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Saturday, 26 November 2011

Giving It All Up For God

Let's take a walk down memory lane for a moment. Some of you may remember a famous comedian named Flip Wilson. He had a weekly TV comedy show back in the 70s, and one of his favorite characters to portray was a preacher named Brother Leroy.

In one skit, Brother Leroy was leading services one Sunday morning. It wasn't going very well. People weren't very responsive. It came time to receive the offering and so Brother Leroy passed the collection plates. They came back empty. So he passed them again. Same thing. Empty. Brother Leroy then went before the people and said, "Now, I know that you all want this church to progress.This church must progress." No response from the congregation. Brother Leroy shouted a bit louder: "Now, before this church can progress it has to crawl, this church has got to crawl." And the congregation started getting excited and they yelled back, "Make it crawl, Reverend. Make it crawl!" Brother Leroy continued, "After this church has crawled, it's got to pick itself up and start to walk, this church has got to walk!" And the people yelled back at him, "Make it walk, Reverend. Make it walk!" "And after this church has walked, this church has got to get up and run, this church has got to run." And the people were worked up into a terrible frenzy, and they hollered back: "Make it run, Reverend. Make it run!" And then Brother Leroy said, "Now, brothers and sisters, in order for this church to run, its gonna need money, its gonna take money for this church to run!" And the people yelled back, "Let it crawl, Reverend. Let it crawl!"

The congregation in this story has something in common with the rich young ruler in the parable of the rich young ruler. Both of them were asked to give up something that meant a lot to them in order to gain something more important, and both of them were reluctant to give up that one thing that was important to them. A similar situation exists with many people today. Those who have abundance in this world sometimes find that their abundance is a roadblock on the road to salvation. They are not always prepared to suffer for Christ when and if it is necessary. The rich young man was not prepared to do that. He was like many of us in that he wanted the benefits, but he didn't want to pay the costs. In other words, he wanted something for nothing.

The rich young man wasn't prepared to give up what he had for the sake of Christ. How many of us are in the same situation today? How many of us are willing to give up what we have in order to follow Christ? When we give our offerings, are we giving because we want to, or because we feel that we HAVE to? Do we give willingly, or do we give grudgingly? Do we tithe regularly? Failure to tithe is the same as robbing God. Spiritual life is not a matter of bookkeeping.

Christ calls us to give up more than just things. We are also called to give up habits or traditions that keep us from following Christ. He calls us to give up traditions, habits or ways of thinking that keep us from fulfilling His will or following Him in faith. For example, is it REALLY necessary to have Eucharist on special occasions like Christmas or Thanksgiving? Does that "tradition" bring us closer to God, or is it just a "thing' that we don't want to give up? By giving up things in this life, and following Christ in faith, we will gain MUCH more in heaven. Sure, by following Christ we will have to pay a price. We may lose our friends, our families or our jobs. In some parts of the world, Christians can lose their lives for their faith. These are just "things" that we give up when we suffer short-term pain by following Christ, but this short-term pain leads to long-term gain-namely, eternal life in heaven. We might lose our earthly family and friends, but we will gain a NEW family of fellow believers. This ultimate reward is much, much greater than the pain we have to suffer in this life.

In church, we hear every week that we must give our lives over to God. Holding on to our lives eventually leads to losing our lives. God offers us unconditional love, REGARDLESS of what we have. What we want to shed means nothing to God. Christ doesn't care about our earthly possessions UNLESS you use them in faith to do His will by spreading the Good News and bring other people to Him. He doesn't care if you drive a luxury car, or live in a mansion, or send your children to the most prestigious schools in the world. He doesn't care if you're one of the richest people in the world like Bill Gates, Ted Turner or Warren Buffett. You can try to hide behind your earthly possessions, but it won't work. God has X-ray vision. He sees all and knows all. Self-reliance does not lead to self-salvation. We need God just as much as He needs us.

There is an old adage that "money isn't everything", and that's true. The LOVE of getting things often drives people closer to despair. The affluence of most people in the Western world gives them the ability to ask questions other than those relating to basic subsistence, namely:

1. Am I happy?

2. Am I filled and fulfilled? If not, what will it take to make me so tomorrow?

Doing right doesn't give hope. The ONLY way to liberation from despair is through God. Only faith in God can give us the answers to these questions.

Sometimes we accumulate stuff in life because we don't know what we want. There are several examples of people who have become very successful in life and have all the possessions to show for it, but who also have a deep sense of loneliness and emptiness on the inside. They wanted the happiness that they thought they could get from material things. Instead, they ended up with emptiness-an emptiness that some have tried to fill with drugs, alcohol or sex, but that others have filled by coming to Christ in faith. The rich young man lacked saving faith. He was like an ungainly camel-he was too "big-feeling" and too self-sufficient to enter the eternal kingdom. Jesus said that unless we come to Him like a child-naïve with next to nothing, but full of wonder-we can't get into heaven. Coveting material possessions is to invest them with great importance to allow them to fill God's place in our lives.

