This is a quotation from one of the craziest people I love, Ross Perot, billionaire and former presidential candidate. He spoke about wealth in an interview with Fortune Magazine:
“Guys, just remember, if you get lucky, if you make a lot of money,
if you go out and buy a lot of stuff–it’s gonna break. You got your biggest, fanciest mansion in the world. It has air conditioning. It’s got a pool. Just think of all the pumps that are going to go out. Or go to a yacht marina any place in the world. Nobody is smiling, and I’ll tell you why. Something broke that morning. The generator’s out; the microwave oven doesn’t work. . . .Things just don’t mean happiness.”
So today we have this very familiar story of the Rich Young Ruler who hears of Jesus’ fame. He comes to listen to him preach and teach. Thoroughly impressed, he asks Jesus what he should do to have that kind of eternal life that Jesus has just been talking about. Scripture says that Jesus’ heart immediately went out to this guy. He looked at him and saw leadership potential.
But the rich young ruler had a question. After listening to Jesus, he realized there was something he was missing in his life. Even though he was a good Jew who knew the commandments since his youth, something was missing. So he asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
The answer Jesus gave confounded him. It went against the prevailing cultural norms. One’s personal wealth was supposed to be directly proportional to what God thought of you. If you were good, followed the commandments, attended synagogue and prayed, then God would pour blessings upon your life. It demonstrated that God had smiled upon you.
But Jesus’ said, “You lack one thing; go, you own too much. Sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
He didn’t or wouldn’t. The rich young ruler was too tied to his wealth. Maybe wanted to avoid the effort it would take to get rid of it to do what Jesus recommended. It was just too high a price. Dejected, he leaves the scene.
Jesus’ disciples were surprised by this too. When Jesus said: “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They applied it to themselves. It confused them. Wealth had been God’s rating system. One knew where they stood by how much coin was in the pocket. It didn’t take long for them to ask, “What about us. We gave up everything to follow you. Was that enough?’
So, what did Jesus mean? And how does this apply to us. Have we given up enough? Have given up anything to follow Jesus?
A couple of years ago a friend gave me a new Bible. That’s not unusual. Preachers are supposed to have Bibles. Lots of them. I love them. But this Bible was a little different. The translator, an Aramaic scholar, Dr. George M. Lamsa, used Aramaic texts, the original language of Jesus. He claims that the language hasn’t changed much over the centuries and that many translators have mistranslated idioms from Aramaic. For example, the word “camel” in our passage today, looks almost identical to the word “rope”, in the Aramaic.
That makes a little more sense to me then trying to thread a needle with a camel. This Bible reads “My sons, how hard it is for those who trust in their wealth to enter into the kingdom of God! It is easier for a rope to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (2)
It’s a more powerful image. It doesn’t leave us scratching our head thinking, “What’s Jesus mean by that?” It more accurately describes the struggles of the rich young ruler. He couldn’t see that the love in God’s kingdom was more powerful than all his wealth. He could see that it was blocking his way. Maybe this Aramaic image would have helped.
Isn’t it interesting that one of the things we have to teach children is the value of money. Until we teach them how important it is, they don’t really care. We see that when the really young children give an offering in church. They want a quarter to be like all the other people when the offering plate comes. Kids value family, friends and pets. They care about how well they can do things. Their values are built around relationships and not things. Not the stuff that money can buy.
Sure they’ll play with the things we buy them. But they don’t need everything we buy them. I’ll never forget the Christmas my Mom and Dad went all out on the tree and the house. and the train under the tree. They must have stayed up all night trimming the tree and setting the train set up under it. Our household operated under the premise that it was that Santa Clause who did all that.
The next morning it was pure, kid–Christmas heaven. There must have been twenty presents for me under the tree. I opened all of my presents. I tore through them all and was excited about every one of them and the train. After some cookies and milk for breakfast and all the gifts were open, to my parents’ disbelief, I was playing with the boxes. I had carefully lined up the toys and sat there building stuff out of the cardboard boxes.
I’m not saying don’t give kids presents, or don’t let them have stuff. What I am suggesting is that sometimes, kids can show us life from its purest perspective. I believe that’s why this passage about the rich young ruler comes directly after Jesus’ teaching about receiving the Kingdom like little children.
While we care for them, and while we provide for them, we need to remember that our children are in ministry WITH us. Our children serve God, just like we do. They can do things that please God. They can be an inspiration. They can help us worship (children’s message in worship for example) and in the community when we show them how to do that.
While it’s not too early to begin addressing it, budget time is just around the corner. A good steward of the gifts that God has given, means building wealth, the wealth that really matters. The wealth of God’s kingdom. The wealth that makes us “richer than a millionaire.”
Where is our wealth? Are we having a hard time threading the needles of our lives? Are we trying to shove that camel or a rope through that needle of ours? Jesus wasn’t saying to get rid of everything we own.
Jesus was saying to get rid of what ever it is that keeps us separated from Him. For the rich young ruler it was his wealth. What is it for you?
Is it an overbooked schedule, so that there is no time to relax?
Is it power and influence that pumps up false pride?
Is it feeding off others so you can live a selfish life?
“Things don’t mean happiness.”
We build the wealth of the heart by sharing, by loving, by giving it away. Then and only then we will know the joy of following our Master.
Last time I was at Six Flags I heard a little boy bawling, “That’s not fair!! Why can’t I go on that ride too!” “Because you’re too little,” a woman who was probably his mother explained. “Next year when you’re bigger you can go on all the rides. “But I want to go on that one now!!” he complained.
My heart went out to this kid and this mother. Both wanted to have their desires satisfied: the child to experience the thrill of the ride and the mother to watch her son’s joy. But safety came first.
