In July I visited our Habitat for Humanity site. I have had the opportunity to work alongside the women and men of our congregation who give their time and energy to building homes for the responsible poor. This time, as I was shown the project, I was struck by the remarkable transformation that this means for our community and the lives of others.
The project, as I remember it, is an entire cul de sac of Habitat homes and townhomes. The quality of workmanship from the design to the construction was excellent. There were three soon-to-be owners working along with some of our disciples. As I watched their efforts, it suddenly dawned on me. Habitat for Humanity is about building lives, not houses.
Beloved people of God, Paul's Passion is overflowing in this passage from his letter to his dear friends in Philippi. In this brief passage, Paul lifts before us The Ideal of Christ, who is God's Fiery Love for Humankind. Paul shares with them a beautiful early Christian hymn of faith in verses 5-11:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus... Who, though he was in the form of God Did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, But emptied himself, Taking the form of a slave, Being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, He humbled himself And became obedient to the point of death -Even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him And gave him the name that is above every name, So that at the name of Jesus Every knee should bend In heaven and on earth and under the earth, And every tongue should confess That Jesus Christ is Lord, To the glory of God the Father.
This is Love in Action. Jesus, true God, gave up immortality in order to take on our mortality. He did this, not on a whim, but in order to build a bridge between eternity and the limits of time. And in order to do so, he sacrificed himself, in obedience to the will of God, on the Cross. That is why he, and he alone, is Lord.
In Jesus we see God because in him we encounter The Serving Heart of God. Jesus is Our Encouragement and Joy. Our Heavenly Father wasn't just about building a bridge to eternal life for us. Our God was about building lives, lives of hope and purpose. So Paul tells us to have the same mind--that is, character and heart--as Christ.
Martin Luther, the great reformer, put it this way: We are to be Little Christ's in the world he died for. This calls us Beyond Self-Serving. Paul writes in verse 3: Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.
Now, if you know Paul, he was certainly no milk toast, and he's not demanding that we be one either. But as Christ's courage was made evident in his willingness to give himself at the right time and for the right purpose, so should we. We ought to be willing to set our selfish ambition aside for the sake of building lives, not just acquiring things.
Beloved people of the Savior, Paul invites you and me into The Call and the Promise of Forever. One of my personal heroes is Abraham Lincoln. This was a man who was able to do great things because he had a humble, serving heart. One quote of his that I love is this one:
Die when I may, I want it said of me by those who knew me best, that I always plucked a thistle and planted a flower where I thought a flower could grow.
Lincoln understood our eternal call to Engage Christ's World for Good. In 2nd Corinthians 5 Paul writes: For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.
I believe that our salvation in Christ will already be in place, so what's this about? I believe that when we stand before our God and see our life in review, we will be shown the missed opportunities to build lives, to "pluck a thistle and plant a flower," if you will. One of my deep anxieties is that I will stand before Christ and he will ask me, "Why did you close the door to all those I was sending to your church?"
Over the next months I want to ask you to pray that our God will help us discover ways to open the doors of our churches to children, teens and adults for the sake of the Gospel. But the Savior will also hold us accountable to not only what we did but how we did it. Paul tells us that we are to engage Christ's world with three expectations in mind.
The first is Unity. We engage the world together as Christians.
The second is with Respect. We will not always like other people, but we are called to respect them as persons.
The third is with Regard. We will strive to understand their circumstances and respond to their needs.
These are the essential elements of our call as disciples. After the Call comes the Promise. The promise is simply this: We Shall Be Lifted Up just as Christ was lifted up. St. Paul writes in 1st Corinthians 15: For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. And in verse 57 of the same chapter we read: But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. As Christ was raised victorious, so we shall be raised to the glory of God in Christ Jesus. We shall receive Partnership with the Savior. The promise meets the call as we engage Christ's world through active love.
Sisters and brothers in Jesus the Risen Savior, we are called to Walk the Service Path, the path of our Servant Savior. There are moments that last a life time. Not just in memory but in the imprinting of our souls. When Jessica went on that mission trip, she went with a mixture of motivations. But, mostly, she now confesses, she was simply hoping for an impact in the lives of the teens she was leading. It was only after she returned, as she was debriefing with the young people, that she experienced it. From deep within came the realization that this experience had changed her. The world had suddenly shifted, come into sharper focus, and she saw with new eyes--spiritual eyes. It wasn't just that, having worked among and with the poor, she saw the homeless person, the can-collecting old woman and the dirty child differently. She saw everyone with new eyes, with Jesus eyes. While she was focused on others, the eyes of God were on her. The Holy Spirit was working within her, quietly, gently while she was unaware.
Ask her if it was life changing and she'll say yes. Ask her if her soul's shape was re-formed and, again, she'll say yes. But that's the point. God calls us to walk the service path not so much for what we can do for others as to what God can build in our lives. If you doubt that, just ask Jessica.
There are Three Stages to the service path for Christians.
The First Stage is Charity. Charity is our emotional response to human need. We want to give something to alleviate the immediate problem. So we give money to feed the starving in Africa, for example, or make a donation to feed the homeless. This is a wonderful gift. I don't want to lessen either the need for this response nor the incredible gift it can be to those in such immediate need. Charity can literally mean the difference between life or death. It is not insignificant. All of us can participate in this work of charity through our willingness to give.
The Second Stage is Advocacy. Advocacy emerges from charity. In this stage of service we work and speak on behalf of others with the goal of changing social and political conditions so that their long term needs can better be met. Advocacy is, by definition, a more controversial stage along the service path. Mother Teresa couldn't help but move from the work of charity to the poorest of the poor to becoming an international advocate for children--the born and unborn--and women.
If God is calling you to participate in the work of advocacy, you'll not believe the impact it will have for those in need.
And the Third Stage is Justice. We work for justice when we strive to change systems and processes that create the conditions for poverty or limit self determination. Justice work naturally progresses from charity and advocacy. Justice means standing with the poor, with those in need.
It has been my privilege to go on a number of mission trips. I want to challenge you to consider spending at least a week or more in service to others, grow in advocacy and work for justice. The point of any or all of these stages along the service path is that God would build lives--your life and mine, those whom we serve and, eventually, the lives of others we will never know.
As disciples we take seriously the biblical call to walk the service path. That's why we have identified in the marks of discipleship serving within and beyond the local congregation.
I want to challenge you to join us in discipleship walk. Your life will be enriched beyond your imagining. Just ask Jessica and the many others who have participated in serving in the name of our Servant Christ.
Let us pray. Almighty God, in Jesus Christ you have served us that we might become the hands and heart of Christ in serving your world. Lead us along the service path through charity, advocacy, and justice. Amen.