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A Success Story for All Saints Sunday (Nov 3, 2019)

Luke 6:20-31

Then [Jesus] looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. 24 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25 “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. 26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. 27 “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.

What do we do with this text? Is Jesus saying that God only blesses those who are destitute and curses the rest of us? That God only blesses those who have nothing to eat and curses all of us who had breakfast this morning? That God only blesses those with no place to sleep and curses us because we have our own beds?

Look at the “woes” in Luke’s beatitudes: Rich, Full, Joyful, Respected! Aren’t these what we are all striving for? If we achieve these, aren’t we considered successful?

I think Jesus is telling us that God’s measures of success are significantly different than ours. Even sometimes in the church.

Here’s what I mean. We talk about successful congregations as those with increasing numbers of people and dollars. And then, being envious, we spend considerable time and energy figuring out the secret to their success. In the ELCA, based only on those numbers, congregations that hold steady in members and worship attendance over the last five years are referred to as “stagnant.” And those whose numbers are more than five percent lower are “in decline.” These are not terms associated with “success.” Even in the church, we assume bigger equals more successful, so our effort and energy go into the numbers of attendees, members, and dollars received. Good, tangible, measurable numbers.

So what’s wrong with this picture? Nothing, if you believe that God measures success the same way we do. But is a spreadsheet the best way to measure God’s reign? Is God’s vision for creation counted in such detached terms?

Let’s face it; bigger is the culturally accepted measure of success for pretty much everything. Sales, clients, market shares, bank accounts, properties, listeners, viewers, revenue streams, billable hours, and yes, even church members. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t seem to nestle into Jesus’ life, ministry, or teaching quite as comfortably as I would like. Look at this text, among so many others that reveal God works differently than we do. Jesus came proclaiming the presence of the long-awaited reign of God. Which is fine except it doesn’t fit with what we think success ought to be.

God’s reign is revealed when people are loved. God is successful when grace and mercy and compassion are shown. That’s why all the blessings and woes in this text are followed by the “love your enemies” stuff, the “turn the other cheek” stuff, the “give away your stuff” stuff. Success in the kingdom of God is different. It’s totally different view of reality. It starts in a different place and points in an entirely different direction.

What groups of people tend to get looked down upon, that we might call unsuccessful? Homeless, unemployed, poor, uneducated, can’t speak English? Those are the people who, when God is successful, are lifted up as equal to the wealthy, the CEOs, the PhDs, the powerful, the famous.

Jesus’ point is that this is how God measures success, and it clashes with our assumptions of success in the world.

I have a friend who I’ve come to realize reveals God’s success to me. He’d probably argue with me if he knew I thought that because he’s an avowed atheist with absolutely no use for God at all. Yet, he isn’t my friend because I’m good or smart or believe the same as him. He’s my friend because even though he knows a lot of my weaknesses and the pieces of me that are broken, he still values me and respects me. Not because of what I can do, but because of who I am. He calls me successful, not because of my work or my ability to change the world, but because of me.

There’s such a difference between the way he thinks of success and the way most of us—sometimes even the church—think of success. Most of what we consider to be our successes in life have to do with our accomplishments: work promotions, educational degrees, income, the size of our homes, number of first-place trophies. But God sees way beyond than that. God sees all the way down to the broken pieces of our lives, our failures, the things we are ashamed of, all the parts of who we are that—if known—would make others think less of us. And then, sitting with us in the middle of all of that, God says, I’m so proud of you. I love you so much. You are one of my best success stories.

On All Saints Sunday we celebrate the people through whom we get a glimpse of God’s measure of success. The people who have known us and nonetheless have loved us. The people who somehow, and in some way, by their lives have shown us a glimpse of God’s love, grace, and compassion. Who’ve shown us that we matter, that we are worthwhile, that we are successful because we are who we are.