Missionary work is a way of liberating the human heart from bondage to allegiances other than Christ. Missionaries are often deprived of their earthly families when they answer God's call, but this loss is more than made up for by their new spiritual family. They are administering to the extraordinary world, but at the same time they are heeding Christ's call to take up their crosses and follow Him. When people take up their crosses and follow Christ, this decision entails suffering and service. The commandments regarding our relationship with God require a higher level of discipleship.

The rich young man was following the letter of Jewish law of that time, but Jesus wanted him to follow the spirit of God's law-namely, following and trusting Christ. Jesus calls us to follow the same law. Following this law is the single key for entering the Kingdom of God. By following God's law, Christians get so much in this life that they can't out-give what Jesus gives us. We can't EARN eternal life UNLESS we try to earn it by giving up that which is important to us in this world. Giving form the heart is a significant and vital way in which we commit our lives to Christ. It leads us to a life in which with heart and mind we know Christ and His will. Even if we were perfect people, we still could not earn eternal life. The only way to eternal life is through faith. Jesus loves us in spite of our faith-or more appropriately, our lack of faith.

When our dreams are about to come true, we often ask ourselves, "Is this what I really wanted"? This might be due to the fear of losing the illusion of freedom. The real test of faith, dreams and character is in the DOING, and not in the wanting or imagining. It is harder for the wealthy to enter God's kingdom than it is for children because the wealthy have been successful in running their lives by themselves. They don't need to be dependent on anyone. On the other hand, children know about being dependent on other people. Unless we become like children and depend on God, we can't enter His Kingdom.

Sooner or later, something happens to us that makes us aware of Christ's spiritual dimensions. In my case, it was my father's terminal illness and death. Sure, I was raised in the church, baptized, confirmed and attended church regularly, but I didn't really appreciate Christ's love until it was expressed to my family and me through the love shown by church members and the minister when my father was dying at home and in the hospital. That appreciation led to the point where I am here in front of you today. Don't get me wrong-I'm not a saint. What I am, though, is someone who listened when Christ tapped me on the shoulder and said the same thing He said to the apostles when he chose them-namely, "Follow me" .

Christians are asked to be followers of Jesus. Only a few people could follow Him during his earthly ministry; however, because of his death and resurrection, EVERYONE can follow Him. When we follow Him, we must keep within earshot of Jesus. We have to hear him speak to us through worship and Bible study. This is the only way we can understand the relationship between his gift and the obedience it requires. One barrier to hearing His voice is the demands on our time today, especially on weekends. Now that Sunday shopping is legal in Nova Scotia, this will only increase the demands on our time.

Even though we follow Jesus with others in local congregations, He calls each of us to different tasks. Some are called to ordained ministry, others to lay ministry, and still others are called to music ministry or youth ministry, but we can all regard what we do each and every day as being called to divine ministry-even if we are doing something as ordinary as maintaining a home and family. Whatever we do in His name requires us to give up everything that might hinder us.

The things of this earth are not meant to be held on to, but to be given away. We might like to think of ourselves as virtuous, law-abiding Christians, keepers of the law and observers of the rites of the liturgy, but how attached are we to our present way of life? It is not just the amount of worldly goods we possess that becomes the problem, but the difficulty we have of rising above and looking beyond what we DO have enough to be free from them.

Eternal life is NOT a reward for good deeds. It IS a reward for a relationship with God. Life is for loving, not hoarding. The real meaning of life is to be found in giving things away-hence the saying, "It is better to give than to receive". Faith is the direction of life. Jesus calls us to do three things:

1. Give up everything that will hinder us from serving Him.

2. "Come"

3. "Follow Me"

There is a line in one of the hymns in the Anglican Church of Canada's  Common Praise Hymn Book that goes like this: "Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?" Will we heed that call? If so, will we pay the price willingly in order to receive the gift God offers? God will give us the strength and desire to let go of the things that hinder us from serving Him. If we follow Him, He will bless us spiritually. In order to be first with God, we have to be last in the eyes of the world. The task of giving things up is not easy, but the gift of God's grace makes it possible. Jesus said that the good shepherd lays down his life-namely, all that he is, his personal self, his wants and desires-for his sheep. When Jesus asks us to do what is seemingly impossible, He is willing to take the impossible part on himself, and He is asking of us only what is possible.

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