Luke 18:18-30; Luke 19:1-10
As we think about unity again this morning, I’m coming to you from home because I’ve been sick this past week and don’t want to share it. But I love preaching and DO want to share God’s word with you and a few thoughts. This morning I’m inviting you into a Rabbinical teaching method called “threading pearls”—a kind of episodic storytelling, where you tell seemingly unrelated anecdotes and put them to listener to ponder and to find the thread that connects them all. I know this is a somewhat unfamiliar style, so I want to be obvious about it as we start. Do you see what I’m doing? Do you see where this is building?
Let’s start with two stories from God’s Word. Stories I’ve already referenced in this sermon series: [READ Luke 18:18-30 & Luke 19:1-10]
Story #1: Dedication to a Goal
Sarah Fillier, didn’t make team Canada in 2018 when the women’s hockey lost the final and took home silver. She wasn’t even invited to try out. But it was 2 a.m. in Georgetown, ON. Sarah was 17 years old and living at home before heading to Princeton University in the fall. In the moment of team Canada’s loss, Sarah told her parents that she would make sure things were different four years later.
“I’ve been writing 2022 on the bottom of my stick for four years now,” Fillier said, “and to finally say you made that team is really special.” The dedication: four years of sweat, of training, of working through doubt. Four years of writing 2022 on her hockey sticks. Four years of late practices, prioritizing hockey over other pursuits. These things were all worth itas Sarah and the Canadian women won hockey GOLD this week! Her complete dedication paid off—not only in making the team, but even winning gold! I wonder what she’ll dedicate herself to next? For that matter, what are you and I dedicated to? What about the rich young ruler? What about Zacchaeus?
This winter I was reading two books at the same time: One was called Reparations. It’s a call for repair, repayment, and restoration to Black Americans for the centuries of theft from them. The authors talk about how racism harms black property, black reputations, and, most importantly, black bodies. The book took racism from the conceptual to the painfully physical. At the same time, I read Soong-Chan Rah’s book on Lamentations.
I was struck by his claim that urban ministry has focused on “the city” only as an abstraction. I blushed as Soong-Chan Rah referenced how many white preachers quote Jeremiah 31—“seek the peace of the city”—but don’t recognize that Christ is already in the city because they don’t know or love real flesh and blood people there. In our scripture reading today, one of the two sees the call of Jesus in the abstract; he walks away. The other sees Jesus’ call in a real, physical way; he responds.
Story #2: Relevance: An Abstract Comparison
Mark Sayers is an Australian Pastor who writes about church and culture. He’s written a lot about relevance, which I think is, well, relevant here:
For much of the last twenty years, a large segment of the church in the west has taken a position of repentance of its past sins. It has become concerned about how it has appeared—exclusive, intolerant, closed-minded, and judgmental. It has worried about how it has pushed its values on other cultures—told, not listened; lectured, not conversed. Thus within Christianity in the West, a whole new posture has emerged, one that attempts to be more inclusive, more conversant, and more tolerant. Much of this has been good. Yet this move has occurred simultaneously with the culture becoming more prepared to condemn, judge, and speak in the language of right and wrong.
Sayers talks about churches that prioritize relevance as “flash mob churches”—they are able to gather a huge crowd; but they experience similarly huge turnover as people quickly disappear. This is not River Park’s goal, nor has it been our strategy. But it is the end of a pursuit of relevance:
The pursuit of relevance seems helpless in the face of this new disengaged mode of attending church. One could wonder if our “relevance” is making the problem worse. (Disappearing Church. 38-40 Kindle ed.)
Sayers’ point is that if we pursue relevance, we will never be able to keep up! Please don’thear me say as some say, “the church is measuring itself against the world”. We do not exist outside of the world. We do not exist as an abstraction called the church in some kind of relationship with an abstraction called culture. We are real people with real struggles who every day look to compare ourselves to someone else—often multiple someone elses—in order to better understand our place and role in society, in our families, and in God’s family. The rich young ruler enjoyed his wealth not just as wealth, but as wealth in comparison with others. Jesus told him to give his money to the poor. The effect is that he would lose the thing that allowed him to “win” every time he looked at others. He was stuck pursuing relevance; not as we normally think about it, but relevance is about coming out of an interaction with others where they take notice of us. The rich young ruler didn’t just need wealth; he needed the “general public” to recognize his wealth and goodness. But Jesus is not interested in relevance. Jesus allows him to walk away because he is not interested in relevance in the abstract. He had real people, a real place, and a real vision on his heart.
Story #3: Physical Place and Real People
Do you realize that Zacchaeus was a rich young ruler? He was easily part of the 1%: as a tax collector, he a life of wealth and a life of power. There was only one difference between Zacchaeus and the man whose name we never learn: Zacchaeus thought that the name of Jesus sounded beautiful. Zacchaeus thought that the way of Jesus looked beautiful. And Zacchaeus was so captured by this vision he didn’t want only to be a passive observer, taking in the sights and sounds. Zacchaeus wanted to give his life—his whole life to Jesus. There were no limits, no hesitation, no backtracking. And look how great his joy is!
Christians in the 2nd century AD knew the joy of Zacchaeus and of Jesus too. They lived during the Antonine Plague, which, it’s estimated, killed between 5 and 10 million people—roughly 10% of the entire population of the Roman Empire. People were coughing, sick, and dying. They were contagious and whole towns were quarantined—left for dead. But Christians went into towns that Roman guards, doctors, and citizens had abandoned and quarantined for death. Christians even died voluntarily in love for their neighbor, contracting the disease as they loved and served. Why? Because they knew that God was with them; they knew the joy of God’s kingdom and they wanted to bring the presence of God and the joy of Jesus with them to those who were sick and alone!
Closer to our own time, a Christian named Takashi Nagai survived the bombing of Nagasaki in 1945. He stayed in the city despite severe injury, rescuing survivors, doing scientific research, and providing medical attention to others. He died 8 years later from leukemia at the age of 43, spending his last years laying on mat offering wisdom to those who came to visit him. Why? Because he believed that God was with him and he desired that, in him, the presence of God would remain with the people and in the place he loved—even during nuclear fallout.
Last week during Roi’s baptism, I referenced the great commission. Jennie Allen, a great speaker and writer, summarizes the great commission this way: “Because you have been with Jesus, go be with people so they can be with Jesus.”
Is that what drives you: to be with Jesus? To let others be with Jesus? Too often we have a picture of “giving your whole life to Jesus” as some sort of painful sacrifice, suffering nearly without end. But the people who have given their lives to Jesus and those who have suffered, weirdly and wonderfully, have never seen it that way. They have known and lived the truth of Jennie’s words. They have given their whole selves to Jesus and they have been repaid in a far greater way—filled with the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, and peace to name a few.
Story #4 Personal Experience
These individual stories are powerful to me; and I hope to you. So let me ask myself—and ask you as we close: do you want more of Jesus Christ? Do you work for more of Jesus in your home; do you hope for more of Jesus in your life? And not as some abstract hope, but do you actually want to experience Jesus as you sit in the chair where you sit right now with the aches and the distractions and the challenges that you have right now? Do you want him?
Over the last few years, I’ve become more and more captivated by 2 Corinthians 4:7-11. It starts, “we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” And then it continues, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” Encouraging words!
But it ends in a way that might surprise you and is often not quoted: “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.”
Earlier this week, I tested positive for COVID and got to taste personally a little bit of the death at work in us all. That virus that has brought physical death to so many thousands in Canada; emotional trauma to tens of thousands more. Relational death, brought on by radically different approaches to the virus and reactions to government mandates. Death of trust. Death of confidence. Death even of hope. Death is always at work in us. Even in me. I got nothing done this week. I laid in my bed for most of three days, first coughing, then just exhausted. And something in me died this week too: the abstract idea that Jesus needs me to keep our community happy and united. As if, somehow, I could actually do that.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not feeling sorry for myself and I’m not unhappy. I’m certainly not planning to go anywhere! But this week and I laid sick, ministry continued. The Holy Spirit ministered to God’s people. Our Council met. Pastor Harry agreed to lead Communion. I am not so proud as to think that all of you are putting your hope in me; instead, I say this to try to illustrate how, wherever God has placed us; we can tend to put too much confidence in ourselves or in others because we lose sight of our main goal. Scripture offers one solution: River Park Church needs Jesus. Adrian needs Jesus. We are desperate for him. We celebrate when we come to the end of ourselves, because Jesus is there waiting for us to offer our strength and our weaknesses to him; he is not waiting for what you can give; he simply wants you. All of you. We will have unity when we all give Jesus everything. If I give Jesus everything and if you give Jesus everything, then there can be nothing between us. We have given it all to our Lord!
And if I were there in person and if I were with you in your homes (those of you worshiping on Zoom); I know that some of your hearts are beginning to be moved right now. You are saying to yourself, “I do want Jesus more than I have him in my life right now. I do want him more.” Well don’t wait! Don’t walk away from the call the give him everything. Don’t check out five minutes from now and say, “Well that was fine”. Don’t get distracted by something else going on in your world. HEAR the word of the Lord and respond in faith. Give yourself to Jesus. Your whole self.
Let’s do it now together in prayer.