Sunday, November 11, 2018

Sermon, "Whole-Life Stewardship: Talent," Luke 9:10-17

Sermon 11/11/18
Luke 9:10-17

Whole-Life Stewardship: Talent

Are you talented? What comes to mind when you hear that word - talent? Maybe the TV show America’s Got Talent springs to mind, the game show where contestants come with all sorts of performing talents - singing, dancing, acrobatics, magic tricks and more - and go before a panel of judges, hoping to make it through several rounds of cuts before taking home the big prize. Have you ever been in a talent show? I think my first appearance in a talent show was in third or fourth grade, when my friend Sharon and I did a whole miming act for the elementary school talent show. We were still just young enough not to be teased mercilessly by our friends. I was in a few more talent shows - at camp, for girl scouts once, and even once in college. But for the most part, I started to get more and more self-conscious about putting myself out there in such a way. Being in plays felt different to me - a director had to think you were good enough to cast you. But being in a talent show was usually something you just got to sign yourself up for. You had to think you had talent, and be bold enough to let others know you thought you had talent. And that was something I couldn’t do. Somewhere in elementary school I started to equate feeling like I had any talents with bragging. I knew bragging was wrong, and I really didn’t like it when I felt like other people were bragging. I was always a good student though. I was almost always getting one of the best grades in class. But I would never tell my classmates my score unless they asked me directly. But then, once I did tell them, they were mad at me anyway! In my head, I think bragging and putting yourself out there and acting like you were talented all started to roll together in my mind. I didn’t want to be arrogant, and I wasn’t really so great anyway. Better just to fade into the background if I could.
Over my years of ministry, I’ve never had such a hard time getting folks to respond to questions as when I’ve posed some variation of this question: What are your talents? What skills do you have? What are your gifts? What are you good at? I can get folks to tell me almost anything about themselves. People are amazingly ready to share with someone who wants to listen. But when I ask people to say positive things about themselves, when I ask people to tell me that there is something they’re good at, a skill they’ve acquired, that they are talented, that God has given them gifts and they know it and claim it, people clam up. What do I make of this reticence? Partly, I know we’ve been conditioned to be wary of boasting, bragging, and arrogance. But I think it goes beyond that. We seem unable to look at ourselves and see what others see, much less what God sees. We never feel like we’re enough. When we count up what we have to offer to ourselves, to our families, to the world, and to God, we total up what we have, and we feel we’ve come up short. Are we talented? Maybe some of us believe it. But many of us would answer with a resounding, “no.”
Today, in this second week of our series on Whole-Life Stewardship, as we continue to think about how we’re called to be caretakers of all that God has given to us, we’re reflecting on what it means to be good stewards of the talents God gives us. You might think that the parable of the talents would have been an obvious scripture choice for today. Talents are the name for a unit of money in biblical times, and remember, there’s a parable where the master gives his servants 5, 2, and 1 of his talents to watch over while he’s away. The servants who received 5 and 2 talents double what they’ve been given, but the one who received only a single talent just buries his in the ground. There are a lot of metaphors ripe in the text for thinking about how we make use of what God gives us. But I think we’ve so come to associate using our talents for God with that parable that we stop really digging deep, both into what more the parable might mean, and into the reasons why we’re prone to be reluctant to use recognize and use the talents we have.  
Instead, we’re looking at a miracle story, one recorded in all four gospels - the feeding of the five thousand. We studied this miracle using Matthew’s gospel in the spring when we talked about strengthening our core with acts of service. Today, with Luke’s version, we’re taking a different look. Jesus and the disciples head to the city of Bethsaida. They mean to go privately, a retreat of sorts. But the crowds find out and follow Jesus and the disciples anyway. Jesus welcomes them, Luke says, he talks to them about the reign of God, and he heals those who need to be cured. As evening falls, the disciples urge Jesus to send the crowds away, so that they can find lodging and food in the surrounding towns and villages. “This is a deserted place,” they remind Jesus. But Jesus says to them, “You give them something to eat.” The disciples insist that all they have with them is five loaves and two fish, unless they go out and buy some food, which they clearly don’t want to do. Jesus doesn’t seem to care. He tells the disciples to get everyone seated and into manageable groups, and then he takes the five loaves and two fish, and he gives thanks to God, bless and breaks the bread, and instructs the disciples to share the food with the crowd. We don’t get any details on how it happens. But somehow, all ate and were filled, and then the leftovers - yes, the leftovers - are collected, there are twelves baskets of food still remaining. A miracle. But what is the miracle here?
