Monday, September 24, 2012

Anyone Can Be Great!

This week we continue to hear Jesus teach his disciples about what it means to follow him.
All of this teaching is being done in the context of Jesus walking towards Jerusalem and his death.
Today’s reading from Mark is the third time Jesus talks to his disciples about his death and resurrection.
What is surprising to me is that they don’t get it yet.
In fact, they seem to be moving in the wrong direction.
While Jesus is talking about giving up his life they are discussing the succession plan.
Who is going to take over for Jesus?
Who is the best and ready to take on the mantle of number one?
In some ways you and I can understand where they are coming from.
We all want to be great.
We all want to be noticed for our accomplishments.
But to be a disciple of Jesus means to order greatness in a whole new way.

“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
It is remarkable to me that Jesus does not say that we should or could give up our desire for greatness.
He merely says that we should direct it in a different direction.
If you want to be great then be a servant.
Serve other people and in that service you will find greatness.

It brings up the question of how we measure greatness.
I watch a lot of ESPN and a lot of sports talk shows are about who is the best.
Who is this player the best of all time?
Lots of time it is about numbers.
Who throws the most touchdown passes?
Who has the most yards?
Who has the best batting average?
Who has the most championships?
But then there is something added to the conversation that is more subjective.
Who is the better teammate?
Who makes their teammates better?
Who is a leader of other people?

Perhaps the same could be said about all of us.
That we cannot just measure our lives in terms of numbers.
How many things we posses, or how many hours did we put in at the office.
There is also things like how much we did for others.
How we made life easier for the people around us.

This week I heard the story of a woman from Mexico, we will call her Lupe.
In Mexico she was a doctor.
She was honored in her country and community.
She came to the United State to make a better life for her children.
She cannot practice medicine in the United States so she is a nanny.
She was asked by her pastor if she minded having to give up an honored title like Doctor.
Her response was no, because she was doing this for her children.
She was becoming less so they could become more.
She finds her greatest reward in seeing her children succeed.
That is what Jesus is talking about this morning.
Finding our greatness in having others succeed.
Measuring our success by how other people do in their lives.

Jesus himself measured his greatness by this very measure.
Jesus gave his life so that we might have more of life.
Jesus gave his life so that you and I who are here today might find true joy in serving others.
He gave his life so you and I can go out in the world and feed the hungry, cloth the naked, visit those in prison, give of ourselves for others.

Those of you who are parents, I bet that all of you have given up some of your life to help your children have a better life.
All of us on our good days do something that helps others.
Pick up that extra shift at work for a co-worker who is sick.
Visit someone in the hospital.
I bet that at some point in all of your lives you did something for someone else to help them out.
That is true greatness.

This week Forbes came out with the list of the riches people in the United States.
It is another list of how we might measure our worth.
I don’t have any problem with people making money.
I only have a problem with us as a society measuring worth in only these terms.
Where is the list of people like Lupe?
Where is the list of people who have given up much for others?
Where is the list of the least?
The problem with any list is that we judge people based on our own selective data.
We look at it and want to be the person on the Forbes list who makes lots of money.
We look at our neighbor and want a better car or house because they have one.
In Church we look at someone else and wish we had their faith or commitment.

Even among us pastors we can see this as problem, because when we gather together to talk about our ministries and check in with one another.
What we usually talk about is how our congregations are doing.
Did we get more people?
Do we have enough money to make the budget?
How many kids were in our Vacation Bible School?
How many kids are in our Sunday school?
We don’t mean it this way but sometimes it comes off as trying to figure out which is the best church.
The best church is not the biggest or richest.
It is the one that is faithful in service towards others.
The best in Jesus list is those that serve others with purpose and joy.

Even in our council meetings we are talking about numbers.
How much money came in?
How many people joined?
Instead we should be asking how many people’s lives have we impacted as a congregation?
How are we doing welcoming those that feel out of place and out of sorts?

When Jesus takes a little child and tells the disciples to welcome ones like this.
He isn’t saying that we should all be like children.
I am thankful for that because I have children and well they are very selfish.
Instead, Jesus is saying that we should be about welcoming those who cannot defend themselves.
We should welcome those who hold no honor in our society.
We should bring into our fold the least.
In Jesus day children had the least amount of rights.
Children were ignored.
Children were at the margins of society.
Those are the types of people that we should be welcoming.
We should be welcoming people that have nothing to offer us anything in return.
Not people that can help the bottom line, but those that have no were else to go.

