September 22, 2013

Getting to Work

So last week we asked and tried to answer a really important question: why are we here?  And as I said then, I’m not asking this in a deep, philosophical sense.  That’s a good question and one with which we all have to wrestle at some point, but I meant something entirely more immediate than that.  What are we doing here this morning?  Why did you bother getting out of bed, getting yourself and maybe your kids as well ready, and drive up here?  Some of you may have walked in the door this morning wondering that very thing.  It affects anyone who’s ever put forth the effort to take part in a community of faith.  I heard about a man who woke up on Sunday morning and after looking at the clock rolled over and said to his wife, “Honey, I think we should just sleep in this morning.”  His wife mumbled back that they had to go.  “Why?  It’s totally okay for people to take a morning off once in a while.”  She mumbled back yet again that they had to go.  “Give me one good reason that I shouldn’t turn back over and catch up on the sleep I’ve been missing all week?”  Finally she rolled over and looked right at him: “Because you’re the preacher!”

In any event, we talked about several possible answers to that question over the course of our conversation.  The most important answer we can give, though, is wrapped up in our vision.  The best reason you have to go through all the rigmarole to get here is because we are all about creating a place where people matter and are empowered to engage their world for Christ.  This vision touches three of the deepest needs you have.  It doesn’t matter who you are or what’s in your past.  You need a place where you are valued simply because you are you.  But more than that, you need a place where you have the chance to learn the knowledge and applications necessary to become the best version of yourself.  If we’re honest, we’d all have to admit that we’re not there yet.  And you need a place where you can be empowered to serve the people around you such that you are part of something bigger than yourself.  We are a community of faith where that can happen.  That is worth the price of admission.  (And if you’re wondering what I mean since you didn’t have to pay anything to come in…you just got yourself and even better deal.)

All of that said, if we’re honest, that’s not quite enough for us.  I mean, don’t get me wrong: it’s good to have a reason to be here that goes beyond “I feel like I should” or “Someone pressured me into it” or anything like that.  But once we’re here, then what?  So this Central place is worth my time, so it’s worth more time in fact than I give to most other things in my life, what’s next?  I don’t want to just be a pew filler.  I don’t want to just be a few extra dollars in the plate each week.  What’s next?  That is a great question.  And really, it’s a symptom of a bigger, deeper question.  What’s being a Christian all about anyway?  What does it mean to be an active part of a body of believers?  My time is valuable.  What am I supposed to be doing?  What are we supposed to be doing as Christians?  Yes, we’re looking forward to Jesus coming back, what are we supposed to be doing in the meantime?  If you are or have ever wondered about these kinds of questions you are in good company.  Jesus followers from the very beginning of the Jesus movement have been asking these kinds of questions.

On the night before what would be the final sequence of events leading to His death, Jesus led His followers out of the city of Jerusalem so they could clear their heads a bit and debrief the whirlwind of activity that had been the previous couple of days.  Jesus began the week by riding into Jerusalem to great fanfare from the people who were convinced that this guy was the Guy, the Messiah.  This of course didn’t sit well with the various religious and political leaders of the people who grasped that based on the kind of things He had been saying and doing—including making a scene of driving the moneychangers out of the Temple and offering some teachings that directly challenged their authority to continue leading the people spiritually and politically—He was not going to be the kind of Messiah that fit any of the narratives they had been writing among the people.  And so they challenged Him.  They teamed up on Him.  Groups who were decidedly strange bedfellows—think if John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi held hands and sang Kumbiya together—found themselves working toward the same goal: disgracing and eliminating this man and the threat He posed to the way things had always been.  The way they did this was to publicly pose to Him some really challenging theological and political questions.  They usually weren’t very good questions, but sometimes a bad question answered poorly is all it takes to take down a public figure.  Their hope was that Jesus would say something incriminating and self-combust in front of all the people so they would write him off, saving them the hard work.  Eventually though, after answering all their questions expertly, Jesus turned the tables and with His own questions and rather direct teaching blasted His opponents out of the water.  One of Jesus’ disciples, a man named Matthew, when reflecting back on all this a few years later wrote: “And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.”  In other words, as far as the public debate portion of Jesus’ ministry was concerned it was game, set, and match to Jesus.

Well, that night, as Jesus led the disciples out of the city to debrief, before they got to it these small-town men looked back at the big city from the nearby Mount of Olives—a hill on the outskirts of town—and marveled at the ancient version of a skyline.  Jesus, not wanting them to get stuck on Jerusalem itself as it currently existed, but rather wanting to point them to keep their minds focused on the coming kingdom of God, said to them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”  This kind of dramatic statement from Jesus, who even if they did not yet fully understand the kind of Messiah He was still believed Him to be a prophet from God and thus not going to say something false, left them shell-shocked.  This would be like standing in a place where you could see all the major D. C. landmark buildings and having someone you think can probably see the future say, “One day those are all going to be destroyed and lying in ruins, a great smoking heap of rubble.”  It would catch you off guard to say the least.  Adding to that, for a people who attached a great deal of significance to the physical city of Jerusalem and its temple it smacked of blaspheme.  And so with good reason, the disciples sat down and asked Jesus: “…when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?”  Now that’s their direct question, but I think that tacit in it is another one: what are we supposed to be doing until then?  I think this because in what follows Jesus answers both questions.

He begins by answering the question the disciples ask directly…sort of.  Late in Matthew’s reflections on his time with Jesus, the apostle records Jesus relating some of the kinds of things that will happen before His eventual return.  It’s a pretty wild set of descriptions and Christians have debated about exactly what Jesus meant for centuries.  They go back and forth about whether Jesus was speaking about things that would happen in the fairly recently future, the distant future, or both, and if both at which point exactly He switches from one to the other.  But in spite of a lot of pretty vigorous scholarly debate the real theme of the conversation is pretty straightforward and comes in two parts.  First, nobody actually knows when Jesus is coming back and anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar.  Second, because nobody knows, we have to live in such a state that we are always ready for His return.  These two themes flow smoothly from one to the next.  Jesus uses some pretty straightforward teaching to drive home the first theme, but switches to a series of parables, which are just made-up stories to make a point, in order to communicate the second.

It is one of these stories in particular that I want to look at with you this morning.  This story is often called the parable of the talents and in it we get a clue as to what exactly is supposed to be next for Jesus followers as we wait for Him to return; we get some answers regarding what should come next once we have connected to the church.  If you have your Bibles or a Bible app find your way to Matthew 25:14.  Follow along with me as I read.

“For it [the kingdom of God] will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property.  To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability.  Then he went away.  He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more.  So also he who had the two talents made two talents more.  But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money.  Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them.  And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’  His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.  You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much.  Enter into the joy of your master.’  And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents, here I have made two talents more.’  His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.  You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much.  Enter into the joy of your master.’  He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, [I just want you to know that it was your fault…okay it doesn’t say that, but he was thinking it…] I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.  Here you have what is yours.’  But his master answered him, ‘You wicked [which could also be translated “worthless”…perhaps a better translation for us] and [lazy] servant!  You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed?  Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest.  So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents.  For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance.  But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.  And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness.  In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

So what is Jesus getting at here and what on earth does this have to do with our question of what we should be doing once we get connected?  Well, think about the parable with me for a minute.  The master gave gifts to his servants, left the scene for a long time, and then came back to find out how they did with what he gave them.  Jesus gave us the gift of life and entrusted us with the care of His kingdom, left earth and has been gone for a long time (although He’s always with us in the person of the Holy Spirit), and is coming back someday to find out how we did with what He gave us.  Are the parallels not glaring?  Stay with me a bit further and this will get even more obvious.  Where in this world is the place where the kingdom of God is most apparent?  What is the one institution which has most directly been entrusted with the care and advance of His kingdom?  I hope the answer is obvious: the church.  The church is the hope of the world for the very reason that we are the only way anyone is ever going to have any idea what the final kingdom of God—Heaven—is going to be like.  Think about this: If the church botches its mission in this regard of course no one is going to want to connect with God—they’ll think being with Him is something entirely other and more sinister than it actually is.  So then, when someone connects with the church, they become caretakers of the kingdom and partakers of its gifts. This means they become responsible for what happens to it between now and when Jesus finally comes back. In other words, this day of reckoning the master has with his servants in the parable is going to play out between us and Jesus when He returns.

Look at the hows and whys of this settling of accounts with me.  Everything the servants had came from the master.  When we’ve been loaned something for a sufficiently long amount of time, it is very easy to start thinking that it belongs to us.  But the reality is that it does not and if we forget that and start living in a fantasy world our reconnection with reality is not going to be pleasant.  Indeed, everything we have in this life is a gift from the Master.  Everything.  You do not have a single possession, physical or otherwise, that you gained solely by your own abilities.  Even if you think you worked hard for what you have, who is it exactly that gave you the ability to work hard?  Who has kept your body free enough from disease so that you can work hard?  Some of you have diseases of various kinds and can still work hard.  Who has granted you such grace?  The Master.  But, while it is tempting to think primarily in the financial terms of the parable here—and by the way, the physical things you have are on loan from God and should be handled with that in mind which means that if you are connected with this church and aren’t giving sacrificially you aren’t doing right—I want to push us this morning to think a bit more broadly about the kinds of gifts the Master has given us.  You see, we are each gifted with a set of intangibles: passions, interests, desires, abilities, talents, and the like.  These are on loan just the same as our physical gifts which means that we are just as responsible to steward them wisely.

Now perhaps that’s all a bit uncomfortable to think about.  It quickly becomes much more uncomfortable, though, when you consider how the parable ends.  The servant who didn’t do anything with his talent has it stripped from him and he himself is thrown into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.  So wait, if I don’t use my gifts in the church I’m going to go to Hell?  I suspect some of you have already gone there.  Well, if I don’t use my gifts in the church am I going to Hell?  I have three answers for you: First, that’s not what Jesus says.  Second, this is a parable and so drawing theological truth from it needs to be done cautiously.  Third, let’s think about this just a minute.

There are three observations worth making here.  First, isn’t it unfair that the last guy’s talent was given to the guy with the most?  Shouldn’t it at least have gone to the two-talent guy?  Not so fast.  The very fact that we have received gifts from Jesus means that we have been given what actually belongs to Him.  If our gifts really belong to Him then He can rightfully do with them what He wants.  If we aren’t doing anything with His gift, show no signs of starting, and someone else is rocking and rolling, He is totally within His rights to take from us and give to them.  Any objections to that notion are rooted in the false belief that what we have is ours.  It’s not.  Thinking otherwise will get us in trouble every time.  Also, God’s not fair.  He’s just.  And we should be very thankful for that fact.  More on that another time.

Furthermore, when the third servant was removed from the master’s presence, there wasn’t anything new happening.  The master was simply making apparent what had already happened—the servant’s total lack of understanding of the character of the master and his refusal to take responsibility for his unfaithfulness revealed that he didn’t really have a relationship with the master in the first place.  By throwing him out, the master was eliminating the pretense of a relationship that didn’t actually exist.  Someone who’s been connected to a church for a long time, but who hasn’t taken any meaningful steps in the direction of developing the gifts God has given her for service to the kingdom and putting them to productive use has totally misunderstood both the character of God and the reason for connecting with the body in the first place.  This is a serious place to be in that demands our attention and any relevant actions necessary to correct it, including actually connecting with God, perhaps for the first time.

Third, what about this teeth gnashing thing?  Isn’t that a picture of Hell?  Well, what does it mean to gnash teeth?  Is that an expression of hellacious suffering?  No.  It’s an expression of frustration and disappointment.  When things either don’t go the way we plan or when it turns out that we missed a golden opportunity how do we react?  Argh!  We gnash our teeth.  We weep for our loss.  This servant is weeping and gnashing his teeth not because he’s being tortured in Hell, but rather because the realization of his mistake and his loss have set in.  People at the end of their life don’t fret over money they never made or things they never bought.  They weep and gnash their teeth over missed relational opportunities; over chances to better the world around them they never took; over good deeds they never bothered with.  There isn’t a punitive punishment in view here for a lack of faithfulness with the gifts of the Master, but rather a making apparent the relational separation which has already occurred and a realization of the extent of opportunities that have been lost.

So then, what am I getting at with all of this?  How does this answer our question?  What are we supposed to be doing once we’ve connected to a community of faith like, say, this one?  We’re to get to work.  We’re to put the vision we talked about last week into action.  We’re to use the gifts God has given us to advance His kingdom in this community, not as lone rangers, but as part of a larger body committed to doing the same.  Here’s the thing: drawing from Paul’s observation last week that God purposefully put each member of the body where it is, if you have connected with this body, there’s a reason for it.  You have a gift set that is integral to the success of our mission.  We can’t get there without you.  Let me push this even a bit further.  If you have been hanging out with us for a while, but haven’t quite gotten to the place where you’ve gone ahead and made things official, it’s time to do so.  You are here and are feeling those hooks of connection because God brought you here on purpose.  We need you.  There may be reasons to hold back and continue in a kind of informal partnership, but let me be honest: none of them are any good and I’d love to talk with you about why that’s the case.  It’s time for you to step out and make a commitment.  Stop acting like a 25-year-old playboy.  Settle down and make a real commitment.  Don’t be a mere mercenary.  Be a member of the body.  To boil all this down to a simple idea: if you have given your life to Christ, you have a gift.  If you are, have, or are even thinking about connecting with this community of faith, you need to put it to use here.  That’s the next step for you.  When you have connected here—and real connections don’t happen merely in this room; they happen as we gather in circles in Sunday school classes and at the Kitchen Table—if you have bought into this idea of creating a place where people matter and are empowered to engage their world for Christ, your next step is to get to work advancing it.  You have a gift; use it.

Friends, this is part of what our vision is all about.  This is the end of it.  We’re going to come back around next week and talk about the first part, creating a place where people matter.  For now, though, this is where we’re going.  This is what we want to see happen.  This is how we know we’ve been successful as a church—when people just like you have connected here and are putting their God-given gifts to work for the advancement of His kingdom along the lines of our vision.  When you have found that this is a place where you matter, we want to empower you to engage your world for Christ…which means creating a place where people matter and empowering them to engage their world for Christ.  See how the circle gets completed?  You have a gift; use it.

But where?  Well, there are lots of places where we need help right now.  If I can put her on the spot, Debbie Bishop, as chair of the nominating committee, has a pretty good handle on where many of our ministry holes are, especially those created when God called the Jones family to a new adventure on the other side of the country.  I can tell you standing right here, though, that many of them are focused on the young people in the church.  We have a phenomenal group of young people here.  We have such a phenomenal group in fact, that we have more than a single group that meets together all the time can handle.  We need to birth a couple of groups out of our larger group so that we can do even more focused empowering such that they can continue learning how to effectively engage their world for Christ.  We have some great volunteers already involved in doing that, but they need help.  And so if you’re not already involved but think you can facilitate a conversation with an easy-to-follow curriculum and pour out some unconditional love on young people who will soak it up like a sponge, we have some great opportunities for you.  There are more beyond that as well, but I’ve run out of time.  The point, though, is that you have a gift and you need to use it.  You have a gift; use it.

Let me give you one final call and warning and we’ll get out of here to enjoy some lunch.  This isn’t something you can ignore.  If you think you can simply show up once a week, make sure a pew doesn’t leave the floor from 10:00-11:00 AM, throw a few dollars in the plate, and that’s enough, you’re wrong.  We’re glad you’re here and wouldn’t want you to be anywhere else, but you are missing out on the full potential of what could be.  Part of being fully who God designed you to be is getting involved in a local body of believers to work with them to advance the Gospel.  That’s part of what you were created for.  At Central, we are all about helping you to do just that.  But you have to step up.  You have a gift; use it.  Come and talk to me and we’ll work together to figure out how and where.  You have a gift; use it.  Engage your world for Christ and see what happens.