I don’t know how Jesus multiplied the food - naturally or supernaturally gathering such abundance. But abundance and Jesus always goes hand in hand, so we shouldn’t be surprised. In John’s gospel, Jesus says, “I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” God is a God of abundance, not scarcity. I feel like we should just repeat that statement over and over until it sinks into our souls, because we always act like this isn’t true, like we don’t know it. Listen: God is a God of abundance, not scarcity. God is a God of abundance, not scarcity. Say it with me even: God is a God of abundance, not scarcity.
I think maybe we’re practically wired to not believe this. Maybe it’s part of our biology, our hunter/gatherer, survival of the fittest, survive-at-any-cost mentality. Maybe there won’t be enough some day, so we better make sure to secure what we can now. It reminds me of my first church, whenever we’d have a potluck meal. They always brought so much food. When I mentioned it, they told me that years ago - maybe decades ago - they had a church dinner where they ran out of food. And they were terrified that it would happen again, so they always made too much in the future. They could not dispel the moment of scarcity from their memories.
As I read this familiar text, though, trusting, at least as much as I can, that God is a God of abundance, not scarcity, I’m particularly interested in the reaction of the disciples. The crowds are bystanders in this scene - we don’t hear anything from them. But the disciples are the ones who want the crowds to go away. They don’t think that they, even with Jesus, can provide enough sustenance for five-thousand people. And surely, that’s a huge group of people. But, what’s important to note is that the reason they were about to head out on a private retreat with Jesus is because they’d just returned from being sent out by Jesus to heal, to cast out unclean spirits, and to preach the good news of God’s reign. When Jesus sent them out, he gave them these explicit instructions, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic.” He sent them out with nothing - and yet, they thrived. They shared God’s message. They demonstrated that as students of Jesus, they too could preach and heal with God’s power. They could do miraculous things in God’s service, starting with very little. They’ve just returned from a trip that demonstrated God’s abundance, God’s generosity, God’s ability to do the impossible. And already, they’re back to thinking that their resources are too scarce to figure out dinner for the crowds.
When do we start believing in God’s abundance? What has you too afraid to trust in God’s abundance? What is it that keeps you from sharing what you are, who you are, what you have, what you’ve been given? It’s that set of questions that we have to get answers to if we want to be good stewards of our talents, if we want to trust in God’s abundance, if we want to demonstrate true thankfulness for God’s gifts to us. What’s keeping us from sharing what we are and what we have? What kept the disciples from offering up the food they did have before Jesus asked them for it directly, and despite the amazing things they’d just finished doing with hardly any resources except their faith? We’re afraid of running out - sure that any talent we do detect in ourselves is a limited quantity item. We’re afraid, I think that God will ask too much of us. It seems like God always wants more of us, doesn’t it? We give God a corner in our lives, and God just takes over the whole place. I can’t deny that this is true. I can only encourage you to trust that God is always with you, even when what God asks you to do seems like too much. I think sometimes we’re waiting for someone else to do it, to offer their gifts and talents and resources. We might have a loaf of bread, but we’re pretty sure the other person has three loaves, better than our one, and so instead of giving up our one loaf, we wait for them to lead with three, and what we end up offering out of four total loaves is zero.
Fortunately, we don’t have to do the miracle. Jesus does do that part. God will transform what we offer into something beyond what we give on our own. But notice that Jesus didn’t just feed the crowd out of thin air. However he did what he did, he didn’t create food out of nothing. Jesus multiplied what was offered, what the disciples already had with them. He took what they would give, and he made it into abundance. God takes care of the abundance, but we have to take care of offering our gifts and talents to God. I once read about a Canadian man named Kyle MacDonald who decided to see what he could end up with if he took a seemingly worthless thing he had and kept trading it for something better. He started with a red paperclip. And he ended up with a two-story house. ( The gifts God has given you - the talents with which God has created you - they amount to more than a paperclip! If an ordinary person can get a house from a paperclip, then Jesus can get food for five thousand with five loaves and two fish, and through you, with you, in you, God can do anything. But you have to offer God your paperclip. You have to take who you are, your skills, your talents, what you’re good at - whether you are an expert musician or athlete, or whether you are a skilled listener, or whether you are great at organizing, or whether you have the willingness to clean up messes, or whether you bake an excellent chocolate chip cookie, or whether you are always on time, or whether you are a great driver with room in your car for people and things, or whether you are willing to say hello to strangers, or, or, or - if you will offer that talent, small as it seems to you, to God, without reservation, God will do amazing, life-changing things because of you.
