July 15, 2018

Different...but the Same

8th Sunday of Pentecost
First Lesson:  Amos 7:10-15

Second Lesson:  1 Timothy 3:1-7

Gospel Lesson:  Mark 6:7-13

Sermon Text:  Amos 7:10-15
Couple of quick stories.  Years ago, I did a wedding for two members.  An elderly lady who attended the service came up to me afterwards and said, “You are a nice, holy man, Father.”  About 10 years ago, we were on vacation up here in Wisconsin.  A member, Andy, and his wife, Marianna, just delivered a child.  Her name is Kaylee.  She was born with a hole in her heart (that has since repaired itself).  I had just taken them through new member class, and they knew the importance of baptism.  Andy called me at Lori’s parents and asked about having Kaylee baptized.  I said, “Call pastors Westra, Jenswold, or Pieper,” all of whom were pastors in Columbus.  Andy tried two with no answer.  He called me back.  “What should I do?”  I said, “If you can’t get Pastor Pieper, you have to do it yourself.”  “Do it myself?” he said.  “I’m not a pastor.  Will it work?” One more, and more of a general story.  It is not uncommon that it comes out that I am a pastor when, for example, I am getting my haircut.  More often than not, the stylist will ask me to pray for her or her family.  I say that I will, and she says something like this: “Cause, you know, you have more pull with the big guy than the rest of us do.”

The point of those?  There are many people, and many of whom having been coming to church for years, who think that somehow pastors are closer to God, that their prayers are more effective, and that they are, for lack of a better term, “holy men.”  This isn’t a new concept.  If you know any Reformation history, lots of people, including Martin Luther for a while, thought that if you became a nun, a monk, a priest, or a bishop, you were closer to God than everyone else.

But is that true?  Do I have some secret red phone in my office by which God communicates with me and gives me insight and knowledge non-pastors don’t get?  Am I any higher on the chain than any of you?  Are church workers somehow in a league of their own, a special club that you need a masters in divinity to join?  I am hoping you all know that isn’t true, but I bring it up for a reason.  What’s the reason?  You’ll have to stay alert to find out.

We are in the book of Amos. We rarely have sermons on this book, so here’s the context.  In Israel at this time, there was a hierarchy, a pecking order.  As is often the case, there were the rich and the poor.  And among the rich were many priests and church workers.  Throughout the book God, through Amos, blasts them for their selfishness, their love of worldly wealth, and their cruelty to the poor.  They viewed themselves as better than everyone else, but in reality, they were worse off, for they had pushed God almost completely out of their lives.  And in our lesson, once again, Amos hops into the pulpit.

And he does so because he was taking some heat.  God had told Amos to deliver a strong message to this upper crust and to the rulers to repent and turn back to God.  If they didn’t, Amos declared, bad things would happen.  A fellow priest – Amaziah – doesn’t like this one bit.  He runs to the king and tattles on Amos.  “He is saying bad things will happen.  Make him stop!”  Then Amaziah steps it up a notch.  He goes right to Amos and tears his head off.  “Get out, you seer! Go back to the land of Judah. Earn your bread there and do your prophesying there.  Don’t prophesy anymore at Bethel, because this is the king’s sanctuary and the temple of the kingdom.”

Realize what he all said there.  Amaziah was only doing the priest thing for money, power, and prestige, and he figured Amos was doing the same thing.  Like a salesman warding off competitors, Amaziah wants Amos out.  He does not respect him as a man bringing a message from God.  He has no respect for him as a fellow church worker.  Likely he looks down his nose at this poor simpleton and wishes him to be gone.

How does Amos respond?  He says, “I was neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but I was a shepherd, and I also took care of sycamore-fig trees. But the LORD took me from tending the flock and said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’”  Basically he says, “I am not doing this to make money.  I am not doing it to just scare people or get a bribe to leave.  This wasn’t my idea at all.  God called me to do this, so I did it.” 

And Amos tells us a little about himself.  He didn’t come from some long line of preachers.  He didn’t study at the fancy schools guys like Amaziah studied at.  He didn’t even have a respectable job.  He was a shepherd – the worker bees of society. He was, in the eyes of most, a nobody.  But because God called, and you don’t say no to that, Amos hopped into action.  He preached the message he was commissioned to deliver.

Does Amos sound like a “holy man” to you?  Yes, God used him for a holy purpose, but he was a sinner just like everyone else.  Did Amos have a stronger relationship with God because he was his messenger?  No.  Sure, God spoke directly to him, but it wasn’t because Amos was so much better than anyone else.  And was Amos the only guy that God could have picked for this job?  Not at all.  We know of a number of other prophets who were just as unimpressive as Amos was. 

