Because They Matter!

This is a sermon preached by Pastor Drew Hart.  It is the second in a 5-part sermon series about being externally-focused. There series is entitled, “Why Should We Care About Them?”

Read: Luke 5:12-16

In terms of dollars and cents, how much do you suppose this person contributes to society? [photo of homeless person on a sidewalk covered with a blanket] Probably nothing. How much of a financial “drain” might some consider him/her to be? Somebody has to cover the costs of the shelter they stay in. Where those shelters are staffed, somebody has to pay their wages. Somebody has to cover the costs of any meals they get in a food kitchen. When they turn up in the E.R., somebody has to cover the costs of the care they receive. There are some people, I’m afraid, that look at someone like this and would just as soon they be gone because they consider them a drain on society.

Or how about this person? [drug addict] What’s their social value by the world’s standards? Or this person? [alcoholic] Or this person? [prisoner] Or these people? [immigrants] Or this person? [transsexual] Or these guys? [KKK] From the viewpoint of society at-large, what’s their value? Whether or not any of us would publically admit it, my guess is a lot of folks, probably including many of us here, place little cultural value on people like those I’ve just shone you. We might say that these are people on the fringe of society. People who for many different reasons don’t often fall into the category we might call “normal.” And, of course, “normal” almost always means like us. But then again, that might be relative.

Back to this notion of placing value on something or someone. When it comes to placing value on something, in one simple statement Jesus pretty much sums up the truth. He said, “Your heart will be wherever your treasure is” (Mt. 6.21). Or, put another way, where we put our money reveals what’s important to us. Every single one of us has X amount of dollars to spend, and very few of us are going to just throw it away on things that mean nothing to us. Because Jesus is right; wherever our heart is – whatever important to us – that’s where our treasure is.

Why is it that we (the societal “we”) can build athletic stadiums at the cost of $billions, but we’ll struggle and struggle to find or build homeless shelters?  On my overnight at Share the Warmth last Monday, Bill Rierdon told me that they need to find a new building for next fall. The Salvation Army building – their current location — simply isn’t up to code, and it’s busting at the seams in terms of the number of people staying there. This year there’s almost a 100% increase over last year! 100%! And right they can only take about 10 women, and they’re crammed into two small rooms at that. And currently they cannot house children, of which there are many in our community, believe it or not. So why is it we’ll be able to fund things that will support our desire for entertainment, but Share the Warmth, and Neighbors of Hope will have to beg and borrow to get shelter for these folks? Could it be that they don’t matter as much?

One thing’s for sure: they matter to Jesus. They matter a lot to Jesus! It wasn’t too long ago that if you were diagnosed with AIDS, you were shunned and looked upon with fear and trepidation, even by your friends. It was the social kiss of death. People were afraid to be around them, for fear that it was contagious by just being in the presence of someone with AIDS. Well, the AIDS of Jesus’ day was leprosy. People were so fearful of those with leprosy that it was even written into the OT Law that they were to be banned to an area outside of the camp. They were not to mingle with the public. In Christ’s day lepers were not allowed to live within a walled town. And wherever they went, they were required to wear a torn outer garment as a sign of deep grief, and they were supposed to warn passers-by to keep away from them by calling out, “Unclean! Unclean!” They were not allowed to speak to anyone, or receive or return a salutation, since in those days salutations involved an embrace, and that was strictly forbidden. Here’s the thing: even back then they knew it wasn’t a contagious disease. And yet, they we marginalized and made to feel like they were less worthy than everyone else.

Enter Jesus. He broke the rules. He befriended those on the fringe, the marginalized. He ate meals with known sinners – most scandalously, Jewish tax collectors. Jewish tax collectors were viewed as traitors. They worked for the Roman empire, and often filled their own pockets by demanding more than the required tax. But Jesus hung out with them. Today we call that “guilty by association.”

And just as scandalously, he refused to follow the acceptable social norms when it came to lepers. In today’s story, rather than turning away from the leprous man, he instead reached out and touch him! Luke doesn’t necessarily say so, but I can easily imagine that before that conversation was finished, Jesus may have also wrapped his arms around him give him a big hug! He touched the leper and healed him. And as a result, hordes of people came to be healed, which he did. No doubt, many of not most of them were also marginalized.