Was it fair? Kids seem to learn at a very early age about fairness. They seem to be born with a built-in sense of fairness.
Imagine that another person watched this scene unfold. “If only I had the problem that young mother had.” Let’s imagine this second woman had recently been diagnosed with cancer and would never even know the experience child birth. “It’s not fair,” she might say under her breath as she walked away. “What did I do to deserve this?”
Then again what do the millions those unemployed Americans who have dedicated so much of themselves to the company only to find that those in upper management had sold them out for personal gain, out-sourcing their business to poorer countries where labor costs are cheaper. Imagine their depression and their anger. “It isn’t fair.”
Earlier this week hundreds, tragedy struck a village elementary school in China when a landslide covered, killing 18 children in one classroom. In Hong Kong a commuter ferry struck a small pleasure boat heading out to see fireworks, causing the ferry to capsize and killing 39 with another 100 injured. “It isn’t fair.” And it goes on and on and on every day.
This is World Communion Sunday. I share these today because not only do we share tragedies with others, but also our faith in Jesus Christ. Life can be unfair. Who sets the rules? What does it mean to be fair anyway?
Fairness is always on our minds. Parents try to be fair in raising children; husbands and wives want to be fair in their relationships; some employers are bound by labor unions to be fair to employees; BBCC members try to act fairly with one another in their interactions.
Today we are looking at the introduction to the story of Job. This is a story that makes us think about making sense of what goes on in the world around us, especially the bad things. What do we make of it? What do evil and suffering have to say to us about God’s fairness?
Throughout church history the existence of bad things in the world has been a real problem. We want to believethree things.
First, we want to believe that God is good. God is at work in the world to bring about good.
Second, we want to believe that God is all-powerful. That God made the universe out of nothing and that God can do anything that God wants to.
And third, we are forced to admit that there is evil in the world. But it just doesn’t seem that those three things fit together.
So the problem is,
if God is good and God is all-powerful, why all the trouble?
It doesn’t make sense that this kind of God would want there to be evil around.
And if God is all-powerful, that would seem to mean that if God wanted to get rid of evil, God could.
So why is there evil? That has been a question that Christians have struggled with that throughout the centuries.
This struggle is played out in the book of Job. Satan is the one who is directly causing all Job’s problems. But Satan is doing those things with God’s permission. So if there is anyone to blame for what was happening to Job, the final responsibility would SEEM to be with God.
So we can wonder, “Is God really good all the time?”
The Bible suggests that for some reason God decided that it is better for good to come out of evil rather than not to allow evil to exist. But certainly God could create a universe where there was only good. But God has determined that it is better for there to be a universe where there is evil, one from which out of evil good may emerge. All of the events in our lives, even the bad ones may be used to bring about what is good.
One of the best examples is the story of Joseph and the coat of many colors. Joseph’s jealous brothers threw him into a pit. Rather than kill him, they decided to sell him as a slave to some passing travelers. This story concludes with Joseph becoming an important and powerful advisor to the Egyptian pharaoh.
To continue the story, Joseph’s father and family endure great suffering during a time of famine. They all travel to Egypt, and it is Joseph who is able to make sure that all their needs are met. His brothers worry that Joseph might take revenge on them for selling him into slavery years before. But Joseph said to them:
“What you did you meant for evil; but God meant it for good.”
What do you think? Were the brothers’ hatred and the acts it produced something good or evil?
It was evil.
When they sold Joseph to those passersby, was that good or evil?
That was evil.
But in time, Joseph was able to look back on all those things and realize that God had worked with those evil events to bring about a great good in the end.
This idea that God works through situations of suffering goes against the way that many of us think about God. Too many of us think of God as a heavenly Santa Claus, all kinds of good things to people who believe in God and as long as we believe, then life should be a “yellow brick road” leading straight to heaven, a road that should keep us free of any discomfort or suffering.
Does the Bible teach that? Consider Jesus. No matter how much he suffered at the hands of others and died on the cross, God was with him the whole time. In the end he was raised from the dead and lifted up into heaven: a pretty good and wonderful thing. Even as Jesus went to the cross, God was bringing about good. (Simon, Roman soldier, many who watched and prayed)
Many of us have the attitude that when we are sick or have problems we can call on God, and God will come and help us. But that attitude assumes that God wasn’t around when the problem started in the first place. God wasn’t on a coffee break, and our prayer is our way of telling God to get back to work.
Job is a model for us, not just because of his patience through the bad stuff, but because of his honesty with God about what he was enduring. God cared then. God cares now. God will care in the future. God can take all we have to dish out.
Sometimes sharing of the pain as Job did with his comforters, like our own, while not taking the suffering away, it changes us. It’s so often not the answers to the hard questions, but sense that we make of it provides the peace because someone was there who cared and helps us understand God’s love. They remind us of it. That’s often the role church members’ play for one another at time of crisis and joy. Being there. One day we will finally understand how God was at work during each moment of our lives. We will understand how all this has brought about great good in the end.
John Calvin, the Protestant reformer of the 1500’s who is considered to be the founder of Presbyterianism, liked to use this image. He told people to think of our journey through life as like a journey through a labyrinth. While a labyrinth is a maze with dead ends, life’s labyrinth does not have any dead ends. As long as you keep moving forward on your path, you’ll eventually get to its end.
That’s what our lives are like.
At times we might feel like we’re going nowhere.
At times we might feel that we’re headed backwards or in the wrong direction.
But as long as we trust in God, we can know that God will bring us through this labyrinth that we call life, to our final destination when it is finished.
On this World Communion Sunday, we journey to Christ’s table remember what we have endured on our life journeys. We also rejoice in the fact that Jesus Christ has been present along the way. That includes this bread and the cup we will share. It heals us of our suffering; and we are united by its love the world over.
Congregational churches in Connecticut have suffered a decline in membership over the past ten years at a rate of about 5% per year. I’m sure that you all can remember when these pews were filled with special seating perhaps being required for Christmas and Easter. If it’s any comfort, we are not alone in this erosion of membership. All main line Protestant denominations are experiencing the same trend, some worse than others.
We have been declining because the United Church of Christ nationally and in Connecticut is socially-concerned. It’s out front on tough social issues like peace, human rights, labor issues, justice in the Third World and rights for gay, lesbian and transgender persons. That can anger some of the more conservative of us, even though none of us are bound to personally adhere to these positions whether our churches promote them or not. Even so, that has been one reason why we have declined. We are theologically sophisticated and socially progressive.
But there is now another piece of the demographic. Society has changed so much that the church is no longer the place to meet social needs as it once was. Generations subsequent to ours (that includes baby-boomers) are not joiners. They are already connected all the time with email, face book and the like. There’s even “FourSquare” app one the Iphone that enables a person to say where they are and send out that location to friends so they can meet you there. Times change.
A few years ago I attended an Interim Ministry Network Conference in Orange, California. Orange was the home of Robert Schuler’s Crystal Cathedral. On my on Sunday, I decided to attend services having watched his program from my living room only occasionally. I had a preconceived opinion that was not very theologically sophisticated. From the start I was suspicious of Robert who smiled all the time. When I learned Mrs. Schuler rewrote many of the hymns to take out any depressing references to sin, suffering or guilt, I questioned theologically what they were about.
But when I entered, the Cathedral, which was a beautiful experience, I was greeting warmly by a genuinely wonderful church member who inquired about me and my visit to town. Everybody was upbeat and extremely attractive. Before service, Robert himself walked through the congregation and found me. He knew my name, and asked questions about what I had shared with the greeter. I was impressed.
When the organ played the huge fountain in the middle of the sanctuary danced, keeping beat with the music. A children’s sermon was given about how good it was to be an American, delivered by a mouse puppet. The church was full and so was the parking lot. Maybe a California phenomenon, some people didn’t want to leave their cars. A big screen was provided. Hospitality of another sort. This was a different, unique Gospel that touched me.
I had another similar experience as Executive Director for the Open Hearth. I was to be a speaker at a fundamental, independent Christian church in Springfield, MA to accept a $2,000 check for our drug program. The money was raised by collecting roadside trash and soliciting pledges for each mile that was collected. This church had grown in one year from meeting in a senior center to renting a ballroom in the Sheraton hotel. The worship was enthusiastic and emotional, and the sermon was 90 minutes long focusing on the sins of the world. There were public testimonies by church members about what the Lord had done in their lives… how they had been saved. What was most impressive was the age of the congregation – all individuals in their twenties and thirties. After worship there was a catered lunch and small group study. All day was spent at church. Every one studied the Bible and had their Bibles with them.
In my all my interim pastorates or visits as supply minister to congregations for thirty-eight years of ministry to “theologically sophisticated, socially concerned churches,” have never before or since I had never seen so many young adults in one place, yet alone studying and reading Bibles.
There are so many varieties of Christian experience. Those at Springfield Christian Church, the former Crystal Cathedral and so many others do church differently than we do it here at BBCC. Yet each in its own way is effective ministry.
“Teacher, we saw a man who was driving out demons in your name, and we told him to stop, because he doesn’t belong to our group.”
But Jesus said, “Do not try to stop him because no one who performs a miracle in my name will be able soon afterward to say evil things about me. For whoever is not against us is for us.”
This exchange between his disciples and Jesus is a bit ironic, since in verses shortly before it this morning’s reading, the disciples were unable to exorcise the unclean spirit from a young boy. Tried to heal, but failed. Then this unknown, unapproved exorcist shows up and heals people.
They criticize this unknown exorcist for doing what they have failed to do, namely, cure somebody. They knew the right words. They had watched Jesus do it a hundred times. But when it came to their turn to heal, they failed. So when they discovered this non-credentialed exorcist out there casting out demons in Jesus’ name, they ran to Jesus to tell him about it.
Whoever is not against us is for us.
Why is it that when we fail at something we find ourselves critical of those who have succeeded?
Whoever is not against us is for us.
Bill Eassum wrote a book, “Dancing with Dinosaurs,” that warns churches whose membership is declining have much in common with dinosaurs. Both have great heritages. Both require enormous amounts of food. Both influenced their world tremendously. And both became endangered species. Will we, like the dinosaurs, become extinct?
No one knows scientifically why the dinosaurs became extinct. Let’s imagine this picture in our mind. Once there was tremendously high vegetation. This was the food available. But over time, perhaps to protect its own self from extinction, the plant growth grew lower to the ground by the dinosaur’s tremendous appetite.
Still the food was plentiful, if the dinosaur merely bent down to reach the vegetation. Maybe his neck was too stiff to bend down to the vegetation, or he was too near sighted to see the vegetation. Maybe the dinosaurs became extinct because of they were unwilling or unable to see what was happening around them.
Lots of churches have the same problem. Like the dinosaur they have a huge appetite. Much of their time, energy and money are spent looking for food; too little time is left to feed the unchurched. Faced with a radically changing world, many are unwilling to feed where they have never fed before. Either pride or their lack of vision keeps them from changing the way they minister to people. They are running out of food. White, middle class, Protestant members are declining as the world becomes culturally and racially more diverse and unchurched.
All around us are unchurched, hurting people. Our food is everywhere. But many refuse to change their methods and structures to minister to people where they are in ways they can understand. Like the dinosaur, their necks may be too stiff or their eyes too near sighted.
God doesn’t care if these congregations survive; but God passionately cares if they meet the spiritual need of those that God sends their way.
Today’s Gospel lesson of Jesus’ rebuke of his disciples’ because they for condemned the exorcist suggests that God’s understands what is acceptable better than we do. But is it may be possible that there is room enough to go beyond theology, politics, structure, history and social positions of even our own UCC congregational churches. It is even possible that Jesus’ work may take place even beyond those who confess his name.
And here we are, the chosen few. For whatever reason we found our way here today and know how to follow a sophisticated service like this one, knowing when to stand up and sit down on cue, singing music that was popular one or two hundred years ago. Do you think that Jesus goodness is just limited to us?
If we answer yes to some of the questions posed this morning, then it’s time to make a greater effort to notice and include those for whom Christ’s church was given. It includes and goes beyond those here. This will be our food. This will be our survival.
BBCC is a church in transition. We can make this a priority.
“What are you three arguing about up there?” my Mom would shout from the foot of the stairs to my cousins and me. Maybe you’ve even heard it or said it yourselves with your kids in the back seat. This is a lot like what Jesus asks Peter, James and John on the road to Capernaum.
Today we tackle what is probably one of the most common activities of our daily lives: having arguments. According our dictionary, the word “argue” has an positive and a negative side to it. While it can mean “to accuse, to contend, to dispute,” it can also mean “to reason, to make clear, to give evidence for.
There can be two kinds of arguments – those that are worthwhile and those that are worthless. From our Bible today, we hear the latter. Jesus might have been disappointed when he discovered that his disciples were engaged in a worthless argument. Particularly so, because he had just finished telling them for the first time about how he would be handed over to evil men and would be killed, and how he would rise again on the third day.
But Peter, James and John seem to have brushed all that aside.. Instead, we are told, “they began arguing among themselves about who was the greatest!” (v. 34).
Now I don’t think that Jesus was trying to stifle their right to talk and dialogue, or even to disagree with one another. But what he does seem to he telling them here is, “If you’re going to argue, at least make sure it’s a worthwhile argument.”
Each one of us needs that same reminder. And that’s what Jesus is telling us today. He is encouraging us to have worthwhile arguments.The kind of arguments a person pursues can tell us something about that person. Some of the arguments in which you and I willingly participate in are, quite frankly, embarrassing. After Jesus asks his disciples, “What were you arguing about on the road?” Then we read, “But they would not answer him or they kept quiet because they had been arguing which one of themselves was the greatest.”
They knew they had been caught discussing a subject that revealed their own proud, self-centered concerns.
They were carrying on this worthless argument in the presence of the one who was the greatest, of the one who lived the greatest story ever told as he laid down his life for us at the cross; who in the greatest victory this world has ever known rose triumphantly on Easter. In the presence of Christ their arguments were petty and worthless. And so are many of ours.
“What were you arguing about on the road?” What do we argue about? It’s a little embarrassing too when we get right down to it. The other day my wife, Andrea, came home from the grocery store with some “mini” aluminum cans of tomato juice, each enough for one serving for lunches. I thought the wiser, more economical purchase would have been a single, large economy-size can that could be poured into a jar that we had already recycled. We “discussed” the issue to the point where I wasn’t worth the energy or the expense. Why we’ve even had the argument about the right way to put the TP in the holder: “hang over or under,” would you believe? “What were you arguing about on the road or your lives?”
Last Sunday while waiting to take the elevator up to the second floor at Rockville Hospital, an older couple stood waiting with me. During our wait and the entire ride they were arguing about whether the person they were going to visit had entered the hospital on Monday or Tuesday! I thought to myself, “What a worthless argument!” What does it matter? “What were you arguing about on the road?”
There’s an awful truth that emerges from this. Much of our arguing is to prove us as “winners” and them as “losers.” And that’s what the disciples were doing here. It was un-Christ-like, and it displeased Jesus as well. Here is Jesus, the suffering servant, trying to sensitize his closest friends about the gathering clouds in his ministry. They prefer to carry on their own discussions of self-interest. How disillusioning after three years with them and so close to the end of his ministry.
So we must be very careful about win-or-lose type arguments. In worthless arguments we become so ego-centered, so intent upon winning, that we can wound another person’s feelings quite deeply.
How many words have we spoken that we wish we do anything to take back.
If you’re going to argue with your wife about whether to paint the bedroom blue or yellow, realize what else is at stake in the argument. Flip the coin and have it over with, before someone gets hurt on the inside.
Jesus didn’t become indignant with his disciples. He didn’t blast them with words. He didn’t chastise them. He didn’t overtly claim to be the greatest himself. He used the gentle approach. He asked,” What were you arguing about on the road?” And then, with his typical pastoral patience, we read that “Jesus sat down, called the twelve disciples, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must place himself last of all and be the servant of all. “This worthless argument was thus made good.
He used the situation creatively. It became a teachable moment.
If there must be arguments, let’s at least make them good ones. Remember that the word “argue” can also mean “to reason, to make clear of to give evidence of.” Another word is debate. Those are good things to do whenever we talk with someone. Too often the answer between arguing individuals people is to distance themselves from one another—physically or emotionally. But the answer is precisely the opposite. To talk – to communicate, to reason, to make clear, to indicate (that is, to give direction and guidance).
Silence can be a powerful form of argument, especially in church conflict.
Persons in positions of leadership often complain about the loneliness and disorientation that this kind of silence can bring them. They don’t know what something has happened; it just has.
Leaders often feel loneliness in their efforts because often constituents don’t talk, with them about their feelings and views on urgent issues. But they talk more about them behind their back. In our meetings here at church, we discuss operational aspects of our faith, but it is often expense of sharing what’s possibly more important. Feelings are so important are meant to be shared. It’s obvious that much of what we do here at BBCC together is worthwhile; it is as it should be, borders on the eternal. The work of the church is something worth talking about and sharing.
Let us resolve that whenever we gather as disciples of Christ we imagine that Jesus places a child in our midst as a model for our behavior. May we welcome Jesus and one another like children with the humility and courage to speak what is worth saying.
A number of years ago, when I was still doing youth ministry, I was the pastor of two small congregations in northern Vermont located just south of the Canadian border. Because of the isolation, it was easy to build the youth a thriving youth program. Simply put, there was nothing for kids to do! Our churches were only too happy to involve them whether their families were members or not. So young people and their friends and the friends of their friends built soon became a group of at 86 members, at which point I had to cut off membership. Such a problem to have!
Now Lamoille County is a beautiful place nestled in the Green Mountains. I decided that the group needed some activities to solidify it and, just as I had expected, very few had ever climbed the mountain right within eyesight of the towns they’d grown up in. So a six mile hike up Mt. Belvidere was to be our expedition.
Mt. Belvidere is at the end of the Long Trail, a branch of the Appalachian Trail. It boasts and international view of Canada and views of New Hampshire and southern peaks in Vermont from its 50 ft. fire tower.
The plan was to eat lunch on the summit and following the blazed trail. The journey up was relaxed. It began up a narrow dirt path wound its way, and then conditions changed. With more than halfway to go, the melting snow and the remaining ice pact beneath the soil had created waist deep mud. Following the trail became difficult. Some less stalwart among us decided to turn back, meaning that some of our chaperones had to return with them.
Then even this leader was struck down, inconceivably by an oak leaf. Those were the days when vanity dictated the wearing of contact lenses. But stupidity dictated not carrying regular glasses with you. Wouldn’t you know about ¾ mile from the top of the mountain a flash of pain in my left eye. I could remove the lens, but had nothing to rinse it with except a Coke. Bottled water was not the commodity it is now. I was half blind with what felt like the forest in my eye.
But when we arrived at the summit, I am told it was all worth it! You could see for miles, the view was spectacular. We sang songs and had a sort of impromptu worship service on the top of the mountain. But then I was reminded we had a three mile hike down to home.
But the leader was half blind. Thinking of the dangers, broken ankles waiting to happen! Another younger sister of a youth member, a middle school student, said she was familiar with the trail back to the road because she learned it in Girl Scouts. She became our new leader, and we were the timid followers. It was a slow and humbling experience all the result of personal vanity and forgetfulness.
I’m not a very good follower. And I live in a society of others who are not very good at following either. That’s odd, because the first thing we teach our kids is to follow. “Follow daddy down to the basement.” “Follow Mommy out to the garden.” We teach them games like “Follow the leader” and “Simon Says” and “Mother, may I?” And we are pleased when they follow well.
And then it ends! We don’t want our children to be followers any more. We want them to be leaders. “Don’t follow the crowd; be a leader!” We tell them. Who’s the leader on your team? Lead by example. And it’s all very understandable to me; being a leader is considered in our society to be an indicator of success, strength and prosperity. Being a follower is considered weak, disappointing and boring. And I think it’s always been that way.
Early in Jesus ministry, he chose 12 people to go with him into the future together. They were going to be leaders preaching in front of lots of people. And in the early days of their ministry were wildly successful. Together, they helped Jesus feed the 5000. They were there for the healing of sick people, the winning of debates against critics. They were learning from Jesus how to calm the angry seas by a simple word.
And then one day, Jesus made a sharp right turn. He asked the disciples if they had figured out who he was. After a few guesses, Peter identified Jesus as the Son of God. It was a powerful, holy moment. But in his very next words, Jesus told them that he was on his way to Jerusalem to die. “Die?” Peter says. “Die? You’re not going to die! We’re just getting started!”
And it was then that Jesus offered them a three-fold standard for leadership. “If you are going to be leaders” Jesus tells them, “then you must deny yourself, take up the cross, and follow.” It all seemed so backwards to them, that they should have to deny themselves (whatever that meant), and take up a cross (they knew exactly what that meant!), and to be followers. And yet, this is precisely what Jesus expected of them — that they would deny themselves — that they would set aside their own selfish wants and wishes, and pursue what was best for the group. And when Jesus spoke of the cross, they learned that being a disciple would mean hardship, and sacrifice, and possibly even death. And finally, the disciples learned that Jesus wanted them to follow him…to imitate him…to love the people that he loved, and to trust the God that he trusted.
These men didn’t really get it until after the Resurrection. Finally they understood that Jesus said to be in his company, he required people to set aside their personal agendas, and to be willing to suffer, and to live life like him. Because this life is not what it’s all about. When Jesus rose, it all made sense. That triple standard — self-denial, taking up a cross, and following Jesus — became the way they lived…and the way they died. Every one of them.
We are 2000 years removed from his words that day, what would Jesus say to us about what he expects from Christian people? In reality, the expectations have never changed. They may play out in 2012 differently. But even today, Jesus is saying “If anyone wants to follow me, let them deny themselves, take up a cross, follow me.”
How does one to deny oneself? Does it mean that we leave home and family and friends and occupation to be a disciple? Not necessarily. But it does suggest that we leave our baggage behind, that we leave behind our insistence that it is our way or the highway. That’s what “denying oneself” means, and it goes against the grain of this present culture.
There is a need for conformity. There is a need to leave our personal wants and wishes at the door, and to work together for what is best for the group. That’s what it means to “deny oneself” in our day. In fact, Jesus called the Church “a body.” And only when the body is working together toward a common goal, only then is the body functioning properly.
