is hardly one of the most favorite things for many people to do. In Britain, though, the Catholic Church of England and Wales has launched a passionate defense of taxation. According to Reuters (2/23/04), the Church issued a 40-page booklet entitled “Taxation for the Common Good.” In that publication, the Church argues that instead of viewing taxes as unfair penalties, taxes should be seen by Christians as a way for all people to play a moral part in public life. Bishop Howard Tripp, Chairman of the Church’s Committee for Public Life, said, “Taxes are very much based on the principles of solidarity, which is based on the commandment to love your neighbor.”
Arnaldo Socorro was someone who ran up against the authorities in Cuba and ended up losing his life because of it. On September 10, 1961, Socorro and other Christians were in the Church of Charity in Havana, where Bishop Eduardo Boza Masvidal was leading the service. Toward the end of the mass, there was a clamor among the people to parade through the streets, which they knew was illegal under Castro’s atheistic regime. Socorro led the way carrying a picture of the Virgin of Charity, the patroness of Cuba. Once in the streets, the parade attracted the attention and excitement of thousands, who called out, “Long live Christianity!” Immediately the State Security Police appeared on the scene. The officers beat the Christians with clubs and even began to open fire on the crowds with their guns. Fifteen people were wounded in the incident, and in the melee Socorro ended up with a bullet being shot into his back. He fell to the ground and soon died. At first, the government tried to explain his death by saying that the Christians had killed him, asserting that Socorro was there to oppose the Christians. At his funeral, communists tried to shout down the priests, accusing them of being fascists and suggesting that it was the priests who had killed Socorro. Today Arnaldo Socorro is considered to be a martyr for the church in Cuba.
Healing was a central part of the mission that Jesus gave to the disciples when he sent them out. The ministry of healing continues even today in many different ways. One way the United Methodist Church is offering the gift of physical well-being to people is by providing discount drug cards. According to the Associated Press (3/10/04), the United Methodists are offering those cards to their members, which enable them to get up to 65% off on most of their prescriptions. The denomination believes they are the first to do something like that. The United Methodists believe that is an important ministry opportunity because the average age of their membership is 57, making them the oldest of any denomination in the United States. All church members are eligible for the cards, which apply to things even like contact lenses and vitamins. The United Methodists instituted the program in response to the fact that an estimated 40 million Americans have little or no prescription drug insurance. The drug discount card is not costing the church anything, because the company that administers the card wanted to test the idea, and they are glad to be getting millions of new customers.
There continues to be a need to go out and reap the harvest. The Gulf Daily News (3/10/04) of Bahrain estimates that Islam will be the most widely practiced faith in England by the year 2020. Research suggests that anywhere from 10,000 to 50,000 Britains are converting to Islam every year. Already there are approximately 1.8 million Muslims in England, making it the second-largest faith in the country.
“Love of country is a wonderful thing, but why should love stop at the border?” (Pablo Casals)
“There are three kinds of patriots, two bad, one good. The bad ones are the uncritical lovers and the loveless critics. Good patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country, a reflection of God’s lover’s quarrel with all the world.” (William Sloane Coffin, Credo [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004], p. 84)
“Churches have a special obligation to point out that ‘God ‘n country’ is not one word, and to summon America to a higher vision of its meaning and destiny.” (William Sloane Coffin, Credo [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004], p. 143)
“The longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth—that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?” (Benjamin Franklin)
“As long as religion avoids the temptation to join its authority to the authority of the state, it can indeed play a subversive role, because it focuses the attention of the believer on a source of moral understanding that transcends both the authority of positive law and the authority of human moral systems.” (Stephen L. Carter, God’s Name in Vain: The Wrongs and Rights of Religion in Politics [New York: Basic Books, 2000], p. 30)
Rev. John Witherspoon stated:” It is in the man of piety and inward principle, that we may expect to find the uncorrupted patriot, the useful citizen, and the invincible soldier—God grant that in America true religion and civil liberty may be inseparable and that the unjust attempts to destroy the one, may in the issue tend to the support and establishment of both.”(William Federer, America’s God and Country (St.Louis Inc.,1999),p.703).
Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)
Leader: The Lord speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting.
People: God shines forth. He comes and does not keep silent.
Leader: He calls to the heavens above and to the earth
People: The heavens declare his righteousness, for God himself is judge.
All: Let us come before God and worship him with awe and gladness.
Almighty God, we confess that we often come to you with empty words and promises. We save our best efforts for our own desires and wants, and offer what whatever is left over. We have worshipped half-heartedly, we have loved selfishly, and we have given grudgingly. Forgive us for our transgressions. Wash our scarlet sins so they are white as snow and make us clean. Open our hearts so that we can learn to love our neighbors, feed the hungry, and to defend the defenseless. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Merciful God, we thank you for your many gifts. For the sunshine and the rain, for our friends and family, for the opportunity to share the Good News of your Son, we thank you. We offer you our very best today, gifts to be used for your Kingdom. Amen.
Gracious God, we come before you not knowing how to pray, fearing that our words may not really reach your ears, apprehensive that our prayers may be inadequate. But we also know that Jesus Christ intercedes for us, and that we are your children. We can be confident that you hear us and love us in spite of our stumbling words.
We pray for all creation this day—for nations throughout the world. We boldly pray for peace where there is war, relief where there is hunger, tolerance where there is genocide and racism. Let us learn to honor all people as your children, loving our enemies as well as our friends.
We pray for the Christian Church – though we are many denominations, let us remember that we are the body of Christ, and Christ is the Head of the Church. Keep us unified in faith that we may work together to proclaim the Good News.
We pray for our own congregation and our community. We pray for healing where there are wounds, comfort where there is sorrow, compassion where there is suffering. Let us always remember that nothing can separate us from the love of your Son Jesus Christ. We pray all these things in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen