Sunday, October 30, 2011

Lectionary 31A or Reformation Sunday
Micah 3:5-12
Psalm 43
1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
Matthew 23:1-12
Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 46
Romans 3:19-28
John 8:31-36

Oh send out thy light and thy truth; let them lead me: Let them bring me unto thy holy hill, And to thy tabernacles.

Today’s message is based only on the Lectionary 31A texts. Visit the archives for Reformation devotions.

When I first began writing “A WORD FOR TODAY” and managing my website, several friends suggested that I should use it to make some money. They had recommendations for companies that promise money for clicks. One friend was trying to sell health supplements and wanted me to sign up, too. None of the schemes would take much of my time, and though there was no guarantee for riches, a few dollars a month might have helped my family through tough times. Others suggested that I should put a donation button on my website, seeking financial help with the costs of keeping the website.

It does cost me money. I purposely pay for my online space so that I do not have to have banner advertisements on my pages. I pay for my domain and whatever resources I need to do the writing. It doesn’t cost very much, but in those days when we had difficulty paying our bills, even a few donations might have helped. From the beginning, however, the website was always meant to be a gift. It is one of the ways I’ve been blessed to serve God in this world. It is my offering to Him, and it will never be a source of revenue for my family.

Paul worked hard to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with the world. He spent time on the road, and anyone who has traveled knows how expensive it can be. Eating out costs more money than a home-cooked meal. Paul might have found housing with family or fellow Christians, but I suspect he spent many nights at inns, especially when he was traveling from one town to another. He had to purchase tickets for his journeys on ships. He would have had to pay for whatever services others did for him. Though I am sure the Christian community willingly shared themselves with Paul and his companions, Paul was not always in a Christian community. He often shared the Gospel with people who had never heard about Jesus and he could not depend on the fellowship of believers until they believed.

Even then, Paul did not rely on others. He was a tentmaker and he continued to do that work as he traveled from town to town. He earned his own pay, paid his own bills and didn’t take any money for the work he did for the Christian community. The recent texts from 1 Thessalonians brought up the question a few weeks ago about why Paul makes such a big deal about his self sufficiency. It is another one of those ways that Paul sounds arrogant and self-centered to some readers.

We see this again in today’s second lesson. Paul speaks about how hard he worked so that the people of Thessalonica would not be burdened by him. He wanted to make sure that the people knew what he was giving to them was real, not something he was willing to say just to get paid. Paul knew the Word of God was not his to sell; it was a gift from God. Unfortunately, there were others who were not so humble about the gift of the Gospel. Many roaming preachers expected payment, and they preached for their own benefit. They preached a message that played well with the listeners so that they would give the most payment for the words.

That’s what was happening in Micah’s day. The false prophets preached a message of peace when the listeners were willing to feed them, but when the crowd was not generous enough, they spoke of doom and destruction to those who would not pay them. It doesn’t take very long before people give money just to hear what they want to hear. A message of peace is much more palatable than that of war. What are a few loaves of bread to someone who has been promised peace and happiness?

Everyone likes to hear a positive message. No one wants to hear that they have wronged God and that God will allow their world to be destroyed. But the prophets who sold that message of peace were not speaking God’s word. Sometimes we have to face difficult times. Sometimes we have to face the consequences of our actions and those times are not pleasant or peaceful. The prophets were given their gift to help God’s people walk a straight line and live as God had ordained them to live. The kings and the wealthy were never willing to pay for the truth. They wanted to hear the things that made them feel and look good, so they supported the prophets that gave them what they wanted.

There might be good reason to speak a positive message when times are tough. Some prophets may speak about peace because they know dwelling on the negative message will only make the hearer afraid or moved to wrong action. They have good and right motive, but a lie is still a lie. And is it really good to have the world turned upside down because there was no call to change? Prophets are not given messages of warning to make them afraid. It is a call to repentance. God has been known to ‘change His mind.” Take Nineveh, for example. When Jonah got around to preaching the message to the Ninevites, they repented and God had mercy on them. Might the destruction of Jerusalem have been averted if only the prophets told the truth? The blessings would have been far greater if the people had heard the right word and done what God called them to do.

We need to beware of those who expect payment for the Word of God. I used to belong to a mailing list in which prophetic voices shared their visions and prophecies. I was impressed with the words that were shared in the beginning, and blessed by the messages they gave. As the list grew, I found that more and more of the messages I received were selling me something. Even those that included a prophetic message had links to books to buy or conferences to attend. They sold workshops in how to be a prophet. The last time I visited the website, I had difficulty even finding a word from God. Everyone was more interested in selling themselves.

So the inevitable question came out of the discussion at Sunday school: “Why do we pay our pastors?” It might seem like these scriptures put forth an example of pastors working outside the church to support themselves, giving the Gospel to the people for free. That is the model that some churches use, but most have full time pastoral staff that are paid a salary. Are they being paid for the Gospel? Not really. In modern churches, the pastor serves the congregation in many ways beyond being a preacher. They are administrators, worship planners, counselors. They serve the members by performing the rites of passage through life and death. They educate, encourage, admonish. Is it possible that a pastor might lean his or her service toward the money? Of course, pastors are as human as the rest of us. But we cannot expect a pastor to be available 24/7 to do everything we want them to do and support themselves with another job. If the church body would do all the work, leaving the preachers to just preach, perhaps we could return to the model shown to us by Paul. Until that day we have to support our pastors with money as well as encouragement, prayer and support.

The example we see in Paul is more than just one of a man who refuses to be paid for his work among the Christians. Paul encouraged the Christians at Thessalonica to live a life worthy of God. Paul gave a model of self-sufficiency and pride in a job well-done. Someone once said, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.” Any vocation is sacred if you’re called to it by God. Could Paul have done more if he’d let others pay the bill? I don’t think so, because in modeling a life of hard work as well as ministry, Paul showed the world that the message of Christ was for all men, not just the religious and intellectual. Jesus’ grace is for the maid and the monk, the janitor and the priest. All who have faith have been called to the same place: to be children of God and to share the Gospel of Christ.

Whether our job is in ministry or in some other arena, we are called to speak the truth of God’s Word and to live a life that praises God. The words we speak may not always be embraced by the listeners, but if it is God’s Word they will be blessed in the hearing. Unfortunately, too many choose to speak words that profit their own lives.

The Gospel lessons over the past few weeks have centered during the week of Jesus’ passion. We’ve heard Him speak parables that demonstrate the worst of human nature and suggest that the religious leaders of the day were guilty of every one. We knew, as we heard the stories, our own guilt and we’ve been convicted of our own twisted sense of justice and mercy. We aren’t living as Christ called us to live.

In just a few short days, Jesus would finish the journey to the cross and the work His Father sent for Him to do. His glory would never be found in the seats at the head of the table or in fine clothes. He was not sent to be popular or famous. He was not sent to gain a huge following or build a great church. He came to reform the religious understanding of His people, to bring mercy and grace. Most of all, He came to die for the sake of those who believe in Him, to take the burden of their sin and banish it forever.

As He drew nearer to the cross, His message became more urgent and more direct. In today’s Gospel lesson Jesus speaks to the crowds about the insincerity of the teachers of the Law. “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses seat: all things therefore whatsoever they bid you, these do and observe: but do not ye after their works; for they say, and do not.” The teachers do not practice what they preach. They do everything for the sake of appearances. “But all their works they do to be seen of men: for they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, and love the chief place at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and the salutations in the marketplaces, and to be called of men, Rabbi.” For them it was about power, and they held a great deal of power over the people.

Jesus came to bring a different message. He came to be a model of humility, to call His people into a life of service and mercy. He showed the ultimate obedience by dying on the cross and by His grace we see the real glory of God. We aren’t called to die on a cross, but we are called to live according to the word God has given, as humble servants going forth in faith to share God’s love and mercy with the world. Sometimes that means taking the hard road. Sometimes that means facing tough times. Sometimes that means getting your hands dirty, wallowing in the muck and mire of life.

It has been a blessing to be able to provide this ministry without asking for anyone to pay. This does not diminish the work of pastors and other church leaders who have taken upon themselves the yoke of ministry for which they should be paid. They are not selfish in their need for a salary and I’m not selfless in my refusal of money. We are simply doing what God has called us to do, trusting in God to provide for our needs. He provides in so many different ways. The trouble comes when we step outside that trust, seeking profit beyond God’s blessings. Whether our work is paid or whether it is free, it is our reliance on God that stands as a testament to His grace.

The psalmist writes, “Oh send out thy light and thy truth; let them lead me: Let them bring me unto thy holy hill, And to thy tabernacles.” The psalmist knows what it is like to live in the fear of abandonment. The prayer begins in Psalm 42, with a cry from one who feels far from God, desolate in isolation. The psalmist wants to be in God’s presence, but is likely far from the Temple, perhaps taken captive by another nation. He feels oppressed and afraid. In Psalm 43, he prays for God’s deliverance; though he has taken refuge in God, he still feels abandoned. He prays for restoration and is ready to follow God home.

At the end, the psalmist asks himself why he’s downcast. “Hope thou in God; for I shall yet praise him, Who is the help of my countenance, and my God.” We need not wait for God to prove Himself to trust in Him. He has been our hope and our help always. It would have been easy for Paul to demand that the Christians pay his way; after all he was working hard to help them create a community of faithful believers. He was a teacher, preacher and organizer. He traveled a long way to share the Message with them. I’m sure he would have appreciated taking a break from his tent work to rest or relax once in a while. I have to admit that it would have been nice to have financial support during those times when we were facing financial difficulty. But sometimes we are called to give what we’ve been given and trust that God will provide the rest.

In what way is God calling you to live that life worthy of Him? Where is He asking you to be self-sufficient? What sort of jobs is He giving you to do without profit in order to share the Good News with others? In what ways are you like those religious leaders who put on a good show but do not mean what they say? In what ways are you being called to be humble, to take refuge in God and hope only in Him?

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