Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Ordinary People

Start with a helping hand

There are certain major themes in the Bible that are never stated outright. But they are evident when one considers the text as a whole. One of those themes that is repeated over and over in the stories in the Bible is that God uses ordinary people to accomplish God's goals.

Mostly we resist the implications of that truth. We may say, "That may be true, but it does not apply to me. In Christianity some of that reluctance comes from the fact that most of us do not see ourselves as “saints” or "holy" people. We have it in our heads that we have to be one of the “giants” of the faith to qualify. But that isn’t true.

It isn’t even true about the “giants” of the faith. The point we need to understand about the "giants" of faith is that they started out as ordinary people, ordinary people through whom God chose to do extraordinary things.

I am guessing that the last thing you think that you are is that you are a saint or a holy person. But the truth is that you are holy if you have committed yourself to a power greater than yourself through faith. When a Christian commits himself or herself to Christ that person becomes a saint, a holy one, expected to do the work of God. In most other faiths such a commitment also makes you holy, and expected to do the work of God.

You may deny it; it may frighten you; it may even make you a little queasy to think about it; and you may try to run from the very idea of it - but, by faith, you are made holy.

So the question isn't the easy one: "Am I a holy person?" If you are a person of faith, you are a holy person. The question is "What am I going to do for God now that I am a holy person?" That is the hard question.

The saints Christians tend to remember would, if asked, like you, very likely deny that they were saints. For example, Mother Teresa hardly thought of herself as anything special, confessing her own doubts and wondering if she was really doing the right thing. Martin Luther, the great Protestant Reformation leader, felt the same. St. Augustine was worried more about his inadequacies than about his status.

All of the truly great saints saw themselves as ordinary people and were humbled that God would choose to work through them. But they were ordinary people raised to do extraordinary things through the power of God. Those people Christians know of and think of as "saints," people like Matthews, Sarah, Luke, Ruth, and Abraham did not expect to be chosen for their roles in history, nor did they often feel they were doing all that well when they were living those roles.

One thing that the Protestant Reformation made clear is that Christianity is composed of "all the saints," not just a hand full of well-known names, or even of Popes, Bishops and Pastors. It is composed of all Christians, in every time and place, who hear the call and answer it. God works through all of those ordinary people, and we have to get that idea firmly entrenched in our heads if we are to make a difference in the world.

James said, "Faith without works is dead." And our faith is dead if we do not open our lives to be available to do the works that God calls us to do. You are an ordinary person; but you are also a holy child of God; and you are needed as a vital worker in God's vineyard. And, when you embrace that truth, God can do extraordinary things through you.

To make it clear that God does not tend to start with the "rich, famous and powerful" let's just look at two giants of faith: Abraham and Matthew.

Abraham was, in almost every way, a ordinary fellow. For the most part, he was successful in the business of raising sheep, but he needed a lot of help from his friends, and from God, to be as successful as he was. And, come the famine, he even failed at that for a while. He was an old man before he finally became rich, and he became rich largely by the generosity of his friends, including Pharaoh of all people.

Abraham's family life was a mess. His marriage was a mess. He treated Sarah shabbily, used her for his own devices, ordered her to sleep with two other men, and ended up sleeping with Sarah's maid because Sarah was barren. Then, when Sarah wanted him to send Hagar and his son by her, Ishmael, away, even knowing that it would likely mean death for them in the desert, he allowed it.

The story of Abraham in Genesis is one of vacillating all his life between trusting God to provide for him and scheming to take control back from God, because he so often thought that he knew better than God what was in his best interest.

Abraham was, like us, just an ordinary person. If he weren't the patriarch of the Judeo-Christian-Muslin religions, he wouldn't be seen as much of a role model for any of us. Except when the chips were down, he trusted God.

And God reckoned that trust as righteousness. God did not say that Abraham was righteous; rather God considered him to be righteous because of his trust in God. And, remember, he only trusted God part of the time. But, nevertheless, God blessed him.

