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 SERMON TEXT 
Friday, September 28 2012

Sermon by: Dr. Robert Zielinski

Leo Durocher was a baseball player and later a manager, infamous for his, shall we say, “fiery” manner on the field.  When asked why he never backed off a trait that did not exactly endear him to his fellow competitors, he is reputed to have said, because “nice guys finish last.”

Vince Lombardi, head coach of the Green Bay Packers in the 1960s, and whose name now graces the trophy awarded to the Super Bowl winner each year (those of us from Buffalo may not realize this, but trust me), is said to have once quipped “Winning isn’t everything.  It’s the only thing.”

Not exactly the messages we want our youth to remember when they take to the fields of sport and games.  We try, or at least we say we try, to teach adages like, “there’s no ‘I’ in team,” or “it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.”

Or my personal favorite, spoken to me by my oldest brother a thousand times, “you win some, you lose some, and some are rained out.  But you always get dressed for the game.”

Now, my big brother is about as good an example of the Christian life as I know, but I’m sure he was not trying to teach Jesus with that line.  But as I reflect on today’s Gospel, it seems to me that what Jesus is trying to teach is discipleship, and my brother’s quote works surprisingly well for exactly that.

The apostles at this point have absolutely no idea what being a disciple of Jesus really means. In Mark’s Gospel just before this, Peter has pronounced his belief that Jesus is Messiah, and then, in the very next verses, failed to grasp the need for that Messiah to suffer and die. OK, tough concept that one, so maybe we can cut him some slack for the first time he hears it. But as we read on in Mark, we find that they then see the Transfiguration, watch Jesus heal a convulsing child that no one else (including them) could help, and twice more hear him speak of his coming fate. 

And they are touched by none of it, and we get to today’s reading, where instead they are caught arguing over which of them is the greatest.  They are full on board with Misters Durocher and Lombardi….they want to “win” and aren’t nice or subtle about it.

They are too caught up in their plans for what they want, and what they want out of Jesus, to see what is really happening in front of their eyes.  In the next chapter of Mark, James and John still are asking about being the best most favored of the group. 

You see, this is a good example of how a great strength can be a great weakness in a different setting.  Confidence becomes arrogance.  Discipline becomes stubbornness.

I can sympathize with the apostles, because I am really prone to the tunnel vision kind of thinking they have in missing the discipleship boat because it doesn’t fit with their idea of following Jesus.  I can make a plan and stick to it, which can be a great attribute at times.  But it can also be a horrible handicap, because as the late great John Lennon once said, “life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans.” Failing to see this, sticking relentlessly to your own plan all the time can be the ultimate of selfishness.  It says that I know best what the right thing to do is, and the rest of the world should stop trying to distract me.  It’s putting yourself first.

My wife gets this.  She’s not so good at sticking to a plan, which can drive me crazy, but her willingness to put aside our plans because our granddaughter called and wants to come over is a great attribute.  She knows this not an inconvenience, it is an opportunity, and she rarely hesitates to jump on it. I, on the other hand, left to my own devices would probably miss out, and one day wake up and say “Marygrace is getting married?  Where did the years go?”

OK, we’ll probably still say that together, but at least those years will have been filled with a hundred times more memories from a hundred times more opportunities taken because Linda was ready when I wasn’t. 

It isn’t until much later that the disciples get this, that they actually become disciples.  It begins with Pentecost.

Pentecost is that day, after the Resurrection, when the Spirit comes over them all like a wind, and tongues of fire appear over them, and all of a sudden, all that Jesus said and taught begins to shine through with a blinding clarity. They all begin to preach, and the various foreign visitors each hear them in their own language. From that day on, they stopped worrying about themselves and their own fate.  They stopped keeping score in their lives, and put the message first.

When ever I have moments of doubt about my faith, and we all have them, it’s OK to admit it….I try to remember this transformation. These uneducated men who were fearful and cowering behind locked doors, from this day forward, got out there and spoke the Word in a way that changed the world forever. They each went to their grave, nearly all of them martyred for their faith, never backing down again. They are unique among religious figures in this sense.  An individual, like Mohammed, or Joseph Smith (founder of the Mormon faith), or even Jesus himself, could be passed off by doubters as deluded. And the many who continue to die for their faith up to today, they do it on faith, with no real way of knowing for sure if it is true.

But not our disciples.  Not one person but a dozen, more really when you count those live witnesses to the Resurrection added in those early days.  All of them in a position to know for absolute certain if the Resurrection and the living Jesus they preached was true or not….and not a one of them ever changed their minds and backed down.  They all died rather than deny him again. 

People don’t do that for a lie.  They just don’t.

From that day forward, they had no choice.  The Pentecost gave them their uniforms, and from that day, they always got dressed for the game.

Yes, they made plans, and they won some. The faith grew by leaps and bounds under their guidance.  But they lost some, too; there were many who remained unconvinced.  And no matter how hard they tried, sometimes their plans got derailed by things out of their control; they got “rained out”.

But now, they got it, and they saw these moments for what they were…..opportunities for discipleship.  Toss Paul in prison, he’ll teach the guards! The opportunities were different from what they planned, perhaps, but opportunities none the less.  And with the right attitude, with the Holy Spirit, post-Pentecost attitude, they were ready.  They were dressed for the game, and they took advantage of the circumstances as presented.

I think Jesus would tell Leo Durocher, that nice guys might finish last, but his disciples volunteer to finish last so that others can get ahead.  Last week, Randy described discipleship as “holding the door for others, so they can go through.” And I think he would tell Vince Lombardi that winning might indeed be the only thing, but his disciples know that winning and losing has nothing to do with the score kept on a football field.

And I think he would tell us just what my big brother told me, and what I now tell Marygrace and my other grandchildren.

You win some, you lose some and some are rained out.

But you always get dressed for the game.

So this week, let’s try to be ready.  Because your next discipleship opportunity is coming, right around the corner, and probably not where you think.  It may turn out great, and it may end tragically bad, but if you aren’t dressed and ready, it will surely pass you right by, and that would be far more tragic.

Amen.

Posted by: AT 09:14 am   |  Permalink   |  Email
Tuesday, September 18 2012

Mark 8:27-38

          I want you to know that every week – as I prepare my weekly message – I struggle with what it is that I’m going to say.  But there are for preachers like me – essentially two types of sermons or messages. 

          One kind is to proclaim how much God loves you.  And that He sent His Son Jesus Christ to die for you.  And because of that we have the forgiveness of our sins.  And then, because of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead – we have the hope and the promise of eternal life with God someday.  And that’s what we call the Good News – or the Gospel – the Good News of God for us in Jesus Christ. 

          And it is this Good News – or another word that we use a lot around here is grace – in other words, God’s undeserved love and favor – which is the heart of the Gospel.

          But the second kind of preaching – which is not quite so popular – is that – now that you have heard the Good News – what are you going to do with it?  Are you ready to deny yourself, and come follow Him?  You’ve come to believe in God – to believe that God sent His only Son into the world to save the world from sin.  But now what?

          I want to talk to you today about who you say Jesus is – and to ask you if you’re ready to come and follow him. 

          Folks – I am convinced that what you say about who Jesus is is the most important question in life that you can answer.  Eternity hangs in the balance.  Essentially – Jesus is many things.  The Bible calls Him many things.  Son of God, Son of man, the Good Shepherd, the Messiah, teacher, rabbi, the Lamb of God.  The list goes on.  But it is as Savior and Lord that He comes to us today.

          To say that Jesus is the Savior implies that you agree that there is something from which you need to be saved or rescued.  And that you cannot in and of yourself provide that rescue – that you need someone outside of yourself to do that for you.  And that you have come to realize that it is Jesus – and Jesus alone – who can be that Savior.  These are the kinds of sermons that we like to hear.  And usually the ones that I get the most compliments on.

          To say that Jesus is Lord is to agree that I am not God.  That I am not the master of all I survey.  That it’s NOT all about me.  And if it’s NOT all about me – then it must be about somebody else.  And I’m here to tell you that that someone else is Jesus.  So Jesus is God.  Jesus is the Savior.  And Jesus is Lord.

          Now it seems to me that we need to pay close attention when we hear Jesus say to us in our Gospel lesson today, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  Remember what I told you two weeks ago.  Jesus never said, “Repeat after me.”  He said, “Come, follow me.”   

