Monday, October 3, 2011

Sheep, Goats, and Stewardship

A few weeks ago, Brit gave her first "real sermon" in Poland. It was by no means her first sermon, nor was it the first (or even fifth) time she's been primarily responsible for bringing the message to our weekly meetings. However, SNU Theology & Ministry graduate that Brit is, it still felt like a big step for her...and if you ask me, she took on a tricky subject and hit it out of the park. Her sermon was loosely titled, "Stewardship: it's about more than just money."

During worship, we read a passage from a prayer by St. Ignatius of Loyola: "Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding and my entire will, all I have and all I call my own. You have given it all to me. To you, Lord, I return it. Everything is yours; do with it what you will. Give me only your love and your grace; that is enough for me. " This is a simple, challenging prayer!

Between the Children's Message and Family Communion, we read together (in English and Polish) from one of our all-time favorite chapters of the Old Testament.

"Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: 'Here am I.' " -Isaiah 58:6-9a (NIV)

What an amazing, inspiring, gut-wrenchingly simplistic summary of God's purpose and promise for his people, a people who are called to do justice, free the oppressed, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and clothe the naked. THEN says, the LORD, will he bring light, healing, righteousness, and glory; an answer to his people's cry for help. Amen!!

Brit's sermon opened with the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats from Matthew 25, a passage that's been dear to us since our college days (while at SNU, we both belonged to a student-run compassionate ministry organization called "Least of These Ministries").

"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’" -Matthew 25:31-40 (NIV)

Immediately after we read this challenging passage together, Brit shared two fascinating "sheep facts" with us that really informed the way we understood the parable's meaning. First, she pointed out, sheep possess a nearly-320-degree field of vision. This means they're excellent at tracking members of their flock, as well as sensing danger, even from long distances. Second, Brit noted, sheep have an unusual gland between their hooves that secretes a find-the-flock scent that serves as a sort of homing beacon for lost or straggling members of their herd. Who knew that we could learn so much about the life we are called to as the Body of Christ from simple sheep?!

Brit's second supporting text was excerpted from Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. "For who makes you different from anyone else?" Paul admonished his readers. "What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?" -I Corinthians 4:7 (NIV)

"What do you have that you have not been given?" Brit challenged us. Then she read to us from's definition of stewardship: "Historically, stewardship was the responsibility given to household servants to bring food and drinks to a castle dining hall. The term was then expanded to indicate a household employee's responsibility for managing household or domestic affairs. Stewardship later became the responsibility for taking care of passengers' domestic needs on a ship, train and airplane, or managing the service provided to diners in a restaurant. The term continues to be used in these specific ways, but it is also used in a more general way to refer to a responsibility to take care of something belonging to someone else."

"When you look at the Christian life this way, we are all stewards of God's love in the world," Brit pointed out. Then we read from Matthew 25 again, with a new appreciation not only of sheep, but of the ways the "sheep" in this parable cared for other as stewards of God's love. Clearly, we are called to be stewards; sheep-like stewards, that watch out for each other, generously provide for each other's needs, and help wayward members find their way back to the flock.

The third portion of Brit's sermon focused on some of the specific needs that we are called to meet as faithful stewards of God's resources. We began by reading from Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount about God's promised provision for our physical and material needs:

"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

"Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets." -Matthew 6:25-34 , 7:9-11

"God's got this," Brit bluntly summarized. "He knows what we need, and he's promised to provide. So we have no excuse for worrying about our needs or allowing them to limit our generosity to others." Not only that, but there's a big difference between our wants and genuine need!!

The fourth and final section of Brit's sermon emphasized perhaps the single most important aspect of stewardship: Christians' ability to see -and seize- our opportunities to live out God's love in the world every day. Even the "sheep" in Christ's parable seemingly struggled with this: "Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’" -Matthew 25:37-40 (NIV)

Christianity, therefore, revolves around our willingness and faithfulness to seek out these sorts of opportunities to tangibly share God's love with others throughout our daily lives. And nowhere is this more true than in relational, coffeehouse-based ministry!! We were forcibly reminded of a passage from Colossians 4, one that was brought to our attention very early in our fund-raising journey by our dear friend Dr. Doug Samples. We've since used it at every presentation we've given about our ministry here in Poland, and we continue to be challenged as we pray it here together:

"Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone." -Colossians 4:2-6 (NIV)

As our discussion time drew to a close, I was strongly reminded (and profoundly encouraged) by reminders of all of amazing individuals and organizations we've been privileged to know that ARE "getting it right," both here in Poland and back home in the States. These included Lake Overholser Church of the Nazarene's strong connection with Angel Tree Ministries, spearheaded by our friend Kelsey; Bread of Life's homeless ministries founded by our friends Pastor Rich and Brooke (now run almost entirely by Polish nationals, some of whom are among our closest friends anywhere); and OKC First Church of the Nazarene's recent Block Party, founded on the visionary leadership of our dear friends, Pastors Jon and Lance. We are so incredibly proud of (and indebted to) them all!!

We were also encouraged and energized by the ways in which members of our local church family here in Krakow are beginning to seize these sorts of opportunities in their own lives. These include our friend (and co-minister) Sławek's willingness to connect with a local Gideon's group to secure more polish-English Bibles for our church to give away to seekers and new believers; our friend Basia's interest in helping Brit organize a used clothing drive for the needy in our community; and Sławek's family's decision to provide "emergency foster care" to young children caught up in the Polish court system.

It is so inspiring to be reminded of God's will for our lives, and his promises for those who follow it. It is even more exciting to see the ways in which his people are seeking it out, and the ways it is beginning to shape who we are as a local church community! I'll close with a favorite verse from Jeremiah, one that I first heard quoted in a sermon by legendary Nazarene missionary Rev. Elmer Schmelzenbach, and that continues to encourage and enlighten me on even the toughest days:

"Call unto me, and I will answer thee, and show thee great and mighty things, which thou knowest not." -Jeremiah 33:3 (KJV)