Concern For One Another

“Concern For One Another”

Hebrews 10:19-25 (10:24-25) – November 14, 2021

            Have you worshiped at another church – perhaps when you went out of town, or on a trip to see relatives – and found the worship at that other church was quite different from our worship here at St. Luke’s Church? I can relate! I have worshiped at churches in a number of different faith traditions, in all different kinds of church buildings, although they all proclaimed the same Lord, our Lord Jesus Christ. The same God receives all the glory! Some churches in a more rambunctious manner than we do here.

            Our writer to the Hebrew believers in the Messiah is writing to small groups of believers scattered all around the area of Asia Minor. Our Preacher writes to people very familiar with the Temple and Jewish sacrificial system.

            The scattered Hebrew believers worshiped in houses, sometimes synagogues. A far different place and space than the great, big Temple in Jerusalem. Think of that huge building! The High Priest was only able to go into the Most Holy Place of the Temple once a year, on Yom Kippur, with the most holy of sacrifices, to atone for the sins of the nation of Israel.

            This was at a time when there still was a Temple standing in Jerusalem. Yet, not for long. In just a few years, the Roman armies are going to totally destroy the Temple. But – what on earth are the faithful devout Jews going to do when that happens, to be certain sure that their God forgives them their sins? The Preacher to the Hebrew believers told them – yet again, in different ways – that there is a better way to God. That way is the Messiah Jesus.  

            I have worshiped in larger churches. A few times I’ve gone to cathedrals, like here in downtown Chicago. Not only to be surrounded by all of that beautiful stonework, artwork, and stained glass, but also to be surrounded by the glory of God. It is an amazing experience to worship in a place like one of those large, magnificent churches.  Some Christians have a problem, though. It doesn’t matter if they lived in the first century or the twenty-first century. Some believers try really hard to reach God on their own through doing good deeds. Going overboard helping people. Giving so much it seriously hurts.

.           “You’re never done because you can never do enough. After all, it’s not a way for God’s adopted children to establish a right relationship with God.  Of course, God’s people sometimes treat Christianity as a way to make God “happy.”  We sometimes assume you have to think, do or say just the right things to connect to God.” [1]

These beloved people, these God-followers just do not get it. God does not want people to be forced to do anything out of fear, with people scared to pieces, so afraid that they won’t worship God in the proper way. It happens throughout the centuries, not just long ago. It still goes on today – people think they have to worship the “correct” way to connect to God.

I’ve attended some African-American worship services. They are often quite different from the more quiet, sedate way we worship here at St. Luke’s Church. I had the privilege to preach in one service some years ago, at a Baptist church on the west side of Chicago. In a converted building, three storefronts put together. The building did not look like much from the outside. But, inside? A whole different thing. The spirit of God came down and transformed that worship space – and the worshipers. Marvelous to experience.

The worshipers truly encouraged one another, cared for one another, and helped one another show good to others. In their own context, familiar to them, on the west side of Chicago.

I know that we are supposed to encourage each other and care for each other, in our local assembly, in our congregation. But, some churches make it more difficult to do that. Some church buildings are large and impersonal. Like, for example, the church my husband’s sister attended years and years ago, in a nearby Chicago suburb. So cold and gloomy and impersonal! My husband did not want to go back there after he attended two or three times.

Other churches communicate an immediate feeling of warmth, welcome and fellowship. Is your church one of those? The Writer to the Hebrew believers instructs his scattered readers to not only encourage each other, in the assembly, but to be helpful to others outside of your congregation! Be kind! Reach out! And, that will honor God!

One great way to be an encouragement to our fellow congregation members AND to reach out to others out side of the church walls is by being faithful to our local assembly. As we are faithful in offering our time, talent and treasure to our local congregation, we can honor God.  Some might think that I am confused; I just got done with saying some believers try hard to reach God on their own through doing calculated “good deeds. Giving so much it hurts.

That is NOT the case. We don’t have to think, do or say just the right things to connect to God. It isn’t the good works we do. It isn’t the obligations we accomplish. Do you hear? It’s all about the relationship we have with our loving heavenly Parent! God wants relationship, not fear, not obligation. Not shoulds and arm-twisting and guilt, guilt, guilt!

God wants beloved children coming into the Heavenly Presence out of love, out of love and gratitude. That’s the vertical direction. Plus, God is so pleased when we extend that loving, caring relationship in a horizontal direction! To our fellow church member, yes! In reaching out to help others, outside the church walls, too.