          But before anyone says “yes,” or “no” to the invitation to follow Jesus, it seems to me we need to know who he is.  That’s why in our Gospel reading we find Jesus asking questions.  First – he asks the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”  And they answer, “Some say Elijah; some say one of the prophets; some say John the Baptizer.” 

          And then he asks them the crucial question.  “But who do you say that I am?”  And Simon Peter – answering for the group blurts out, “You are the Christ – the Messiah – the Son of the living God!”  And since they got it right – Jesus then invites them to take up their cross—deny themselves – and to come and follow him.    

          You see, Jesus realizes that if people are going to follow him – and if his followers are going to be truly effective Christians in the world – they need to know exactly who he is.  That’s the first thing.  But then they also need to know precisely what is involved in being and becoming a disciple.  It is a learning process – often with the encouragement of others.

          Let me share with you a story.  “Pastor Ed Markquart, a Lutheran pastor in Seattle, Washington tells about an encounter he had once with a pastor named Richard Wurmbrand. Wurmbrand, was a Christian minister of Jewish descent in Romania who suffered years of imprisonment and torture under the communists because of his faith.

          “Some years ago Markquart and some members of his church went to the Holy Land together. While there they took a cruise on a ship following the journeys of the Apostle Paul. One of the passengers on that cruise was Richard Wurmbrand.

          “One night Markquart and his wife found themselves sitting with Wurmbrand at an evening dinner table. Much to his surprise, Markquart found Wurmbrand to be witty, charming and intelligent as he told delightful stories at the table.

          “He was delightful until at the end of the dinner, when he learned over to Orlie, a layman from Markquart’s church who was also making the trip, and asked him, ‘Is that pastor over there (referring to Markquart) a good pastor?’

          “Markquart says it bothered him that Orlie paused before his answer. Finally, Orlie answered, ‘Yes.’  Wurmbrand asked another question, ‘Why is he a good pastor?’  Orlie responded, ‘Well, he makes good sermons.’

          “Then, says Markquart, Wurmbrand looked right at him and asked Orlie, ‘Yes, but does he make good disciples?’

          “‘In that moment,’ says Markquart, ‘there was a pause, a flash of embarrassment, and a little dagger went into my soul.  He didn’t say it but he could have said that the purpose of the church is not to make good sermons or good music or good youth programs or good sanctuaries, but the purpose of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ.  Through the power of the Holy Spirit, does he make disciples?

          “‘In that moment,’ Markquart continues, ‘Wurmbrand was the angel of the Lord to me . . . The purpose of God for all pastors and in all sermons is to make disciples of Jesus Christ.  People who love Jesus Christ, who follow Jesus Christ, who call Jesus Christ their Lord. That is what we are all called to be: to make disciples of Jesus Christ.  Not make church members.  Not make Sunday schools. Not make buildings.  We are to make disciples of Jesus Christ. That is what it is all about.’”

          I want you to know that it is a privilege for me to stand here week after week.  Thank you for listening to me all these years.  So you know I like to make you laugh.  And I know that sometimes I can make you cry.  Sometimes I make me cry!  But the worst thing that I or any preacher can do – is to be boring.  But neither is it my job to entertain just for the sake of entertainment.  No.  It is my job to encourage you to walk in the footsteps of Jesus; to encourage you to be and to become disciples of Jesus Christ.

          So I suppose that this is one of those sermons that you might not want to hear.  But I’m just going to come right out and say it.  Because Jesus said it.  Discipleship is about self-denial. Jesus turned to his disciples and to the crowd around them and said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.”

          This past week, we remembered the tragic events of 9/11.  “Many beautiful stories came out of the tragedy of the fall of the twin towers of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001 stories of sacrifice and heroism.  Let me share with you the story of Ron Fazio of Closter, New Jersey.

          “Fazio was Vice President of a company with offices on the 99th floor of Tower Two.  When the plane slammed into Tower One, Ron Fazio made one of the best decisions of his life. He ordered his employees to evacuate the building. Even though the South Tower where their offices were had not been hit by the second plane, he insisted that employees get away from the windows, leave their desks and get out of the building.  He stood there and held the door, yelling for everyone to hurry, and held the door open until everyone from his company had started down the stairs.  They all made it down.  So did he.  But he remained outside Tower Two, helping others out of the building, talking on his cell phone. The last anyone saw of him, he was giving his cell phone to someone else, after which the tower collapsed and no one ever heard from Ron Fazio again.

