October 17, 2021
SCRIPTURE READING: Mark 10:35-45
I’ve just spent the last thirty-six hours engaging off and on with a group of women and their husbands from Mary Ann’s 50th Reunion at St. Joseph’s University in Cincinnati. It was surprising how often the conversation approached the matter of spirituality or religion. I am more convinced than ever that God’s church needs a renewal and refocusing. I am more convinced that some of the things I am going to share with you this morning are needed – not just here in Miami County, but everywhere church communities find themselves.
We’ve read this text before recently, but I want to just use it as a backdrop to think about another topic. The Gospel writer situates this incident just before the Triumphal Entry which would begin a huge shake-up in their ideas on what Jesus was all about. They were beginning to think about the long-range plan!
But for the moment in which this little incident with James and John occurred, everything was looking great! Large crowds were hanging on Jesus’ every word! It looked like this little Jesus-experiment might hit the big time! But if you hit it big, you’re going to have to have some aggressive leadership, right? James and John were on it! Visions of greatness were beginning to occupy their mind. “Wouldn’t this be a perfect time to grab the top two spots on the team?” they must have asked themselves.
That kind of thinking betrays a spiritual flaw – a profound misunderstanding of what Jesus is about. In modern terms, it is the “bigger is better” illusion. The tests for success are “how many, how much, how big?” That is a dangerous place in a spiritual endeavor. Extreme caution is called for.
I couldn’t be happier with where St. John’s is at the moment! I am so happy to be “installed” as your pastor next Sunday and I can’t wait to see what happens in the next few years. But, I want to be sure we are moving in the same direction as our leader! So, I think it is always critically important to take a new look at what OUR tests for success are and where WE are headed!
For starters, we are bound by our inherent/given nature to be a people who resist the cultural norms and do ONE thing: Follow Jesus. James and John forgot that before there even was a church and the church forgets it again and again.
So, there is a sense that as we look at what is happening at St John’s, we must look 1) for what the Holy Spirit is ALREADY doing, 2) at what is happening with the eyes and spirit of Jesus (as much as we possibly can), and 3) with the awareness that God’s vision is not limited to St John’s, but to the church as a whole, and indeed the whole world! We, too, must lift up our eyes to try to see our place in the whole!
So, let’s try it out! The last few gatherings should be showing us something about where the Holy Spirit is moving and what the needs are around us in our world:
- The Young Adult gathering (17 people including 5 kids and maybe 4 actual members of St. John’s,
- the Church Retreat (20 people including maybe 14 members),
- the Contemplative Prayer Group (6-8 people including 5 of our people),
- Economic Justice team,
- The Gathering Place (TGP) Work Day maybe a dozen with 3-4 outsiders,
- Trick or Treat and Eat (a community outreach program which launched TGP),
- Craft Days,
- Book Club with Lindsay Woodruff (mostly St. John’s but with several visitors).
If we assume that the Holy Spirit is alive and engaged in the ministry of St. John’s, we need to pay attention! St John’s, it seems to me, is poised to become a place where we open our arms to a wide range of people providing (where we can) things they can’t find elsewhere in our society.
A people who love unconditionally, who welcome the stranger, who love and serve little ones and others who seem to be crying for love, and who practice, to the best of our ability, the art of living and serving like Jesus did!
We do that by ATTRACTION and not PERSUASION as AA is inclined to say. We don’t focus on guilt or shoulds and oughts. We let our lives speak and we are radically welcoming. Relationships (in the name and spirit of Jesus) are our strength and starting point.
We don’t worry about how MANY we are (or aren’t) nor how OLD we are (or aren’t). We try to be family as family was meant to be. We’re human. We don’t always see eye to eye, but we work it out with respect for one another. And people can see IF AND HOW we love one another!
We emphasize BEHAVIOR over BELIEF knowing that we are all at a different stage of belief and that God is big enough to love us no matter where we are on our journey of beliefs. But in the midst of that, we are committed to being people on a spiritual journey, following Jesus to the best of our ability and understanding. Being ON THE JOURNEY is more important than having ARRIVED at an approved place!
I believe this is the kind of place that people around us are crying for. I believe that this is the kind of place that Jesus would want for us and I believe that this is attractive. It may not lead to great numbers, but that’s never been what Jesus is about.
And I believe that this is Beloved Community and people crave it. It is the absence of this kind of community that has been behind a lot of the abandonment of the church in the past few years. We have simply forgotten what Jesus was all about while continuing to name his name more often and louder than ever before.
I see the possibility ahead of St. John’s being a part of a web of like-minded congregations of various names and styles who maintain their own identity but practice an openness to reach across boundaries to both offer our uniqueness and participate in the unique gifts of other congregations.
We are already making a difference! I have heard such good words of appreciation for the things we are offering and the welcome we have extended. It is a great start and I am so happy to be a part of this new expression of St John’s UCC.
I don’t know exactly what owning these sorts of values might lead us to do. I can’t predict the future like that, but I believe that we are seeing the need and people are noticing and that as the way opens, we will gradually see God’s way become clear to us like the beauty of the clearing fog on our Retreat at Transfiguration Retreat Center that morning just about a week ago.
I am glad to be your pastor during these times. However we move, let’s never forget to stay in touch with our leader and with the needs of the world God has created around this corner of South Walnut and Canal in Troy, Ohio. Amen.