The sermon should be near the top of the player’s list, but if not, click on the tab that says, “speakers,” click on my name (Tom Fuerst) and it’s the sermon titled, “Training for dying.”
And because people have requested it, I will start posting my manuscript.
Training for Dying
A few weeks ago Neal and I took our church’s shower trailer up to a church in the middle ofAlabamaserving in an area that had just been ravaged by an F5 tornado. On the way up to this church we drove through about 100 random little towns. In one of these towns we came to an intersection and on the left side of road was a plot of land that had several different kinds of rusted out old cars ranging from classic Camaro’s to beat up old Jeeps. Well, the Jeep sitting up front caught Neal’s attention and the Camaro’s caught mine. So we decided to stop for a look.
The only building on this plot of land was an old, old gas station that looked completely abandoned. None of the cars had ‘For Sale’ signs on them, but we didn’t figure that mattered. So Neal gets to looking at this old Jeep and decides he wants to see if it’s for sale. So he goes up to the old building and the door’s locked. And it should’ve been a warning sign to us at the time, but when he looked in the window there was a bunch of junk piled up in the place with an old coffin sitting right in the middle of it all. But there was no one to be found in the place. I’m thinking hillbilly Dracula lives here.
But apparently Neal didn’t feel creeped out at all. So he says, “Hey dude, I’m going to cross the street here and find out who owns all this stuff.” And I respond, “Hey dude, that’s fine, but you’re going by yourself.” And Neal crosses the street and goes to a house about 100 yards away. And I keep looking around at these cars. I hear him talking with someone and then I look over and see him walking back behind the house. I figure he must’ve found something out. But I’m content just perusing the cars and making sure the attack goats surrounding the place don’t try to bite me.
Now, back behind this house where Neal went was about 3 or 4 mobile homes. Apparently the lady at the house told him that her husband was back there and he’d be happy to help him out. Now, again, creepy people who collect coffins and goats just aren’t my forte, but you know, whatever Neal’s into is fine with me. And the last thing I see is him disappear around the back of one of those mobile homes.
He isn’t out of eye sight for more than 30 seconds or so and I hear this gun go off, BANG!!!!!
Now, I’m freaking out! For all I know, Neal just got popped off by some hillbilly with a vendetta against Youth Pastors. In the course of about 3 seconds, which seemed like an eternity, I try to figure out what my options are.
Should I run away? I can’t get in the bus, Neal’s got the keys and it’s locked. And because we’re in the middle of nowhere, I can’t get any cell phone reception. I could rush the hillbilly and try to save Neal, but I’m pretty sure that’ll just end in both of us dead.
Then I begin to ask myself, “I wonder if Neal and I would be considered martyrs here…I mean, he’s already been shot and I’m about to be killed while doing a mission project for church. I wonder if getting shot by some hillbilly’s qualifies for that?
A couple seconds after the gunshot, though, I hear Neal’s voice. You know how even when Neal whispers, you can hear it from a mile away. So even though he was 100+ yards from me, I could hear him chatting with someone. Apparently Neal got in this guys mobile home and this fella was waiting for the apocalypse or something – he had several hundred fully loaded guns in this place. And when Neal asked if the really old one he was holding worked, this man just straight shot it out the door.
But nevertheless, I had scary visions of a memorial service with me and Neal being honored as Lynn Haven Methodist accidental martyrs. Honored and uplifted for the cause of Christ, even though we done got ourselves killed because Neal just had to ask the crazy hillbilly about his beat up old Jeep.
I remember as a teenager reading Foxes Book of Martyrs, which is a series of stories of people who died for the gospel throughout church history. I remember reading these stories and being moved by their courage and boldness. But I also remember praying to God, “Lord, I don’t mind being a martyr, but please don’t let me suffer. I don’t mind dying for you, but if you’re going to ask that of me, just kill me quickly and painlessly.”
But when I read the accounts of the deaths of these Christians in the early church, when I read our passage today of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, I realize that these were men and women died for Christ in those glorious moments because their lives were first committed to daily acts of dying to themselves in the inglorious moments. These are men and women who understood from the beginning that when they accepted Christ the rest of their lives would be training for dying.
Christianity, to them, was not a religion of easy beliefs and government approval. Christianity, to them, was a call to come and die…to daily take up your cross and walk in the path of Jesus…the path to the cross. And this meant, for these early martyrs, that they had to train for dying.
So before we move to Stephen’s glorious death where he receives a standing ovation from Jesus, himself, I want you to see something else first. I want you to see something completely inglorious, something that goes almost completely unnoticed.
Acts 6:1-5 1 In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. 2 So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3 Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them 4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”5 This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.
Stephen is a deacon of the early church. The Greek word deacon simply means, “servant.” Stephen’s job is to wait on tables…to make sure that the widows get their food each day. Acts 6 tells us that he was chosen to be a deacon because he was a man full of the Holy Spirit and faith.