You all know how much I enjoy singing. But I didn’t always realize I could sing, at least not well. I was always in chorus in elementary school because everyone was. It wasn’t optional. But I was never singled out. But the summer between sixth and seventh grade, I went to Creative Arts Camp at Aldersgate, where we prepared and put on a little musical at the end of the week.  You could audition for solos and duets and trios, and my friend Sarah convinced me to audition for a duet with her. I was scared, but I didn’t mind singing as long as someone else was singing with me. But after we auditioned, the director of the camp, Bobbi, pulled us aside and asked if we’d be willing to sing solos instead of a duet. She liked what she heard in our voices. I’d never been told I was a good singer before, except by my mother, but here’s a secret: she thinks I’m good at everything. Having Bobbi encourage me like that was nothing short of life-changing. She identified a gift in me that I didn’t realize I had. Bobbi had many talents, and one of them was encouraging the gifts she saw in others. It was maybe a small thing in her mind - picking out some soloists among 11, 12, and 13 year-old singers. But her willingness to serve God at camp had a big impact on me and others I’m sure. I’m so thankful for the role of music in my life and in my ministry today.  
What do you have? What do other people tell you they see in you? What talents do you see in others that they need help realizing? What skills and talents, big or small, has God blessed you with? How will you use them? Whether you have one loaf of bread to offer, or five, or maybe you even feel like you have just a slice, or crumbs - will you give them to God? Because, hear this: God is a God of abundance, not scarcity. That doesn’t mean that what God will create with what we offer to God is always, or even often what we expected or asked for. But God will take your heartfelt offering, your talent, your skill, what you’re good at - you and your life. If you’ll give that to God, God will make miracle of it.
“And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke them … And all ate and were filled. What was left over was gathered up, twelve baskets.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, November 04, 2018

Sermon, "Whole-Life Stewardship: Time," Luke 12:22-40

Sermon 11/4/18
Luke 12:22-40

Whole-Life Stewardship: Time

Today we’re starting our November sermon series called Whole-Life Stewardship. Stewardship means the task and role of taking care of things on behalf of someone else. As Christians, we believe that the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it. In other words, everything belongs to God, our Creator. We do, the universe does, our time does, our things do, the animals and the trees and the mountains and the air we breathe; it all belongs to God, really. We’re just the caretakers, the stewards of all that God has given us to watch over. We don’t act like this is true sometimes. We forget that we are stewards. We think that we are in charge. We think that we are the true owners of all that is. And so we need to remember. We’re doing that in a small group, as we read through Adam Hamilton’s book Enough. We do that when we gather for worship, when we sing praises to God and remember that God is God and we are not. We do that when we pray “Your kingdom come, Your will be done.” And we’re doing that in this sermon series. Every fall, we spend some time reflecting together and searching our hearts as we think about how we will support the ministries of this church through our financial gifts. But this year, we’re broadening our scope. We’re stewards of every aspect of our lives. It all belongs to God. How do we remind ourselves of that when we lose sight of the truth? Are we good stewards? How are we doing at managing the resources God has given to us? Each week for the next three weeks, we’ll look at an aspect of our lives as we assess our stewardship and our faith: our time, our talents, and our treasure. At the end of the month, we’ll celebrate the commitments we make with a time of thanksgiving, consecration, and fellowship around the table.
Today, we begin with time. God gives us time. How are we doing at being stewards of the time that we have? Honestly, I think being good stewards of our time is the most challenging thing. How are you using your time from God for God? I don’t know about you, but managing my time is a struggle. On the one hand, I feel like I can be obsessed with getting stuff done. I try to cram so much into my time. I want to feel productive, accomplished, and there never seems to be enough time to do all that I want to do, need to do, should do. And I know I waste too much time, filling hours with things I don’t really care about, or even with things I know I should actively avoid. Whenever United Methodist pastors are ordained, we’re asked what are called the “historic questions,” questions based on those John Wesley, founders of Methodism, asked of pastors, questions that we’ve been asking of our clergy for hundreds of years. One part of these “historic questions” reads like this: “Will you observe the following directions? a) Be diligent. Never be unemployed. Never be triflingly employed. Never trifle away time; neither spend any more time at any one place than is strictly necessary. b) Be punctual. Do everything exactly at the time.” Pastors have gamely answered “yes” to these questions for hundreds of years too, while secretly saying to ourselves: Never be triflingly employed? Never trifle away time? Do everything at exactly the right time? Seriously? Wesley’s directions sound like a formula for burnout. But he himself observed a rigid schedule of prayer, fasting, personal study, group study, serving the poor, and preaching the faith. How are you spending your time?
I’m not sure I even want to see an honest, factual breakdown of how I spend my time. For example, the latest software update to my cell phone came with a way to set time limits on any apps on my phone I want. If I want to, I could set it so that I can only be on my web browser for an hour a day, or only on facebook for thirty minutes. I could do that. But I haven’t yet. I want to, I think it would be wise. I think I use my phone too much. And yet, I’m not sure I’m really ready to confront my dependence on my phone, on the internet, on facebook, on distractions. Am I a good steward of my time?  
And yet, I also feel like we get so obsessed with productivity, with doing, with achieving, with checking things off our endless to-do lists that we don’t enjoy the time that we have. Our time is a gift from God, isn’t it? And yet, we don’t savor it very well. The scriptures speak of resting in God. Jesus took time away to be alone with God. “Be still and know that I am God,” the Psalms command. But it’s so hard to do! We’re so wired to be productive that when we finally get the rest that we crave we’re too stressed to enjoy it. I think of my most recent vacation, when I visited Lake Placid for a few days. My intent was to just relax. I wanted very much to have a vacation where I just didn’t do anything. I booked a room with a beautiful balcony view of the Lake and a fireplace and a tub with jacuzzi jets. And then, I started to think that I wasn’t really making the most of my vacation unless I was taking in all the sights of Lake Placid. Shouldn’t I hit all the shops? See the Olympic landmarks? Go hiking? Visit the wildlife refuge? Hit all the vegan restaurants? I had planned on driving up Whiteface, but it was so foggy during the timeblock I scheduled it, I thought it would be kind of a silly trip. But I was stressing about not checking it off my list. Tina had to remind me that it’s just a couple hours away, and I could go back whenever I wanted. The most relaxing day of vacation was the day that I felt sick. I was dizzy all day and I had to just lay around if I didn’t want to feel like the room was spinning. It was the most relaxing day of vacation I had, but a part of my brain felt guilty for wasting my time.
In the midst of this muddle, this tug of war about how I spend my time, a refrain from the country band Alabama runs through my head (yes, I had a country music phase in high school): “I’m in a hurry to get things done. Oh I rush and rush until life’s no fun. All I really gotta do is live and die but I’m in a hurry and don’t know why.” Our time is a gift. God asks us to be good stewards of our time. And somehow I feel unproductive, exhausted, and like I spend too much time doing nothing worthwhile all at once. I’m guessing that relationship with time feels familiar to many of you, too.
I think our scripture passage today reflects some of this same tension. Usually, when we hear this passage of Jesus’s teaching that we usually classify as “about worry,” we read it from the Gospel of Matthew, where it is part of what we call The Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ long chunk of teaching to the crowds gathered on the mountainside. But it also appears here in Luke, a little later in the gospel, not part of Luke’s Sermon the Plain to the crowds, but instead a teaching given just to the disciples. Luke’s version is just enough different than the one that I know so well from Matthew that I was able to listen to it a little more carefully. My attention caught on this: “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” Both gospels include this verse. And Luke adds, “If you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest?” If anything, all we manage is worrying so much that stress steals hours of our time.  
We talked about striving last week, our endless quest for success. Here, Jesus says that it’s the nations, or in other words, people other than God’s people who spend their time striving for more food and more drink and more clothes and more stuff and even more time. If we’re going to strive, Luke says, strive for God’s kingdom, God’s reign on earth. Luke says that it is God’s “good pleasure,” a phrase with extra emphasis - it is God’s deep joy to draw us into God’s reign. So, Jesus says, let go of your stuff. Give with a generous heart. Try to accumulate eternal treasure instead of earthly treasure, because wherever we accumulate treasure is where our heart will finally dwell, and we want our hearts in God’s eternal home.  
But then, in the last several verses of our reading for today, Jesus shifts gears. God’s people should be people of action, dressed and ready, lamps lit, alert and waiting for God’s arrival. Jesus uses imagery of slaves in a household who are blessed if they are always ready for a Master’s return home, even an unexpected return. “You must be ready,” Jesus concludes, “for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” It sounds a little contradictory. How can we be both free from worry about how much time we have, and ready all the time, without even a chance to sleep lest God catch us unawares?
I’ve talked to you before about the theological concepts of time we find throughout the scriptures - chronos time and kairos time. Remember, chronos is the Greek word for our regular, ordinary, everyday time. Our human time. The seconds, the minutes, the hours, the days moving just as they do. But kairos – kairos is time in a different way. Kairos is God’s time – specifically, “God’s right time for action.” Usually the word “chronos” is used in Greek texts to talk about time. But in the gospels, for example, this “kairos” – God’s right time for action – is used more often than chronos – regular time. And that makes sense, because the scriptures are full of stories about God’s right time for things to happen. “In the fullness of time.” Kairos. God’s right time for action. It’s not that God isn’t in chronos time. All time is God’s time. But our lives are this strange mix of ordinary days and spectacular moments, days that blur together, and seconds that stretch out and feel like each moment contains an eternity. And all of these days, these years, these seconds - they’re all God’s time, and all of it is a gift for us.
We live in the tension. God is both in the ordinary of our daily routines, and breaking in in unexpected ways. God transcends time. And I believe that God wants us to be mindful of God at work both in our daily routines and in the grand moments. God wants us to both use our time well to serve God and neighbor, to put to use our gifts and talents to share the love of God, and to rest easy in God’s arms, not trying to earn God’s love with our relentless busyness, not trying to drown out our spiritual emptiness by filling our hours with meaningless distractions. God wants all of our time - our purpose-filled hours of work, our quiet hours of rest and renewal, our hours of devotion and prayer, our hours spent together with God’s other precious creations, enjoying God in the everyday moments, and ready for a God who also acts at just the right times too.  
How are you using your time? How will you spend your days? Today is All Saints Sunday, a day when we are remembering those we have loved so dearly. I’m guessing that as we remember, most of us are not thinking that we wished they were more successful or productive. We’re just wishing we had more time. And that’s why I treasure this day so very much, when we remind ourselves that we are a part of the communion of saints. The “communion of saints” means the whole of God’s people, past, present, and future. And in the way that God works in chronos time and kairos time, the communion of saints means that time is flattened. We are all living in God right now, which is also always. The saints are alive to God always, and so they are alive to us and we are alive to them. We celebrate that in particular when we share in Holy Communion - we’re together with all who have gone before and all who will come after us at the table of grace, which is always kairos time, always God’s right time to act. We miss them so, but we are also together with them. We live in the tension.    
How are you using your time? How will you spend your days? God has made a gift of time to you. What gift will you make of your time to God? Whether you are working or sleeping, busy or resting, praising or mourning, rushing ahead or falling behind, longing or remembering, your every moment is a gift that God is ready to receive. Amen.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Sermon, "Serve Jesus," Mark 10:35-45

Sermon 10/28/18
Mark 10:35-45

Serve Jesus

Today, we’re concluding our series looking at the components that will make up our intentional discipleship plan, the method, the approach we’re going to use as we try to focus on our purpose of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Our hope is that we will help folks to Meet Jesus, Follow Jesus, and Serve Jesus as we journey on the path of discipleship. We talked about how we want to work to bring folks into Jesus’ presence to meet him, and how we will do the hard work of choosing to follow Jesus, even when there are sometimes many paths we’re tempted to choose. Today, we think about how we continue to grow in the life of faith. As followers of Jesus, we commit to serving him, and the best way we’ve found to serve Jesus is in serving one another, serving our neighbor. Jesus always links together loving God and loving neighbor. We demonstrate our love of God and our service to Christ when we work to serve one another. The original incarnation of our intentional discipleship statement was Meet Jesus, Follow Jesus, Serve (with) Jesus. The with in parenthesis was mean to indicate both that we are meant to serve Jesus and that, since the heart of Jesus’ work was serving others, we serve others with Jesus. It was a little too confusing and too disruptive of the flow of the statement to keep it, but the sense of it is still here. For me, we best embody Jesus’ call to be servants when we follow his example. Jesus served people in face-to-face, hands-on encounters. He built relationships with people. He listened to stories of pain and hurt and suffering. He went where he would meet all kinds of people. He gave his time and attention. He let people know that they were of worth, that they were loved, that they belonged to God and to the community. When we think about how we want to serve as a congregation, when we think about the best ministries and missions for us to engage with, the more they reflect the patterns of Jesus, the better we will embody the servant heart of Jesus.
Jesus talks about being a servant in our text today from the Gospel of Mark. James and John, brothers and part of the Twelve, approach Jesus with an extremely bold request. “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” It’s almost like they think they can get Jesus to say yes and then tell him what they want. But Jesus asks them to say what it is they want. And they go bold: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” In other words, give us the very best places there are, for all of eternity. Wow! I am just bowled over by them. Would you dare ask for such a thing?
Jesus has just been talking, as you remember, about how hard it is to enter the reign of God when we’ve got things like our wealth and our stuff and our love of accumulating weighing us down - harder than a camel going through the eye of a needle, in fact. Jesus says that it isn’t even possible for humans to do on their own merit. Only for God, with God, is it possible. In the short handful of verses between that passage and our text for today, later in Mark 10, Jesus speaks about how the first must be last and the last will be first. And then he describes his own eventual crucifixion and death, saying that he will be handed over to the religious authorities who will condemn him, mock him, beat him, flog him, and kill him. He does say that he will rise again after three days. But all in all, the conversations Jesus has been having with the disciples paint a picture of a challenging faith journey that requires our all. It makes me wonder, then, if James and John were even listening when I read about their request.
Jesus tries to tell them that they don’t know what they’re asking. But they insist that they can do it, they can follow where Jesus leads, drink the cup he drinks, be baptized with his baptism, meaning-laden imagery that speaks of the suffering and trials and violent death Jesus will endure. Jesus acknowledges that they will indeed walk the hard road with him. But he still doesn’t have seats of honor up for grabs. That’s not on offer.
When the other ten disciples learn of James and John’s request, they’re furious - whether because they think the request is foolish, or because they wish they’d ask themselves, we’re not told. So Jesus tries to set them straight. Outside of God’s way, Jesus says, when someone is a ruler, the ruler lords power over others. When someone is great, has great status, a role of honor, they act as a tyrant. That is not the way it is among disciples, Jesus says. If a disciple wants to be great, that disciple becomes a servant, not a ruler. If someone wants the best place, that one becomes a slave, not a tyrant. In fact, Jesus says, he himself “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” With that, the conversation ends, no doubt leaving the disciples with a lot to think about.
I think it is easy to dismiss this text, to insist that we don’t have to wrestle with Jesus’ words because we’d never be so silly, so daring, so deluded as to ask for the very best seats at Jesus’ side for eternity like James and John did. We just want a place with Jesus, right? But we don’t need the best place. Any place will do! Really! But anytime I want to dismiss a passage as “not about me” I know to be suspicious that I’m not being very honest with myself.
Some of you might not know this about me, but I can be pretty competitive. Not in every area of life. But I like to win, and I like to excel, and I can get really motivated to push myself if I have someone else in my field of vision that I can challenge myself against. For example, I, like many folks, use a Fitbit. And people often hold these “Workweek Hustle” challenges to see who can take the most steps from Monday-Friday. And I like to win these challenges. When I’m on my game, I will walk to exhaustion if it means I win the challenge, for which the prize is a big fat nothing other than bragging rights. And even when I’m off my game, being part of the competition usually pushes me to walk more steps than I might want to without the extra motivation - because I don’t want to look bad in front of my co-walkers. So, sometimes my competitive streak can serve me well, like when it pushes me to a healthier lifestyle, or years ago when I wanted our team from my first church to fundraise the most money when we participated in the Relay for Life. My competitive nature spurred me and others to be bolder and more consistent in our fundraising aims and our efforts did a lot of good for our community.
Other times though, I’m aware that my competitive nature can be less fun and more harmful to myself and others. When I was in high school, my relationship with my dearest friend was tainted over time by a competitive streak we nurtured between us. We were in everything together, and we seemed to want all the same things. We competed over who got the better scores on our piano and voice solos at NYSSMA, who got the better parts in the school play, who got better grades in our classes, who could gain the affection of the boys we liked - always the same boy of course, and honestly, even who could walk faster from place to place. Our competition with each other was covered in a sheen of niceness to each other’s faces, and meanwhile the heart of our friendship was crumbling.
Life in the church isn’t always free from that competitive edge either. I try hard to focus on following Jesus and tuning out any other voices, but I will admit that I can get pretty fixated on how I’m stacking up against other pastors. How many people do they have in worship? How many youth are coming to their fellowship group? Yeah, sure, they have a huge budget, but did they pay all of their Ministry Shares to conference this year? I want to be a good pastor, a successful pastor, and sometimes I’m tempted to measure my success by seeing how I stack up against others who are doing this same work.
