(Significant Scriptures: 1 Samuel 1:1-13; James 1:2-12; Luke 15:1-10)
During the month of May we are reflecting on how we, as a people who follow God, might best use our time and talents. Over the course of a day, each of us makes many choices about what we will do with our time. During any given month, we will all be presented with several opportunities to use our God-given talent, and we will have to decide what is the best use of our talent. So let us begin with a word of prayer.
The past three weeks have been heaven for hockey fans. All at the same time, we have the NHL playoffs, the WHL playoffs and the World Hockey Championships. There is lots of hockey being played but it is also high calibre hockey. Only the better teams are still playing and they are playing with a high level of motivation because now, after several preseason games and 82 regular season games, the games mean something. It’s “win or go home.” But there is something more than skill and ability involved in hockey at this time of year. Important as those things are, I believe that what makes the hockey so good right now is that everyone is focused on winning the championship, everyone is playing together to achieve that goal, and everyone is passionate about making that goal a reality. Focus, alignment and passion are the keys to great playoff hockey.
I envy and admire those hockey qualities at this time of year. But focus, alignment and passion are not just key factors for winning at hockey. They are also key items for winning at life God’s way. Jesus came to this world so that we might have a rich, full, abundant life. And Jesus not only modeled that abundant life and taught about it, he also opened the door for all of us to enter into that abundant life. And yet, in spite of all that Jesus has done for us, we often flounder at the game of life. We end up playing more like the Toronto Maple Leafs than the Vancouver Canucks. Maybe we need to check our focus, our alignment and our passion.
What can be helpful as we do this are three guiding questions. The first question is “How close is your heart to God?” In our first lesson for today, we hear the story of the prophet Samuel and the young shepherd David. Saul was the king over ancient Israel at the time, but God had rejected Saul as king because Saul had disobeyed God. God send Samuel to Jesse’s family to anoint a new king for the future. Seven times Jesse had one of his sons come before Samuel. These were good, strong handsome men. Some of them sure looked like regal material to Samuel. But God chose none of them. Samuel asked, “Are these all the sons you have?” “There is still the youngest,” Jesse answered. “He is tending the sheep.” “Send for him,” Samuel said. And when David came, God said to Samuel, “Rise and anoint him; this is the one.”
You see, “The Lord does not look at the things human beings look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (I Samuel 16:7b) The Lord looked at David’s heart and he saw a whole hearted passion for God. A man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14) is how the Bible describes David. That’s winning at life in God’s eyes!
The first key question is “How close is your heart to God?” The second question for living an abundant life is this: “Is your life aligned with the Kingdom of God?” The Kingdom of God is the Dome where God is King. It is the area within which God’s will is freely done. And when we say, “God, I want you to come and be the King over my life” then the Kingdom of God has come to us. We are living in the Kingdom of God when we are wanting the things that God wants and doing the things that God wants done.
But most of us tend to compartmentalize our lives. We have one box that is our work life, and we have another box that is our home life, and then we have another box that is our social life, and then we might have another box that is our church life. And here’s the thing: we live differently in each of those boxes. We are a different person at work than we are at home. When we are out with our friends, we say and do things that we would never say or do at church. We let God rule over the church box, but the rest of the boxes we run ourselves.
And then some tough times come upon. And all of our boxes get all messed up. And we pray, “God, why is this happening to me?”
When Susan and I were first married, my dad and our hired men were renovating some old hog barns on our farm. And I was wearing rubber boots while we were doing this. One time one of the hired men was helping me to pry an old board off of the wall. We both took goose neck pry bars and pried it in behind the board between the board and the wall and then we started reefing on the board. Finally the board came off the wall, but when it did, it flipped over and landed on top of my rubber boot. The nail went through the top of my boot into my foot and came out the other side. Well, now we had to pry the board off of my foot. And I had to go to the hospital and they gave me a tetanus shot and put me on IV antibiotics because, after all, it was a rusty nail in a pig barn. And my foot did get infected. But in addition to the antibiotics, the nurses also gave me another treatment. They would soak my foot in hot salt water every morning and night. And that hurt like crazy to put my foot in that hot salt water. But that was exactly what my foot needed.
