Leading From Below

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An old friend of mine, Joe Moran, took his son to a Catholic worship service when he was visiting his family in New York State. Joe was a former priest, and his family was very Catholic. After Joe left the priesthood, he attended a Unitarian church, where they do not celebrate communion. The time came when the people went forward for the Eucharist, Communion, and Joe’s son watched as his cousins went forward, and naturally he wanted to go to. Joe told him to stay seated, because, he said, you have to be a Catholic to take communion here. That just made matters worse and the next thing he knew, his son was marching defiantly up the aisle, and took communion from the priest.

On the ride home Joe’s son asked why he was not supposed to take communion. “Because,” Joe said, “communion is a sign of the suffering and death of Jesus, and when you take it, you are committing your life to conform to that of Jesus, including his suffering.”

His son looked at Joe in horror, and said, “Now you tell me!”

Jesus and Power

In this morning’s Gospel lesson, Mark shows us how some of the disciples were still confused about where Jesus was heading. The story starts with James and John coming to Jesus and asking, “When you come into power, when you become our new king, we want to sit beside you on the throne, one on your left hand and one on your right.” They were still under the impression this was a political movement, and any day now Jesus would be declared king, set on the throne by God.

Now the irony of this is delicious. What happened just before the two brothers came to Jesus? Here are the verses that immediately precede the Gospel lesson.

32 They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, 33 saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; 34 they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”

Here Jesus says explicitly what will happen to him when he gets to Jerusalem. King? Sure. His crown will be made of thorns and his throne will be a cross. It is right after this that James and John will come to Jesus and ask to be on his right and left hands as he is lifted up.

“Well,” Jesus says, “as matter of fact, you will drink from the same cup I drink from and you will be baptized, or immersed in the same waters that will surround me.And when I am lifted up, there will be two people on either side of me, but I don’t get to choose who they are.”  Jesus will have two people beside him, one on his left and one on his right, but they thieves, and are to be crucified with him.

Later, when both were undergoing times of persecution, and when both were martyred for their faith, I wonder if either of them remembered that conversation with Jesus, and thought,  “Now you tell me!”

And then, to make matters worse, the rest of disciples see James and John talking privately with Jesus, and they suspect something is going on. They suspect that James and John are making a power play, and they are angry–mostly because James and John beat them to the punch.

At that point Jesus looks and them, and says, “OK guys, huddle up.”

And then he gives them a life lesson. “What is it about the Romans that really burns you guys? It is that they take power, and they use their power to control you. They take your money through taxes, they regulate how and where we can sell things, and worse of all, they want us to worship their gods. But what is you want to do if we get into power? You want to do the same thing you hate the Romans for doing. You think real power is when you are able to tell people what to do. You’re wrong. Real power is the ability to serve others, not to control them. It doesn’t sound like you guys have figured all this out yet. I came to serve, not be to served, and when I leave, I want you to serve as I served.”

The Church and Power

In the first letter from Peter, he says, “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.” The word he uses for “always be ready,” is the same word they use for two gladiators who are about to fight to the death. In other words, we should muster all the strength we have to tell people about why we are followers of Jesus. We should be as ready to do that as a gladiator is when he is ready to fight.

But Peter does not leave it there. He continues by saying, “yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” In other words, we should be prepared to take someone’s head off with what we know about our relationship with Jesus, but when it comes to actually sharing our faith, we should do so with gentleness and reverence. The word he used for reverence is actually the Greek word phobos, which means fear. The power we have should be respected the same way a wise person respects fire.

In the Hebrews passage the author describes the duties of the High Priest. A High Priest was one of the more powerful people in Israel, similar to say, a Catholic bishop in medieval days. It would be like an adviser to the president today. But this is the job description of the High Priest: Every high priest selected to represent men and women before God and offer sacrifices for their sins should be able to deal gently with their failings, since he knows what it’s like from his own experience. But that also means that he has to offer sacrifices for his own sins as well as the peoples’.

Again we see that the use of power was meant to help people, not control them.

It seems Christians make two major mistakes when it comes to power. The first, and easiest to see, is how some have abused power over the ages. There are too many examples of this to list them all, and it happens in a variety of ways. The most egregious is when Church gets a hold of political power. Giving the Church the job of wielding political power is like giving an alcoholic the job of being a night watchman in a liquor store. You can be certain that abuses will occur. The Church has NEVER done well with political power. The Church was never meant to have political power, and when it does have it, the politics always outweighs spirituality. The demands of the politics take over the needs of the church. Political power is seductive, and it is all too easy to end with a faith that is led by political beliefs, instead of a political convictions that are informed by your faith.  Call me a pessimist, but when faith meets politics, the knee is eventually bent to the political altar, and not to God.