          “Ron’s wife Janet and their kids have started a foundation to honor their father’s heroism.  It’s called “Hold the Door for Others, Inc.”  In son Rob’s words, ‘My Dad was a quiet, humble man who died after holding the door open for others. As a family, we’re trying to do the same thing, to help people move through the pain so they can begin to dream again.’”

          I shared with you a year ago that I had a college fraternity brother – Kenny Cubas – who rushed back into one of the towers after bringing out a woman to safety.   He didn’t make it back out either.  Now – these certainly are examples of unselfish love for others.  And it is highly unlikely we will ever be asked to make those kinds of sacrifices.  But then again – you never know.  The bottom line is that discipleship leads to self-denial. 

          It begins when we realize who Jesus is.  Martin Luther, that great German theologian after whom the Lutheran Church is named, once wrote: "I care not whether he be Christ, but that he be Christ for you."

          The fact that Jesus is the Christ means nothing until – until you confess that Jesus is Savior – and God – and Lord.  That He is Christ for you.   Have you done just that?  I can’t think of a more important question for me to ask of you this [morning] [evening] than this. 

          And if you can honestly say about Jesus, “Yes – this I believe,” then let me invite you to come and follow Him.  If my preaching does not encourage you to be a fully devoted follower of Jesus Christ – then I’m not doing my job – and you should fire me!  I guess what I’m asking you to do is to make the connection between what we value here – and what you value on Monday morning.  In other words, are you willing to take up your cross to follow Him?  Are you opening doors for others? 

                                                                                                                        Amen

Posted by: AT 10:12 am   |  Permalink   |  Email
Tuesday, September 11 2012

Mark 7:24-37

          I suppose if I were to poll all of you in this room today – and I were to ask you, “Who here is afraid of public speaking?” I would guess quite a number of hands might go up.  Am I right?  Fear of public speaking is near the top of the list of things that many people are afraid to do. 

          Sometimes the same thing can be said when it comes to sharing our faith with someone else, one on one.  Now, there are some folks who find this somewhat east to do – and some who don’t. 

          The truth of the matter is – we do share our faith.  One way or the other – we share our faith.  And I find that there are essentially two ways that we tend to do this.  One of those ways is as a congregation here in this place that we call Zion Lutheran Church.  We hear the Good News of God’s love and forgiveness made known to us through Jesus Christ every week here in this place.

          And what a wonderful thing it is for me to know that I am not the only one making the Good News of Jesus Christ known here.  This weekend we celebrate the beginning of Sunday School.  Thank God we have able and willing teachers – teachers who love children and want to share their own faith with them.  Willing to take the time to invest in these youngsters for the sake of Jesus Christ. 

          Sunday night we start another season of confirmation ministry.  And I really want to thank those adults who are serving as small group leaders – small group mentors – who are partners with me – and quite frankly with all of you because they too are willing to share their faith with 8th and 9th graders.

          AND it’s not just the youngsters who are growing and learning – but those of you who are no longer children.   You young adults – and – you not so young adults – let me invite you to check out the Sunday morning and mid-week educational opportunities we have designed with you in mind.  Because I am convinced that we never outgrow our need to hear from others and to share with others what this thing called faith – what this thing called discipleship – what this thing called maturing in Christ – are all about.  We never outgrow our need to grow in Christ.  And I include myself when I tell you that.

          So thank God for our teachers.  Pray for our teachers.  And pray for their students as well.

          I hope you are aware that – like most Lutheran churches – we place a heavy emphasis on getting the word out through preaching and teaching.  But thank God this ministry is not limited to preaching and teaching.  Because all of you who are involved in the ministries of administration, leadership, the caring ministries, the music ministries, social outreach ministries, building maintenance ministries, youth ministries – these are all ways in which we share the faith – and each one is crucial.

          And because of the resources that you generously give to all of this – your financial gifts – your gifts of time – all of what we do here is made possible because you believe in what we are doing here – and more importantly you believe in the One for whom and in whose name we proclaim the Good News in the many ways in which we do that.  Every one of you is an important partner in this faith sharing ministry. 

