Monday, May 28, 2012

The Gentleman and the Tramp


Note: This sermon was given using an old View Master (borrowed from my children) , a disk and a rucksack.  I think it worked well and in the hands of a talented presenter I think it could be really effective.

Today I wish to tell you a story. It is the story of a Gentleman and a Tramp. Let me caution you from the outset that any similarities between real life people and the characters in my story are purely coincidental.

This story starts with with a Gentleman who was having a bit of a rough day at work. He works a lot and is very busy and today he is really feeling it. Please don’t misunderstand me. He isn’t your typical workaholic. He is a good father. He spends time with his children, taking them to all their baseball and soccer practices, going to their recitals, playing games, watching T.V. together and so on.

He is a good husband too. He treats his wife well. He compliments her cooking, never misses a birthday or anniversary and always remembers to undershoot when asked her age. Yes, he is an all around decent guy.

Today he has his lunch and he decides to take a break from the big city madness and sit in the park. He finds a bench and sits, closing his eyes and letting the horrendous first half of the day melt away and be replaced with the sounds of mothers walking their children, dogs barking, birds chirping and joggers jogging. Relaxed he takes out his Peanut Butter and jelly sandwich, bows his head, says a hasty prayer, and starts to take his first bite.

When suddenly he realizes he is not alone. While his eyes were closed someone took the seat next to him.

This person is no ordinary man. He is, by all descriptions, a tramp. A vagrant. a vagabond. A homeless guy. He has long hair, a patchy beard, dirty, loose fitting clothes and he smells. Oh the smell! All thought of eating vanishes. The smell is so strong it can be tasted.

The Gentleman was just about to get up and move to another bench, preferably on the other side of the city, when the Tramp speaks. In a surprisingly clear voice he asks,

“You a Christian?”

The Gentleman is startled by this question. How did he know that? It wasn’t like he went around announcing it to everyone. The Tramp must have saw the questioning look on his face for he said,

“I saw you bow your head before you started to eat.”

“How long had this creepy hobo been watching me?”, the Gentleman thinks to himself. “Is he stalking me? Perhaps he is a serial killer looking for his next victim?”

“You must be hungry”, the Tramp continues. “That prayer was so short it must have started with ‘Amen’!” The Tramp starts to laugh.

The Gentleman smiles. No, not a serial killer. In fact there was something about this man, his voice, that is...inviting. It does not instill fear. “But then”, thought the Gentleman, “what exactly does a serial killer sound like anyway?”

“You go to church?”, asked the Tramp.

“Yeah, sure I do...most of the time...when I can make it”, answered the Gentleman, his confidence turning to sheepishness in less than a sentence.

“You don’t like going to church?”

The Gentleman wondered at the reason for this inquisition. But somehow it feels good talking about it. It was better than talking about work anyway.

“Oh, its o.k. I just don’t see much of a point. Don’t get me wrong, worshiping God is important, but why do I have to hang out with a bunch of people, most of whom I don’t even know, to do it? Sometimes I think we are just a bunch of people getting together to agree on something and pat each other on the back. The sermons are dry, the singing out of tune, and the kids really don’t want to be there either”.

“Yeah, I hear ya. It sure can be boring. Especially if you miss the point”, says the Tramp.

“You go to church?” The Gentleman asks in return.

The Tramp shrugged, and with a bit of a twinkle in his eye said, “Occasionally”. It was now, looking straight into the Tramp’s face that the Gentleman noticed the pock marks all around his forehead and eyes. He also noticed that his beard was patchy and he had quite a number of teeth missing giving him an almost jackolantern appearance. All in all, he was a singularly ugly specimen of a man. But his eyes, so black they looked like marbles, gave, paradoxically, a sense of joviality and profound sadness all at the same time.

The Tramp jumps up and capers around in the most ridiculous manner. “I’m not usually very welcomed in the house of the Almighty”. He then suddenly laughs so loud the birds in the nearby tree stop singing for a second and all the background noises fade away. Soon the birds start singing again and all the sounds of the local activities return in what now seems like a roar to the Gentleman.

The Tramp sits down again and looks straight back into the Gentleman’s face. “I have something to show you”, he says, putting up one dirty finger and pointing it at the Gentleman’s nose.

He reaches into a rucksack he has with him and starts to fish around for something. It was then the Gentleman’s fears return and he seriously contemplates making a run for it. Isn’t this where the serial killing pulls out a big knife or a gun and...and...

But it wasn’t anything but an old view-master. He fishes around some more and pulls out a disk and hands the two items to the Gentleman. He simply says, “look, see”.

The Gentleman takes the two items. He notices, scrawled on the disk in black marker, the word “Rejoice”. The Gentleman puts the disk into the view-master and holds it to his eyes. At first he can’t make out the picture, but after a few moments he can see clearly. It was a couple, a young woman and a man. They were getting married.

“Hey...I know these people. This is my church!” The Gentleman exclaimed, but surprised and confused. “But how...”

“Who are they?” asked the Tramp.

“Um...I don’t know their names...ah...brother and sister....what’s-there-names. But I was invited to this wedding. I was too busy. I couldn’t go”.