Jesus also told his disciples that they must take up a cross. In the first century, crosses were only used for one thing; death. The implication of Jesus is clear: there will be hardship for the Christian. If someone told you otherwise, they were lying. If we take our faith seriously, we will be called to make difficult choices. If we take our faith seriously, some people will reject us. If we take our faith seriously, we may even be persecuted. Die Or be made to feel very uncomfortable.
Here’s a test for you: do the people at work, or at school, or in your neighborhood know that you go to church? Or do you hide that simple fact for fear that, if they knew, it would change the way they treat you? If that is the greatest cross you are bearing in your Christian life, then your life is charmed. Because there are others in this faith business world who, if they admit to being followers of Jesus, would lose their house, their job, and possibly even their family, or even their life. And still, they profess their faith.
Finally, Jesus says that we are to follow him. Does that mean that we are to follow…or are we supposed to FOLLOW?
The in the final games before the play-offs for the World Series. Every game they win or lose will have an impact at the end of the season, so they have attracted a lot of attention. Somebody says “I follow the Yankees, Baltimore, Cincinnati.” Do you know what that means? They tune in for the pre-game show and study the lineups. They watch every pitch of every inning of every game. They read the box score the next morning in the paper so that they thoroughly comprehend everything that happened between the lines. The word “fan” comes from the root word “fanatic” and this illustrates why.
So, do you follow Jesus Christ like that? Do you study scripture to learn who Jesus was, and what he did, and all that he said? Have you read the Old Testament to understand what the prophets said of him hundreds of years before his birth? Have you read books to understand what scholars have said about Jesus in the centuries since his death? This may be what it means to “follow” Jesus. And if you did all of this, would our world call you a “fan” or would you be a “fanatic?”
But maybe “to follow” means to imitate him, him, to try to be like him in everything you say and do in this world. You may not have done so well at the “walking on water” thing, but when it comes to loving people, or being fair in business, or being courageous when it comes to defending the weak; in all of this, you try to follow Jesus.
I told you at the outset about being led down the mountain by a middle school girl. It was humbling. Leaders are always supposed to lead, even if they don’t know the way. And that’s dangerous because if the leaders go in the wrong direction, it can be a disaster. That happens all the time in companies in governments and in churches.
Secondly, I told you that children are the best followers; in fact, I think they are natural followers. Is it any surprise, then, that Jesus once said “Let the little children come to me, for the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these.” The followers.
Actually, I don’t have this leadership thing all figured out. Sometimes, I am reduced to that youth leader, wandering down half blind down the mountain, wondering if my next step is going to sprain my ankle.
Then sometimes I remember that there is a Leader out in front of me. He has perfect vision, he IS the Light to my darkness.
And sometimes – not often enough . . . but sometimes – I remember that when I came to faith in Jesus Christ, I never signed up to be a leader. I signed up to be a follower. I can only expect that the same is true for you.
Physical Education was my least favorite class. The way teams were picked was the problem. Hopefully it’s done differently now, but then, two students were selected as captains. Each one took turns, pointing and picking whom they want to have on their team. During those few minutes while teams are being selected, a child’s entire sense of self-worth rests in the hands of those two captains. Picked first, and your ego soars. Picked last and, you endure the stigma of being the one who nobody really wanted on their team in the first place. You are a liability.
In today’s parable Jesus turned the selection process upside down. What he said was that whether we are first, last or somewhere in between, God loves us just the same. Now that’s really good news.
But there’s something about this parable that rubs some of us the wrong way. When we get something that maybe we really don’t deserve, that’s just fine. It’s good fortune. But when we see someone else get special treatment we don’t think they that don’t deserve, we’re the first to object.
So in honor of Labor Day, I have decided to shed some light on this parable about work. This story takes place at harvest time, in the middle of September. The owner of a vineyard travels into town five times to pick up field hands: twice in the morning, at noon, in the middle of the afternoon, and an hour before the end of the day to pick his grapes. These temporary workers like itinerant workers today depended on these jobs to feed their families. Perhaps full time work was as hard to find then as it is today.
But when it came to paying the workers at the end of the day, one had to wonder whether this employer had ever taken any classes in business management. Because what does he do? He pays each of his employees in plain sight of all the others. No pay envelopes for him. To make matters worse he paid them all the same amount, the usual daily wage regardless of how many hours they worked.
Those who sweat a whole day in the sun were likely upset when they received the same pay as those who had been there just one hour. They might not have resented his generosity to these late-comers, had he given them a tip to even things out.
A financial balance has to be maintained or there is discord. For example, every time we raise the minimum wage in this country others earning above that minimum wage are not content with what they earn. They more likely to say, “If they’re making more, I want to be paid more too. I don’t want to be even with them; I want to come out ahead.” I want to maintain the inequality.
We build our lives learning to figure what we’re due and what we earn. Early in life we learned that scores count; `A’s’ mean success; `F’s’ mean failure. It’s not enough to have good grades. We want grades that are better than somebody else’s. We are preoccupied with seeing that everyone gets just what they deserve and not one iota more because then that’s invading my territory. Or then lets live in a meritocracy where everyone gets exactly what he or she earns or is worth.
The world ought to be fair. I believed that it was when I was in high school. A week before the mid-term Spanish exam, Sr. Ortega announced that the student with the highest grade would receive a gigantic jar full of M&Ms. For reasons I can no longer remember that seemed like a challenge I would respond. I studied for hours. During the test I felt confident. I knew the material. For that one hour I was Spanish.
The next day Senor Ortega awarded the M&Ms to the student with the highest grade – a girl who everybody knew could not habla espanolif her life depended on it. I was not just disappointed. I was furious. But there she sat in class popping M&Ms with both hands as though she deserved them. I learned then that the world was not a perfect place.