I’ve been reading a book about the fights between Catholics and Protestants during the English reformation, and the growth of Protestantism in France. Basically when one side comes to power, they would oppress the other side, usually in retribution for what happened to them when they were out of power. It was a see-saw of violence, that swung to and fro.

Pastors have abused power over the centuries; some to fleece their flocks of their money, getting rich off of the spiritual insecurities of their parishioners, telling them that giving to their ministry, and ultimately to them, assures them a place in the Kingdom of God. We have seen too many examples of pastors using their power to to sexually abuse parishioners, and it does not just happen in the Catholic church. There are too many examples of pastors turning their churches into a little fiefdom, where they control everything that happens.

But there is another problem with Christians and power. While some are busy chasing power, others don’t want to admit when they have it. I was in a small group Bible study in college. At the time I joined it, I was on the leadership council of our campus Christian fellowship, where I had a ton of responsibilities. When I joined the Bible study, I just wanted to sit back and listen. More often than, and you may have a hard time believing this, I just sat back and listened while other people talked. I had no desire to be a leader in that group. I was a leader in almost every other activity I was doing, and I just wanted to sit this one out, and listen. So I rarely engaged with the discussion. I just listened.

After a few weeks of this, I noticed that there was a tension in the group. I could not put my finger on what it was, until our adviser, a very wise man named Tom Newton, took me aside one day. “Why are you abdicating your leadership in that group?” he asked. I didn’t understand the question. He explained it to me. “You know more about the Bible than anyone else in that group, and yet you never join in the discussions. The other group members think you don’t like being in the group. They feel you don’t respect them.”

I had a position of power, and I did not use it responsibly. I wasn’t abusing my power. I was abdicating. I was being passive-aggressive. And that actually is an abuse of power.

In the years I have studied and practiced counseling, I learned something very interesting–a lot of people who claim they have no power, actually have more power than other people in their relationships. I was working with one family, and the mother kept claiming she had no power in the family. No one ever listened to her, and she never got what she wanted. But as I watched the family over time, it became clear to me that she more power in the family than any other family member. Her complaint that she never got her way led to other family members always giving in to her. In fact, using that complaint, she almost always got her way. By claiming she had no power in the family, she become the most powerful person in that family.

The rest of the family was growing increasingly angry at her, because of the mixed message of the family dynamic–Mom never gets her way, and because of that, Mom always gets her way. They were angry, but they didn’t know why.

You see each of us has some kind of power. When we don’t admit to it, things start to get dysfunctional.

Three Observations

I want to close with three observations.

The first, and most important is that as friends and followers of Jesus Christ, we should make sure that the power we have is always used to help others, not to control them. We lead from below. We lead by serving. We use what power we do have for others.

Second, we do have power. We are gifted by God, and that is where our power lies. It is not always power the way the world sees power. I would occasionally a church in college that was pretty free form. They had a band, and the first part of the service was all singing. That part of the service lasted about a half hour, and people, mostly college students like myself, would stream in at various times in the service. The sanctuary was pretty full, and as people came in, they had to look for a place to sit. There was one guy, an older guy, who stood at the back, and kept an eye on the seating. When anyone came in late, as I usually did (I was in college and it was an early service!) this guy would point you to an empty seat. In some ways he was one of the more important people on that ministry team. Without him there would be a constant jumbling of people trying to find seats. But with him there, exercising his spiritual gift, things always ran very smoothly.

He might not think he was one of the more powerful people in the room, but in spiritual terms, he was.

Finally, we have a source of power we can tap into–the power of God. Jesus, the Gospels, is frequently described as a person of power, and Paul fleshes that out in his letters. The power of Jesus is seen as he serves others, and seen ultimately in the cross. The power of God is not found in the great halls of the kingdoms of this world. It is not found in the White House, or in Congress, or in City Hall. There is a place for political power. I am not saying it is always bad. But there is no place for political power in the church. The power of God is seen in helping others. It is not a power you build up over time; it is a power we give away over time. It is the power to serve. And the more we do that, the more we experience the true power of the Kingdom of God.

Amen.

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What Does God Care About?

C Schiff Abstract Church

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Diner Theology

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I love eating in diners. You how to tell if you are in a good diner? Your coffee cup is never empty. There is always a waitress coming by to fill it. You get to half a cup and this friendly voice says, “Hon, you want more coffee?” And your cup is full again.

I recently preached a funeral for one of the street people who was a part of our church. I knew a lot of his friends from the streets would attend, as well as members of our church, who are run of the mill Presbyterians. I had chosen to preach on the Luke passage where Jesus reads from Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

I knew how to aim this at the street people who were at the service. I wanted them to know that Jesus was on their side. But how would the church members take it? “Didn’t Jesus come for all us” I could imagine hearing. “Are you saying these people are somehow special? Didn’t Jesus come to help me too?” How was I going to thread this needle? Yes, Jesus did come for all people. But there are these pesky parts of the Bible where he indicated he came especially for the needy.

