Will you pray for me? Lord, may the words of my lips and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
I have something I want to get off my chest and I suspect you may have the same complaint. So I’m going to begin this morning’s sermon by indulging in a rant. Think Jerry Seinfeld, but less funny. Think Dennis Leary but with fewer swear words and no cigarette. OK, here we go.
I am tired of earnest people telling me what I should to do to save the world.
I am sick to death of the endless line of people queued up to tell me where I should be spending my time, or where I should be donating my money, or what I should be buying, or what I shouldn’t be buying, and where I should or shouldn’t be buying or not buying these things.
They lurk around every corner, these people and their “shoulds”. They’re on TV, they’re on the street, they’re my friends on Facebook. Some of them are angry, like the neo-hippies that used to storm into my dorm room in a cloud of patchouli and demand to know why I wasn’t reusing my toilet paper. Some are aggressively friendly, like the college students that shake down pedestrians on Boylston Street for Greenpeace and Children International. Some are earnest and pleading, like the flight attendant who, on a recent flight back from Europe, told me about the orphans that would die if I didn’t place all my remaining Euros in her Unicef bag. Most, though, are just grim, reminding me by look and word what a total, utter failure I am at being the kind of person Jesus wants me to be and the world needs.
I mean, don’t these people know I’m trying? I recycle! I recycle everything I can get my hands on…well, except toilet paper. I give money! I give to those who ask on the street, and I pledge to my church. I buy local! I don’t drink bottled water! I go on mission trips! I listen to NPR! Don’t they know I’m trying to be a good person?! Don’t they know I already feel guilty enough? Don’t they know I already know what they’re telling me? Don’t they know that just one more person telling me what I should be doing (which translated in my head is, “what I would be doing if I weren’t such a selfish, immoral git”), don’t they know that one more “should” might just send me over the edge and turn me into a person that spends all day shopping and watching “Desperate Housewives”? I’m this close.
So, because I’m very tired of goodhearted, earnest people telling me what I should do, and because I’m sick to death of being that guy myself, this will not be that kind of sermon. This will not be that kind of sermon, even though it’s Christian Service and Outreach Sunday and the perfect time to lay a guilt trip on you guys to try to get you to sign up for a bunch of stuff. This will not be that kind of sermon not just because I’m sick of them, not just because all those shoulds and guilt trips are driving me crazy, but also for this reason: it’s not the way Jesus did it.
Here’s how Jesus did it, in today’s story, anyway: he started with good news. He went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the realm of God. Jesus did it this way: he started by telling them that the very things they had dreamed of, the things they had wanted to hear forever, the things they had longed for but feared might be fantasies, he told them these things were true. He told them that God is real. He told them that the world was full of grace, that they would not always be sick, that the powerful would not always hold them under their heels, that this hard world was just inches from shining like the sun forever.
He told them it was true, and then he lived it into being. He healed a bleeding woman, and then he turned to his disciples, and he said, “Did you see what that was like? Did you see what her face looked like when she was healed? You can make people look like that, if you want to.”
He fed five thousand hungry people, and he turned to them and said, “Did you see how cool that was? Did you see how all those people know God is in the world now? You can do that too, if you want to.”
He filled hungry fishers’ nets, he called the powerful to account, he made people pick up their mats and walk, and then he turned to the people watching and said, ‘You guys, do you have any idea how awesome this feels? How good this is? Look at that woman weeping because her son is not dead after all. Do you have any idea what that feels like to me, the one who did it? You can feel this way all the time. Come with me, and it’s yours.”
Here’s what Jesus did not say: “The Kingdom of Heaven is not here yet, and if you don’t get to work building it right now, it will never ever get here and we’ll all be stuck in this hole forever.” Here’s what Jesus did not say: “God won’t love you as much if you don’t get to work.” Here’s what Jesus did not say: “Do this, or everyone will call you a total jerk.”
Here’s what Jesus said. He looked at us, and we were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. He looked at us, and he said, “You do not have to wander through this world without an aim any more. Do you have any idea how good this life can feel? Come with me, and I will save you from your aimlessness. I will give you a purpose, holy and high, that you will never want to turn from. Come with me, and you will harvest a whole new life. Join me, not because you should, but because you can.”