When Jesus healed the woman who’d been subject to bleeding for 12 years, that living on the edge, because she was considered ceremoniously unclean. When Jesus talked with the women at the well, that was scandalous for multiple reasons. 1) He was alone with her – I’m pretty sure a big no-no in those days and culture. 2) She wasn’t Jewish. 3) She’d been divorced many times. 4) She was currently shacking up with a man – not married to him. Also, you may not realize it by today’s cultural standards, but the fact that Jesus the rabbi welcomed little children onto his lap was a major social faux pas. Someone in that position just didn’t such things.

In the Gospel of Mark, there’s a story of Jesus healing the daughter of a Greek woman. I’m guessing that was frowned upon by the Jewish religious leaders of his day. Again and again, Jesus demonstrated through his actions and stories that he was absolutely for those who society at-large tended to keep at arms-length.

So, you tell me: do you think that if Jesus were here today he’d make the effort to get to know these people? [show montage of previous pictures]

So, as we take steps down the path of being more externally-focused as a church, I have two questions for us to think about. First, What would it mean for our church to intentionally reach out to those on the social fringe of our own community? And second, What might it actually look like?

So, first, what would it mean? First, and probably most importantly, it would mean adopting new ministry values, if you will. As a church, we value all sorts of things. We value excellence. We value inspirational worship. We value friendships with each other. And, of course, we value outreach. There’s a lot we value. But there’s an aspect of our congregational life that we – like many churches – have trouble with, and that’s unpredictability. We like to know what to expect. And when we don’t have a good idea about how things are going to unfold, we get uncomfortable. That’s just how most of us are wired. Very few of us thrive on unpredictability, because it feels chaotic.

But my guess is that an active ministry to those on the fringe of society is anything but predictable. There’s no way to know ahead of time how successful such a ministry might be. And we’d probably discover that whatever we’d undertake would have to be constantly adjusted. So the first one is getting comfortable with unpredictability. In other words, we have to become comfortable risking failure. We have to be OK with not getting it right, but doing something and then making adjustments as necessary. Please know that I’m the first one who wants all my ducks in a row before venturing forth. This is a challenge for me as much as it is for anyone.

A second ministry value we would need to adopt is being OK with doing things for others without any expectation of getting something in return. I can’t stress this one enough. It’s not uncommon to say, “Well, maybe if we do [such and such],  for [so and so] they might come here.” That kind of perspective can be manipulative. In its extreme, it’s really about us. But ministry isn’t about us, is it? So I think it would be important for us to be OK with the possibility that we might spend lots of time and money on serving people who may never darken the doors of our church.

Third, and probably the most difficult and obvious (again, I’m preaching to myself), it means learning to get comfortable engaging with people who are different than us. Who have a different lifestyle. Whose life experiences are probably a lot different than many of ours. Who walk with a different crowd. Who haven’t the faintest clue what goes on at a church…and maybe even are quite suspect of Christians. Can we be honest for a moment? While there are certainly many of us here who are unable to spend and evening or an overnight at Share the Warmth for very good reason, there are also way more of us who can. Who are more than able. But those are the most difficult shifts to fill. Why? Because we’re uncomfortable around them. What would I talk about with them? What if someone comes in drunk? What if…?

This is where we – and I – need God’s grace and Holy Spirit. Developing a value for being externally focused – whether for the unchurched, de-churched, or those on the fringe of society – will only happen by God’s grace through the work of the Holy Spirit. But it’s a value we have to grow into regardless of our personal feelings. Why? Because they matter deeply to Jesus.

Now, I asked a second question, but answer isn’t going to come from the pulpit. It really has to come from you. What might this kind of ministry actually look like? What programs and ministries could we either 1) continue doing that we’re already doing, 2) begin anew, 3) join together with another church or agency that’s already doing something? For example, there are some ways that we could partner with Neighbors of Hope and engage with the people there. What might it look like? The answer to that question begins with whatever the Lord is putting on your heart. I’m not saying that we have to do everything that comes to mind. But the best place to start is to discern what God is laying on your hearts. Ask yourself that question. And then….listen.

Let’s start right now. [prayer]


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