In the same way, for many of us, it hurts like crazy to have to go through these tough economic times. But maybe for some of us (and this is between you and God) that is exactly what we need to pull us closer to Jesus. He’s the only one who gives us hope and life and forgiveness in both good times and bad. He is the one who says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, trust in God, trust also in me” (John 14:1)
The first question is “How close is your heart to God?” The second key question for winning at life is this: “Is your life aligned with the Kingdom of God?” The third key questions is “What is the passion (or the burden) that God has placed in your heart?” Later on this month, just before the Alberta-British Columbia District Convention of Lutheran Church – Canada, your pastoral team will be attending a conference organized by the District on team ministry. In preparation for that conference, we have been asked to read certain books. One of those books is Leading the Team-Based Church: How Pastors and Church Staffs Can Grow Together into a Powerful Fellowship of Leaders by George Cladis. And in this book I was reminded of an important aspect of ministry life that we often overlook. The author quotes Carol Davis of LeafLine Initiatives who realized that gift-based ministry is not enough.
After several years of building teams with varied degrees of success, I began to realize that the dream and convictions had to be alive in each person’s heart, not just in mine. I was calling them to my dream and my burdens… not finding out what their dreams were about. They were trying to minister in their gifts area, but that wasn’t enough to keep them deeply fulfilled or to sustain the team when the going to rough. Ephesians 4:11-12 convinced me that it was no longer about them being team members for my work of ministry, but about me equipping them for their work of ministry, including finding a place for their unique contributions out of their burdens… by way of their gifts and skills.
So one could say that the purpose of the church is not to instil or give people a passion for serving others, but to help people discover the passion that God has already put in them for serving others with the gifts God has given them.
So what is the burden that God has placed on your life? What is the passion that God has placed in your heart? What are the opportunities that excite you? What are the dreams that keep you up at night if you start thinking about them before you go to bed? If you don’t already know what your passion is, I encourage you to try to discover it. Ask those close to you what makes your eyes light up when you start talking about it? What puts a sense of nervous excitement into your voice? They might already be able to identify your God-given passion in life.
Focus, alignment and passion are necessary for winning in hockey. And they are necessary for winning at life. However, with life, we cannot conjure up the focus, the alignment and the passion that we need. All of these things are a gift from Jesus. Jesus is the one who helps us to focus our hearts on him. Jesus is the one who helps us align our lives with the kingdom of God. Jesus is the one who not only gifts for service but gifts us a passion for using those gifts in serving others. Jesus is the one who gives us a rich, full abundant life. He won the Stanley Cup of life for us when he died on the cross and rose again. And we get to tag along on his coat tails as he gives that everlasting championship life to us.
One of the greatest goals in hockey history was scored on September 28, 1972, by Paul Henderson to win the 1972 Summit Series for Canada against the Soviet Union. Check out this short video clip about the changes that happened in Paul’s life after that eventful goal.
As great as Paul Henderson’s hockey career was, he is living an even greater life now. As talented as that 1972 Team Canada team was, he is playing on an even better team now. Paul’s playing on God’s team and he is making a difference for all eternity in the lives of the people that he touches. The Bible tells us that “…there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:10) That’s what Walnut Grove Lutheran Church is playing for. It is not about the building. It is not about our own personal agendas. It’s about life and hope and forgiveness and eternity. It’s about serving the people who are not even here. It’s about striving for justice and peace even when it costs us. It’s about raising up the broken-hearted and setting the captives free. And your heavenly Father is tapping you on the shoulder. It is time for you to go over the boards and hit the ice! Let’s go team! Amen.
(Shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church on 2 May 2009.)
 George Cladis, Leading the Team-Based Church: How Pastors and Church Staffs Can Grow Together into a Powerful Fellowship of Leaders (Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, 1999), p. 98.