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Reverend Dr. William H. Curtis

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Isaiah 43:2

 “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.” (NIV)

What do you think you spend more time on: doing what you need to do, or putting it off? Give your honest answer: are you living up to your purpose, or are you putting it off for another day?

Summer is the season when it’s easiest to give in to procrastination. The weather is nice and warm, there are sports to play, concerts to go see, evening walks, festivals—every kind of distraction you could possibly wish for is available if you’re looking to procrastinate. 

As I move into my summer series about conquering those things that are holding us back from God and success, I want to start with the topic of avoidance and procrastination because it can be the most devastating; it’s the one that can hold everything up. After all, how are we going to conquer anything if we are so busy putting everything off? How are we even going to see what’s wrong if we’re so busy looking for a good distraction?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not above setting some work aside before I’ve completed it from time to time. I’m not above changing plans when there’s a big game to watch or a friend in town. I know how easy it is to find a reason to put off the gym and avoid that serious talk with someone. But I know, as we all need to know, that distraction is the wrong choice, that I’ve got a purpose to get back to, and every moment I spend away from it, I’m taking away from the reason I’m here. If we make a habit of this in life, if we let ourselves be trapped by a preference to go swimming in the shallows, we’ll never get to the good stuff—to the deep stuff—that makes life so rich and worth living.  Don’t get me wrong…sometimes it is necessary to take a break and unwind from a hectic schedule and demands that other people may place on your time. Sometimes that requires a change in your plans.  Just be sure not to become comfortable with continuously putting things off and not achieving what you originally set out to do.

“When you pass through the waters, I’ll be with you.” 

That’s God reassuring Isaiah. Isaiah had some pretty deep waters to swim through. He was tasked with guiding the faithful in a very turbulent time. It’s not hard to imagine why he might want to keep to the shallows to avoid his divine purpose. He could have begged God for a little more time to get in some traveling, or begged for a little more time to get on with his hobbies, or begged for just a little more time to rest and lay about before he was called.

He didn’t. We know how he responded. He said, “Here am I” (Isaiah 6:8), because he knew God was going to be there to help him through the tough stuff. And he knew nothing was as important as diving in deep and getting to his purpose, to God’s purpose for him.

That’s a lesson we could all use. Sometimes we need to put down the iPad and turn off the game so we can dive into what God needs us to do. That may be spending more time with family or participating in the community. It may be getting to church every Sunday or focusing on putting that business plan together. Or, it may be becoming part of a cause or finding a way to mend a broken relationship. Regardless, if we take the time and effort to swim out into the deep water where we are less comfortable, we will find that God is there to show us where to dive and bring us back to the surface. 

God’s presence is everywhere, but to get Him helping you, you have to earn it. You have to prove you are ready for Him, that you are working for Him, by showing that His priorities are your top priorities, and simple distractions aren’t going to keep you from Him. 

God tells Isaiah in the first verse of chapter 43, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you.” 

Do not fear. There’s nothing to fear here. The deep waters ahead look scary and the shallows seem safer, but God’s not looking to protect you in the kiddie pool. God is waiting for you there, in the deep water, in the tough work He’s assigned to you. 

He’s giving us a chance. He’s reaching out His hand and offering to guide us through the deep waters of our challenges in life, and we’ve got to stop putting off reaching out to Him. There will always be distractions that make it easy to leave the challenges in life for another day. But if we want to dive into our purpose in life, we’ve got to put all that on the shelf. That doesn’t mean never watch the game or take those evening walks. But it does mean that those are treats to relieve us at times when we truly need relief.  They are simply the shallows that we know we can swim back to for a time of rest after diving into the deep. 

 

Mark 12:28-31

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?"

"The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: 'Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these." (NIV)

A church should never be considered so full that it can’t accept one more believer. A person should never be so busy they can’t offer a little help to someone in need. We’re living in a world of walls, and we need to remind ourselves that our faith demands that we not put walls up, but knock them down in the name of Jesus Christ. 

With Jesus’ name on our lips, it’s time to get to the source of the call to make room. We have considered what Peter and Paul had to say on this subject. We’ve seen how they call us to humble ourselves and open our doors, to offer ourselves to those who are struggling and searching for God, no matter how different we are on the surface.