Then I stumbled onto diner theology.

In a diner, the waitress comes to fill empty cups. If your cup is full, she does not need to serve you. But if it is early in the morning, and you are not used to being out that early, and you are pretty sleepy, not yet awake, and your coffee cup is empty, a good waitress will come fill your cup.

So, in the diner of life, it’s not a coffee cup, it’s your heart. And instead of coffee, it’s love. We go through life and our hearts get wounded or broken–it can happen in a thousand different ways–and up comes Jesus, saying, “Let me fill that heart for you. Looks like your heart is running low. Looks like you are about out of love. Let me fill that heart for you.” My friend Jesus goes to the broken hearts, and he tries to fill them with love. And because I’m one of Jesus’ friends, he says to me, “You know, there are a lot of broken hearts out there. Why don’t you help me try to fill them. I need your help on this.” And because Jesus is such a great friend, I try to help him. The church tries to help him.

When you are trying to fill hearts with love, you run into two problems. The first is that people put their hands over their cups and say, “No thanks. Don’t need it.” If the waitress was determined to fill the cup, and poured coffee on their hand, she would actually burn the person with hot coffee. That’s not a good idea. It is hard to pour love on someone who does not want it, or worse yet, has no cup to hold it. We don’t ignore that person. We still try to help them. But it is harder.

When someone says they don’t to be loved, there is nothing you can do about. There is nothing my friend Jesus can do, except wait until they are ready to be loved.

But there is a second problem, a much bigger problem. Imagine a diner where the waitress comes to the table, and one cup is almost empty and the other is full. And imagine the person with the full cup is well dressed, looks like they have some money, and the person with the empty cup looks kind of shabby, like maybe they have been sleeping on the streets. And the waitress goes to the guy whose cup is already full, and pours in more coffee, and ignores the guy whose cup is empty.

When Jesus says he came to preach Good News to the poor, release to the captives, help the blind see, and free the oppressed, he is saying that he came to fill the empty cup. Its not that he doesn’t care about the person with the full cup. But the empty cup needs to be filled. As Jesus said, in Mark 2:17, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

Jesus goes to the empty cup. And that is what he calls us, his friends, to do. But too often the friends of Jesus spend more time filling cups that are already full, and not enough time filling empty cups. Coffee runs all over the table, spilling around empty cups, which remain empty and ignored.

Some people get spiritually fat, soaking up words and words, claiming blessing after blessing, while others sit ignored by churches, and spiritual leaders. This is not the way of Jesus. Nor should it be the way of the friends of Jesus.

Perhaps it is understandable. We see the empty cups and we think, “I don’t have enough love to share. I barely have enough for myself.” The thing is, love is one of the few things that, the more you give it away, the more you have. Because our friend Jesus is always coming around to us, saying, “Your cup looks empty. Let me fill it for you, so you can fill the cups of others.”

In a good diner, the cup is never empty. The major difference between a diner and a church, is that Jesus tells us that we are both waitress and customer. Jesus serves us, but then calls us to serve others. After he washes his disciples’ feet, he says, “So if I, your Lord and Teacher (i.e. waitress), have washed your feet (poured you a cup of hot coffee), you also ought to wash one another’s feet (fill each others’ cups).  For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” 

Too often we think of the Church as a posh social club for Christians. Better to think of the Church as a diner, where we all serve one another.
 

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A Holy Yielding

 

 

yieldThis is a piece I wrote in 2008, after doing a workshop for the Quaker national gathering. At the time I was worshiping at a Quaker meeting, and considered myself to me more Quaker than anything else. I spent three good years as part of a Quaker community before I felt the calling of the Presbyterian Church, the church of my youth, the church I had serve in as pastor. 

Last April, I was asked to lead a workshop for the Gathering this past summer. I had not planned on attending, and certainly had not planned on taking on a leadership role. But the person who asked me said the organizers wanted several options for workshops on the Bible, and they only had one. Since I teach a Bible survey class at University of Alaska, I was asked if I would design and lead a workshop that was somehow related to the Bible.

It was an opportunity—a divine opportunity. I didn’t really give it a lot of thought, but decided I would yield to the opportunity and started making plans. Living in Alaska, attending the Gathering was a pretty expensive proposition for me, but for some reason it seemed I should make the effort.