If we want to follow Jesus it means a life filled with service.
In our world today service is held up as an important virtue.
There are all sorts of ways to get out into the world and serve.
If you want to serve you can find an outlet.
Today’s Gospel tells us that service is a big part of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

One of my favorite sermons of all time is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “drum major instinct” sermon.
It was a sermon King gave on the Gospel of Mark.
In it he said, “Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.
 You don't have to have a college degree to serve.
You don't have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve.
You don't have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve.
You don't have to know Einstein's theory of relativity to serve.
You don't have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve.
You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.
 And you can be that servant.”

Greatness means identifying ourselves with the least and serving them.
Greatness means to be the best and most honored by our life of service by helping others to have a better life.
So let us go forward to be great by serving.

Monday, September 17, 2012

What we hold on to?

Once a month I get together with other clergy in Concord to talk about our ministry and our lives.
This week we the topic was the things that we hold on to.
It seemed like a perfect topic for us to consider this morning.

It is a good subject because our Gospel from Mark this morning is about what we hold on to.
Jesus is about to let go of his life.
And his disciples, as represented by Peter, want to hold on.
Peter wants to hold on to his ideas of what Jesus should be.
Peter wants to hold on to the glory he experienced as Jesus fed 5,000 people, calmed storms, walked on water, healed the sick, made blind men see.
Peter wants Jesus to be king and restore the glory of his people.
Jesus knows that his mission is not about what is in it for him and his disciples but that his mission is about giving away himself.

“For those who want to save their lives will lose it, but those who lose their life….will save it.”
I was watching a documentary this week about UCLA basketball under coach John Wooden.
He would give his players more than just the x and o on how to win basketball.
He would inspire in them beliefs about what it really meant to be a team and give of yourself for the greater cause.
One of his frequent sayings was, “happiness begins where selfishness ends.”
Our happiness in life is tied to what we give away, not what we keep.
It is a hard principle to live.
But I think in our deepest souls we know it to be true.

If I told you that you only had five minutes to gather up everything that meant something to you I bet that not one of you would think of some object that you owned.
Instead you think of the people in your life.
You would think about your loved ones and how much they meant to you.
So maybe there are things worth holding on to.
This morning I am wondering, what are the things in your life that you are holding on to?
What are the things stopping you from having a true life and happiness.
Perhaps it is some possession you have.
Or perhaps it is a grudge you have against someone, a prejudice, a hatred of someone else.
What are things we hold on to?

I know someone who has a rule that if there is something in their house they have not touched in two years time they get rid of it.
I also know others who hold on to everything that every piece of furniture, every book, every piece of paper seems to hold some very significant importance.
I once tried to help someone clean out their house.
It was the house he lived in since he was a kid.
It was filled with stuff books, magazines, old tax statement, old bills, old radios, and automobile parts.
He gave me one room to clean out that was just filled with stuff.
So I got a shovel and started to dig into this pile of stuff.
When he saw what I was doing he got upset and started to go through each piece of paper reading it, then saying to me, “I can’t get rid of that.”
His house was just filled to the brim with things that he couldn’t seem to part with.

I think our spiritual lives are sometimes like that man’s house.
We have filled it with so many rules, regulations, prejudices, doctrines, philosophies, and theologies.
And instead of allowing God to surprise us we become like Peter stuck in what we thought God is suppose to be.
Instead of allowing God to teach and lead us we block God out because there is no room for God to enter in.
This morning we need to clean that out.
We need to here Jesus this morning simplify it for us.

If you want to follow Jesus do something for someone else.
Don’t make your life better; make someone else’s life better.
What a crazy idea.
If you go to the religious section of the book store what you will find is a ton of books about making your life better.
You will find a ton of books on how to have a better prayer life, how to have more faith, or how to be more in tune with God.
But we don’t need all those self-help books we just need to be ready, willing, and able to serve others and give of ourselves.

