Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost
I have a question for you. How do you define a fulfilled life?
What I mean is, what is it about your life that, when all is said and done, will leave you feeling “satisfied”, “successful”, or “complete?”
I ask this because we are now into our 7th year together as pastor and parish, and I’ve been wondering about how we all as a congregation feel about how we’re doing with defining our purpose. How are we each individually or as a community measuring whether or not we feel that our community is healthy?
Is it by the size of our worship community? The number of people in the pews? Or is it by the size of our budget? Perhaps for some of us, it is the number of outreach programs we’re engaged in?
Everyone has a different way of measuring success. For example, there is the story of a man named Eli.
Eli was a man who many people considered to be successful in life. He was a businessman who masterminded the multimillion-dollar takeover of a huge fruit conglomerate. A book entitled An American Company tells the account of a business executive who once had lunch with Eli. He said that the waiter brought an appetizer tray of cheese and crackers to their table and immediately Eli pulled the tray over to himself, kept his arm around it and wouldn’t let the other executive have anything. Now, it just so happened that the other executive was quite hungry and so he dropped numerous hints that he’d like some of the cheese and crackers. Eli simply pretended he didn’t hear him. In fact, he would even put some cheese and a cracker on the tip of his finger and kind of wave it in front of the other executive while he talked business. This, apparently, was Elis way of letting the other executive know who was in charge.
Now, some would say that Eli was successful. The question is, would you?
Too many people measure successes in ways that I think are foreign to God. If you want to get a sense of how God measures lives, you have to pay attention to the fleeting moments in life. For example,
have you ever been caught up in an intense conversation peppered with gossipy humor and you find yourself enjoying it? That is, until someone not privy to the conversation asks, “What are you talking about?” In that moment, the realization of what you’re “enjoying” hits you like a ton of bricks. That is the kind of moment that reveals something about our inner selves. Sometimes our inner selves hide things we’d prefer not have to admit to. But then we’re not alone. The disciples wrestled with the same issues.
The gospel reading today is a reminder that all the ambitions that confront us are not something unique to our generation.
Imagine the scene. Two of the disciples, Jesus’ dear friends James and John, come to Him. They take Jesus aside to speak with him in private. This immediately causes suspicion in the others. But James and John don’t care, they have ambitions.
The first thing they do is bargain for the answer to their request. Without even asking the question, they, in essence, say to Jesus, “We want to know ahead of time that you will do what we ask.” Hugh?
They’re going to ask a favor, but before asking they want an assurance that their request will be granted? Seems like James and John are being a little presumptuous. So Jesus asks them to define their request. He probably knew what they were going to ask, but he wanted them to hear themselves articulate it. Then it came out. They wanted the highest positions when Jesus came into his kingdom. It must have been terribly sad for Jesus to hear his two dear friends ask for something that showed how little they understood of what he had been trying to teach them.
Anyway, the other disciples apparently heard the whole discussion. And they became angry. So Jesus patiently took all of them aside, and once again tried to give them a clear understanding of what they chose when they followed him.
You see, the disciples were still hoping that Jesus would overthrow the Romans and become an earthly king. So Jesus told them a thing or two about earthly rulers. “Look at the great ones among them,” he says. “Not only are they bossy, the greatest among them are tyrants.” Jesus was trying to show the disciples what a “successful” life often looks like in this world. The rulers he referred to were merciless and cruel. They were oppressors. Jesus was trying to remind the disciples, and us, that to be great, to be a success in God’s eyes entails a very different approach to life.
You want to be great? Jesus says…Become a servant.
You want to be first? Jesus says… Become last.
You want to be a master? Jesus says . . . Become a slave of all.
In other words, if you want to have a “fulfilled life” . . . if you want to have a “successful life” in God’s eyes, you need to be transformed. You need to see that God’s values are not the values of this world. Whether it be by rooting your life in service or by freeing yourself up from the things that we are taught to value in this world, we must somehow transform ourselves to lift up and value what God says is truly meaningful in life.
And yet, how often do we really listen with our hearts to hear Jesus’ call to transform how we see the world? Let me give you an example.
I heard a speaker once tell a story of how she had struggled to get her teenage son to understand what it means to transform your life because of your relationship with God in Christ. It seems this woman’s son had a few chores to do around the house. One of those chores was to take out the recycling. Not a big deal, right? Well, not so for her son. He grumbled and groaned every time . . and often wouldn’t do it at all. So, one day this woman decided to use an incentive. She told her son that for every time he forgot to take out the recycling, he would be docked $10 from his allowance. Good incentive, right? Well, it was enough to get him to take out the recycling on a more regular basis. But still, he often forgot. And when he remembered, he’d complain endlessly and sometime not do it very well.
One day, this woman noticed that when her son took out the recycling, he left boxes all over, and some bottles and cans had spilled out of the box and rolled to a different part of the driveway. Now, this woman said, she could have just continued trying to force her son into doing his chores and doing them properly by further docking his allowance. But this time she took a different approach. That afternoon she pulled her son aside and asked him a question.
“Michael,” she said. “The men and women who collect our recycling, do you think that is a job they just always dreamed of having? Do you think that when those men and women were growing up they said to their parents or teachers, yes, I aspire to be a garbage collector. And do you think they are just so very excited about doing that work every day?” “Well, no” he said. “Well then,” she continued. “Those people probably work very hard doing that job not so much because they find it rewarding or fulfilling, but because they have a family to support. They make an important contribution in our society and they work very hard at a job that isn’t glamorous and probably isn’t terribly fulfilling. And when we put our recycling out, do you think it makes a difference to them how we do it?” The speaker said she could instantly see that her son understood what she was getting at. He understood that he didn’t just have a chore to complete each week. He had a job to do that contributed to the life of his family and that, in fact, the WAY he did that job actually made a difference in someone else’s. She said she never had to ask her son again to take out the recycling, nor did she have to double check to see that he had done it right.
That’s a story of how a life can be transformed when we become aware of the impact of even the simple and mundane things we do in life. By living the way God intends us to live, by showing the respect and care for each other that God shows us, by acknowledging and respecting the presence of God in each other, we live into God’s kingdom. A kingdom that exists in the here and now.
The challenge of how to live is one we must each meet for ourselves, and that we must also answer as a congregation. I happen to believe that while our size and our finances and even our outreach ministries are important, in the long run what will be the measure of our success will be the degree to which we are able to change people’s lives by facilitating their encounter with Christ among us. Whether it be through service to the community or kindness shown to each other, or just living our lives with integrity, honesty and compassion, the goal of our life together is to change lives . . . our own and the lives we touch in Jesus’ name.
You remember Eli? His was not a life that registers on my scale of “successful.” There is, however, another “food” story I have told before that does. It’s one of my favorites. It’s from a time when ice cream was a whole lot cheaper than it is today. The story is told that a little boy went into a hotel coffee shop and sat down at the table. A waitress came and brought him a glass of water and said, “Can I take your order?” And he said “How much is an ice cream sundae?” and she said, “Fifty cents.” The little boy carefully dug into his pocket and pulled out his money and carefully studied and counted the coins, and then he said “How much is a dish of plain ice cream?” The waitress, aware that other people were waiting to be seated, shot back at him brusquely “35 cents”. And the little boy again looked and carefully studied the coins in his hand and then he said, “I’ll have a dish of plain ice cream.” And the waitress brought him the ice cream and also brought him his check and then left.
The little boy ate his ice cream and then he went to the cashier and paid his check and departed the coffee shop. A little while later the waitress returned to the table and while she was wiping it down stopped and swallowed hard at what she saw. Next to the empty ice cream dish the boy had carefully placed two nickels and five pennies. It was her tip.
Our community here at Christ Church does some wonderful things. We are generous in our giving, we volunteer to help those in need, we are compassionate toward each other. But what is really important is that through those experiences, our own lives are transformed. Our lives, as well as the lives of people we touch, are transformed to see that that which is valued in this world is NOT what God values. What God values is something that cannot be bought or sold. What God values is a human heart that has been changed by an encounter with Christ. What God values is a human spirit that is in love and communion with other spirits and with God. And in this community of Christ Church, that is what we will strive to do and be . . . with God’s help.