I was given a lot of leeway as to what kind of workshop to offer. “Something on the Bible” was my only guideline, and so I decided to do it on something I had never taught before, but that interested me greatly—how to use the Bible as a tool for spiritual growth. I called it “A User’s Guide to the Bible,” and I was really interested to see where this topic would take me. Since I had never led a workshop at Gathering before and really didn’t know what to do, I tried my best to be prepared for whatever situation arose. I planned each day’s activities, and I made handouts for a variety of exercises we could do during the week.

At our first meeting on Sunday, I found that about half the group was composed of lifelong Quakers and the other half were spouses of Quakers, who identified themselves as being primarily Presbyterian, Methodist, or Anglican. Some were clearly theists, and some were clearly not. Some knew a lot about the Bible (a few knew more than I did), while others were beginners at reading it.

It looked like a daunting group to lead, and I was feeling pretty spooked about how the rest of the week would go. But I ran into three different people from my meeting who all gave me the same basic affirmation: do what you do best, and use your gifts. I took this to mean that the challenges I saw were just another divine opportunity to use my gifts and talents for spiritual growth—my own growth, and the growth of others.

The class did not go as I expected—it went better. Not surprisingly, I suppose, I found that half the lesson plans I made were useless given the situation “on the ground” (that is, in the classroom), as were half of the handouts I made. Each night I took some time revising my plans, and revisions occurred even as I was facilitating the workshop. For example, I had a series of opening exercises, which I figured would take about 30 minutes, but almost all of them ended up taking an hour and a half. It was a very good hour and a half, but an unexpected amount of time that entailed more yielding on my part.

Instead of forcing my agenda on the group, I realized that using my gifts meant being flexible and accepting of the needs of the people who were there. My choice was to do what I had planned to do, in the amount of time I had planned for it, or to yield to the Spirit and see where that took us.

As I yielded, the result was a thing of beauty. On the second to last day, after doing one of the opening exercises, one group member shared that she had gotten exactly what she had come for. She didn’t elaborate, but it was clear that something was working.

Earlier on in the week, on the second day of the Gathering, while I was in the cafeteria—a situation that could best be described as “combat eating,” where around 800 people swarmed into a building designed for 500—a woman I had never seen before walked up to me and said, “You are a healer, right?” I was taken aback, but nodded, and said, “Yes, I am a hospital chaplain.” She then invited me to the organizing meeting of the Gathering Healing Center that afternoon.

Here was another spiritual opportunity, and again I yielded to it. I went to the organizing meeting, and discovered that the person who originally asked me to come—the one who had pointed to me as a healer—had actually mistaken me for someone else. Of all the people she could have called a healer, she happened upon me! It was an accidental encounter that led to a divine appointment and a spiritual opportunity.

So again I yielded, and again the fruits were delicious. For the few people I saw, I happened to have just what they needed. One encounter particularly stands out because the fact that I am an Alaskan and work in the healthcare field was crucial background for the interaction I had with that person. And as often happens, the more I gave the more I received in the process. While healing others, I found real healing for my own soul.

The last days of my trip east were also defined by yielding, but of a different sort. After the Gathering, I took my nine‐year‐old son to Washington, D.C., for a few days. I had things I wanted to do, which mostly involved visiting various art museums. My son had an entirely different agenda. I did manage to drag him to one art museum, which held his interest for all of three minutes, and the rest of the time I yielded to his desires. He wanted to see the monuments, especially the Washington Monument, the Museum of Natural History, and the Air and Space Museum. He wanted to go the Mall and watch people play baseball. He wanted to eat at a hot dog stand, ride the Metro, and play in fountains. All this we did. At the end of our time in the city, I asked him what his favorite part of the trip was, and he replied, “Spending time with you.” The fruit hardly gets more delicious than that.

While I was at the Gathering, I picked up Thomas Kelly’s A Testament of Devotion, which I read while in D.C. The second chapter is called “Holy Obedience,” which I tried to plow through as quickly as possible both because I didn’t feel I needed to read about obedience and because I don’t like the idea of holy obedience one whit. After all, one of the reasons I am a Quaker is because I don’t like people telling me what to do. But I kept getting stuck in that chapter. Apparently the Spirit had something to say to me through Kelly. Instead of plowing onto the next chapters, I read and reread the pages on Holy Obedience, wondering what lesson it had for me.

The lesson became clear as I was sitting in meeting the week after I returned. I was thinking about my experiences at Gathering and with my son, and realized that all this yielding was indeed a form of divine obedience. I always thought of obedience as something that is by nature dreary, dull, and painful. But this was a happy yielding, and the fruits were delicious. Every time I yielded to the divine opportunities, I found blessings upon blessings, and it was surprisingly easy! Kelly writes that when we yield to God we hear ourselves being called Home to feed upon green pastures and walk beside still waters. “It is life beyond the fevered strain” (his emphasis).

