October 21, 2012 

Isaiah 58:6-9a – The fast that I choose is that you share you bread with the hungry and invite the homeless poor in to your house.

Psalm 41:1-3 – Blessed are those who consider the poor.

Acts 2:42-47 – They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone. They shared. This is worship.

Luke 10:25-37 – The Good Samaritan

These texts are chosen for Five Practices series. The epistle reading is the same as the last two weeks.

Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations 

We are on week four of a five-part series called Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations. We are participating in daily devotions. This week we are reading chapters 22-28 in Cultivating Fruitfulness. We are taking part in weekly small group gatherings and weekly worship. We’re going to be doing service projects together today, and we hope you’ll join us. Next week we are tying it all together with a big party. We hope you’ll join us.

The five practices are:

  1. Radical hospitality
  2. Passionate worship
  3. Intentional faith development
  4. Risk-taking mission and service
  5. Extravagant generosity

Are you growing in hospitality, worship, faith, mission, service, and generosity?

Offering radical hospitality invites people to be involved in worship, intentional faith development, and risk-taking mission and service.

If you are going to be inviting people to estimate their giving for 2016 next week, it would be good to prepare them. Next week we will be filling out estimate of giving cards for 2016. I ask you to be in prayer and in conversation as a family about your giving for next year. We will place our cards on the altar in worship. We will gather for a meal. We will announce the good news at the end of the meal.

Risk-taking Mission and Service

I will never forget my first trip out of the country. Well, I had been to Canada a few times, but in my childhood, you didn’t even need a passport to cross over from Michigan into Canada. You just smiled and waved at the nice border guards.

My first significant immersion was in Mexico with a group. It was summer in the mid-80’s, and I had just gone through a difficult breakup that left me devastated. I was depressed, anxious, and not sleeping at night. I was ready to leave school for a while and immerse myself in something different.

On this trip, we spent four or five weeks in Cuernavaca and some time in Mexico City. Cuernavaca was absolutely gorgeous. The people were so very kind and gracious. On one trip to Mexico City, we walked from the wealthiest part of Mexico City to the poorest. All too often the most struggling areas of a city and the most insulated areas are right next to each other, like Central City and the Garden District in New Orleans.

On this day, I had worn an old pair of jeans and a worn tan corduroy sport coat with patches on the sleeves. We got out of the van in front of a five-star hotel. I remember sitting and playing the grand piano on marble-tiled floors in the lobby. Then we got up and walked to an area “across the tracks,” where people were living in the worst of conditions. I had never seen this kind of poverty. A stream ran through the area, used for every conceivable purpose. “Homes” were hovels, lean-to sheds patched together with corrugated metal, cardboard, plastic, and anything that could be found. I didn’t like the smell. It had the smell of poverty. A couple of undernourished, barefoot girls in their tattered dresses ran around, eyeing us with curiosity. I found myself welling up with tears that I fought back as I walked.

People came out of their “homes” and greeted us. The old clothes that I had worn suddenly became a luxury – an amazing transformation. In this economy, a bottle of Coca-Cola cost about $.07. My money here was worth five times what it was at home. I was a poor seminary student, scraping by. I didn’t even own a car. I was in debt up to my eyeballs, but suddenly here I felt rich. I had spent more on this immersion than some of these folks would see in a year.

It was then that someone invited me into his home. A couple of us walked with him, unsure of what to expect. We sat and talked. He invited us to stay and have dinner with him. We couldn’t.

I would say that experience changed me. It changed the way I saw and understood the world. I had grown up in a home where we went to church every Sunday. We listened to long lessons of Scripture each Sunday. In Sunday school we memorized many Bible passages. We read the Bible at home. It is amazing to me how you can read the Bible for decades and not hear the overwhelming, loud, pointed passages about the poor and wandering immigrant. I think wealthy societies tune them out. I had to go to Mexico to hear the gospel.

In this one trip, my heart had been broken by the things that break God’s heart. Isaiah 58 says,

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

The kind of fasting and religion God wants is not self-righteous moralism, but a concern for those who suffer injustice, those who are hungry. Amos 5 puts it more pointedly, saying that God is sick of our worship songs and the stink of incense. Instead, “Let justice flow down like mighty waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Jesus walked the countryside carrying out a healing ministry to those in need: the lepers, the blind, and the outcast. We say we follow Jesus, but sometimes I think we find all that ministry stuff a bit uncomfortable and inconvenient.

And the thing is, we think the risk-taking mission and service is for others. When in fact, it is us who are transformed. Isaiah goes on to say,

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.

Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

Your light will break forth. Your healing shall spring forth, when you feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and when you serve your neighbor.

Who is your neighbor? Jesus was once asked this question. In true rabbinical fashion, he answered with a story. A man on a journey is beaten, robbed, and left for dead. A priest and a Levite walk by. This is risky business. It will cost me to care for this man. It will make me late. It might be a trap. The person who stops is a Samaritan, someone hated by the listeners to whom Jesus is speaking. He intentionally makes a hero out of the person they don’t like. Gotta love Jesus.

This despised Samaritan stops, bandages the mans wounds, gives him a lift on his ride, and takes him to an inn, one place you can find help on the road. He pays for the man’s stay, gives some money to the innkeeper, and says, “If you need more, put it on my tab. I’ll settle up on my next trip.”

I know this story can be read from many angles. I enjoy some of the allegorical interpretation as much as anyone. But let’s take this story at face value for the time being. First of all Jesus finishes up by asking, “So, you tell me, who’s the neighbor in this story?” He forces his listeners to admit the person they hate is in fact, their neighbor. It’s a brilliant ploy. Our retelling of the story often lacks the courage Jesus employs by naming the Samaritan. Would we be willing to preach the sermon by inserting the person our listeners despise? Jesus pulls a bait and switch. His listeners are used to stories of arrogant priests and Levites, where the good, God-fearing lay person is the hero. Jesus substitutes in the Samaritan.

Even more to the point, this Samaritan is praised for doing the right thing, which turns out to be the risky thing as well. Anyone who has ever stopped for someone along the road knows this. There is always the chance that you yourself will end up being the victim. This turns out to be true with most genuine service. When parents and members ask me about mission trips, “But is it safe?” I often respond, “Probably not.” We take every safeguard, but serving others is risky business. On the other hand, how safe is your child at the mall, drowning in materialism?

Fruitful congregations invite people into risk-taking mission and service. Obviously, not everyone can go. Not everyone can or will take the risks. Some aren’t up to it physically or emotionally. Some aren’t called to go. It’s okay. Occasionally someone will tell me, I really care about what the church is doing here. I just can’t do it. I sometimes respond, “That’s okay. Not everyone can go. And besides, we need some people to stay behind and fund the mission.” And they usually do.

Jesus engaged in risk-taking mission, service and ministry. It cost him his life. You never know, it may cost you yours too. “If you would be my disciples, deny yourselves, take up your cross and follow me.” How are you engaging in risk-taking mission and service? How is your congregation inviting others into the dance?

The good news is, the more you serve, the more joy you experience. The more you give, the more your light breaks forth and your healing begins. Need to break out of depression, anxiety, or sorrow? Leave yourself behind and serve others. You’ll never be the same.

The Five Practices are:

  1. Radical hospitality
  2. Passionate worship
  3. Intentional faith development
  4. Risk-taking mission and service
  5. Extravagant generosity