Our council president Larry Johansen and I have lunch once a month to talk about what needs to be talked about at our council meeting.
At our monthly meeting this month we were talking about our fall stewardship campaign.
I was telling Larry that it is one of the best parts of my job.
I really enjoy talking to you all about giving.
Because what I find is that giving is brings people happiness.
I tell the council all the time that our stewardship can’t focus on the church’s need to receive.
It can’t be about our need to keep the lights on, pay the pastor’s salary, pay for our insurance, or any of the other practical things we need to pay for.
It can’t even only be about our mission and ministry.
It has to always be about your need to give.
In giving we find happiness.
That is why I love to talk about giving.
It is what really helps our spiritual selves to flourish.
In giving our lives away we begin to find them.

My wife this weekend participated in the Reach the Beach relay.
For those who don’t know Reach the Beach relay is a 200 mile run from Cannon Mountain to Hampton Beach.
Teams of 12 runners split the legs of the run.
Vicki runs on a team that raises money for camp calumet campership fund.
They wanted to help kids who needed help go to camp.
They posted updates during their run.
And before one of the legs Gary Anderson was interviewed about what was motivating him as he was about to run in the middle of the night on a particular hard part.
He said, “I am doing it so kids can go to camp.”
I went to the end of the race at the Hampton beach.
You would think that people working on only 3 hours sleep, who have been running for two days, riding in a van with 12 other people, would be cranky.
But what was present at the end of that race was joy.
Giving of ourselves is what brings true happiness.
If we can just let go of things in our life that don’t matter and focus on that.

I was thinking about the things I hold on to a lot this week.
And as I took that inventory I realized there are lots of things I want to give up.
I would love to give up my own need for control.
I would love to give up my own desire for personal accomplishment.
I would love to give up my desire to have four hours alone on Sunday so I could watch an entire football game.
I would love to give up the box of CDs I keep in our attic.
I would love to give up the need to measure myself against others.
I would love to give up my desire to keep everything the way it is now.

But there are other things I want to hold to.
I want to hold on to the love I experience in my family.
I want to hold on to my kids.
I want to hold on to my love for my calling in life.
I want to hold on to my love for sharing a meal with others.

What are the things that you want to hold on to?
What are the things you need to give up?

I think when we get to answer those questions we come closer to experiencing the happiness that we all seek.
We begin to grasp what Jesus meant by giving up our lives in order to save them.
Give up the selfishness in our hearts, and hold on to the love we give away.
At the end of the day, that is what people will remember about us.
They won’t remember how many houses we had, or how many CD’s we collected.
Those will just be things that are sold or thrown out.
But what we give will remain forever.

We all know this to be true too.
Because if you think about a loved one you lost you don’t think about what they had, but what they gave of you.
That is what will last forever.

So this week I hope you take some time and think about the things you hold on to.
What are the physical things that are cluttering your life, but also the spiritual things?
And that you will find happiness where selfishness ends.
You will find that you can gain your life by giving it away.


Monday, September 10, 2012

A Crumby Sermon

The story of the Syrophoenician woman is one of my favorite in all of scripture.
I love it because it presents a different view of Jesus than we are used to.
The story is about a discussion between a mother possessed with a determination and love for her child, and Jesus who doesn’t seem to fully understand the importance of his ministry outside of Israel.
In this story Jesus does not stand a chance.
For a mother’s love for her child can move heaven and earth, and in this case can move even the son of God.
Some have suggested that Jesus is merely testing this woman to see if she has enough faith.
However, the story does not lend itself to this interpretation.
Jesus never mentions her faith, and in other stories in the Gospel of Mark people are healed as a result of faith.
He merely says, “For saying that you may go…”
So what happens is that this woman, this mother, wins an argument with Jesus.
The argument is over whether or not Jesus ministry is for those outside of people of Israel.
Can it be for this woman too?
Jesus says that he came to heal the sick of Israel, and has no time for this woman, who he calls a “dog”.
You might be thinking at this point that Jesus would never be so unkind.
But that is the wonder and beauty of the story is that it flies in the face of what we commonly think about Jesus.
We think of Jesus as always having the perfect answer to every situation.
We think of Jesus as always using the best manners.
But this story reveals to us a Jesus caught up in his mission and forgetting that the consequences of that mission went far beyond what he could imagine or see.
In the process of this conversation Jesus mind is changed.
By the way there is biblical support for this.
In other places in the Biblical witness people argue with God, and because of that argument change God’s mind.
Jesus is revealing to us a characteristic of God we often dismiss.
In our time of winner take all propositions and changing one’s mind as a sign of weakness, Jesus tells us that it is in God’s very nature to change God’s mind.
Think of Moses arguing for God not to wipe out Israel in the wilderness, or Abraham arguing for God not to wipe our Sodom and Gomorrah.
Think about God rethinking destroying the world after the flood in Noah’s story.
This woman that Jesus meets while he is on vacation in Tyre changes Jesus mind about his ministry.