I wonder how many spiritual opportunities I have missed over the years because I was too busy or self‐absorbed to notice they were being offered up to me. This year the Gathering was, for me, a time to respond to those opportunities, which led to a many‐coursed spiritual banquet.

As I awoke to return to work on my first morning back, I could not help but think, “What spiritual opportunities will come my way this day? And will I yield to them?” There are days we learn to see the world through new lenses, and my new spectacles are the lenses of holy yielding to divine opportunities.

 

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That One Thing…

very-rich-ryruler

 

I was 17 when I had a faith encounter that changed my life. The story of the encounter was not so dramatic, but what happened immediately after was. At the time I was working in a professional summer stock theatre group at Tanglewood Park, outside of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. I helped build sets mostly, but I also acted in a play, with professional actors, and did lights and sound for some of the productions.

At the time I wanted to go into theater as a profession. I wanted to be an actor, but ultimately I wanted to direct plays. I had been doing community and high school theater for years, and now that I was working with the big boys, I saw that I could hold my own with the pros, and and I wanted to turn pro.

But then I had a life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ, and all that changed. I still loved theater, but I knew that if I were follow that path, my faith was likely to be compromised. The promise I made to myself when I had the faith encounter was I was either going to be all in, or all out. There were too many things I loved that were not helpful for a life of faith, and if I was not all in, I knew these things could put me all out. I was doing the sound and lights for the second to last play of the season, and we were covered for the last play. I decided I would finish my commitment to the current production, and leave after.

The last night of the play I knew I had to tell the theater director that I was leaving. Before the show started he told me he wanted to see me after the play. I dreaded telling him, because there was no way to say what I wanted to say without sounding like a religious kook. “Sorry, I am leaving, but Jesus is calling me to a different path.”

I had no idea what I was going to say. I ran the lights, and the production ended, the cast took their final curtain call, and as I was dimming the stage lights, and bringing up the house lights, I saw the theater director in the wings waiting for me. I really didn’t want to have this conversation, but I knew I had to. There was something deep inside of, perhaps the Holy Spirit, that convinced me I was doing the right thing by leaving this thing I loved so much.

The director took me aside, and said, “I’ve got good news for you. We are going to get an equity card.” If you don’t know what that is, it’s an actor’s union card. You have to have one if you want to work professional theater, and they are really hard to get. And he was offering me one, the very night I was going to walk away from it all!

I thanked him, but in the end I did tell him that I was going to pursue other things. I didn’t say anything about my faith, because I didn’t really know how to, but I did walk away.

I did perform in plays later, but as a hobby. I knew that my life was heading in another direction.

The night I walked away, it was as if I heard Jesus say, I love and I accept you, but there is one thing you lack. Give away your commitment to theater, and come and follow me. And I did just that. And I never really looked back.

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The young man in this morning’s Gospel lesson was faced with a similar situation.

I have to tell you, he does not come across well in this story, for a variety of reasons.

It all starts with his question to Jesus–What must I do to inherit eternal life?

Being two thousand years removed from the text, we don’t think that question is too strange. Christianity is, at a basic level, about eternal life. When people talk about getting saved, they mean they are saved for eternal life, hopefully an eternal paradise.

However in that context, this is a strange question. Most of the people that come to Jesus with requests have very specific, and very earthly needs. They want to be healed, or they want Jesus to intervene in a family dispute about money, or they want to know when Jesus is going to do his political revolution. Life was hard back then, and not a lot of people had the leisure to sit back and think about eternal life. They were just trying to get through this life!

But not this young man. Apparently he has all he needs for this life. While everyone else is wondering how they are going to feed their families through the winter months, or even how they are going to feed their family tomorrow, he comes asking about eternal life. Who’s got time for that? Well, this man does.

“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus’ answer is probably not he expected. First of all, Jesus is not affected by the flattery. No one else in all of scripture calls Jesus “Good Teacher.” They call him teacher, rabbi, but not Good teacher. That has kind of a smarmy effect.

Jesus calls him on that. “Why do you call me good?” He knew the guy was just trying to butter him up. “No is good but God.” Now being the Son of God, Jesus surely has claim to being called good. But there was something about the way this guy did it. It is kind of like when you get a phone call from someone you don’t know, and they start by buttering you up. I don’t know about you, but when I hear that on the phone, I know someone is trying to sell me something.  But Jesus will play his game. He answers the question. “You know the commandments,” he said. “Don’t kill people. Don’t commit adultery, don’t steal.” Jesus rattles off the commandments.

