Monday, September 24, 2018

Fighting for First Place

James 3:13 - 4:3, 7-8a

Mark 9:30-37

Ambition.  The world tells us we need to be ambitious.  The world tells us that we need to strive for money, for success, for power, for fame.  We know this.  It is all around us.  Every advertisement is in some way about pleasing each of us with comfort, with “feel good” stuff that we obtain with money; and often the advertisements make it clear that with that new “stuff” we will be showing the world that we have made it in terms of success, power, and fame.  All of us are susceptible to this.  No matter how many times we have heard this passage that the first shall be LAST and the last shall be first – that winning the most success and money and power will not put you ahead but, frankly, far down the line with God – no matter how often we hear this, personal success, personal accomplishment, the obtaining of more “stuff” is a temptation hard for many, if not most, of us to resist.

Pastors are not exempt from this.  I remember talking at one Church wide event with a New Church Development Pastor who measured his personal success, his well-being, his sense of self, by how many people were in his church each Sunday. There was a subtle “I am better than you as a pastor because my congregation is bigger than yours” attitude. And a not so subtle, “I am a more effective and successful pastor because my congregation is big” attitude.  It came across clearly in the words, “what are you doing in ministry if your church isn’t growing in terms of numbers?  How do you measure success except by the numbers?” And while bringing more people into the Good News, bringing more people into the fold of family communities like Clayton Valley or other churches is a worthy goal, today’s texts warn against the cultural norms of how to measure success.  They also warn against the very desire for “success” for oneself, they warn against trying to be first, or best in terms of worldly values; they warn against coveting the things that society tells us we need or that should be our goals.  Instead, we are to approach every action, every task with humility, and more importantly with a bigger vision that says that we are about the work of God, not about the work of being first or best.  Listening to this other pastor really emphasized that for me.  “What are you doing that has made your church grow so successfully?” we asked him. 

“Well, at our church we have big screens and show beautiful slides with each song we sing.  We have tables rather than pews where people sit with their coffee and their electronics, we have “tweeting” going on during sermons so people can comment and discuss while they listen, our songs are very emotion producing and each week is like a revival and a concert and a show.”  Okay.  So that brings people into the church – people like to be entertained, they like to feel good, they like to be able to drink their coffee and I get that.  I see value in doing what will call people through those doors.  But then what?  What keeps them there?  “Well, then we have golf groups and we have dinner groups and we have surfing groups and other interest groups and small groups.”  They have bible studies, but these aren’t well attended…Okay, those keep the people connected to the church during the week.  And then what?  “Well….” And at this point he admitted that their church was in many ways a very efficient club, a “feel good” place where people were served, were given “products” or services such as feel good worship, golfing and outing activities, places to meet others.  Were they doing any mission and service to the poor?  Not YET, he emphasized.  Were they reaching out to the outcast, the disenfranchised, those who had no other places to go and be?  Well, not YET.  Were the lives of those who came changed by their faith in any other way than that they now had a Sunday commitment and maybe some new friends to play golf with?  Well, again, this was a growing edge for them.  Successful church?  Well, in terms of numbers, yes.  In terms of growing faith, changing lives, making a difference to people who are poor or struggling, challenging the members to be more loving, active, better, changing lives in radical ways?  In terms of the things that matter to God?  Maybe not so much.

There is a wonderful piece of music written by David Bailey entitled “head of staff”.  The words are:

Some folks they got no ambition
They know the numbers but they can’t do the math.
Reckon that’s why I got this position;
Look at me, I’m the head of staff!

Well I know that my mama would be proud
Of this powerful title that I have
I’m not just some lowly Reverend
No no no no no no no  - I’m the head of staff!  That’s right!

Last week the men’s breakfast had no coffee,
And the choir, they don’t like their brand new gowns,
Youth group wants to go to California,
And the cross in the chapel is, it’s falling down.  I’m the head of staff!

Sometimes I get a little hectic
Catching all the balls my people hit.
That’s when I do what a head of staff does best

   and I hand my glove to my associate.

Someday I’d like to be a Pastor
Visit the sick, maybe even preach.
Seminary ought to have a class in politics -
that’s something that I am now qualified to teach, as the Head of Staff!

Some folks they got no ambition.
Some folks get what they deserve.
But the man on the cross said the first shall be last
And the greatest is the one who learns to serve!
I’m the head of staff on a learning curve!

By saying that we should not be about personal ambition, I am not saying that we shouldn’t use our gifts, shouldn’t work hard or shouldn’t try.  We are called to do all of these things.  As you may have heard before, Frederick Buechner says “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Personally I think this misses an element.  I think our gifts also need to be part of that equation.  For me the saying should be, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness, the deepest gifts God has given you, and the world’s deep hunger meet.”  My colleague was clearly gifted at bringing people into the doors of his church.  And that undoubtedly is meeting a hunger of the world – an emptiness, a loneliness that only God and God’s community can fill.  But I think that as long as he is doing it for the numbers, doing it to achieve an affirmation that he is succeeding, that he is being successful, as long as it is about his success as a pastor, and not about serving God regardless of the ways in which humans measure success, depth will not come for the people of faith in his community.  True connection to something beyond simply the comfort that God offers, and on to the call God also gives us to grow and serve and love - this will be elusive for his parishioners. It is easy to call God’s people to hear the comfort, joy, fun and Good News.  It is harder to retain God’s people when we confront them with the fact that God does not call us to remain in the same place or to act only in our own interests, but God calls us to change, to grow, to move in our faith into deep caring and love for the other.

            I think it can be hard to put aside the internal voices asking us to measure our worth by how much we succeed.  It can be hard to put them aside long enough to really hear God’s voice calling to us, guiding us, leading us forward.  Still, we are called to walk with humility, to walk with a wisdom that says “this is not about me, this is about serving God and God’s people.”  So how do we measure that success? 

Well, according to the passages we read today from the gospel of Mark, the way that God measures success has to do with who we include, who we reach out to, who we invite in, who we love. As Jesus says in Mark, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.” This follows his comment that the first shall be last.  They are connected, they are the same.  Taking the time to be with those who are cast out, who are excluded, who are hard to see as “full humans”, taking time with them, loving them, welcoming them - that is the measure of success in God’s eyes. It’s not competing with others, it is including others, especially those hardest to love.

            There is a story about a young monkey who set for himself the goal of climbing to the highest branch of the tree.  Every day he would climb a little higher and then call down to his grandfather monkey, “Grandpa, did you see how high I climbed?  Did you?  Did you?”  And every day the grandfather monkey would solemnly nod his head, “yes, I did grandson.  I saw how high you climbed.”  Then one day the monkey finally made it all the way to the top of the tree.  He was so proud of himself and was dancing all around bragging and demanding to know if everyone had seen how high he had climbed in the tree, if everyone had witnessed how much higher than everyone else he had been able to go.  Finally, after demanding again and again from the grandfather monkey if he had seen, the grandfather monkey finally said, “Yes I saw it grandson.  But the thing is, the higher you get into the tree, the more your ass shows.”

            Let us strive in all things, not to be highest in the tree, but simply to serve God in all that we do, with all of our being.  Amen.

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