And in changing Jesus mind this tenacious mother gives us an eternal truth.
The Gospel and its message, the grace of God is big enough for all.
“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
There is enough food that the crumbs fall from the table and touch other lives.
We all know this to be true.
For we never know fully how the good that we do in our lives will be spread.
You may hit your intended target, but you also spread good news to more people than you know.

I was reminded of this while on internship.
It was my last week and one of the members of the congregation who I knew but didn’t know well came up to wish me good luck.
He said to me, “Your sermons have really helped me in my life. I have learned a lot from you.”
I was shocked because never before had he said anything about how my sermons touched him.
He never even gave one of the obligatory, “Nice sermon pastor”, on the way out of worship.
It was a reminder to me of the power of the word of God, and how it helps others.
We never know who will walk through our doors on Sunday morning.
We never know what their life is like at that moment.
We never know the way that God’s love will speak through us and convey to that person God’s grace.
We just never know how the crumbs will fall from the table and be of help to someone else.

Today we start our program year.
Today we start Sunday scho1ol, adult education, and a whole bunch of things.
And I am wondering who will receive the crumbs from our table.
What lives will we reach and impact that we have no expectation to?
How will God’s grace spill over the table and touch someone this year?
I see this all the time in our Sunday school.
The work that our teachers are doing is really remarkable.
Because what has been happening is that kids like Sunday school so much they are bringing friends.
In fact, one parent told me that their child said to them, “Church is the funniest place in the world.”
And we are touching lives with God’s love and grace in ways that none of us could expect.
There are children coming to our Sunday school experiencing God’s love who never would have otherwise.
When we start the year we have 35 names, but every year more than merely those 35 names are touched by the ministry we do here.
When we welcome children into our midst, and when we make Church a place to play, make friends, and laugh then we invite people to experience God’s grace.
Not through doctrines, but through experience.

The same is true in all aspects of our ministry together.
Jim Mikesell our new treasurer told me this story about when he was at the tent for Market Days.
A woman walked by our display and looked at it intently.
She then walked a few paces past our booth stopped and turned around.
She went up to Jim and said, “I just wanted to thank you for all your church does for the homeless in Concord.”
This little congregation is known in our community for helping people in need.
It is a great and wonderful thing.
It is part of the mission of the church to feed those in need.
But our real mission, the crumbs that fall from the table, is more than that it is to offer hope to give people a place of welcome and love.
It is to spread the kingdom and Good news.
That is what we are doing.
That is what that woman recognized.
And the truth is that you are all reaching more people than you realize.
Because of your giving and your love for outreach I am able to be in the community also sharing the crumbs.
I am able to help numerous people on behalf of our congregation.
And like I said before we just never know how that good will spread to others that we don’t know about.

Every week we come together to be fed, we come to hear the Good News of Jesus, to receive his body and blood, to be uplifted in word, song, and sacrament so that we can have hope, welcome, and love.
But you see if that was all this was about that would be too small a vision for God.
 I really believe that we are all here because the Holy Spirit has called us together, but that the Holy Spirit is always working through us to bring all the benefits that we know to others who have not yet experienced it.
We are the children of God given the real gifts of God’s immeasurable grace.
But it is not just for us, the crumbs that fall off our table are enough for all.
This is what the Syrophoenician woman points out to Jesus.
In so doing she is given her request, and her daughter is healed.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised.
What the Gospels teach us all the time is that we never know who is going to show us some surprising new way of thinking about God.
We never know when a mother will show up with a tenuous unyielding faith to change our perception of God.
We never know the ways that we will be challenged.
And we never know the way the crumbs fall from the table to sustain others.
We too might be able to have our minds changed.
In doing so, we grow closer to the mind of God, and the kingdom of heaven.

So let us take what we have received here.
And be ready to spread the crumbs to everyone.
Never fully knowing how what will heal someone, offer them hope, and give them new life.