But on the surface, waiting on tables does not really seem like that “spiritual” of a job. On the surface, it just looks like this guy is a random volunteer in the church. At this point he is not known for a great and glorious death…that won’t come for 2 more chapters. He is not known for his great sermons…that’s still a chapter away. Right now, in the very beginning, he is simply known as a church volunteer, a church servant.
But we need to see that he is so more than just that. You see, Stephen understood what many of us either have never known or we too often forget – that the Christian life is a call to daily come and die. And don’t miss this, Stephen was not martyred out of the blue one day. Stephen was a man who was known for daily dying to himself by serving other people long before he ever literally gave up his life. By serving these widows in chpt. 6, Stephen was training for dying in chpt. 7. His was not a self-serving religion; his was a self-denying religion.
And everyone who knew Stephen knew this. Everyone knew Stephen was more than just a volunteer. He was more than just a servant. He was more than just a hospital visitor. He was more than just a small group leader. He was more than just a receptionist. Everyone knew that this was a man full of the Holy Spirit, not because he preached great sermons, but because he was a man who served others and denied his own comfort. And in serving them way back in chapter 6, he was training himself for what would happen at the end of chapter 7. Without chapter 6, the end of chapter 7 would’ve never happened. Chapter 6 was training for death. The inglorious was training for the glorious. The unnoticed was training for the noticed. Service is training for death.
Do you want to know how you can tell if someone is full of the Holy Spirit? Do you want to know how you can tell if someone is a truly spiritual person? Do you want to know whether you are really a man or woman of faith?
The answer to these questions cannot be found in great sermons preached. The answer to this cannot be found in the glorious tasks of the Christian faith. The answer to this cannot be found in whether or not you hold the right political opinions. The answer to this cannot be found in how much Bible trivia you know.
Here’s the only way to answer this question – Are you dying to yourself daily in completely unnoticed, completely forgettable, completely overlooked ways? Are you dying to yourself in service for others? People full of the Holy Spirit and faith are people who are training for dying…not pining for praise and honor.
If we are honest with ourselves, most of us are rather drawn to Jesus’ command to “take up our cross and follow him” because it’s such an abstract command and because it sounds really glorious. But what most of us don’t want to do is follow Jesus example of washing the disciple’s feet…doing the work of a slave. We want the glory of martyrdom, but we don’t want to get stuck with the little, mundane, everyday-ish acts of service that actually train us for death.
Now, before we jump into all this, let me just say that my examples in the following are rather specific. But they’re specific b/c I want them to touch the ‘ground’ with you. In other words, they are not a check-list of spirituality, and these items may very well look quite different in your own life.
Men: You are training for dying when you change the diapers of their children. I feel bad for some of us of the male species who have never, or rarely, changed a diaper. Not only are you missing out on an opportunity to bond with your children because, believe me, a lot of bonding happens when you’re wiping their little bottoms! It was on the changing table that I saw both of my children first smile and one of them say their first word. But beyond that you’re also missing out on an opportunity to teach your sons that Christian men do dirty tasks no one else wants to do. And you’re missing the opportunity to teach your daughter, from infancy, that a man who really loves her is a man who will serve her even when he gets no benefits from it. But even beyond that, you’re missing an opportunity to die to yourself by serving your wife. There’s often a mentality among men that diaper changing is “women’s work.”
But I want you to see that what the world considers “women’s work” is an opportunity for us to train for dying. Do you want to know if you’re full of the Holy Spirit and faith like Stephen? Are you changing your children’s diapers? Are you helping your wife with the laundry? Are you doing the dishes? Are you picking up after yourself? Are you doing “women’s work”? The big picture of providing for your family gets completely skewed if we are not serving them, dying for them in everyday-ish, tangible, concrete ways right in your very home. And I am in as much need of any man here to repent of this.
Women: But this looks a bit different for women, who often are the ones stuck with the family chores and the ‘women’s work.’ So I want to talk about something different with you. Ladies, you are training for dying when you purposely choose not to get offended by things people say…especially things your husbands say. In the 8 years I’ve been married I have learned a little about how women communicate and how they can be completely mean to each other with a smile on their face. When guys want to be mean, we just punch each other. But when girls want to be mean, you all have figured out how to turn a compliment into a terrible insult. And from what I’ve observed, Southern women are the best at this, God bless your hearts! And then this translates in your marriage because your husband will say something nice to you, but you wonder what his motives are or if he really means it. Or maybe your husband really does some something dumb, but he didn’t mean to insult you. Or it translates into your relationships with your girl friends because you get offended easily because you think there’s a vicious serpent waiting to strike out from behind every compliment.