The bottom line is that Abraham was not as nice a person, or even as holy a person, as many you and I have known in our lifetimes.

Or take Matthew, another most unlikely hero of faith. Matthew was about as ordinary as you can get; actually from his countrymen's point of view he was a traitor. Matthew was a tax collector. Tax collectors were collaborators in the Roman occupation. They literally took from their own poor and gave to the Roman rich.

Matthew made his living skimming as much as he could off of the top of the outrageous taxes the Romans imposed on Matthew's own people. For this, he was shunned by his people. Hated. He was not allowed to associate with them, to worship with them, or even to sacrifice to his God.

Yet Jesus chose this ordinary sinner, Matthew, for God's purposes. Jesus said, "Follow me;" and Matthew did an extraordinary thing: He followed. He put down his bag of coins, gave up his livelihood - and no one would ever hire him again, you can be sure of that! - and he followed Jesus. It took courage. It took faith.

When you read the Bible, even if you read it only as an exercise in history or as a literary document, you can't help but be struck at how God chooses the nobodies of this world. Go through the Bible, the list is almost endless.

Here are but a few examples: Abraham, Matthew, Jacob, Isaac, Ruth, Rehab, Samuel, Moses, Sarah, Esther, Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of Jesus, Joseph, his earthly father, John the Baptist, all of the disciples, and on and on and on. Nobodies, every one! Ordinary people all!

There is no mistaking it. God's pattern is clear. God chooses ordinary people; utterly ordinary people with marital problems, bad manners, bad tempers, big egos. He chooses runts, outcasts and orphans; he chooses reluctant fools like Jonah, who, when told to go to Nineveh, runs away and gets on a ship going to the farthest known place in the world from Nineveh!

Do you doubt that God's ways are not our ways? The fact is that the one voted "least likely to succeed" is very likely to be the one chosen.

So here is the bottom line. God has chosen you! God has chosen you just as surely as he has chosen Abraham and Matthew.

I know. You don't always feel like someone worthy to be chosen. I don't either. You may rather not even think about the idea of being chosen. That's true. I know the feeling. I often had such feelings when I was a pastor. I still have them now and then.

I wonder how God can possibly use an old theologian like me who can barely walk from the car into a store. My body is starting to let me down, and sometimes my spirit feels like going along for the ride.

I wonder about it every time I write a post. Am I the right one to get this idea or that thought across? Is this really what God wants me to be doing? Will it make any difference? I hope and pray it does.

I still often do not feel worthy of the task. But I do it anyway because I believe it is a form of God's work that I still can do to contribute to others, to help them strengthen their faith. So I just do the best I can, and leave the rest up to God.

We are in good company, you and I. Abraham, Matthew, David, Samuel, and Paul, and a host of others, often didn't feel or act like holy persons either. But the truth is that what we feel like; what we think, and what we act like at times, is really not the point.

The point is that God has chosen us. And what God intends to do with us is God's business. Our business is to trust God and to do the things we know are pleasing to God, not necessarily the things that give us the most immediate pleasure or gratification.

You may sometimes wish God would just leave you alone, and give up on you. But God isn't going to give up on you. If God wouldn't give up on Jonah, believe me, you don't stand a chance of escaping God's love!

God knows that you are far from perfect - and God loves you anyway. God loves you with a never ending love because you are you, unique, individual, and precious in God's sight. And God will keep on loving you, mistakes, lapses, fumbles and all. And in response to that love you have the opportunity to do good works in God's name.

There will be many times when you will have the opportunity to do extraordinary things for God. They may seem like small things. But small things add up. And no one may notice or even compliment your works. That does not matter.

There will be a time when you know you need to devote a part of yourself to the things that are important to God. It will come. You need not force it. You only need to be open to the possibility. There will be times when you will be asked to serve; when you should volunteer; when you should reach out to hurting neighbors; when you should lift someone up.

There will be times when you know God is calling you out of your comfort zone. Those are times when each of us should say, “Here I am, God. Use me.”

God bless us, ordinary people all.