The young man smiles. This is the answer he was expecting. He’s got this down. “Teacher,” he says, omitting the “good” this time, “I have been doing this since I was a youth.” It’s a lock. He has everything he needs in this life, and now he has just heard that he is set up for eternity! He’s about to walk away, but Jesus isn’t finished with him yet. He looks at him. You’ll notice that I have been a little contemptuous of this man.  Not Jesus. Mark tells us, he loved this young man. One thing you lack, he says, with love. One thing. The man listened, sure it would be some small act of kindness he could perform, and maybe, he assumed, Jesus was going to ask him to support him in his ministry. One thing you lack said Jesus. “Get rid of your money. Give it away. You don’t need it. If you are really interested in eternal life, let go of the things that are keeping you nailed down in this life.”

Everyone standing around watching this exchange was shocked. This was the last thing the man had expected to hear. This was the last thing anyone expected Jesus to say.

 

 

 

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In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye sings, If I were a rich man…. In the song he dreams of all the things he could do if he were rich. He would build a great house, he would have a yard full of chickens, he would hire many servants for his wife, he would be respected by everyone in the town. But best of all, he sings:

 

If I were rich, I’d have the time that I lack

To sit in the synagogue and pray,

And maybe have a seat by the Eastern wall,

And I’d discuss the holy books with the learned men

Seven hours every day

That would be the sweetest thing of all

For Tevye, the only way to really grow close to God was to have the time to leisurely read the holy books, instead of having to scratch for a living day by grueling day. This man that comes up to Jesus, has all the time and leisure he needs to pursue the godly life. If anyone can be saved, it is this man. So really, when he came up to Jesus to ask him how he can come into glory in the afterlife, he thought he knew the answer. He was pretty sure that if anyone was going to inherit eternal life, he would. He had inherited everything else he needed in this life–so why not the afterlife as well?

On thing you lack, said Jesus.

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One thing you lack, said Jesus.

And it was exactly the one thing the young man was not willing to part with.

One thing you lack.

This man did not lack anything. At least not in a material sense. He had probably never heard those words before. “One thing you lack.” He had everything. And ironically, what he had was exactly what he lacked. He thought all his wealth would somehow assure his place in heaven. Imagine how surprised he was to learn it was the one thing keeping him from heaven! Surprised and sad, because the one thing we had to give up was the one thing he could not give up.

If Jesus were to say to you, “You are doing really well in life, but one thing you lack,” what might that one thing be? For some people, God is calling them to give drugs or alcohol, or gambling, or some other kind of addiction. For others, it might be a something else they cling to, something else they think will give them security, and perhaps it does give earthly security, but not heavenly security. We might cling to our dignity, to our possessions, to our ability to get our own way. We might cling to things that seem strange to cling to, like our insecurities, our fears, our anxieties. We might even cling to our notion of what religion is supposed to be, unwilling to let it go even in the face of Jesus’ call to let it go.

We cling to things because we think they will get us through this life. We think they will save us. Letting go of some thing is like letting go of hope.

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When Jesus told the disciples that the rich would actually have a harder time getting into heaven than the poor, the people were astonished. “If the rich, who have the leisure to do all the things God requires cannot be saved, then who can be?” Everyone knew that the Rich had a much better chance of getting into heaven than anyone else. But now Jesus is telling them different, and if they rich cannot be saved, then who can?

With God, all things are possible, said Jesus. It is not about how much you have. It is not about all the things we do. It is not about being the best person or the most holy person or about the being the person who is in church the most. With God, all things are possible. It is God who saves us, it is God who assures our place in eternity, it is God who acts to save us.

We cooperate with what God is doing. We keep ourselves open to the work of God in our lives. That was what Jesus was doing with the rich young ruler. He was trying to help him be more open to the work of God in his life. But he was ready to do that. Not yet.

 

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Sometimes I wonder what my life would have been like if I had ignored that voice in me that said, “One thing you lack–walk away from the theater.” I would certainly not be here today. I would not be a pastor. I would not be doing what I love. I’m pretty sure that my faith would not have survived a life in theater, even if I was able to succeed in it.

In short, had I not walked away, I would have been a poorer person. I did walk away because I wanted to be a pastor. I had no idea what I wanted to be, but I was pretty sure that I did NOT want to be a pastor. I walked away from theater with no idea what I was walking toward. Well, that’s exactly true. I knew I was walking toward Jesus. And they say if you take one step toward Jesus, Jesus takes three steps toward you. That has been my experience in the 43 years since that night.

Sometimes I have wondered what my life would have been like if I had ignore that voice, but I have never regretted what I did that night. If the young man in the story had heeded Jesus’ voice, I think he would have found himself a richer man. There are times when God calls us to some hard things. But in the end, those hard things lead to an easier life of faith.

Amen.

Posted in Jesus, Preaching, Salvation, Spiritual Growth, spirituality, Wealth | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

wrestling with the Word

 

It has been a little quiet here the last few weeks. I have been busy doing the editing on a book of sermons, and it has just come out! It is published by Parson’s Porch Press, and is available on-line at Amazon or Barnes and Noble. You are also order directly from Parson’s Porch (https://www.parsonsporch.com/presbyterian-books/wrestling-with-the-word-thomas-murray-richmond-iii).