I was living in Manhattan on September 11th, 2001. I was in seminary there. In those very first days after the towers came down, the response wasn’t very organized yet. The National Guard was still coming in. The Red Cross was still coming in. They were all there, sort-of, but it wasn’t all up and running yet, and it wasn’t coordinated and it wasn’t organized. And here’s the thing: The Pile was burning, and for all we knew there were people still alive in there that needed to be dug out, and we needed to move fast. And so in those early days, the rescue operations, the first cleanup operations, depended on groups that were already organized, already focused, already there. Broadly speaking there were two groups that were there on September 11th, and 12th, and 13th, two groups that were in motion the minute the towers came down. The first group was the rescue workers, the firefighters and police and paramedics. The second group was the churches.
The churches were there, full of people already organized to serve. The churches were there, full of people who had been doing this same kind of work since the beginning. The churches were there, with their contact lists of volunteers and their mission teams and their people for whom works of mercy were second nature. And so it was that my friends and I found ourselves spending the night of September 12th in a tiny museum whose name I still don’t know, serving food to exhausted rescue workers all night long. So it was that we found ourselves spending the night of the 13th at Saint Paul’s Chapel, a block from Ground Zero, serving food, making beds on pews for exhausted, blank-eyed firefighters, carrying drinking water down Church Street to the blasted-out Burger King where it was being distributed.
So it was that, when the rest of the world was milling about harassed and helpless, aching to do something, anything, to help, the churches were called upon, privileged to go to work. I remember talking to friends who lived upstate during those days and hearing their frustration and their longing to help. But in those days, there was nothing for those who lived far away to do, and they, with the rest of the world, gnashed their teeth in impotence.
Now, let me be clear. This is not a story about my friends and me being saints, or heroes. You know who the heroes of those days are; we all do. No, this is a story about grace. In those days, most of the world would have given anything for someone to hand them a hammer, or a blanket, or a firehose, and tell them what to do to make a difference. We who served in those first days, we were the lucky ones, because we were not wandering aimless; we had something to do, and we knew it mattered, and what we were doing was making it better. We didn’t go do what we did because somebody told us we should. We didn’t go because we had to, but because we could. And I will give thanks for the rest of my life that I did not have to live through those days aimless and powerless.
That’s what Jesus saves us from first: from aimlessness, from wandering through the world not knowing what to do. From powerlessness, from impotence in the face of monstrous evils. That’s what this is all about: it’s about having an aim, a goal, a purpose. It’s about not having to sit in despair ever again.
That’s good news. I think you know news like that, too. I think you’re here because you, too, have found a purpose, an aim, with God that you would not have had without. I think that’s what brought you to life with God, what keeps you coming back. I told you one of my stories; now it’s your turn to tell one of yours. It doesn’t have to be dramatic. It doesn’t have to be a big deal. Just think of one thing, one good thing that you do because of your life with God that you wouldn’t do otherwise. Think of one purpose you have in your life that you wouldn’t have if God weren’t in it. It might be big, like your career, or it might be relatively small but important, like serving on a committee or knitting prayer shawls, or serving at Sunday’s bread. Think of just one thing, then turn to someone sitting near you, stranger or friend, introduce yourself if you need to, and tell that person the thing that you do not because you must, but because you can. Just one thing. Go ahead…
. . . .
“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful….’”
Here’s what the harvest of life with Jesus is: it’s a full life. It’s a focused life. It’s a life where despair is not the end, where aimlessness or powerlessness in the face of evil will not finally win. A life full of purpose.
And hear this. If there was anyone out there, who did not have a story to tell just now, or was not satisfied with the story you told, we can help. In your bulletin is a yellow sheet of paper. On that sheet are several ways you can reap the fullness that the life of faith offers. They’re not all the ways that you can do so at Old South; others are listed in the green insert. But they’re a start. And if nothing there is the thing for you, know this: beginning in 2010, the Christian Service and Outreach Committee will make funds available to support you in your mission in the world. Our purpose is to support and increase this entire congregation’s capacity for service in Christ’s name. Write your ideas on the back of the form; tell us how we can help you. During the offering, members of the committee will be collecting these forms in baskets.
And if you need just a little more time to decide, keep your form till after the service, and as you enjoy your ice cream during fellowship hour, look for the committee members holding signs, and give your forms to one of them. We promise to be back in touch soon.
Sisters and brothers, here’s the good news: this is not about telling you what you should do, or what you ought to do, or what you’re supposed to do. This is not about guilt; it’s about opportunity. The harvest of life with our God is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send our laborers into his harvest. But don’t do it because you should, but because you can.