We are encouraged to give – in response to God, in love and thankfulness – of our time, talents and treasure. (That means money.) God will be so pleased when we do! You and I will be amazed when we see how far our treasure goes, when we put it to work to help, strengthen, and encourage others. Let’s do this!

And, to God be the glory.  Alleluia, amen.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my other blogs: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!


[1] https://cepreaching.org/commentary/2018-11-12/hebrews-1011-14-15-18-19-25/

Radical Stewardship!

“Radical Stewardship!“

Stephen stoning Acts 7

Acts 7:8-9, 57-59 – July 12, 2015

When you have a crisis or serious situation around the house, or personal matters that require some assistance, who is the first person you think of? Who is dependable, helpful, and downright handy to know? Who always seems to have the answers, provides service, and responds in a cheerful, friendly manner? Do you have someone in mind? That’s who, that’s what I think of when I think about Stephen, one of the first deacons of the Early Church.

Here we are, in the next installment of our summer sermon series from the Book of Acts, Postcards from the Early Church. I’ve mentioned this before, of how this sermon series reminds me a bit of a radio serial. “When last we left our intrepid heroes . . . “ Last week, we took a look at the first recorded church conflict, in Acts 6.

This tension and conflict revealed itself in a dispute over the care of widows. It escalated into a problem between two separate groups of believers in the early Church. Jews separated by language and by culture. One Greek-speaking group of Jews—a minority group—claimed they were being overlooked, and were being left out in the charity distribution to widows.

Remember, the twelve Apostles needed help, so they called upon the whole congregation to choose deacons, people of good standing, stature, and wisdom to serve the congregation. Among these Greek-speaking men was someone named Stephen. Like the others, he was appointed and ordained to take care of social welfare matters in the congregation.

Let’s take a closer look at Acts 6, and see what it has to say about Stephen and the other deacons. I’ll be reading from a modern translation, called The Message, translated by Eugene Peterson. “[The congregation] went ahead and chose [seven Greek-speaking men.] Praying, the apostles laid on hands and commissioned them for their task. The Word of God prospered. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased dramatically. Not least, a great many priests submitted themselves to the faith.”

In these deacons, we have seven respected believers, people of wisdom, with Greek names. What’s more, one man was even a proselyte, a convert to Judaism. These Greek-speaking believers were good stewards of the gifts God had entrusted to them. They were also good stewards of what the congregation in Jerusalem had entrusted to them, too.

The book of Acts is not specific, but I can imagine them taking up their new duties. Going around the main part of Jerusalem and perhaps the suburbs, too. Checking up on the widows and those who could not come to services regularly. Making sure that the elderly, the young ones, and the infirm had enough to eat, and if need be, medical care. In this way, the deacons freed up the Apostles to continue in prayer, and preaching and teaching God’s Word.

Whatever they were doing must have done the job. We can see, as Dr. Luke said, the number of believers continued to grow—and grow!

What about us, here, today? Think about the things God has given you stewardship over. What gifts and talents do you have to offer the church? What can you offer to your neighbors? I’d like you to think about that, as we continue to look at Stephen.

Acts 6 lifts him up as a stand-out, as far as the new deacons are concerned. Stephen does an exceptional job. If there were Olympic-level competition in being a deacon, I suspect Stephen would be right up there, competing for a medal. He is a stellar deacon, serving the congregation! Listen to our passage from Acts: “Stephen, brimming with God’s grace and energy, was doing wonderful things among the people, unmistakable signs that God was among them.”

Remember how I opened this sermon? How I asked everyone here to think of someone who is dependable, helpful, and downright handy to know? Who always seems to have the answers, provides service, and responds in a cheerful, friendly manner? I just so happen to have someone like this in my extended family. My brother-in-law, married to my husband’s sister. Rick is one of the nicest guys you could meet. He was a volunteer fireman in his small town. Now he’s a fire inspector in his region of Michigan.

But that’s not what I wanted to highlight about Rick. Instead, he goes above and beyond when he’s asked to help. Now that my father-in-law is in his mid-eighties, my husband and I are sure glad that Rick lives only about a half hour’s drive away from Grandpa Jones. Rick is handy around the house, always keeps a cool head no matter what, and is just a swell guy to have around. Not only that, he’s an elder in his Presbyterian church, and a pillar of the community. Very much the kind of person I imagine Stephen to have been.