          So that’s one way we share the faith.  We do this together as a congregation.  But there is still another way.  A second way.  And again, this way may not be so easy for some as it is for others.  What I’m talking about is the one on one way of sharing faith.

          Listen.  In our Gospel reading today, there is a man who is deaf – he has a speech impediment as well.  Although we’re not told, the impediment would suggest that he may have been able to hear at one time – as a young boy, but having become deaf early on, lost his ability to speak clearly. 

          The point is – and this is what I do not want you to miss – the point is that this man has friends.  These friends bring him to the One – the only One – who can do something about his situation.

          And of course, Jesus has compassion for the man.  Pulls him aside privately – puts his fingers in his ears – and this might sound kind of gross to us – but he spits on his tongue – and enables the man to hear and to speak clearly.  This is a true miracle.

          Now folks – if this were to happen to you – what would you do next?  Anybody?  What would you do?  Yeah!  You’d tell other people what happened.  You’d tell other people what Jesus Christ has done for you, right?  Of course!  But what does Jesus tell the man and his friends?  “Tell no one.  Don’t tell anyone about this.”

          Yeah, right!  I mean, can you imagine?  “Jesus!  I can hear again!  I can speak again!  Let me get this straight.  You don’t want me to tell anyone about it?  Are you nuts?”

          And we’re told that the more Jesus ordered them not to, the more zealously they proclaimed it!  To anyone who would listen!

          Now folks, let me ask you.  What has Jesus done for you that you would be willing to tell somebody else about?  What has Jesus done?  If you don’t know the answer, then just ask yourself, “Why am I a Christian?” and take it from there. 

          The man and his friends proclaimed with zeal what it was that Jesus had done for the man.  They could not be silenced.  What Jesus had done could not be hidden.

          You see – whether you like it or not – whether you agree with me or not – when it comes to your life – the Gospel – the Good News of Jesus Christ – cannot be hidden.  It speaks for itself.  Now, I know, there are some settings where we might want to hide it – sometimes we want to hide our faith – as though we might be embarrassed.  I understand that.  I know what that feeling is like.

          The point is – you are a walking billboard for the faith.  Authentic Christian lives are the best advertising we have for proclaiming the faith.  Words are important too.  But just remember –as you’ve heard me say before – people would rather see a sermon that hear one.

          And again, you’ve heard me say – quoting St. Francis of Assisi, “Proclaim the Gospel at all times.  If necessary, use words.”

          I trust that you are as concerned about the ongoing life and health and growth of the church as I am.  We are living in a time of increasing population, and declining church attendance.  This is a statistic that is across the board in nearly every denomination.  So when people ask me, “Randy – what are you doing over there in Clarence Center that is making Zion grow?”  I simply state it’s a great combination of pastor and people.  But the best reason I can give is that it is because of invitation and reputation.

          One resource I read says that, “A study of new members who join churches has revealed that the vast majority of them were moved to join a church because someone invited them. This is by far the best method of achieving results. The personal invitation is the most effective tool of evangelism. Whom have you invited to your church?

          “The deaf-mute was healed because he was brought to Christ. We do not know why he did not come of his own accord. There are people around us today who, when asked why they do not attend any church, will answer, ‘Because we have never been asked.’ Who is there to whom you should be giving a friendly invitation to attend church? Who is there in your wide social circle who can honestly say that they have never been asked to a service of worship, to meet Christ, the Creator and Savior of the world?”

          The point is that we share the faith through the ministries of this congregation.  But we share it as individuals as well.  One on one.  You don’t have to argue about it with anyone.  Just share your story.  Let them witness who you are and how you live your life.  Then invite them to come and see. 

          Listen.  Maybe “…you remember the Mercedes TV commercial a few years ago that showed a Mercedes crashing into a concrete wall during a safety test? An engineer in a white lab coat walks over after the crash and kneels down to examine the damage, which is minimal. A reporter then asks the engineer about Mercedes’ energy absorbing car body. After the engineer tells all about the unique design the reporter asks him why Mercedes doesn’t enforce their patent on the design, a design evidently copied by several other companies because of its success.

          “The engineer then replies matter-of-factly, ‘Because some things in life are too important not to share.’   How true this is. There are many things in life that fall into this ‘too important not to share’ category. Advances in science, in medicine, in technology.  But all of these pale in importance to that of sharing our faith.”

          Who do you know who needs to meet the Savior?  A simple invitation is all it takes.  You invite, and together we’ll find a way to make church – this church – and the message we proclaim – hold value for their life.

          Which shouldn’t be too hard.  After all it is the Gospel – the Good News.  And by the way – as you hear me say so often – do you know anybody who has enough Good News?

                                                                                                    Amen

Posted by: AT 12:16 pm   |  Permalink   |  Email
Tuesday, September 04 2012

Mark 7:1–8, 14–15, 21–23; James 1:17–27

          The Pharisees are at it again.  This time they accuse Jesus and his disciples of not washing their hands before eating “according to the tradition of the elders.”  Now we know that washing our hands before we eat is a good thing – especially if you’re a germ-a-phobe like I am.  But the Pharisees weren’t concerned about proper hygiene.  No.  For them it was a ritual – a rite – call it a law following the tradition of the elders. 

          And Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah when he tells them, 'This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” 

          Thank God Jesus came along when he did.  Thank God that we have Jesus to let us know what it is that God truly wants for us – and what it is that God wants from us.  God simply wants to love us – that’s what He wants for us – and He wants us to love Him – and to learn what it means to love each other even as we love ourselves – or even as we are loved by God. 

          So Jesus lets us know today that loving God and loving each other isn’t a matter of having clean hands.  It’s a matter of the heart.  Folks – I want to talk to you today about your heart.  About where your heart is. 

          Musicians know all about having heart when it comes to their music.  I took organ lessons for 10 years.  And the last organ teacher I had gave me training on the pipe organ – a kind of training that I had not experienced from any previous teachers. 

          Now, at the time I was living in Niagara Falls – and my teacher told me something I have not forgotten.  He said, “There are many organists in Niagara Falls, but not many musicians.  There are many organists who play notes, but not many who play music.”

          The difference?  A musician plays from the heart.  I learned to play from the heart.  I learned to play with passion.  Greg and Kristen and Billy – when they ar at the keyboard or the organ – we are just blessed to have them because all three of them are great musicians.  They are great because they know what it means to play with passion – to play from the heart.  Music that sets the heart and the voice to singing – and maybe even a little toe tapping along the way.

          When it comes to our faith practices – the same thing is true.  Praying daily, daily Bible reading, weekly worship, serving others, developing spiritual friendships, giving to the work of the Lord – these are a matter of the heart.  So I want to ask you – where is your heart?  Is your heart in these things? 

          I do not ask this as an accusation or a judgment against you or me or anyone else.  But I know that in my life I want to take Jesus seriously here when he accuses the Pharisees of having hearts that are far from God.  And although Jesus is talking here about the worship of God, in other words, “This people worships me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me,” this applies to all areas of our faith practices – the 6 marks of discipleship.

          In other words – when it comes to you and me living the Christian life – I want to do more than just go through the motions.  If my heart’s not in it – then saying the right words and doing the right things – and saying and doing them in the right way – just isn’t going to cut it.  No.  It’s a matter of the heart.  For disciples of Jesus Christ – the Christian way of life is not a system of do’s and don’ts.   Yes – there are certain expectations for those of us who do call ourselves Christians – yes, we still have the 10 Commandments – but remember that Jesus boiled these down to two:  Love God and love your neighbor.  

          Quite frankly, I don’t remember Jesus ever saying, “All right now listen up everybody – repeat after me.  Get the words right.”  No.  What did he say, “Come, follow me.  Love one another as I have loved you.”

          May I suggest to you that what Jesus is talking about is sincerity – a genuineness that others are going to see.  As tough as it is for some of us to do sometimes – it’s a matter of living gracious lives – approaching life – approaching others – with the same love and grace – God’s undeserved love and favor – that we ourselves have received from God.  So being a follower of Jesus Christ ultimately boils down to be being a matter of the heart.  So where is your heart?  As a disciple of Jesus Christ, is your heart in it?  Are you making a difference?

          There is a story many years ago of an elementary teacher. Her name was Mrs. Thompson. And as she stood in front of her fifth grade class on the very first day of school, she told the children a lie. Like most teachers, she looked at her students and said that she loved them all the same. But that was impossible, because there in the front row, slumped in his seat, was a little boy named Teddy Stoddard.