Justice demands accurate records. The owner of the vineyard didn’t seem to understand that. Jesus offends the accountant in us all when he says, “The kingdom of heaven is like his story.” Does Jesus really mean that God doesn’t keep score? Does God treat us all the same? Shouldn’t God keep a record of who’s doing what? Is God going to greet Mother Teresa with as much joy than He greets a rapist who repents on his deathbed?
Surely God makes some distinctions. God should send at least a little more rain on the evil and a little more sun on the good.
But this parable says that “salvation doesn’t work the way we want it to work.” Take the scribes and the Pharisees. They were in Israel first, worked hard and should receive more. It made sense to them that they would receive special treatment from God. ……….and……….It’s hard for us not to feel the same way.
When we do something good, how many of us can resist looking over our shoulders to see who might have noticed the good what we’ve done. We visit somebody sick or do a kind act and hope someone will ask about our day.
Think about all the hours we’ve spent on boards, committees, church meals and fund raisers and all the times we arrived early and stayed late.
But have we understood God’s generosity? The only cure for the complaining workers, for the scribes and Pharisees, for you and for me, is a better appreciation for one who owns the vineyard—the man upstairs. . Why does his generosity bother us so much?”
From the viewpoint of a worker, the vineyard owner gave each a day’s wage that was enough to feed a family. The landowner wasn’t paying on the basis of merit, but of need. He didn’t cheat the all-day workers; he rescued them from a day of poverty. He wasn’t trying to be fair, but rather generous. The master hadn’t held back anything that he had promised. He was demonstrating how to show grace. When our primary way of measuring almost everything is absolute fairness, we lose our sense of grace.
Too often we assume that in this parable, we are the ones who have been working since the crack of dawn. We look on other people as the late arrivals. But is it really that way? Aren’t we just being a bit too proud of our own efforts?
Before her death, Mother Teresa pushed her doctors to release her from the hospital, even though she wasn’t fully recovered from her heart problems, so that she could hurry back to care for the sick and dying in the slums of Calcutta. I would say that Mother Teresa is someone who has been in the field since the crack of dawn. Certainly if anyone deserved a reward from God, it would seem to be a person like her. Yet her published letters show that she felt: alone, cut off from God and even doubting God’s existence. Who, then, are we to judge?
When we consider people like her, are we still going to say that we are the ones who have been in the vineyard since the crack of dawn? When it comes time for God to hand out rewards, are we as deserving as those others? Maybe we are more like those workers who arrived later in the day. Only God knows for sure.
We are all recipients of God’s generosity. Sometimes I wonder whether I have worked enough to earn it. Maybe you do too. But it comes all the same.
The faithful fact is that the grace that God shows to you, to me, and to the entire world is the same – whether we are chosen or first or chosen last. We have our Lord’s promise that we have been selected for his service.
It’s been just over a week and we are still mourning the tragedy of the deaths and injuries of the shooting rampage in the movie theatre in Aurora Colorado. A twisted mind cut short the lives of twelve and possible more who are still in critical condition. Children, teenagers, men, women or servicemen. . .it made no difference to the shooter. It occupies the news and our minds when we think about what the world has lost with the death of these individuals?
We try in feeble ways to understand events like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, Columbine, Virginia Tec and raise fundamental questions. Why is there so much evil in the world? Why do mankind and nature overwhelm us so and destroy our lives? Why do innocent people suffer? The question always gets asked: Where was God? Where was God on 9/11 when 3000 died because of an evil radical ideology? Where was God when 280,000 perished in the Asian Tsunami? Where was God on Friday when 12 young lives gone and fifty-eight more were maimed?
These are universal questions. They have been asked by the wisest people among us, searching for an answer to suffering. So what do we do when people to works of evil, and God seems so far from us? Who’s in control here? Man or God?
These are universal questions–questions that are hard to answer in tragic times especially. Job has over 330 questions like these in its 42 chapters, more than any book in the bible. And why? It is because the Book of Job deals with a horrible tragedy. It is in tragedy we ask the most questions.
You remember Job’s story. He is a good man. Suddenly, without warning, his family and business are wiped out. Two rogue groups from Arabia and Mesopotamia conduct a raid taking away Job’s livestock and killing his servants. Then his family is lost in a freak accident when a mighty wind sweeps in from the desert, causing it to collapse, killing all who are in it.
In many ways the events of this past week echo his story. Families have had their destroyed by a violent wind. They have been hit and hit hard. It even happens close to home with the accidental death of Nicole Weed. All ask the same questions.
We do when we learn of a loss? We do what Job did. We mourn. He was silent when he received the first two reports that his business and livestock had been wiped out. Those can be replaced. But when he received the news that his children were lost, he got up and tore his robe. Then, he fell on his knees and wept: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will return.” Everything that had meaning in his life was gone. As he came into this world so Job felt he was leaving it–naked.
Did God make or allow that mighty wind to blow through Theatre 9? No. Did God have some purpose in all this? No! Were any of those in the audience any more sinners than we are? NO!
We are fortunate that today we understand that there are explanations for natural disasters. Hurricanes arrive, not because God has a habit of punishing us, but because the prevailing winds, ocean currents and frontal zones combine in ways that make tropical storms more likely at this time of the year. The same is true of earthquakes, tornadoes, or floods. All of these are directed by the forces of nature. This is so in good times and bad and without respect to morality or condition of the people who happen to be living where disaster strikes.
The God we meet in the pages of the New Testament is not a vicious, violent, judgmental, force in the world. The God we meet is a very different one. John tells us that God is love, and that God’s perfect love of God casts out all fear.