They got their attitude from Jesus, who wasn’t interested in barriers. He wasn’t interested in who called themselves Samaritans or who started out rich or poor. Remember that this was a very divided world, one in which the majority of the people were peasants working the land, barely getting by in a country occupied by a rich foreign power that took heavy tax and enforced its laws brutally.

People wanted to fight, to call out those who wore the fancier cloaks or who spit on beggars with their hands out. People were angry and in no mood to make room for anyone. “I barely have enough for me, why should I make room for my brother or my sister?” 

So, when Jesus was asked by a teacher of the law what the most important commandment was, it was a loaded question. Jesus could have chosen any number of more popular answers among the divisive laws in the Old Testament. He could have referenced Exodus 23:33 that forbid foreigners to settle in the land, or Deuteronomy 7:3 that forbid intermarriage with outsiders. He might have put Leviticus 19:17 first, which says forgiveness is absolute for fellow Israelites, but only for them.

Instead, he chose to get to the heart of faith, that God is everything and it is our purpose to worship him, that God is so deeply set in our hearts that we are nothing without Him, that all we can do is love Him. Then, He blew up all the ancient world walls and said we must take that divine love and love our neighbor. 

Now, who is that neighbor? Not a Jew or a Gentile—remember, God makes no such distinction. No, our neighbor is everyone, anyone in search of God, anyone looking for the entrance of the church. We might live next to people of different colors and origins; our neighbor on the right may be rich, and our neighbor on the left might be poor. It doesn’t matter. We are to love them all. Equally. And we are to welcome them all—equally—to God.

Given all the commandments of the Old Testament, Jesus chose only those two. Our hearts are to be opened for love and love only, not for anger or hatred, not for prejudice or ignorance. These two truths build off one another. You cannot have one without the other. If you worship Jesus, you must love your neighbor. If you love your neighbor, it is through the love of God. 

Put this way, we know we must make room. Our church doors must be open and our homes must be open. Our minds must be open against prejudice, and our hearts must be open for love of every one of our neighbors in Christ.

As Jesus said, “There is no commandment greater than these.”

 

Romans 12:3

For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. (NIV) 

We’ve been talking now for a couple weeks about making room. We’re making room at our crowded tables for one more friend, in crowded churches for one more congregant, and in crowded houses for one more guest. But making room doesn’t start at the table or the church. Making room has to start inside us.

What are you thinking about when you open your door? You’re making a commitment to answer whatever is on the other side of that threshold. Whenever you pick up your phone, whenever you turn to someone calling out, you are prepared to answer. To truly make room for others, we don’t just open the door, we don’t just change how we act. We have to change how we think

That’s why we have to stop thinking “more highly” of ourselves and realize we are one of many. God has entrusted each of us with unique gifts. When we combine all of our different talents to accomplish a goal, we can master any task and cross the finish line with ease. Each of us is one small part of the body of Christ. Coming together to build the Kingdom of God, we are all a crucial part of the operation. We’re all special. We’re all unique in the eyes of God. 

The person at your door or on the phone or handing out flyers for charity at the mall, they’re asking you for something, they’re asking you to offer them a way forward. When we realize this, when we use our “sober judgment,” we see what God is telling us. Our “measure of faith” is great enough; we have the strength to help pull these people in, to work with them to build the Kingdom of God. Our “measure of faith” has been given to us so that we can be the ones to offer and we can be ones to make room. And it isn’t enough to just act like that; we must also learn to think like that. We must learn to humble ourselves enough to think about what the person on the other side of the door needs when they knock, and how we can come together for God.  

What God was doing when He made you, when He opened faith and the truth to you, was giving you the opportunity to offer yourself to others who weren’t there yet. 

On the surface, most of us will accept this basic point. Yes, we are all equal in God’s eyes. Yes, no one who accepts Him is above anyone else. Yes, we are all one small part of the body—a critical part that is necessary for all other parts to function at their best. But the challenge is to think like that. Not just to acknowledge that fact, but to let our minds run on it and create a new way of envisioning the world.

On some level, we are selfish creatures. We want to take the greater share of everything for ourselves and our loved ones, we want to bar the gates and keep everything inside for our own inner circle. When we aren’t thinking, even those of us with great faith can fall into that default setting. God is telling us to watch out for that. Every individual struggling to get through that door is as entitled to your love and compassion as any other. We have to make room in our minds to accommodate that reality. Once we do that, it becomes obvious that we must open our churches, our homes, and also our hearts as we live for God, leading others to a new life in Him. 

 

1 Peter 4:8-11

Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.  Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.  Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ.  (NIV)

The scripture above tells us to use our gifts to serve others, to be faithful stewards of God’s grace, to speak the words God would speak, and to do all of this with the strength that God provides us. A key word in this week’s scripture is “offer.” How often do we offer anything without being prompted? Sure, sometimes we offer our time and talents when we are asked to help, but too many times we just don’t want to be inconvenienced. However, we should always remember that one of the ways we can show the love of Christ is by extending ourselves to others without hesitation or grumbling. 

God has given each of us special gifts, gifts that we should use to represent Him by serving others without complaint. Now, I’m not saying that you should spend every waking moment tending to others’ needs.  That would not be a healthy way to live and we must always remember to take the time we need for ourselves.  But, whatever our gifts may be, we must strive to share them as God intended. In doing so, we show a true love for God and we may also help others to see that they are loved, remembered, and important in God’s eyes. This is stewardship at its most simple and pure. Others will see the example you set as you strive to live your life as a shining example of the love of God. 

So, use your gifts wisely. Those of you with the gift of hospitality, draw others into the fold and welcome them in. Those of you with the gift of song, share your gift with those that need to hear an uplifting message in an inspiring way. If you have a heart for youth and the ability to connect with them, get involved with your church’s youth ministry or a local Big Brother or Sister program. Always remember that God will give you the strength you need to serve, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. 

 

Galatians 3:28

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (NIV)

The idea of opening doors has been on my mind a lot lately. Beyond personal experience, on a larger level, this is an issue that has demanded more attention from all of us for a long time.

Every day on the news we see people all over the world struggling through all sorts of horrible circumstances. Closer to home, we see people on the street who could use an invitation to prayer, faith, and understanding. We have a responsibility to them and to God, to open our hearts and welcome them to the Word of God. With that truth in mind, I have decided to dedicate this month’s posts to the subject of making more room for others in every area of our lives, starting with the church. 

We know the stories of the religion in its earliest days as it opened its doors and offered faith to those who were previously unwelcome. We know the story of Paul, and we know about the mission to the Gentiles. But with all that knowledge, perhaps we forget the truly radical meaning behind that mission: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile.”

Think about that for a minute. To those reading Paul’s words in Galatia, the one thing they knew for sure was that the world was divided into only two categories—Jews and Gentiles—and everyone belonged to one or the other. Everyone on the one side belonged in the church, and everyone on the other side was meant to stay out. That’s how the whole world was set up. It was a truth everyone lived their lives by. 

But Paul says that it isn’t true anymore. Can you imagine that shock? The old divisions don’t fit now, he says. We’re not Jews or Gentiles, he says. Nor are we slaves or free. Nor are we male or female. 

“You are all one in Christ Jesus.” That’s what Paul wants us to know. No one is more or less welcome at a service, no one is more or less important. In fact, we aren’t different at all. God has made us one through Jesus. So, fine, we don’t care if someone was a Jew or a Gentile in the past. But Paul’s message remains relevant today. He might say in the 21st century, “You are not an American or an immigrant,” or “you are not conservative or liberal,” or “you are not black or white, nor rich or poor.”

Paul is telling us today exactly what he told the Galatians in the past: once a person arrives at the door with faith in his or her heart, once that person crosses the threshold into the church, all labels are meaningless. The doors to Christ Jesus are open to everyone, and space is not an issue. 

And that revelation has profound effects on us, as well as profound demands. We are not to judge those around us. To fight judgements, we must make room in our faith, in our prayers, and in our pews to accommodate all who seek God.

Though we all come to God from different paths, Paul tells us we are all the same. Those standing outside the church doors need community and faith just the same as us. They need compassion and welcoming just the same as us. And they need God just the same as us.