How Can I Help You?

December 22nd, 2013

Preacher: The Rev. Doyt Conn

Ich bin driezehn yarhe alt. I am thirteen years old. Five years of studying German and this is the cumulative effect of my effort. All I can say is Ich bin driezehn yarhe alt.

When I was entering 7th grade I was confronted with a decision…which language… Spanish, French or German? German seemed like a good idea. I mean when would I ever use Spanish or French? Anyway my great grandmother spoke German, and my Dad knew some German medical words.  So German was the obvious choice.

Through 7th, 8th, and 9th grades I was able to fake my complete inability to speak German.  Had I been at all self-aware, I would have dropped it in 10th grade, but I fancied myself college material.  So I persevered.

The high school German teacher was a man named Doc Most.  He was tall and thin, and looked like a youngish Albert Einstein. The first day in Doc’s class I knew I was in over my head. I was doing well in other classes, but I could tell right away that I was going to tank German.

So I did what I always do, what I learned to do as a kid who struggled in school, I built a coalition of smart kids, and proclaimed the virtues of working as a team. We divided up the assignments. I figured I could manage one out of five fairly well. But German isn’t Latin, you have to speak it out loud. Pretty awkward when you’re 16vand all you can say is, “Ich bin driezehn yarhe alt.“

The end of the semester finally rolled around.  Doc gave us a long, do it yourself, “quiet” assignment, and then called each of us up to his desk to show us our semester grade. My homework assignments were “A’s,” and my oral examines and tests were “D’s or lower.” Things were not looking good for me. At the end of the ledger where the other student’s final grades were written in a box, mine stood empty.  Doc looked at me, and pointed to the box with his red pencil, and asked in a low, German accented voice asked, “Doyt, what grade would you like me to put in the box?” I am glad he asked in English, or I might still be standing there. What he was asking is, “What can I do for you? What do you need to be in the box? How can I help you?”

These past two Sunday’s I have asked the question, “Do you want to live small or do you want to live large?” If the answer is “live large” then this is achieved by asking the question, “What can I do for you?” It is the question God asks throughout the season of Advent and answers on Christmas Day.

So let’s review where we have been before getting to the question, “How can I help you?” and my thoughts on how Jesus is the answer.

Two weeks ago I preached about the space that exists between our competence and God’s greatest hope for our lives; and how this space is filled by the power of the Holy Spirit.  I spoke of Nelson Mandela and Russell Wilson and my friend Iris Johnson.  Last week I spoke of trust in God as the critical criteria for stepping up to meet the power of the Holy Spirit, and how it is easier to trust God based on the facts of God, rather than our feelings about God at any given moment.

I reminded us that these facts of God belong to you and to me and to our neighbor. And that these facts are:

God loves us,
God forgives us,
God empowers us,
and God never leaves us.

This Sunday I want to end the series by talking about how we can help others live large by asking the question: “What can I do for you?” And how we, ourselves, can live large by responding to their answer; and how when we can’t answer this question ourselves, Jesus steps in. This intervention has a name. Isaiah gives it to us today, “Immanuel,” which is, “God with us.” Jesus’ presence breaks the supposition that God is far away, and beyond comprehension. Jesus is God in an understandable form, here to articulate to us how to live by God’s design, and when we can’t do that, to save us by grace.

Jesus does this in two ways, by teaching us to ask the question “What can I do for you?” and by answering this question for us when we are stuck. Jesus teaches and Jesus saves, and this and this alone, allows us to live large. Here is a quick review of Jesus’s interactions in scripture. What is revealed to us is that over and over again he asks: “What can I do for you?” It is the question he asks the 10 Lepers, and Mary and Martha. It is the question he asks the father of the epileptic, and the blind man, and the bleeding woman, and the crippled man by the pool of Bethsaida. “What can I do for you?” It is a particular, unique question, asked to particular unique persons.

Here is the interesting thing about this question. By Jesus’ response to the answer to this question “What can I do for you?” he lives more and more into God’s purpose for his life. He is modeling for us how, by asking and then answering the question, “How can we become more the person God created us to be?”

Let me give you an example from last Sunday’s Gospel. Jesus says to the followers of John the Baptist, “Go tell John, I am the one who gives the blind their sight, the lame their step, the leper clean skin, the deaf sound, and the dead new life.”

By responding to the answers given to the question asked, Jesus most fully lives into his promise as Immanuel. Like with so many things in the Kingdom of God, the secondary effect of helping someone else live large, is what indeed allows us to live large. Nelson Mandela sought to put an end to Apartheid, and in doing so he lived large. Russell Wilson seeks to put a football in the hands of receivers, and in doing so he is living large. Iris Johnson sought to give a homeless man a warm, safe place to sleep, and in doing so she was living large.

As I reflect on that moment there by Doc Most’s desk, I wonder, by asking me the question: “What can I do for you?” was he in some way the one living large?

I don’t know, because I don’t know what was going on with Doc Most. On the one hand this may just have been one more example of my privileged status being perpetuated. He may have been passing on to me what he himself was accustomed to receiving from the world. On the other hand, he may have been asking in his mind the question, “What can I do for this boy?” despite his privileged status, and my weariness of his collective homework and ability to only say, Ich bin driezehn yarhe alt. Maybe Doc Most was stirred by the words of Jesus in a way that compelled him to ask in this particular case, “What can I do for you?”

I’ll never know. But what I’ll never forget is that I was petrified. The only thing I really knew in that moment was that there was no way that I was ever going to speak German. And I was afraid.

I was afraid that I was going to let my parents down if I got a “D.” I was afraid that I wasn’t going to be able to get into a good college, which meant, in my mind at that time, that prospect of all future happiness was gone. I was afraid because I didn’t know how to answer the question, “What can I do for you?” I wanted a good grade, but I knew in my heart I didn’t deserve a good grade. I was afraid. I was petrified.

That is part of what it means to be human. We run up against those moments when we are just too afraid to answer the question, “What can I do for you?” We are too afraid to step out onto that invisible Indiana Jones bridge I talked about last Sunday. There are those times when we just can’t move, when we are petrified by grief, or obligation, or frustration, or limited capacity, when we don’t know what to do or where to go, which is why God came to us, as a person, into the fullest context of our lives, to be with us… Immanuel.

I don’t know what was in Doc Most’s mind as I stood by his desk, frozen, but it seemed to me that he put aside any standards of excellence he might have had, and set as secondary his mission of teaching young people German, to allow me, at that moment in time, to keep my dreams of living large alive.

It was a moment of grace and salvation, as Doc silently penciled into that box a “B.” Undeserved.  Unmerited. I was humbled and deeply moved and you can see I never forgot that moment. I know Doc didn’t do that for everyone else, and that may not be fair, but life isn’t about fairness, it is about asking others the particular question, “What can I do for you?”

And the answer is different for everyone, because everyone was made to live large in their own, particular unique way, and everyone needs to be saved in their own, particular unique way.

But either way it starts and ends with “Immanuel, God with us.” The salvo and the salvation come from the child born on Christmas day.