In this kind of situation, your culture has trained you to take offense and to see veiled insults under every kind word. But choosing (notice I’m using the word ‘choosing’ here because I believe this is something you can consciously do)…choosing not to take offense, choosing not to get angry when your husband says something dumb because he just didn’t think about how it was going to come out, choosing not to automatically assume someone’s insulting you…by choosing to do this, by choosing not to judge too quickly, you are training for dying. You are laying down your own pride and self-focus and showing mercy, forgiveness, and grace to other people, even when they don’t deserve it.
Let me give you an example. One day, a couple months after Tommy was born, I was laying on the couch zoned in on whatever I was working on on my laptop. And my wife comes up wanting to celebrate the fact that she can fit into some of her old pre-baby jeans, comes to me and says, “Hey Tom, look, these jeans finally fit again.” I didn’t even look up to see what she was talking about. And I said, “Well, sometimes when jeans haven’t been washed in a while, they kind of stretch out on their own. When was the last time you washed them?”
When I finished what I was doing a few minutes later. I replayed the conversation in my head and realized that I sounded like a jerk. So I went up to her and apologized. She said to me, “I know you were working and not paying attention, and I know you would never say something to hurt me intentionally. So I chose not to be offended.”
You cannot choose or control what people say and do. But you can choose and control how you respond. You can choose to show mercy. You can choose to not take offense. You can choose to not dwell on harsh words. You can choose to forget. You can train for dying in such moments.
Marriage – Now, obviously, I think this ‘training for dying’ thing easily applies to your marriages. Lovers are training for dying when they act in accordance with Paul’s thoughts in Ephesians 5 – submitting themselves to one another, dying for one another and respecting one another on an everyday basis. Because genuine, self-giving love is found most explicitly in living the everyday-ish, hum-drum things of life together.
I remember a couple months ago, and I’m going to call him out here because he knows I love him, a couple months ago Kenny Dalrymple posted on his Facebook status, “I can’t wait until I get married someday because when I get married I’ll never have another boring day.”
I love the spirit Kenny brings to this. I love his hopefulness and expectation of love. But when Kenny gets married some day, he will see that not only can life with your spouse be boring, but that it is in the boring, mundane, everyday-ish moments that real love is expressed.
And intuitively even young couples who are unmarried know this. Kat and Tyler tell me they were separated for a long time during their dating and engagement. I’m sure that their hearts were all a flutter when they thought of each other and their lips quivered when they spoke to each other on the phone. But what were their hearts really longing for when they were apart? What do separated young lovers want most of all? They want to be together all the time. They want to be married so they can wake up in the morning and have coffee with each other in their pajamas and bed-head. They understand that love is found in the mundane, everyday moments in life that you just get to share with each other.
But somewhere along the way, as young couples get older, as things become routine and less spontaneous, asTroy’s lips no longer quiver when he speaks to Pam or as Mimi’s heart no longer skips a beat every time Neal walks in the room, we begin to hate the mundane, everyday presence of the other person. And our marriages go to ruin because we’re looking for a feeling, a fluttering of the heart.
But love is itself training for dying. And this training happens in the everyday context of waking up next to someone with bad breath, phlegm in their throats, and their cold feet getting shoved underneath you. Love trains us for dying in the mundane times in life when his feet stink, when she forgets to put on deodorant, when one of the kids just pooped on the floor. Love is found in these moments. And love trains us for dying. And is this not what Paul tells us – Love each other as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her! How do we know that Christ loved the church? Because he died for her!
But he didn’t just die for her. He lived for her. In his call for us to come and die, in his call for us to train for dying, he promises us that the seed that falls into the ground will rise up in flourishing, spring-time life.
When we do these little acts of service, when we hold our tongues, when we change diapers, when we do laundry or dishes, when let someone stick their freezing cold feet under us early in the morning and it prevents us from going back to sleep, when we do these little acts of service we are training for life. We are training for resurrection. Because life, itself, can only be found in the inglorious, everday-ish experiences.
Even in our passage today, when story climaxes and Stephen is being killed, the text says “he looks up and sees heaven open and Jesus is standing on the right hand of God.”
What we’re not to imagine here is that he looks up into the sky, as if heaven is off in the distance somewhere. Remember what we talked about in Advent – in Jesus, in the Holy Spirit, heaven is being made an earthly reality. In other words, Stephen is not looking up into the clouds. No, rather, it’s almost like a veil is taken away from his eyes and he can see that heaven, that Jesus, that the glory of God is an ever present reality that is only visible when we are dying to ourselves in service for his kingdom.
Stephen’s service to the widows in Acts 6 trained him for dying. But it did not end there. It trained him for life – it trained him to see the veil of heaven torn away, and he was able to see, when it all came to an end, that Jesus is giving him a standing ovation, not merely for his final, glorious martyrdom, but for the mundane, everday-ish, little acts of death that characterized his life long before he died. And it is in his training for dying, that he was training for living. And it is no different for us.