They did a wonderful job with the printing. It has taken up the bulk of my spare time these last few weeks. I’m sorry for the drop off in posts on here.

It was an interesting experience. You might think a book of sermons would be pretty easy, but I had to choose which ones I wanted to include, and then edit them for book form. The editing took the better part of four weeks!

Thanks to the Redhead, my wonderful wife, for supporting me in all this, and to Jaye Wheeler, who helped me edit.

If you want a signed version of the book, you can message me here on at my author page The Still Point (https://www.facebook.com/thestillpoint3/) and I will be glad to send you an autographed copy. The cost is $18.95, and you can paypal me the money.

Thanks for reading. More posts to come!

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A Global Faith

2015

This sermon was preached on World Communion Sunday. 

In the early 1970s the government of Peru did an extensive survey of their population, to find out how they could best serve their population. Some of the results were really puzzling, especially from the rural regions. One question in particular had a confused set of answers: “What are the major problems with Peru?” They did a follow up survey to see if they could find out what the problems were, which contained the question, “What is Peru?” To their surprise they learned that many of the people in the rural Andes had no idea what Peru was! They knew they were Quichua, the Incan tribe that populate the mountain regions, but they had no idea they were Peruvian.

Borders are a relatively new innovation. In the ancient world most borders were geographical features–rivers, mountains, or islands that naturally defined a region. Occasionally the Romans would put up walls, which acted as de facto borders, but that was more to keep invaders out than to define a nation state. Tribes would inhabit regions, but those regions had few if any borders. The Hausa and Fulani nations in Africa were spread throughout central Africa, and you might have a Fulani settlement right next to a Hausa village. Often the only border between peoples was their language. In medieval Germany for example, there were regions that were defined by which German dialect they spoke. You can find this even today. The people in Bonn spoke a German called Bunch, and it Kolne they spoke a dialect called Kolsche. Princes and kings had territories, which were defined loosely by who owned the serfs who worked there.

Italy became a nation state in 1861, and Germany did not follow suit until 1871. Almost all the borders in the Middle East came into being after World War I, almost arbitrarily drawn by the League of Nations. Iraq, for example, was established, with almost no thought to the Kurdish regions, or the fact that the country had interspersed in it both Sunni and Shi’ite regions. It was cobbled together like a mule, and then recobbled after the first set of borders did not work, and then recobbled again after WWII. African borders were mostly drawn by the people who came in to colonize the continent. They wanted to establish their territories, but they had almost no regard for the different tribal groups who lived there.

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When we think about the Kingdom of God, a central theme in Jesus’ preaching and teaching, we may default to thinking of it as a modern kingdom, the kind with boundaries, and border guards and all the things that come with being a modern nation state. But in fact we best understand it when think of the Kingdom of God as a place with no boundaries, no borders, no lines saying, “Here it is, but not here.”

The Kingdom of God has no boundaries, and no borders. It is not defined by geography, or people groups, or language groups, or race. It is defined by only one thing–anywhere where any person gives their heart to Christ, there we find the Kingdom. Wherever there is a follower of Jesus, there you will find the Kingdom of God. The constitution of the Kingdom is the teaching of Jesus, and the founding moment was on Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came upon people of all nations, and was extended when the Spirit came upon Gentiles. When that happened, it became abundantly clear that the Gospel of Jesus Christ was intended for all people in all places.

Christianity is truly a global faith. It knows no boundaries. As we sang this morning, Jesus shall reign where e’er the Sun, does its successive journeys run.

The only boundaries of Christianity are the ones we put on it.

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Being a global faith, Christianity takes on many expressions around the world. I was worshiping in a church in Guatemala back in the 1978. The congregation was building a new sanctuary across the street from the hut where we were worshiping, and I noticed that during the service people would come in, tap someone on the shoulders. The person tapped would get up and walk out, the person who did the tapping would take their place. I found out where they were going when someone tapped me on the shoulder. I walked out and some guys across the street were waving me over. They were working on the new building. So I went over, and they had me hauling bricks from a truck parked out front into the building site. After I had worked about twenty moments, someone told me I was done, and go get someone else to take my place. Working on the sanctuary was seen as a form of worship for them. Oh, and by the way, the worship service lasted three hours.

I was worshiping in Haiti, and during the offering, when the plate went around, several people took the offering plate to the aisle, and stood on it. I asked someone later about that, and was told that if someone did not have money to give, they would give an offering of themselves. When they stood on the plate, they were saying that they were offering themselves to God.