“Look at their faces”, said the Tramp.

“What? I don’t see anything...”, the Gentleman’s voice trailed off.

“Look...at their faces...look harder...” the Tramp persisted.

The Gentleman stared hard. Their smiles. Their smiles were infectious. He remember this moment. The Gentleman’s wife squeezed his hand harder and she was smiling as though she were the one getting married. Wait...no...he wasn’t at the wedding.

Suddenly the Gentleman realized that he was smiling too. He couldn’t stop it. This couple was so happy and he couldn’t help but feel happy for them...and with them.

“Look at the next one”, the Tramp prompted.

The Gentleman worked the lever and another picture came into focus. A picture of an young lady and she was dripping wet, like she had been caught in a storm or something. But she was smiling too. Her smile was so big it looked as though it threatened to split her face in two.

“Oh, that’s sister so-and-so. This is a picture of her baptism.”

“What do you see?” asked the Tramp.

“She had just given her life to Christ two days earlier. Before that she had been a prostitute. She was so happy, she couldn’t stop talking about Jesus.” With shame the Gentleman remembered that he had gotten irritated with her constant chatter about God. He had told his wife that she would probably be back turning tricks within the month.

“What do you see?” The Tramp urged.

The Gentleman stared at her face...hard...and suddenly he felt joy and relief and peace and hope all at the same time, all at once flooding over him. He almost dropped the View-master. Without knowing exactly why he started to laugh. The smile that threaten to split her face suddenly was plastered all over his face. The Tramp next to him had the same smile.

One after the other the Gentleman worked the lever and one after the other he experience the joy of each picture and found himself rejoicing with the subjects of the slides.

A birth of a baby, the salvation of friends and family, diseases healed, an alcoholic recovered, a birthday, and 50th anniversary, two friends walking in the together.

Then it was over.

“I guess that’s it”, said the Gentleman with a sigh as he pulled out the disk and handed it back to the Tramp.

The Tramp was ready with another disk which he handed to the Gentleman. This one, in the same black scrawl, read “Sorrow”.

Reluctantly he put the view-master to his eyes and pulled the lever.

There was a photo of a middle aged woman. He knew her. She was a mother of four who typically was consumed with trying to keep the children in order. The gentleman remembered getting angry because her children always seemed like they were running or yelling or fighting.

“What’s her name?” asked the Tramp.

“I don’t know, I don’t remember”.

“But don’t you go to the same church?”

“Yes”, replied the Gentleman.

“And you didn’t know her?” The Tramp didn’t change his voice in the slightest, but the accusation was there, and it burned.

“There isn’t time. I can’t get to know everybody. I’m not God!”, the words came out harsher than the Gentleman had intended. Guilt can do that.

“Did you try?”

“Tell me what you see?”, asked the Tramp.

The Gentleman flinched at the question, as though he had been struck in the face. He was hoping the Tramp wouldn’t ask.

The Gentleman looked...he looked hard. He could feel the loneliness. The lostness. The darkness. The sun that had been shining only moments before suddenly found some clouds to hide behind and the air took on a chill. The birds might well have been singing but the Gentleman couldn’t hear them now. All he could hear was the silent weeping of the woman in the picture. Or was it his own.

“Her husband left her,” offered the Tramp. “She is raising her children on her own. Her husband never came to church so not many people know this”.

The Gentleman sat in guilty silence.

After a couple of minutes the Tramp spoke again, “Look at the next one”.

The Gentleman pulled the lever. The next picture showed a casket with an american flag draped over it.

“What do you see?”, asked the Tramp.

The Gentleman’s voice caught in his throat.

“What do you see?”, the Tramp persisted.

“A casket. This was the...the...whoever they are...their son. He was killed in the middle east. The navy I think”.

“Army”, the Tramp corrected. The Gentleman was so caught up in his emotions that he didn’t even wonder at how the Tramp could possible know what branch of the military the boy served in.

“What do you see?”

“Nothing, just the casket...” suddenly he noticed a reflection coming off of part of the casket that wasn’t covered with the flag. In it he could see a couple, a husband and a wife, hugging, weeping. But the Gentleman could tell that the picture of the couple in the reflection was newer than the picture of the casket. He wasn’t sure how he knew this, but he did. In fact, the son had died four years earlier.

“It’s been four years. Why are they still crying?” asked the Gentleman.

“Isn’t it obvious?”, replied the Tramp. "They are still hurting”.

“But...I didn’t know...how could I...”, the Gentleman said aloud but more to himself than anyone listening.

“Yes...how could you”, answered the Tramp.

“I thought time heals all wounds?”.

“Some wounds are so deep there isn’t enough time”, the Tramp responded, absent mindedly rubbing his own wrists. “Look at the next one”.

The Gentleman, with a certain amount of trepidation, pulled the lever.

“An old woman laying on her bed, asleep,” said the Gentleman.

“Look harder”, the Tramp replied.

The Gentleman, like with the other photos, looked harder, deeper, longer; Like a camera lense being adjusted, suddenly this scene before the Gentleman’s eyes snapped into focus with such force he audibly gasped.

She wasn’t an old lady. She was young, a teenager, maybe early twenties, hair unkempt, clothes disheveled. He too knew this girl. She had attended the church youth group. He would see her there when he picked up his children. She never seemed out of the ordinary. The Gentleman would just be there long enough to drop off and pick up his kids and he never really listened much when they talked about the night’s activities so he never heard anything about her.

Why did she look so old? Then he noticed the needle and the tourniquet around her left arm.

“Does anyone know?” asked the Gentleman.

The Tramp was silent for a moment. Then said, “No one has the time.”

“No one has the time”, the Gentleman mumbled, tears making rivulets down his cheeks. He glanced over at the Tramp and was surprised to see tears staining his cheeks as well.

The Tramp continued, “Not only does time not heal all wounds, sometimes too much time creates them. The wrong kind of time. Time filled with loneliness, judgement, anger, hatred, misunderstandings, self-centeredness, abuse”. And there are many more like her. But if you aren’t looking you will miss them. Look at the next picture”.

The Gentleman pulled the lever.

This slide really did show an old woman. She was sitting in a chair next to a stand that help a photo of a man (her husband?). She had a bible on her lap. She wasn’t crying, but she might as well have been. Her face had sorrow written all over it, flowing into every crease of every wrinkle.

She was so thin, she looked like she hadn’t eaten in a month.

The Gentleman searched his mind for this woman. He couldn't remember ever seeing her in church. But she looked familiar. Who was she? Wait, he suddenly remembered. “She lives down the road from us. Mrs...Ms...something. She’s the old lady that use to bring us vegetables on occasion from a garden her and her husband did together. Her husband died a few years ago and I haven’t seen her since. She’s a Christian?

“Almost”, said the Tramp. “She is looking for hope”.

“I’ve been so caught up with myself and the things I thought were important I’ve been missing a lot going on around me. People need me,” said the Gentleman.

“No”, replied the Tramp, “they don’t need you, they need Jesus, but how will they meet him unless you go to them?”

The words sunk in slowly. The Gentleman looked over to the bench next to him and...it was empty. The Tramp was gone. With the view master still in his hands he looked once more at the photo but all that was there was was a picture of winnie the pooh, piglet, eeyore and tigger holding hands and dancing in a circle, laughing. The sun was once again shining.

Conclusion:

This was just a story, a caricature of sorts, but it was intended to show us that a lot more goes on behind the scenes then most of us care to admit. The Scriptures warn us not to forsake the gathering (Heb. 10:25). However, the "gathering" is much more than just meeting together once a week. It is a lifestyle and a calling; it is a ministry that every believer of every walk of life, whether newly born again or a lifelong follower of Christ is called to; it is where wounds are tended, heavy arms are lifted, tears are dried, laughter is shared and starving spirits are fed. Without this kind of ministry the Church is doomed to become just another meet-n-greet, self-help gathering or support group like those that can be found all across America. To forsake the sort of gathering that the Scriptures truly call us to or to identify it with the watered down version found in many churches today is to relegate the Church, Scriptures and God, ultimately, to obsolescence.


Benediction:

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.

This week look harder, longer and deeper.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Doers of the Word

Lately I've gotten the impression that biblical study has taken a backseat to pastoral leadership.  Although it seems this would be counter intuitive, nonetheless with the continual rise (and fall) of ecclesiastical superstars who appear to put a large emphasis on action it raises the question as to how much time they are actually spending in the study of God's Word.

I am not against action and believe that unless we put feet to what we read in the Word we will miss out on a vital part of what it means to be disciples of Christ.  Nonetheless, minimizing true study of the Word in lieu of action only creates the opposite problem. Instead of stagnant, armchair theologians you wind up with immature workers (or workaholics) who are, at best, biblically illiterate and at worse heretics. 

 James 1:22-25 is a great cathartic to those who are merely hearers of the Word and forget that true theology is incarnational and should drive one to the gutters and streets to where the sick are so that they can meet the Great Physician.  Additionally, the real point of James admonishment was not to tell people to stop reading Scripture but that study must culminate in right action.  To read God's word and yet to continue in sin is simply looking at yourself in the mirror and walking away, forgetting what you looked like. Study of the Word and right doing of the Word are both required.

 I suppose this tension between too much study and not enough action and too much action and not enough study will (and perhaps should) always exist in a believers life.  It is when we get stuck in one extreme or the other that problems arise.  How much is too much?  Only the individual believer can ultimately answer this and that is why I suggested "should" always exist parenthetically above.  To keep balanced we are going to have to have such a relationship with God that we can hear the Holy Spirit's warnings when we are getting too lopsided.  Only then will we know how to "choose the better part" (Lk 10:42), to be like Bereans (Acts 17:11) or to visit the widow and the orphan (Js.1:27) and to visit  the sick and those in jail and to clothe the naked (Matt. 25:31-46).  It will be a dynamic tension that flows back and forth and results in believers who are both filled with the Word of God and yet, at the same time, working the works of God in a way that leaves people knowing that they have experienced a divine visitation.