Who has shown you God’s version of success? Who has shown you that you are loved by God, and therefore are God’s successes. Think a minute. Picture them, be ready to name them. Then all together, we will name those saints out loud. Ready?

. . . . . .

On All Saints Sunday, we recognize that God does view success differently. And it clashes with our assumptions about success. Yet we just named a whole bunch of people who have revealed God’s perspective, God’s love in the world. We are grateful for these saints, especially those who’ve gone before us. We can also be grateful for those who are revealing the success of God’s love today. And we need to be aware that God will continue to find ways to be successful in the world, and do so through us.

 
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Posted by on November 4, 2019 in Sermon

 

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A Very Secure Investment (September 22, 2019)

Luke 16:1-13

Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2 So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ 3 Then the manager said to himself, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7 Then he asked another, “And how much do you owe?’ He replied, “A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, “Take your bill and make it eighty.’ 8 And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. 10 “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13 No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Let’s cut to the chase here. This is a hard parable. Jesus is saying that if the priority of our lives attaining money makes for a more fragile and more vulnerable life than most of us realize. If our lives are centered on making sure we are financially secure in order to provide a good life, what happens if we discover an inoperable tumor? All that wealth doesn’t change that. We may have money for retirement, but what if there are no golden years to enjoy? Ultimately, our finances can’t be trusted.

I don’t mean to be a downer, but since that’s true, then there has to be something deeper to life than finances. “Success” has to be defined by something other than economics.

One of cruelest lessons of life is that our economy doesn’t care about us, the quality of our lives, our sick children, or our leaky roofs. The bottom line of our economic world is that the bottom line is the only line that matters. From an economic perspective, every one of us is expendable.

Yet, it is still the way we approach our world; still the primary view we have. We center our lives on being able to take care of our own individual financial security. That is the lens through which we see life. That’s how we measure our success: do we have enough wealth to believe we are secure? And this perspective, this way we look at our lives, this approach we have to living is impersonal, sometimes cruel, and pits us against one as we compete for financial resources. What’s more, seeing our world from this economic definition disconnects us from each other because it encourages me to take care of myself and, well, good luck to you. I hope you do OK. If you need help, maybe there’s some charity for you or someone with some extra cash that feels sorry for you. But really, in this worldview, we’re each on our own. Securing our individual security through wealth is the opposite of how Jesus reveals God’s intention for our lives.

That view of individual financial security is exactly the perspective of this dishonest manager in Jesus’ parable today. He was using his position as manager of a wealthy master’s estate to take care of himself financially; though it was at the expense of others in the community. He was doing it dishonestly somehow—we don’t have the details of that. But he got caught by his master, the rich man in the parable.

Without his economic security, his means of making a living, his economic worldview is revealed as lacking. He realizes that he isn’t equipped to secure his financial future any other way than the way he’s been doing it. He can’t do physical labor. He ashamed to beg from his neighbors. He’s at a loss as to what to do.

This is the turning point of this parable. Though he was stealing from his master, what he does next is commended by the rich man. He turns to those in the community who owe his master money. He reduces their debt. His master commends his shrewdness, better translated as wisdom.

What was so wise about that? The lens through which he had been viewing the world shattered. He could no longer accomplish the primary goal of securing wealth for himself—provide for himself and his family. That is no longer possible.

So because he can no longer invest in his own financial security, by reducing their debt he invests in his neighbors’ financial security. That’s the wisdom, that’s the shift in thinking. That’s the new perspective. He will no longer be able to survive if he’s only out for himself. In order to live he now has to throw his lot in with his neighbors. His worldview has been forced away from “taking care of myself and good luck to you” and instead he’s realized “we’re in this thing together. As a community, we sink or swim together. My fate, my security, is actually tied to yours.” That is the wisdom Jesus lifts up. Though dishonest, this slave now understands security—God’s way. Not through taking care of himself, but taking care of others.

Now remember, this isn’t an historical event. It’s a parable, so Jesus is making a point here. He’s exposing the fallacy of believing that we can secure our lives through our finances. I heard someone say that the big lie of 400 years of American Christianity is that we believe we can serve both God and wealth. We cannot. We cannot serve a Triune God whose very nature is interdependent community while at the same time separating ourselves for our own security. We can’t do both. We still try, but Jesus calls us out on it.

He points out the truth that security-from-wealth is an illusion. Genuine security comes from trusting and connecting to a community. That’s the wisdom this dishonest manager now understands. The best way to achieve security is to work for the wellbeing of our neighbors, to recognize that when life takes us beyond our financial ability to fix it, the relationships we’ve invested in are what will hold us. If we are only looking out for ourselves and our own security while our neighbors are being hurt, being detained, being separated from family, being oppressed, and being shot, we are setting ourselves up for misery. Because according to the very nature of God, our fates are tied together—the richest and the poorest together. If one part of our body has cancer, the whole body is in danger. If one part of our human community is suffering, all of us are at risk.

So, yeah, this is a hard parable. Not because we can’t understand it, but because we can. We either trust in our ability to gain wealth to save us or we trust in God. Money is fine—even necessary. Let’s use it to invest in each other, in our neighborhood, in the human community. For in each other is where our security truly lies.

 
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Posted by on September 20, 2019 in Sermon

 

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Reforming, Mission, and Model: This Matters (Oct 28, 2018)

John 8:31-36

Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, “You will be made free’?” 34 Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36 So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.

“Churches that love their model more than the mission will die.” [i]

That’s one of the predictions from Carey Nieuwhof, who’s a broadly recognized and acclaimed church futurist. Here’s how he explains that prediction:

When the car was invented, it quick[ly] took over from the horse and buggy. Horse and buggy manufacturers were relegated to boutique status and many went under, but human transportation actually exploded. Suddenly average people could travel at a level they never could before.

The mission is travel. The model is a buggy, or car, or motorcycle, or jet.

Look at the changes in publishing, music, and even photography industry in the last few years.

See a trend? The mission is reading. It’s music. It’s photography. The model always shifts . . . moving from things like 8 tracks, cassettes and CDs to MP3s and now streaming audio and video.

Companies that show innovation around the mission (Apple, Samsung) will always beat companies that remain devoted to the methods (Kodak).

Churches need to stay focused on the mission . . . and be exceptionally innovative in our model.

This is Reformation Sunday. It’s a day where we not only recognize the immense ways the church has reformed its model in its history, but where we open ourselves up to being reformed by God today. The model of how we go about God’s mission is constantly reforming. God’s mission is constant. God’s mission is the recreation of a world where everyone—regardless of anything else—is equally valued, loved, forgiven, respected. The church is created by God exclusively for that mission. The model is up for grabs.

The question for us on this Reformation Sunday is, “To move forward in this mission, how is God trying to reform the church now?” And, “Are we cooperating or resisting?”

We are in the throes of Reformation. Right now. At this moment. Paraphrasing the late Phyllis Tickle, God is having a huge church garage sale. God is even now in the process deciding what will be kept and what will be thrown out. According to what models help God’s mission.

What is God trying to do among us here at LCM? How is God reforming our model of being church? What has to change, perhaps even die, in order for us to more clearly be part of God’s mission in the world?

Let me toss a few things out there and see if anything sticks. I believe God is reforming the church around:

  1. Discipleship—following Jesus—is becoming more important than church order or doctrine. Rather than teaching about the dual nature of Jesus and the Trinity and the books of the Bible in order, it’s becoming more important to accompany people as they struggle to follow in the footsteps of Christ. The Reforming Church will be the living as the Body of Christ present in the world.
  2. Compassion is gaining a voice and growing legs. The church will take the model of God’s unconditional love, mercy, and grace into the streets. We will loudly and visibly take the side of any who are powerless and victimized. If that means we stand up to businesses, elected officials, anyone in power then that’s what we will do it publicly and boldly. One good example right now is how the Reforming Church will respond to the caravan of migrants and refugees coming through Mexico from Central America.
  3. Community matters. Forgiveness and grace lived among us. Everything will begin with how we treat each other in the congregation. Reforming Church communities will be where we practice Jesus’ compassion so that we can carry it out into the world.
  4. Success is being measured by influence rather than numbers. There will be less weight given to worship attendance numbers and more given to how much love and compassion are made real (to real people) in our neighborhoods. The Reforming Church will find ways to measure that success.
  5. Leadership. Luke will lead us. I don’t mean just him. He’s the one who is affirming his baptism today which means he is committing to live as a disciple of Jesus and continue to grow in his capacity to do so. He has a better understanding of what the Reforming Church needs to look like than anyone over 30. The Reforming Church will listen to him.

The church will continue to reform. There will always be a vibrant and mission-focused church led by the Holy Spirit. The question is, which denominations—which congregations will be part of it?

Those congregations where God’s mission matter more than their particular model of being church are being reformed. That, I believe, is good news.

[i] https://careynieuwhof.com/10-predictions-about-the-future-church-and-shifting-attendance-patterns/

 
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Posted by on October 28, 2018 in Sermon

 

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How Do You Know if You’re Successful? (Mark 8:31-38)

Think of someone who is successful. Why do you think they are successful? What’s the measure?

Are you successful? How do you know?

Our human nature is to strive to be prosperous, strong, influential. Doesn’t God want us to be successful? Don’t we thank God for our  successes—calling them “blessings”?

Peter and the other disciples have experienced Jesus’ “success.” They have seen Jesus cure people, cast out demons, feed thousands, challenge the powerful, teach crowds in amazing ways. He is amazingly strong and influential! Everything you’d think a successful person would do. Everything we think a successful church should do.

So imagine how shocked these disciples were to hear Jesus saying that success means suffering, rejection, death. And when Peter tries to question that view of success—because, after all, that just doesn’t make any sense—Jesus calls him Satan. He says that Peter’s human view of success is not of God. It is merely human, satanic. If Peter believes that human views of success are God’s views, then Peter is standing in God’s way, and he needs to back down and get out of Jesus’ way. Because God has a mission, and God will be successful. God’s reign of love, forgiveness, mercy, grace, and generosity has come into the world, and in Jesus it is taking on the powers of human success head on.

Even though it will cost Jesus his life. Even though it will look to all the world as if Jesus has failed. And in the face of all that Jesus is still adamant that this is God’s success. He brings God’s love, forgiveness, grace, mercy, and generosity into the world regardless of how inconvenient it is. No matter the cost to him. So, Peter, if you’re not on board with that then “get behind me, Satan.” The world will be loved and we will be forgiven. Period. That is Jesus’ mission; therefore, as his church, it is ours too.

So how did the church get so far off track?

When did the church become more concerned about gaining members and money than about forgiveness and grace? When did Christ’s church begin to put its members’ comfort and convenience ahead the inconvenience of showing God’s love and mercy in the world?

Go to almost any Christian congregation of any denomination and it won’t be long before you hear the priority of human success. “How big is the church?” “This outreach program is fine, but will it bring in new members?” “How do we get more people inside our doors?” “How’s the budget?”

Peter would stand with us in using these as measures of success. Because in our world they make sense; from a human perspective they make sense. If our human measures are successful, we appear strong, prosperous, influential to the world. We gain status and respect in the world.

But if we hold that as a higher measure of success than forgiving the unforgiveable and loving the unloveable, then Jesus tells us to get behind him, because we are not contributing to God’s success.

Christ’s church can’t make decisions based on how many people like them. The church can’t back off loving the neighborhood because some withhold offerings. If we were merely a human institution those views might make sense. But we are not just a human organization. We are the body of Christ. We are called by God into God’s success. Even if it is painful. Even if it is hard. Even if it is inconvenient. Even if it costs us. Even if it leads us toward the cross.