There are as many ways to worship God around the world as there are churches. In Russian, it is customary to have a fence around your church. In Ghana they use banana chips for communion. In German churches they take up the offering as people leave church. Ushers stand in the exits with velvet lined bags, and people put money in them as they depart. But Germany also has the Kirchen Steuern–Church taxes. You pay your tithe when you pay your taxes. And no, you do not get to choose how much you pay.

In most countries they serve wine at communion, and they don’t understand why we use grape juice. I was with a group of Russian priests once in Alaska, and we visited the local Orthodox church in Fairbanks. At the time they did not have a local priest, and the Russian priests found out about it, they immediately wanted to hold a service there on Sunday, which was the next day. I explained to them that we expected them to be in our churches, and had planned around that, and then I said, “Besides, today is Saturday. We can’t get word out so that people will be here.” One of the priests looked at me in amazement, as if I had said the stupidest thing a minister could say, and he said, “You think we need a crowd? You think we do the service for people? We do them for God.”

They were also amazed that I did not wear a clerical collar when I was running them around Fairbanks, or even in worship. “Are you ashamed of being a minister?” they asked. “Why do you not want people to know?”

In short there a multitude of ways that Christians worship Jesus around the world, and sometimes it seems the only thing that holds them all together is the Name of Jesus.

But that is enough.

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So what does all this mean for us?

First, that Christianity is a lot larger than our conception of it. We have a particular view of the faith here in this country. Other places have a different view of Christianity, with different practices. We do it one way here; other people around the world do it differently. What we do here is not the end all and be all of the faith. It’s just what we do here. There are some things all Christian churches all around the world have in common–celebration of communion, baptism and worship. And there are a lot of places where we are different, where the mores and ethos of the country we are in mold our faith. Few other countries, for example have a song like God Bless America. In some countries faith takes a large back seat in the public life, much more so than in America, and in some places the faith is essentially a national faith. In yet other places, people fight over which faith, or which form of faith will be the majority religion.

It is tempting to think that we are the center of universe, but when it comes to global Christianity, we are not.

The largest Presbyterian church in the world is Myungsung Presbyterian Church in Seoul, South Korea. It has over 100,000 members. The largest church in the world is also in Seoul, the Yoido Full Gospel Church, with 253,000 members. The largest Methodist church in the world is the Yotabeche Methodist Church, in Santiago, Chile with 150,000 members. There are more Anglicans, (Church of England and Episcopalians) in Nigeria than in Great Britain and the United States combined. In fact Nigeria, Uganda, and Kenya each, individually, have more Anglicans than Great Britain and the United States combined. African and Latin American churches are now sending missionaries to the United States and Europe, just as we sent them to their countries 100 years ago.

People who study statistical trends in Christianity all agree–the focus of Christianity is shifting from Europe and the United States to third world countries. The percentage of Christians in Asia, Latin America, and Africa is growing, while the percentage of Christians in Europe and North America is shrinking.

Secondly, what we do here is our expression of the faith. We may have a defined, American way to celebrate our faith, but other cultures have a defined way as well. In Russia, Christianity looks very Russian. In Peru, it looks very Peruvian. In Kenya, it looks Kenyan, in Iraq it looks like an Iraqi faith. Some expressions are much stricter than ours, some are much more tolerant. But what we do here is what we do. The point is not to fight about who practices Christianity the best, but to be as faithful in our practice as we can.

And thirdly, we can learn from the other nations around the world. A fish does not know it is wet. We are often very unaware of how American our particular version of Christianity is. When we see how other people in other countries do it, we can learn from them, and we can teach them. When missionaries first starting going to foreign countries to share the Gospel, they thought they were going to teach, but the longer they were in other cultures, the more they realized they could learn from the people they were supposedly going to convert. What started as a movement to bring a Western Faith to people in Africa, Latin America and Asia, turned into a way Christians in the West could learn from Christians around the world.

And that brings us here today–world communion Sunday.

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If you look up communion in the dictionary, one definition is, “the sharing or exchanging of intimate thoughts and feelings, especially when the exchange is on a mental or spiritual level.”

That is really what we are doing here today–sharing our intimate thoughts and feelings about faith to all the people around the world. That is why we are coming to this table. It is not a Presbyterian table. It is not a Pacific Northwest Table. It is not an American table. It is the table of the Kingdom of God. Today we celebrate that this table extends, spiritually speaking, across time and space, and into every human heart. Today we celebrate the transnational nature of this table. Today we also celebrate that everything that happens at this table transcends national boundaries, transcends language groups, transcends all borders.

And you are invited here to partake of this international feast.

Amen.

Posted in Church Growth, Communion, Global Christianity, ministry, Mission, Preaching, Sermons, World Communion Sunday, Worship | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment