Sunday, February 20, 2011

Working together as servants


A stained glass of St. Paul.
He had to keep reminding the Church in Corinth to stay on the correct path.

This is the sermon I gave the Episcopal Church of the Saviour in Clermont, Iowa on February 13, 2011.

1 Corinthians 3:1-9

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.

The Corinthians self-image was of a spiritually mature congregation, endowed with all the spiritual gifts they needed, well taught and self-sufficient. In fact they were quite similar to some churches today. They thought their learning and their experience of the gifts of God made them better than others. But as Paul looks at them he says Mature? I think not! Spiritual? No! Not spiritual.

You could say they’re suffering from what you might call an adolescence syndrome. They think they’re mature, and in some respects they are, but in other respects they’re still acting like children. What they don’t realize is that mere lapse of time doesn’t bring maturity whether in the secular or the Christian world. Maturity has more to it than just age or experience or education. It has to do with an attitude to life, with an ability to deal with the real world, to accept the limitations of life, the variety of gifts that people have. And that’s how he knows that they’re not yet mature as Christians.

There’s quarreling and jealousy among them. How can they say they’re spiritually mature if they show that sort of worldly immaturity? Rather than being directed by love for one another they’re driven by competitiveness. They’re constantly comparing one with another to see who’s the best, who’s the smartest, who’s got the right answers, or the best pedigree.

And of course the major issue in this divisiveness is the issue of leadership. They each have their favorite spiritual leader that they place on a pedestal. It’s amazing how little we’ve changed isn’t it? They may not have had TV or the mass media that we have today, but they still had their favorite stars. So what’s wrong with them having their favorite spiritual leader? Why is this a sign of immaturity?

The problem is that this view of leadership comes from the world, not from God.

The world’s view of leadership is that the leader is the one who gives directions, who sets the agenda, who determines what’s important and what’s not. He or she is the most important person in the organization. They’re the ones to be emulated. That’s why big companies pay their CEOs million dollar pay packages. Because without them their company will flounder. And of course that’s why eyebrows are raised when those corporate executives still get paid even if their company does flounder. But that’s another discussion.

But this isn’t big business. This is the church we’re talking about, and the criteria are different. Mind you, we need to be careful here. We’ll see later that he isn’t saying we don’t need leaders, or that the apostles or the preachers of the gospel don’t have a place in setting the direction of the church. But the problem he’s addressing here is the status that these leaders are being given that seems to set them above even Jesus Christ.

So he asks what is Paul, what is Apollos? Not who, notice, but what? You see, this isn’t about personalities, it’s about function, gifting. What are they there for? Well, in the Christian economy they’re there as servants. In fact he uses a metaphor from everyday life to illustrate what he’s saying.

Paul says, one plants another waters. So which is the one that matters most? Well, neither. What matters is that God gives the growth.

Will the plant grow if it isn’t planted? No. Will it grow if no-one waters it? No. What if the waterer waters a different piece of soil and ignores the bit where the seeds are? The seed won’t grow then either. Both are vital tasks. Neither is more important than the other. They are in fact fellow servants of the one God. Equal in importance and value.

Look around you today. What do you see? I hope you can see not just an odd bunch of people (or maybe a bunch of odd people) but a team of workers called by God to work together to grow his church.

You see, we’re all important members of God’s workforce. There are no part-time Christians in the Church; at least there shouldn’t be. Some of us are the ones who plant the seed of the gospel, through our words or our actions. Some are those who make the last connection for someone when they finally take the step of faith in Jesus Christ. Others water the seed until it comes to fruition or nurture the plant after it’s sprung into life through our encouragement. But without all of those tasks being accomplished by you and me the plant won’t thrive. In fact it could whither and die.

But notice that the one who serves is not dismissed. This isn’t saying they don’t matter. God uses this servant leadership to do his work, to build his church. Leaders matter, but only ever as servants of God, never as gurus or figureheads.

So there’s a line we need to walk between raising up our leaders to a place above the community and merging them into it to the point of insignificance. All the time remembering that we’re each fellow workers for God, serving together on God’s project, the Church.

So who do you belong to? Not Paul or Apollos, not the Episcopal Church. In fact they all belong to you, because you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God. Here is true wisdom. If you’re on God’s side it doesn’t matter who else is on your side or not. We are all working together to plant the seeds, water the plants and then after God gives the growth, help in the harvest.

So lets work together as servants, so as to build up the church in unity according to God’s wisdom, not human wisdom.

Let us pray,

Dear God, we may plant the seed of your faith, but it is you, God, that makes that plant, your Church, to grow. May we be careful tenders of the Church, so that your will on Earth be done. In the name of the Father, the Creator, the Son, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.

Amen.

The Berlin Wall, Martin Luther King Jr., The Field of Dreams, and Jesus


Martin Luther King Jr.

This is the sermon I gave the Episcopal Church of the Saviour in Clermont, Iowa on January 16, 2011.

John 1:29-1:41

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.

In 1961, one of the abiding symbols of the Cold War and Communism went up between East and West Germany. On November 9, 1989, that symbol came down. I remember watching TV news reports as people celebrated on top of the wall and how they took sledgehammers to break the wall down by themselves. I also remember reading an article about the fall of the Berlin Wall written by a World Methodist Council representative, it quoted a sign that the author saw the day after the wall came down, it read, 'Not the bear, not the lion, not the tiger, but the Lamb; the Lamb wins!

The lamb is usually a sign of gentleness and timidity, prone to disaster from many hazards. But for Christians, the lamb is a sign of victory. In today’s lesson, John the Baptist attaches the title “Lamb of God” to Jesus. While all of the gospels record the baptism of Jesus by John, each does so in a different way.

On the day after Jesus was baptized, John the Baptist saw Jesus walking toward him and exclaims that Jesus is the Lamb of God. While the expression Lamb of God has passed into regular Christian usage, it is not at all clear what it means exactly. This phrase only appears in this chapter of the Gospel of John.

St. Jerome, the great 4th century scholar, translated Scriptures into Latin (Vulgate) from their original tongues. Near the end of his life, Jerome encountered Jesus. The old saint and scholar gazed at Jesus for a moment and then asked: "Lord, what do you want from me?" Jesus said nothing, and continued to look lovingly on his faithful servant. This silence greatly disturbed Jerome. "Lord," Jerome insisted, "what do you want of me? My writings are all yours, my mind and my gift for languages are all yours, my piety and prayer life - they are all yours." "Jerome," Jesus said, "I already have all these things. I want what you have kept from me. Give me your sin."

Giving God our sin can be the hardest part of the Christian faith. It means that we have to admit that even our best efforts fall short of God’s righteousness. John the Baptist understood at some level that the Lamb of God would be sacrificed for the sin of the world. Perhaps John the Baptist is referring to the lamb of the Jewish sin offering. The Passover lamb is not a sin offering, but this is another possibility for interpretation. Possibly the Lamb of God of John the Baptist should be understood by the Church that lives after Christ’s resurrection as the conquering lamb of the Book of Revelation. Or is He the gentle lamb led off to slaughter in the prophecies of Jeremiah (11:19)? There are so many possibilities.

John the Baptist testifies that he saw the Spirit of God descend from heaven like a dove and come to rest on Jesus. John reiterates that before this happened he did not know that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God. Now he understands that it is Jesus that he has been preparing the world to receive. Two of John's disciples listen, turn, and follow Jesus.

When Andrew and friends asked Jesus where he was staying Jesus replied, “Come and see.” They stayed with him for the whole day, and at it turned out, they stayed with Him the rest of their lives. The very definition of a disciple is one who stays with Jesus wherever that stay may be.

On the third day of this story, John sees Jesus once more, and he again identifies Jesus as the Lamb of God. This intrigues his followers. What could John mean? Someone versed in the Old Testament might recall the lamb that God provided when Abraham and Isaac went up on the Mount of Moriah (Gen. 22). Some see the Lamb of God as a subtle reference to the suffering servant that we find in Isaiah’s prophecies. Maybe Lamb of God is meant to signify the horned ram that leads a flock of sheep.

The truth is that there are so many possibilities, but what is clear is that the Lamb of God is the Messiah sent by God to bring judgement to the wicked and deliverance to the righteous. As we were last week, again we are at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. In today’s lesson, John the Baptist is pointing his followers toward Jesus. Two of them are curious enough that they begin to follow Jesus and Jesus notices them and asks them a question. This is the first question that Jesus asks in the Gospel of John and it is a good one. It still has relevance. "What are you seeking?"

It is quite possible that they, like many of us, didn’t know what they wanted or what they were looking for. What is it that any of us seek and find in Jesus? Perhaps there is a vague sense in us that we want what most people want: a comfortable lifestyle, good health, and maybe children who are successful. We want security for our golden years and to have some fun along the way. And hopefully, along that same way we can be of help to others that we meet.

Maybe we want nothing at all. I recall one of the scenes in Field of Dreams when Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella goes to Fenway Park with reclusive author Terrence Mann. Kinsella asks Mann, “What do you want?” To which, Mann answers, “I just want to be left alone.” Kinsella points to a concession stand and explains that he was asking whether or not Mann wanted any food or drink.

Maybe you feel like Terrence Mann; you just want to be left alone. The problem for the Christian is that Jesus doesn’t just leave us alone. When we are first intrigued by Him, he beckons us further with a simple invitation, “Come and see.” When we have chosen to be His follower, He sends us into places and situations that we never would have chosen for ourselves. Chances are, for most of us, we’re not going to be staying at a fabulous hotel when we are on the road with Jesus.

In April of 1963, the Rev. Martin Luther King was invited to stay in a place that was not of his choosing. King was in Birmingham, Alabama for a series of civil rights protests. The police commissioner “Bull” Connor had King arrested on Good Friday along with 54 other marchers for “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing. King was parked in the Birmingham Jail where he was singled out for isolation and denied the chance to make phone calls or the legal right to talk to his lawyers.

He had no mattress or linen, and ended up sleeping on metal slats. Over the Easter weekend, in solitary confinement, down in what was called “the hole,” Martin Luther King was staying with Jesus. It was while he was locked up that King penned one of the most significant Christian documents of the civil rights movement. Surprisingly, his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” was not addressed to abusive police officers or racist politicians, but to a group of white, liberal clergymen who were urging people to withdraw from the demonstrations which they called “unwise and untimely.”

King responded strongly to their criticism and rebuked them by saying “we must use time creatively and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right.” He pointed out that “it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” His letter was a stirring condemnation of those who would do nothing in the face of so much injustice directed at blacks.

When Jesus invites us to “Come and See,” He is welcoming us into a life that is abundant with meaning and purpose, but He is not necessarily inviting us into a life free from conflict or turmoil. Who is this Jesus? One of the hallmarks of our day is the proliferation of alternative views of Jesus. Listen to what Andrew says about Him:

One of the two who heard John speak and followed Jesus was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, "We have found the Messiah.”

Andrew understands John’s calling of Jesus to be the Lamb of God as a synonym for the Messiah. When we come to understand that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, sent from God, it doesn’t matter where He sends us or what we find in the places where He sends us. Back in 1963, who was really staying with Jesus? Was it the white moderate who was devoted to law and order, or the black radical who used non-violent means to push for justice? Was it the majority who preferred a negative peace based on the forceful control of tensions? Or was it the minority who worked for a positive peace marked by the presence of justice?

Whether it is the Berlin Wall or the Birmingham Jail, wherever Jesus takes us we have nothing to worry about. He may take us to a natural disaster like the recent floods, or to an AIDS hospice. He might lead us to be a part of a demonstration or a mission trip. He may send us to a classroom, a community, a neighbor’s house or a hospital. What matters most is that we go at the direction of Jesus and stay with Him.

You see, the lamb that we follow is the Lamb of God. He is the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the Living God. His is the one who calls us to Himself, and the one whose presence transforms our lives. Go with Him and stay with Him. Jesus bids all who encounter Him, “Come and See.”

Let us pray.

Most loving Father, we give thanks for your Son, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. Set us free from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, in whose Name we pray. Amen.