ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH JANUARY 29, 2017
THE CHURCH FOR OTHERS
2 Corinthians 5: 14 – 21; Matthew 21: 28 – 31a
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
When I was first ordained a man came to see me because he wanted his son to take over the farm but the son wasn’t interested. With a depth of pain the man shook his head and said, “I don’t know where I went wrong with that boy. Maybe I was too harsh. Either that or I was too soft.” Every conscientious parent recognizes it’s difficult to strike and maintain a balance between being tender and tough. When a strong-willed child resists, it’s tempting to give in. After a trying day with her son, one mother flung up her hands and shouted, “All right, Billy, do whatever you want! Now let me see you disobey THAT!”
In Jesus’ parable a father asked his two sons to go work in the vineyard. One said “no” but later he went; the other said “yes” but never showed up. Jesus asked which son had done his father’s will. His listeners decided it was the first son. Jesus concluded that the pious who don’t obey God are less likely to get into God’s kingdom than the worst of sinners. As Christians, being devout isn’t enough. Saying “yes” to Jesus but not showing up doesn’t cut it. Our follow through matters.
There are many “vineyards” God calls us to work in – many opportunities to follow through. One is our call to be “ambassadors for Christ.” (2 Corinthians 5: 20) An ambassador is someone who represents his country in a foreign land; as Christian ambassadors we represent Christ to the world. We’re ambassadors for “God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; God…entrusted the message of reconciliation to us.” (vs. 18 & 19) The truth is, most of us would rather pick grapes in the desert sun, than reconcile an indifferent or hostile world to Christ. We say “yes” to Jesus, but we fail to show up. Being an ambassador requires a new attitude. “Christ died for all”, not to make us comfortable. He died “so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them” (vs. 15). Unlike Billy, we don’t have free rein do whatever we like. We owe our lives to Christ and so we live for him. Just as others can be indifferent or hostile to us, we can be indifferent or hostile to them. We don’t care that they’re dead in their sin, in fact, we may even wish some of them would die! Our attitude change needs to be deeper than outward obedience; it requires heart-felt love. The kind of love God has for us. It is “the love of Christ [that] urges us on” (vs. 14). If we’re going to be ambassadors representing Christ to the world, then we need to love the world as God does. We also need to develop become aware of the opportunities that arise for us to be ambassadors; windows which we often miss.
I want to share with you the experiences of three people who have embraced their role as missionaries in the everyday world in which they live, and are learning to be ambassadors for Christ.
Anita Kapila is a teacher, who was raised a Hindu and became a Christian at the age of 24. For Anita, being an ambassador is about taking chances. One way she risks is by offering to pray for people. She says, “More often than not people say yes (to prayer)”. Anita sees working in a school, as a limitless opportunity to express her relationship with Jesus (Notice the fish). She listens to people and speaks gently but openly about her faith. When a colleague became a Godmother, Anita asked her, “‘What does it mean to be a Godmother?’ And she told me it was about being there for the child and helping out where you can. So I told her: ‘You do realize that you’ve got to pray for your Godchild and encourage her faith!’ It’s about challenging people on their attitude and understanding.” For Anita, the little things matter – asking someone how they are actually doing, following up on an illness, or feeding people are ways people see God in her life. “Sharing food is powerful. It’s my way of loving people.”
Many here do similar things. Offering to pray for people who are ill or saying “God bless you” has become a big part of Doug’s witness where he works; Les and Judy have a ministry of feeding people. These are gracious acts which show the love of God and I know others also care in these ways. These are good witnesses in themselves but we sometimes fail to see them as stepping stones to more. Over Christmas I backed into someone’s car; when I offered to pay for the damage he thanked me for my honesty and assured me of good karma. (That didn’t happen because the same night someone hit my car and drove off). I missed a great chance to say, “I was honest because I’m a Christian.” Anita takes a genuine interest in others. She looks beyond herself to include others in her circle of care and she listens. Too often we lose sight of this and become ambassadors only to each other. I’ve noticed that at funeral lunches, pasta supper and even coffee hour we tend to gravitate to our friends in the church. It’s easy to be clique-ish. At a recent funeral I got my coffee and noticed a table to St. Stephen’s people sitting together. There was space for one more but, against my normal habits, I realized this was a great moment to meet other people. So I sat with a couple and made a connection. Yet I could have been a better ambassador. This couple shared that they no longer belong to a church. I missed the chance to ask them to tell me about that and perhaps to bring healing or to gently challenge them.
James Tett is 16 year old High School student. When he made a profession of faith, he took his role as an ambassador for Christ seriously. He says, “At school, ideas and worldviews are always being challenged and so being an ambassador for Christ means being prepared to speak out, thinking through the implications of what I believe and being prepared to give a Christian answer to the issues life throws at us. Not being an ambassador would mean just going with the flow and failing to live my life distinctively in the light of all that God has done for me now and into eternity. This is quite counter culture to our modern society.” James reads his Bible and prays daily to “live in response to Christ’s mercy, not to earn his approval.”
Being an ambassador is counter to the culture in which we live. When we were in Scotland, Terry and I had a lovely chat with a couple until they asked what we did for a living. When I said we were clergy, the man visibly shut down, crossed his arms and stepped back. In my dance class, the spirituality of others is welcomed and supported, but no one wants to know about mine. One woman said, “Churches have bad energy”. Because we’re in a foreign world, we need to read scripture and pray, deepening our relationship with God. We need to think through the implications of what we believe and be prepared to speak out. We need to be centred so we present a consistent witness. Since everyone goes through tough times and life throws things at us, we need to be mindful that these times may be opportunities for reconciliation. Like James, we need to be willing to be the person who doesn’t fit in. Ambassadors build bridges in a culture different from their own with God’s love and mercy.
Our final ambassador is Obed Amer. Originally from Pakistan, Obed came here in 2003 and has been working at a nursing home where he looks after patients by washing, feeding and changing them. When asked about being an ambassador at work, Obed said: “I work hard to serve people. On my break time I will leave my food and go to help out if there’s a problem. I always tell people my work is my worship.” Many people at his workplace know Obed is a Christian; he notes: “Sometimes people have said to me: ‘we cannot believe that in your country you were allowed to be a Christian,’ but I say that I am proud to be a Christian! My grandfather was a pastor, and I grew up in a Christian home.” At work he has a reputation of an honest, hard-working employee. He is a happy person, and is keen to always give a good example of Christ. In his spare time he spends time reading his Bible or praying for friends and for family in Pakistan.
Obed’s gifts are transparency and service. As we noted last week, people can’t argue with our experience and being open to sharing our life story and Christ’s role in it creates a natural way to be ambassadors. Notice how easily Obed speaks of his family and faith background and of work being his worship. We’re called to be kind to people and go the extra mile. Ambassadors do this and hopefully it builds a trusting relationship. Praying for those we encounter who aren’t Christian lays the ground work for whatever the Holy Spirit wants to do through us. If someone notes your happy disposition or your calm presence, it’s a great chance to follow up with “Well I believe in Jesus; his Spirit makes me this way.” Our actions open windows to increase our witness in words.
Our heavenly Father has directed us to work in his vineyard as ambassadors for Christ. He’s entrusted us with a ministry of reconciliation. Say “yes”, show up and let the love of Christ urge you on.