I imagine, with some examination, you might find areas of your own life, in your own experiences, where you can relate. We can be very driven, sometimes in good ways, but often in ways that harm and hurt, when we’re chasing success. We want to get ahead. We compare ourselves. We become jealous. We want to be better than others, and when we get focused on wanting to be better than, we stop caring for the people who are around us. We want to have more than others so that we’ll know that we are successful, worthy. We try to secure our place, our power, our status. At our worst, our need to grab enough power skews to hate, to greed, to violence, and we see horrific acts occur, like the tragic shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh. Such hateful actions seem like the sad but natural extension of our fear that there is not enough for all of us.   
When I reflect on my own chasing after success, which I like to pretend I don’t do, that I’m above, James and John’s audacious request of Jesus starts to make a little more sense to me. All the time we struggle with the deep feeling that there is not enough to go around. Our insecurities and fears play up this idea of scarcity in our minds, helped along by messages from our larger culture. If there is not enough, we have to compete for limited resources - of power, of money, of status, of privilege, of rights, of admiration, maybe even of love. David Lose writes, “Are we not also tempted to assume that there is not enough to go around and, like James and John coming to make their request to Jesus apart from their compatriots, view those God has given us to be our companions merely as our competitors?” (
James and John believe Jesus is the ultimate source of power, and they want to make sure they have the best share of it they can secure. My friend Sara, who is a United Methodist pastor in Schenectady, had this to say about better understanding James and John: “[James and John] try to seek power within the system as they understand it – and by doing so they display just how much they believe that Jesus is the source of power. They ask to sit at his right and and his left … They lived in an honor-shame society, the ultimate hierarchical system. Honor was a zero sum game. They thought Jesus had it, and they were trying to gain more honor by getting closer to him and acknowledged by him.
“However, because it was a zero sum game, IF two members of the inner circle of 12 gained honor, then it meant the other 10 got moved further away and lost honor. The other disciples seemed to believe as James and John did: that things were scary, that this was a time to try to gain security, that Jesus was the best bet they had, and that Jesus was so honor-filled that the closer they got to him the better they'd do.
“It seems to me that they DID have the faith of a mustard seed, they just didn't have it in the right thing. While the disciples, led by James and John, are vying for honor in a zero sum game that permeated their society, Jesus is talking about an entirely different system. They ask for a favor, and Jesus says, “You don't get it. I'm not the honor-source you think I am. I'm here to upend the system, not to best it. Are you able to pay the price for upending the system with me?”” (
Jesus is here to upend our system! He knows that chasing after enough power and status and success so that we don’t feel so scared and unsure of ourselves and our place inevitably leads to our lording our power over others, our becoming tyrants who look down from our places of privilege. That is not the way of Christ. That is not the path he’s taking. That is not the way God has chosen to work in the world, because no one can ever truly win at that game. If you want to compete, Jesus says, if you want to be the best for Jesus, here’s what you do: first place goes to the one who puts themselves last every time. The reward for greatest goes to the one who serves all, puts themselves at the lowest place. And to set the example, Jesus is the servant par excellence, willing to give his own life for others.
Your place with God is already secure - it has been, it will be always. God created you and loves you. No status you can achieve can earn you your place because it is already yours. No power you accrue will add any value to you in God’s eyes because you are already treasured beyond measure. Trusting in how very beloved you already are, all that energy you’ve been spending on striving for success can be turned instead into following Jesus. He’s already saved a place for you, by his side, a servant, pouring out your life for others as he does.
Yesterday, as news of the shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue unfolded, which followed news of an arrest made of a person sending packages containing bombs to politicians and other prominent figures, my brother Jim posted on facebook that he’d been listening the hip hop group Public Enemy, in particular their song, “Fight the Power,” with my niece Siggy. He told her that they should fight the power with love. Siggy told him in return that swords work better. Jim concluded, “It’s getting harder and harder to argue with that.”  
It is getting hard, isn’t it? But we can recall the words we shared last week - “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” Jesus is here, upending our system, reminding us that despite how it seems otherwise, the power of love is always better than the power of the sword, being last is actually better than striving for first, and the greatest leader we know wants us working right next to him, serving like he does, where we’ll find our status as child-of-God to be all we ever needed. Amen.