And that leads to a number of points I want to make.  First, you know what the most important point of our lesson?  It’s about the message, not the messenger.  Again, God could have used any one of thousands of people to do this.  And when he spoke, Amos didn’t say, “Hear me, people.  It is I, Amos the great, THE spokesman for God Almighty, the one he hand picked for this job.”  No.  He said, “Don’t worry about me.  That doesn’t matter. What does matter is the message I bring.”

I hope that is something you all get.  Over the years I have had pastors I have really liked and others I wasn’t so fond of.  But whoever brought the message was unimportant.  The message is the key.  You know what my prayer often is right before I preach?  “Lord, don’t let me get in the way.”  And you know what I have to confess all too often after late service?  “Sorry, Lord.  I think I kind of did get in the way.”  Just like with Amos, it isn’t about the guy.  It’s about the message.

And if that ever changes, someone please let the hot air out of my head.  I am a struggling sinner just like the rest of you.  The Savior I and all other pastors are always talking about is the Savior we need just as much as you guys.  That’s where the focus needs to be.  I try to ask myself often after a counseling session, a meeting, a sermon, etc., “Did I talk enough about Jesus?”  Why?  It’s not about me, or you, or him, or her.  It’s all about Jesus.

“But,” someone might say, “Pastors stand in front of churches and lead God’s people.  Doesn’t that make them special?”  Not really.  What we do is public ministry.  Everyone sees it, and we are called by a congregation to do it.  But everyone in this room is called to ministry.  Maybe it’s private ministry, but it still is ministry.  Amos was doing ministry as he lived out his life as a faithful, hard-working, God-praising shepherd.  He also did ministry as he delivered a message straight from God.  It was kind of different in one way, but not really in another way.  And either way, he was living out his faith and serving God.

Isn’t that way you do, mothers, when you set your plans aside to care for a sick child?  Isn’t that what you do in the office or on the plant floor when you let your light shine for all to see?  Isn’t that what you young people do as you try to be a godly influence on your circle of friends?  Tell me that isn’t ministry.  Yes, you’d look weird wearing a gown as you do these things.  And yes, maybe many people don’t notice.  But anything done in faith and in service to the Lord and his people is ministry.

And as you carry out that ministry, publicly or privately, what do you use?  The same tool I do – God’s Word. Some emails I get absolutely put a smile on my face.  I esp. love those that come from a member who is asking for passages on a certain topic.  For example, a friend of the member is having marriage struggles.  The member wants to use God’s Word to guide, encourage, and help their friend. Guess who else does that in his office, at the hospital, or at the nursing home?  Pastors.

And we do because your tool is our tool.  To the member struggling with guilt after a sin, I share God’s Word with them. You do the same with the neighbor who just lost his wife of 60 years.  To the member dealing with hopelessness, I share God’s Word with them.  You do the same for the guy at work who’s always down.  To the person who comes into my office with this or that issue, I always go back to God’s Word, just like you do when a friend needs some advice on child-rearing.

We do that because God’s Word speaks to all of these issues.  To the friend or member who is ravaged by guilt, we point to the guiltless one who said, “It is finished.”  To the friend or member who is facing the end, we point to the one who is “the resurrection and the life.”  To the friend and member who needs guidance, we share with them the Word that is “a lamp for our feet and a light for our path.”  We point all these people to the Lord and his Word – our rock and our refuge.

And that leads to another point. When we are using the Word, be it in public or private ministry, we can trust God will do his thing. Amos didn’t second guess the message, even though he knew it would not be well received.  He trusted God would bring about the right response and left it at that.  The key for us there is that God doesn’t set quotas, for you or for me.  Our job is to share the message – in the pulpits and in the dining rooms.  Where God uses that, when, and for what purpose is up to him.  Amos knew that.  And I pray we do as well.

And while there are more we could list, let’s close with this one.  Pastors and church leaders do not have higher standing in God’s eyes.  But we do have the highest standing, as do you.  What higher standing could there be than child of God?  How much higher can you get than to be one for whom Christ Jesus came into this world, lived perfectly, died innocently, and rose victoriously?  What can be added to your credentials when your spiritual business card reads, “Heaven bound and washed in the blood of the lamb”?  Church leaders can’t be higher than everyone else or closer to God than everyone else.  Why not?  Because we are all as close to God as close gets.  We are all members of the body of Christ.  We are all lambs in the Shepherd’s flock.  Me, you, him, her… even Amos.

Better?  No.  Holy?  Not on our own.  Set apart?  Only in the sense that we are all set apart as children of God.  And what do I want you to take from this more than anything else?  Peter said it best. “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”  That’s what I am.  That’s what Amos was.  And that’s what you – fellow believer, fellow lamb, fellow member of the body – are as well.  Amen.