Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Last Sermon, Part I

 "The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing."
- Stephen R. Covey

This post is Part I of a sermon I gave at the Zion Mennonite Church as a part of their 125th anniversary series of messages done by past pastors of the congregation.

I chose the title, “If This Were My Last Sermon,” after having read parts of Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture.” Randy was a professor in Pittsburgh who died of pancreatic cancer at age 47, and who gave a much publicized “Last Lecture” that went all over the internet. 

In case you’re wondering, as far as I know I don’t have a terminal illness, but I do have a terminal condition known as aging. And I realize that no matter how much I work at staying healthy, the best I can do is to simply delay my death by a little. This means every day is a good day to ask, “What is really the most important thing for me to focus on, to put first?” In other words, to keep remembering that, in the words of Stephen Covey, "the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

When I was teaching at Eastern Mennonite High School, my students often asked questions like, “Is this going to be on the test?” or “What’s included in the final exam?” 

As we face our finals, we all need to ask, “What does God consider the main thing?”

As we review the Book we expect to be judged by, we want to eagerly learn what God is most passionate about, and to keep our eyes open for clues like, “What does the Lord require of you...... but to do justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” the words of the prophet Micah.

We want to underline things like that. As far as I know, that’s never stopped being the main thing, as Jesus announces in his very first sermon, where he reads his mission statement straight from the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, he has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor, to proclaim release for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s Jubilee.”

So we highlight that, as the kind of “main thing” Jesus would consider test material.

Jesus clearly megaphones the message of the prophets, folks that Bible scholar Abraham Heschel describes as “some of the most disturbing people who ever lived.” “Instead of dealing with the timeless issues” Heschel says,... “the prophets go and on about widows and orphans, about the corruption of judges and... in the market place,” and adds, “The world is a proud place, full of beauty, but the prophets are scandalized, and rave as if the world were a slum.”

In this spirit we need to be all ears and to take especially good notes when Jesus, elsewhere in Luke’s gospel, has a question put to him about how to inherit eternal life. We certainly want to get that one right!

In response, Jesus cites the first and greatest commandment, that of “loving the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your might, and with all your strength” and then he adds a second one as equally  important, to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus then explains what this means by telling a story about an enemy, a Samaritan, who to his hearers may have been a lot like a Muslim might be to us, a member of a related, but not quite orthodox, kind of faith.

But it’s this outsider who is the hero, the one we are to learn from in the story, this “Shiite” who looks after an unfortunate wounded enemy and helps him as if he were his closest neighbor.

And then the clincher (underline, double underline): Jesus says to his followers,  “Do likewise, and you will live.” Here’s something that’s sure to show up on the test, not just as words we want to know by heart or memorize in our head, but as something we practice in everyday life toward friend and strangers alike. 

Another passage we should certainly pay special attention to is an actual preview of the final exam as found in Matthew 25: “In the Judgment, God will divide people into two groups, some on his right and the others on his left, and then he’ll say to those on his right, 'Well done, good and faithful servants (who get the coveted passing grade) enter into my joyful forever,' because when I was hungry, you fed me, (not just gave to the Salvation Army so they could feed me) when I was thirsty, you gave me water, and when I was sick and in prison you personally visited me.”

Notice the real test questions aren’t about how many people we have witnessed to or invited to church, though both certainly have their place, but rather how many of the world’s suffering have we taken the time to love and care for. Like the Samaritan who may not have learned the perfect theology, we want to make sure we get an A in Be-ology and Do-ology.

In short, when all is said and done, God doesn’t grade so much on what’s said as what’s done--for people who are abused and neglected. Because that’s where God’s heart is, where God hangs out, not in our buildings or our institutions.

I’m not just making this up. This is simply what Jesus says.

The second part of this message, given in 2010, will focus on repentance and prayer as the means of living this kind of life.
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