Back to Acts 6: “Then some men went up against Stephen trying to argue him down. But they were no match for his wisdom and spirit when he spoke.”  

It seems that Stephen is not only an outstanding deacon, excellent at serving others in the congregation, but I understand God has blessed him personally. Abundantly. He is an excellent steward of both his personal gifts, as well as God’s gifts of life and blessing for others. He must have been articulate, too. Fantastic at expressing himself, with wisdom and holy insight.

Remember, the Early Church was located in Jerusalem in these early days. Jerusalem was not friendly to the group of believers in the Risen Messiah Jesus. (I’m getting worried about what is going to happen.) Let’s read some more from Acts. “So in secret, the men bribed others to lie: ‘We heard him cursing Moses and God.’ That stirred up the people, the religious leaders, and religion scholars. They grabbed Stephen and took him before the High Council. ”

Ah. The High Council. In other words, the religiously powerful. I see them as those who block access to God. As a United Methodist commentary says, “those who use and interpret the Law in order to control access to God’s gifts. It seems that Stephen is so good at doling out ‘life abundant’ to anyone and everyone, that the religiously powerful go to unscrupulous lengths to stop him from doing what they perceive to be their job exclusively.”

Stephen continues to be a stand-out steward of the gifts God has given him. Even in his lengthy defense to the High Council—he takes almost all of Acts chapter 7 to go through the history of the nation of Israel, showing how ungrateful and stiff-necked the Jewish people are.

Just listen to the climax of Stephen’s defense: “And you continue, so bullheaded! Calluses on your hearts, flaps on your ears! Deliberately ignoring the Holy Spirit, you’re just like your ancestors. Was there ever a prophet who didn’t get the same treatment? Your ancestors killed anyone who dared talk about the coming of the Just One. And you’ve kept up the family tradition—traitors and murderers, all of you. You had God’s Law handed to you by angels—gift-wrapped!—and you squandered it!”

“At that point [the Council] went wild, a rioting mob of catcalls and whistles and invective. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, hardly noticed—he only had eyes for God, whom he saw in all his glory with Jesus standing at his side. He said, ‘Oh! I see heaven open wide and the Son of Man standing at God’s side!’

57-58 “Yelling and hissing, the mob drowned him out. Now in full stampede, they dragged him out of town and pelted him with rocks. The ringleaders took off their coats and asked a young man named Saul to watch them. 59-60 As the rocks rained down, Stephen prayed, ‘Master Jesus, take my life.’ Then he knelt down, praying loud enough for everyone to hear, ‘Master, don’t blame them for this sin’—his last words. Then he died.”

As a commentator says, “Even as the council is extinguishing Stephen’s life – stone by hideous stone – he continues to dole out life and grace to them, his killers.”

Radical stewardship, indeed. He gave generously of God’s gifts of life and blessing for other believers. Such a stand-out, he was martyred for his stewardship of his gifts.

Stephen and his example of stewardship stand not only as an example for us, but for the Church Universal, and for the centuries. We can see that “The first Christian martyr comes not from those preaching the word, but from those feeding the hungry.”

This is what this church does. This church has a regular collection of food for the Maine Township Food Pantry. We feed the hungry and provide for God’s table of grace. This congregation shares food—and we share God’s gifts of life—with the hungry, with the vulnerable, with those in need. This is serving in the way that God wants us to serve.

I will adapt Paul Waddell’s words, as he writes for the Center for Christian Ethics: “Christian [stewardship] is a matter of welcoming, caring for, and befriending the stranger, the poor and needy, the homeless and destitute, the unloved and the unlikable, the weird and the strange, in gratitude to God and in imitation of Christ. For Christians, [stewardship] is not an occasional gesture but a whole way of being. It is not an interruption to our normal way of life but a habit, practice, or virtue that ought consistently to characterize our lives.”

Do you share God’s gifts of life, every day? Do we provide God’s table of grace for others, regularly? God calls each of us to be generous, each day. Be of service, one on one. Be excellent stewards—personally. God is calling, to you, and to me. Won’t you answer?

Alleluia, amen!

@chaplaineliza

(My thanks to “Radical Gratitude,” http://www.umfnw.org for several excellent ideas and quotes I used in this sermon. And, my thanks and deep appreciation for Eugene Peterson’s translation of selected verses from Acts 6 and 7;  “Scripture taken from The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.”)

Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!