Ironically, Jesus says it’s following him to the cross that leads us to success and life. Isn’t that a kick? God is successful. The world is loved. The world is forgiven. Even the church. Even you. And nothing will stop Jesus from continuing to bring that love and grace to you. Even if it costs him. God will succeed. God already has. God’s love surrounds you now. You are absolutely forgiven now. Perhaps, as the church, we will find that successful. Because apparently Jesus does.

 
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Posted by on March 2, 2015 in Sermon

 

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Contrasting Views of Success (7 Pentecost B)

7th Sunday After Pentecost

Amos 7:7-15; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29

What an interesting piece of scripture. Jesus isn’t even in it; neither are his disciples. It’s really about King Herod and John the Baptist—though John was killed way back in chapter 1. The story isn’t told until now. It’s placed here deliberately by Mark,.

John the Baptist was executed because he had confronted King Herod about his improper marriage to his younger brother’s wife, Herodias. Even though Herod liked to listen to John, and actually protected him, he has John locked up for being too outspoken about his marriage. But it was Herodias who was looking for a way to have John killed. She found it when Herod promised his step-daughter whatever she wanted as a reward for wowing dignitaries with her dancing at his royal party.

Why would John the Baptist open his big mouth to Herod over this issue? It was a political marriage meant only to increase this Herod’s power in the region. That was common practice. Why would John make such an issue of this—to the point of imprisonment and a pretty gory death? Yes, Herod married for the wrong reasons—so what? That’s Herod’s problem, isn’t it? Why is John so cranked up about it?

So I wonder, then, if the issue of improper marriage isn’t really the issue. I wonder if Mark is causing us to think about something else. His placement of this story here, right after the return of the apostles from their first missionary trip might indicate what this is really about. I think we are being invited to reconsider what it means to be successful. Mark does so by contrasting the worldly success of Herod with kingdom of God success in John and Jesus’ disciples.

Think about this: Herod has everything. He’s a powerful king with advisers to give him the best advice, an army to protect him, more money than he could spend in multiple lifetimes. He throws a dinner party for the most powerful people in Israel—others who are just as successful as he is. The CEOs, the Cherry Creek Country Club set, the people who wield power and authority, who are the movers and shakers. And they all come! Herod has what most of us work our entire lives to attain: he’s the poster child of success.

Especially when you compare him to John who sits alone and imprisoned and poor, helpless, unable even to save his own life.

Herod throws a party for the most powerful people in the country.

Jesus had just sent his disciples out with no bread, no bag, and no money.

If nothing else, this text causes us to step back and reconsider what success really is. Influence for our own sake or significance for the world’s sake.

Those of us who recognize Jesus as savior, or even those who merely follow his teachings, we are confronted with two views of success. And it seems that the measure of success is who benefits: the powerful or the poor, the movers-and-shakers or the helpless, ourselves or the world. Right now we at LCM give away 10% of our offerings to help those beyond the walls of this church. That’s good! How about we try for 15%? According to this text, that would be a better measure of success than simply how big our budget is.

Even as significant as it is to give away more money, that’s still a narrow view of this text. I think there’s good news for us when we’re feeling powerless. Success is still possible for us when we feel like we aren’t accomplishing anything or getting anywhere. When we feel like John, when we feel we’re helpless, alone, and imprisoned by things beyond our control, the good news is that that’s not the indicator of our worth or our significance.

John was armed with nothing more than truth. So he spoke it. Jesus sent his disciples out with nothing but his authority, and they made a significant difference to those they were sent to. When you’re feeling like you aren’t making a difference, Jesus indicates otherwise. Right now, think of one person you’ve touched with love or forgiveness or generosity. That’s the risen Jesus at work in you. That’s success.

 
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Posted by on July 19, 2012 in Sermon

 

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