While we can say that nature does its part to wreak havoc upon the earth the acts of mankind have done so much more. Luke 13 offers a chilling look at how Jesus addresses man’s inhumanity to man. Here we have two tragic events in the life of Israel during Jesus’ time. Each could be a headline event in Israel. One was an accidental collapse of a structure at a building site that killed 18 people. The other was a military operation that killed Galilean civilians who were blamelessly offering religious sacrifices at the Temple. Their deaths were ordered by Pontius Pilate in an event seems to be politically, not religiously motivated.
Remember that Israel at this time was occupied. The people lived in great tension with the Romans. A religious underground had actually emerged to fight for freedom. Pilate was despised and ruled in a ruthless manner. Some prior incident in the Temple angered him so he decided to send a political and religious message to the Jews by slaying a group of men who were more likely than not, innocent. Now the Galileans may have done something that set Pilate off, but these men quite likely had nothing to do with it. They were – convenient and in the wrong place at the right time.
Why are there these stories of senseless massacres in the Bible? They’re there because the disciples wanted to ask Jesus a very specific question. They wanted to know if these people died because they had sinned. Was this God’s judgment because of their immoral living?
Jesus gives a very simple answer: No. He then goes on to say, Repent, We are all sinners, equal before God. In other words, these things happen. Life is indiscriminate. One day you are here and the next you die in an accident or at the hands of some thug. So, repent.
God is not up there pulling the strings. God does not control the world in this way. There is chaos. There is evil. There is uncertainty. It would be dishonest to say that God makes everything all right in this world. The death of 12 and injuring of 58 innocent souls who were simply going to watch a film tells me how warped and depraved one man can be. As do the deaths of six million Jews in concentration camps and 300,000 Sudanese in death marches. We do have to admit that, even though this is God’s way, sometimes it seems that God has just isn’t paying attention.
So where is God when tragedies happen? Where was God last Friday night? God was not in the mind of James Holmes as he loaded his car with firearms. God did not cause these things to happen.
So, where was God? He was there in the efforts of those who tried to protect and even lose their lives trying to protect others in the theatre. He was there in the policemen who apprehended the killer. He was there in paramedic’s hands that triaged and saved lives on the scene. He was in the Emergency Room staff, nurses and behind the surgeon’s scalpel. He is there in the Aurora’s city government and the crisis counselors who will restore safety and mental health. He is there with the religious community who will maintain a prayer presence for all afflicted and rebuild a faith that has been shaken.
God is near the heart of all who, in the face of this tragedy, love their neighbors and who, in the midst of the violence, look to Him not for answers. They look to learn how in the end tragedies teach us that we are mortal and fully dependent upon Him. We should mourn, and we should turn to God and then reach out to one another. We should rebuild our own lives putting God once again at the center.
Jesus was trying to tell his disciples that life is fragile. At any moment walls can collapse upon us. Death is standing at the door.
What will you do right now with this life you have? Will you turn to God?
That’s the question Jesus asks of you.
As to the question: Where was God? Who is to blame?
Blame it on the rain.
Blame it on the wind.
Blame it on society.
Blame it on evil.
Blame it on a sick mind.
But don’t….ever blame it on God.
Where was God? God is here. Anguish is no stranger to God.
Let us never forget that Jesus suffered. He died. But he was raised.
June 13, 2012broadbrookBBCCComments Off on Introducing the Rev. Michael J. Ader
Michael J. Ader, our new Transitional Pastor, is a United Church of Christ minister who most recently served as the Interim Pastor of the First Congregational Church of Woodstock. During his career as Professional Interim Specialist he served UCC congregations in Ledyard, West Hartford (Flagg Rd.), Willington, Taftville, Talcottville, Plainfield and Central Village. Mike is certified by the national Interim Ministry Network.
He served as a pastor in Vermont and Rhode Island before coming to Connecticut where he was a Chaplain and Pastoral Counselor at Hartford Hospital. It was through these ministries, counseling seniors and families, that he understood the depth of stress-related problems due to aging and illness. Realizing something more was needed, he founded Elderlink, Inc. and created health claim and daily money management programs for people who could no longer manage these tasks for themselves. Through his interdenominational leadership, statewide interfaith networks on aging to promote independent living were created.
Mike has authored two books. The first, Pathways to Eldercare, was a directory of consumer resources and products for seniors and their families in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey. His second book is Understanding Medicare HMO’s. These books were distributed through corporate benefit programs and the insurance industry.
Mike also developed the CT Coalition to End Homelessness and served as lobbyist and director of the Connecticut Interfaith Housing and Human Services Corp. He was named to two Governor’s Task Forces on Homelessness. Later he became the Executive Director of the Open Hearth Association in Hartford, Connecticut’s oldest men’s homeless shelter and rehabilitation facility.
He currently serves as vice president of the national Association of United Church of Christ Intentional Interim Ministers (AUCCIIM) and is a member of the Committee on Interim Ministry for the Connecticut Conference. He is also the Registrar of the Tolland Association of the Connecticut Conference.
Mike lives in Coventry with his wife, Andrea, of 43 years. He grew up outside of Pittsburgh in Homestead Park, PA and attended Duquesne University, majoring in English Literature and Philosophy. He taught secondary English and Social Studies in Bennington, VT before attending Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, specializing in Christian Education. He loves to travel in Europe, make wine, plant and weed the flower garden and romp with his three English Setters, Daniel, Thomas and Jenny who were rescued from area shelters. He may be reached at (860) 377-8752 (cell) or (860) 742-5234. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
He describes his work as a “ministry in the middle.” He is challenged by the links between a congregation’s past and its present as they blend to create a dynamic, spirit-filled future.