          Mrs. Thompson had watched Teddy the year before and noticed that he didn't play well with the other children, that his clothes were messy and he constantly needed a bath. And Teddy could be unpleasant. It got to the point where Mrs. Thompson would actually take delight in marking his papers with a broad red pen, making bold X's and then putting a big "F" at the top of his papers.

          At the school where Mrs. Thompson taught, she was required to review each child's past records and she put Teddy's off until last. However, when she reviewed his file, she was in for a surprise. Teddy's first grade teacher wrote, "Teddy is a bright child with a ready laugh. He does his work neatly and has good manners...he is a joy to be around." His second grade teacher wrote, "Teddy is an excellent student, well liked by his classmates, but he is troubled because his mother has a terminal illness and life at home must be a struggle." His third grade teacher wrote, "His mother's death has been hard on him. He tries to do his best but his father doesn't show much interest and his home life will soon affect him if some steps aren't taken." Teddy's fourth grade teacher wrote, "Teddy is withdrawn and doesn't show much interest in school. He doesn't have many friends and sometimes sleeps in class."

          By now, Mrs. Thompson realized the problem and was ashamed of herself. She felt even worse when her students brought her Christmas presents, wrapped in beautiful ribbons and bright paper, except for Teddy's. His present was clumsily wrapped in the heavy, brown paper that he got from a grocery bag. Mrs. Thompson took pains to open it in the middle of the other presents. Some of the children started to laugh when she found a rhinestone bracelet with some of the stones missing and a bottle that was one quarter full of perfume. But she stifled the children's laughter when she exclaimed, how pretty the bracelet was. She put it on and dabbed some of the perfume on her wrist.

          Teddy Stoddard stayed after school that day just long enough to say, "Mrs. Thompson, today you smelled just like my mom used to." After the children left she cried for at least an hour. On that very day, she quit teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic. Instead, she began to teach children.

          Mrs. Thompson paid particular attention to Teddy. As she worked with him, his mind seemed to come alive. The more she encouraged him, the faster he responded. By the end of the year, Teddy had become one of the smartest children in the class and, despite her lie that she would love all the children the same, Teddy became one of her pets. A year later, she found a note under her door, from Teddy, telling her that she was still the best teacher he ever had in his whole life.

          Six years went by before she got another note from Teddy. He then wrote that he had finished high school, third in his class, and she was still the best teacher he ever had in his whole life. Four years after that, she got another letter, saying that while things had been tough at times, he stayed in school, had stuck with it, and would soon graduate from college with the highest of honors. He assured Mrs. Thompson that she was still the best and favorite teacher he ever had in his whole life. Then four more years passed and yet another letter came. This time he explained that after he got his bachelor's degree, he decided to go a little further. The letter explained that she was still the best and favorite teacher he ever had. But now his name was a little longer. The letter was signed, Theodore F. Stoddard, MD.

          The story doesn't end there. You see, there was yet another letter that spring. Teddy said he'd met a girl and was going to be married. He explained that his father had died a couple of years ago and he was wondering if Mrs. Thompson might agree to sit in the place at the wedding that was usually reserved for the mother of the groom.

          Of course, Mrs. Thompson did. And guess what? She wore that bracelet, the one with several rhinestones missing. And she made sure she was wearing the perfume that Teddy remembered his mother wearing on their last Christmas together. They hugged each other, and Dr. Stoddard whispered in Mrs. Thompson's ear, "Thank you, Mrs. Thompson, for believing in me. Thank you so much for making me feel important and showing me that I could make a difference."

          Mrs. Thompson, with tears in her eyes, whispered back, "Teddy, you have it all wrong. You were the one who taught me that I could make a difference. I didn't know how to teach until I met you."

          That, my friends, is a lesson in grace. 

          We have been touched by the heart of God.  It’s called grace.  And we therefore have been called to live a life of gracious living.  Whether in our worship life or in how we relate to others.   It’s a matter of the heart.

          When the heart is in it – well – it seems to me that is what makes all the difference in the world. 

                                                                                                    Amen

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Zion Lutheran Church
9535 Clarence Center Road

PO Box 235
Clarence Center, NY 14032
Phone: 716-741-2656
Email:
zionoffice@zionclarencecenter.com

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