September 26, 2021
"What Really Matters"
Rev. Scott Landis
When facing a crisis, you have to get down to basics – and quickly. For example, if you are wading through flooded streets in the wake of a hurricane as we have seen many do recently in the Gulf Coast, you don’t want to hang onto things that will weigh you down. Or, if you are running from a fire as we have seen survivors do on the west coast of the mainland, there’s no need to gather up more stuff than you can carry. Victims of those natural disasters discover quickly “what REALLY matters.”
In his recent article in Baptist News Global, Mark Wingfield, executive director and publisher said, “This is where the church finds itself today.” He continued, “It’s the only conversation that matters: What is ESSENTIAL to the faith of the church? What must we CLING to as we move forward? [Pause]
In the circles that I frequent, folks (especially my clergy colleagues) are all asking the same general questions, what will be left of our churches as we begin to emerge from this very challenging year and a half? You’ve heard me talk about this before in sermons, but this topic is critical. What has happened to our faith, our understanding of what it means to be the church, and our way of relating to one another? These are important questions that would have a profound effect on us at any time, but even more so during a pastoral transition like we are experiencing now at Keawala`i. I think our gospel lesson for today might provide some much-needed guidance – in a backdoor kind of way.
The writer of Mark uses an interesting literary technique as he recounts the stories of Jesus. The more he discloses who Jesus is and what he stands for, the more he discloses what discipleship is all about – and it isn’t easy. Mark offers a “stripped-down gospel” and a very basic description of what it means to follow Jesus AND (using our language) to be the church.
The incident and the language in this lection are disturbing. It begins with the disciples expressing indignation that there are others doing the same work as they were supposed to be doing – casting out demons and such – furthermore, they were doing so “in Jesus’ name.” Taking umbrage in the actions being done by others that they felt were exclusive to them, they came to Jesus in protest. “They can’t do that. They’re not a part of our group.”
Wow. When I read that I just shook my head. This sentiment of exclusion existed within – what we now refer to as the church – from its inception. Us vs. them – knowledge vs. ignorance. It’s right there and the disciples give it voice , this notion of insiders and outsiders. But Jesus says, “No. Don’t stop them. They can’t do something good in my name and then turn around and stab me in the back.” They may be playing for a different team – but it’s the same game. We’re all in this together.
Point #1 – We should be MORE concerned about doing the right thing and less about those in other groups who may be doing the same thing “in Jesus name.” The fact that we are trying to promote a better life for all – that’s “what really matters.”
Jesus continued warning his disciples against bullying childlike believers and getting in the way of God revealing God’s Self to humankind in traditional AND non-traditional ways. He said, if you do that, it would be better if you had a millstone tied around your neck and be thrown into the lake. Or, better you lose a hand or an eye than getting in God’s way or distracting others from seeking God in their lives. His language is much more graphic than that, but you get the idea.
Point #2 – We are ALL going to be tested. It happens every day. What is essential – what REALLY matters – is we don’t forget who we are – we don’t lose our “saltiness” – our spice – our ability to liven up and flavor the world — with love. AND that we use that saltiness to preserve the peace among all.
What this story reminds us of, then, is not so much the specifics of how things are done “in Jesus’ name,” but that we don’t get in the way or impede God’s work as in the spiritual journey of others. Instead, we become encouragement – salt and light as we help to promote the “Kindom of God” for all God’s children.
What makes matters so complicated right now is the fact that we are in the midst of tremendous upheaval – the likes of which the church has not experienced in hundreds of years. [Pause]
Author Phyllis Tickel, whose writings focused mainly on spiritual matters, is frequently quoted for her prophetic words. In her 2008 book, The Great Emergence – How Christianity is Changing and Why, she observed that the church about every 500 years or so goes through a kind of “rummage sale,” where the unnecessary things are cast off and the church is reformed. She goes on to explain, the last time this happened was known as the Protestant Reformation in 1517 when Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Church door – thereby breaking ranks from the Roman Catholic Church and beginning a whole new theological understanding of our relationship to scripture and to God.
Mark Wingfield writes, in picking up on Phyllis Tickel’s thoughts, “We’re about four years overdue for a new reformation. Before Covid, we thought we were already going through it, with our worship wars and culture wars. It turns out those were just the outer bands of the hurricane to come. Surely, we are in the midst of that storm, that reformation, right now. We are so close to the eye of the storm, as a matter of fact, that we cannot see where we’re going or imagine what’s on the other side.” Think about that.
So, what really matters? How can we tell? What ARE the essential things that we must hold on to as we come through the hurricane’s eye and land safely and securely, we hope, on the other side?
I put that question to my Wednesday Zoom group this past week and a very thoughtful discussion followed. Interestingly, they came up with the very same answers that Wingfield writes about in his article. It’s a bright group. Wingfield says there are three things that we must carry forward – three things that REALLY matter.
1. The good news. We have got to have our message down and it must be cogent and crystal clear. And it can’t just be in our minds. It’s gotta be in our hearts. I often refer to it as our “elevator speech.” We must be able to articulate the basics of our faith to anyone who asks and that message is centered in Jesus – the incarnation of an all-loving God, who lived a life of sacrificial love and peace, was crucified for his actions, buried, was raised from the dead, and lives eternally to intercede on our behalf. That’s what makes us distinct. We follow – and try to emulate – a God who loves fully and sacrificially. The world has a difficult time comprehending that idea or living that kind of life. And that’s precisely what makes our faith so unique.
2. The church. We gather (whether in person or virtually as in this difficult time) to worship the God of our creation, the God of Jesus. The author of love. The church is our spiritual `ohana called together for sacred conversations, ritual, and celebrations. The church is where we learn and reaffirm the good news that we carry into the streets in word and deed. The church is essential for inspiration and instruction in what we know as the basics to “love God and love neighbor.”
3. The fellowship. We share our lives, our resources, and our love as we gather in community to weep, to laugh, pray, and to play together. From its inception, believers have gathered together for simple meals, pot-lucks, for lu`au, for work parties, kōkua, and for fun.
These things, Wingfield contests, and I would concur, are what really matters. These are the elements that we must nurture and promote in our current “rummage sale” to borrow Phyllis Tickel’s words. Many of the other things – we may just have to let go, drop, so that we can emerge from our current crisis unencumbered – with the ability to move quickly and with grace. [Pause]
Someone sent me a beautiful picture this week, the caption of which really caught my eye. I will try to describe to you. I realize this may have much more meaning if you’ve ever spent any time during the autumn in the northeast section of the continental U.S. The picture is of someone holding a handful of multicolored leaves shed from various hardwood trees – so typical of the season and so pleasing to the eye, with the caption: “The trees are about to show us how lovely it is to let things go.”
What really matters? What is essential? What might we let go? How we answer these questions will determine the future of the church – our church. This is not a time to passively wait and see. This is a time to listen anew to Jesus’ challenge and think strategically about how we will enter the future. “Be salt. Be salt in the world to make it just a little sweeter because you are a vital presence. Preserve the peace among yourselves.
May it be so.
1 Mark Wingfield, Baptist News Global, Opinion, September 20, 2021, Three Words of Hope for the Church in Transition.
2 Wingfield, Three Words, p. 2.