Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Vertical Habit #7 - "How Can I Help?" - Skip Down to Start the Day!

Vertical Habit #7
“How Can I Help?”
Nov. 4, 2007
Ephesians 1:1, 11-23 (or something close)

For the last few weeks, we’ve been talking about “Vertical Habits” – phrases that connect us with God. These are phrases we are invited to make a habit when we talk to God: I Love You, I’m Sorry, Why, God? All of these prayer phrases are also worship phrases: “I’m Listening” is what we say with the prayer for illumination. “Please/Thank You” are part of our Prayers of the People”. “Bless You” – this is a Prayer of Adoration at the beginning of the service, and a Benediction (which is another word for blessing) at the end of our time together on Sunday mornings. I’d love to have some feedback on whether talking about these vertical habits has actually given you some ideas, some tools, some encouragement that enriches your corporate worship or strengthens your personal prayer life.
This week we focus on the last “habit” - the last phrase – that can strengthen our relationship with God. And this is the phrase “How Can I Help?”.
“How Can I Help?” is a phrase that one is most likely to remember hearing spoken by someone who does not mean it. One of you remarked to me that “How Can I Help?” is what people say when someone is sick, or a family member has died, or some other tragedy strikes, and they don’t really want to do anything. In most cases like that, if we really love and real close to someone, we don’t ask “How can I help?” We say, “I’m bringing dinner tonight.” Or “I’m going to come over and help get the house ready for out of town visitors.” Or “I’m coming by so we can sit and pray and cry.” Or “Let me come pick up the kids and take them for a few hours so that you have time to sit and have a cup of tea.” Saying, “Is there anything I can do to help?” is just an invitation to be excused. “Not really. Thanks, but no thanks.”
So, if I’m discouraging the use of the phrase “How Can I Help?” horizontally, I still think it is a good phrase to use with God. Why? Because God is bolder than people. God will never answer, “Thanks, but no thanks. There’s really nothing that you can do to help.” God, amazingly enough, has specifically called us and set us apart to be helpful to him and to one another. In the words of the letter to the Ephesians, “we have been destined according to the purpose by God to accomplish all things according to his counsel and will.” We’ve been baptized, set apart, called into the church, in order to – in the immortal words of Larry the Cable Guy – “Git R Done!”
It is fitting that this phrase just providentially landed on the one day in the calendar set aside for remembering saints of the church, and considering ways that we might live more like saints on this side of heaven. Saints are those whom God has called into conversation with him, and not just conversation, but action. Saints of God are those who ask God “How can I help?” and then faithfully set about the task God puts before them.
I say to you, as Paul said to the Ephesians, “Grace and peace to you saints who are in Philo.” But I know you aren’t used to thinking of yourselves as saints. If you look up “Saints” in a secular dictionary, you are likely to find definitions such as:

1: a person who has died and has been declared a saint by canonization 2: person of exceptional holiness [syn: {holy man}, {holy person}, {angel}] 3: model of excellence or perfection of a kind; one having no equal [syn: {ideal}, {paragon}, {nonpareil}, {apotheosis},

Clearly, we are reluctant to consider ourselves exceptionally holy, or a model of excellence or perfection. That’s how non-Christians use that word. But Saint is a word that belongs to the church and I’m completely unwilling to give it up to the culture, to let others use it as they will – whether to describe Mother Teresa or Diana Princess of Wales, or more recently, Angelina Jolie. A saint is not a person who lives a larger than life life – or someone who does good deeds – or someone who puts up with a lot of grief in order to help somebody out.
Since New Testament times, Christians have been described as saints because saints means “set apart and called by God to a life of faith.” Saints don’t do good deeds by virtue of their own extraordinary will power or determination. Saints do whatever they do by the grace of God, poured out for us in Christ Jesus our Lord.
We don’t earn our sainthood by good works. I want to be perfectly clear about that. God doesn’t love us because we make ourselves saintly. God makes us saints because, quite without provocation or reason, God loves us immeasurably just as we are. We are not either saints or sinners. We are always both saints and sinners at the same time.
Connie Bandy, who preached here last summer, says her favorite saint story is this one: A young child went on a tour of one of the great cathedrals, one famous for its stained glass windows telling of heroes of the church. There was a panel of St. Joseph. A panel of St. Mark, a panel of St. Paul, a panel of St. Teresa, a panel of St. Patrick. Afterwards, the girl was asked by her father, “And what did you learn about the saints?” The girl said, “I learned that the saints are the ones that the light shines through.”
The light of God, shining through our lives, is what marks us as saints. And, let’s face it, God’s light shines, not only through beautiful and pious, church-y type saints, but also through those of us who feel more like broken bottles, lying by the side of life’s road. The glint of holy light that hits us sometimes and reflects up and out and into the world like a prism, making it, if only for a moment, more beautiful and precious. That light is saintly light. Everyone of us is molded, like glass, cut like crystal, broken sometimes, polished sometimes – to reflect God’s light into the world.
“How can I help?” reflect that light? Most of you know the answer to that question already. You know how God has shaped your life to reflect his light. You have talents. You have insights. You have leadership abilities. You have money. You have time. You know whether God’s light would shine better if you taught Sunday School or knit baptism blankets or both. You know whether you can be an example of generosity or of hospitality or both. You know whether you can sing, or encourage the pastor, or visit the sick. You know whether you are better gifted to teach theology or wood working. If you have asked God, habitually, “How can I help?” I have no doubt that he has drawn you into projects, and involved you with relationships, and given you assignments that are a blessing to you and to other people. If you are just beginning to ask that question, then I can promise you are at the outset of a great and rollicking adventure as you discover your sainthood.
If we were locating this phrase in worship – it would be what we think and pray and say to God as we are walking out the door and into the world. OK, God. You love the world so much that you have given your only Son to save us from sin and death. How can I help you love the world? Whose life can I touch for Jesus? What task can I accomplish for Christ’s body, the Church? How can I do my work, or talk to my friends, or spend my money, or use my time, in a way that contributes to Your saving the world?
I’m not naïve. I’m aware that the phrase on the church stairs at 11 am on a Sunday morning is often, “Where are we going to lunch?” But I hope that might be woven in with this phrase “How Can I Help?” and that at least today, as you sit around the table on Sunday with your family or your friends, you might ponder this phrase.
And I hope that you are pondering it as we symbolically gather around the table of our Lord Jesus Christ this morning. For it is at this table that Christ, the head of the church which is His Body, nourishes us, His Saints, that we might live for and shine into the world, the light of his glory.

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