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St Paul's ChurchSermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, Connecticut
The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost – October 18, 2009

In the Name of the God of abundance and radical generosity: Father, Son & Holy Spirit. Amen.

A married couple in their early 60’s were celebrating their 40th Wedding Anniversary in a quiet, romantic restaurant. Suddenly, a tiny fairy appeared on their table and said, “For being such an exemplary married couple and loving each other for all this time, I will grant you each a wish.” The wife answered, “Oh, I want to travel around the world with my darling husband.” The fairy waved her magic wand and – poof! – two tickets for the Queen Mary II appeared in her hands. The husband thought for a moment: “Well, this is all very romantic, but an opportunity like this will never come again. I’m sorry my love, but my wish is to have a wife 30 years younger than I.” The wife, and the fairy, were deeply disappointed, but a wish is a wish. So the fairy waved her magic wand and poof!…the husband turned 93. The moral of this story: Be careful what you ask from those who have power.

James and John learned that lesson when they asked Jesus to use his power to give them a place of great status in his kingdom. What exactly is power? Basically, it is the ability to influence or control other people’s lives. It can be financial power, political power, spiritual power, or emotional power but it lives at the top of any given chain of command. One certain way to know who has power is that people want to get close to you—to photograph you, get your autograph, cheer you on or maybe even assassinate you.

People tend to associate power with greatness, but not necessarily goodness. Even his disciples seemed to ignore the goodness and integrity that was in Jesus in deference to their perception of his influence and supremacy. “Teacher,” they say to him, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” What they want is to sit at the head of the table and right next to him. They want to be in the president’s cabinet. They want to be on the board of trustees. They want to be recognized as great. And I wonder if they were even interested in the actual responsibility that comes with such a role or just the appearance they were very important people.

Notice that Jesus did not tell them that they should not aspire to greatness and if we are honest about it, we will admit that there is, deep down within all of us, an instinct to be the drum major—a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first, to be the best, to be great. Notice, too, what Jesus did not tell James and John. He did not say, “You are out of your place. You are selfish. Why would you raise such a question?” He did something altogether different. He said in substance, “Oh, I see, you want to be first. You want to be great. You want to be important. You want to be significant. Well, you ought to be. If you’re going to be my disciple, you must be.” But he turned their notion of greatness upside down and reordered the priorities. Don’t give up this instinct,” he is telling them, “It’s good if you use it correctly. Here’s what greatness looks like: to be first in love, to be first in integrity, to be first in accountability, to be first in reliability, to be first in generosity, first in humility, to be first in your willingness to serve others.

That’s greatness and that definition of greatness means that everybody can be great because everyone by virtue of our place in God’s kingdom—our holy status as the beloved daughters and sons of God. Put another way, the truly great ones are not the powerful ones who sit at the head of the table and get asked for their autograph. They are the unobtrusive ones who slip in and out among the guests refilling glasses and brining more food. The great ones are not the dignitaries to the right and left of the CEO. They are the ones stirring the gravy in the kitchen and correcting the spices in the soup. The power of God is the power to serve and it is by service that we will transform the world—from the bottom up, not from the top down.

There are many ways to serve. You serve at the Altar or serve as an usher or serve food at coffee hour or serve the needs of the hungry by bringing cans of food, but the vast number of hours in the week that you have the opportunity to be the servant is spent out in the world. There you have the power to affect people’s life by the way you smile at them, speak to them, encourage them, empathize with them, advocate for them. Then there are those who literally do sit at the big tables and have the ability to influence how policies and decisions are made that might affect many lives—another example of God’s power to transform the world working through people.

Where we get the muscle to do all this is here in the worshipping community. Here is where we are fed with God’s Word, God’s Holy Food and Drink; where our sagging spirits are lifted by joyful, soothing music; where our children can learn how much God loves them when they may be having a tough time in school or with their peers. Here we bring our joy and our sadness and seek God’s healing grace freely offered every week. This is a place where the successes and failures of our week can be shared by those who love and support us in our work in the world; where we are welcomed for the person we are and not the person someone expects us to be; where we can find encouragement, direction, help in discernment, and lots of hugs.

So as we consider the Gospel themes of power, of greatness and service we cannot do that without recognizing and honoring and giving thanks for the source of the power to serve and the starting place of our invitation to strive for the kind of greatness to which Jesus calls us. Today we begin a four week period of reflection and response to the question of how important in the scheme of your life and your ministry in the world is all that you receive and how you are nourished in this faith community.

You have the power—the power to ensure that we continue to build God’s kingdom by our presence, ministry, and care of all those who enter our doors, guaranteeing them the same radical welcome that God has extended to you. Everything you have is a blessing from the abundance with which God fills our lives. Be mindful of how much God has given us, mindful of how much we receive from our relationship with this faith community and the people who are a part of its glorious and diverse tapestry, and mindful of the power we have to continue its mission to invite, welcome, feed and heal.

During this season we will hear from a number of people who have made a commitment to being generous stewards of all that God has given them. Each of us must wrestle with our level of giving and no one can tell us how much we should give—well, no one but Jesus, who is pretty clear about all that.

I’d like to share a story about my struggle with stewardship. Some years ago, I was away on vacation and—as luck would have it—landed in church the day their rector was preaching the annual stewardship sermon. The rector preached something that struck me, stunned me, and changed forever my understanding of stewardship.

“What we say we believe,” he said, “is recorded in our Prayer Book but what we really believe is recorded in our check book.” I realized that he was not talking about how much church doctrine I believed but what I believed was important in my life—important enough to make a dent in my check book. Where was the work of God’s kingdom in my priority list? I went home that day and realized that I needed to make a serious adjustment in my attitude—and in my giving—if I were going to walk the walk and not just talk the talk. I realized that I needed to give God a real healthy slice off the top of the all that God had given me—not the leftovers.

Whatever my annual giving would be, I had to be honest with God and myself when I said “this is the best I can do”—and I had to be able to fully comprehend the words we heard today: “I came not to be served but to serve, and to give my life as a ransom for you.”

…as a ransom for all. Do you know what the original Greek word in this passage is for ransom? A word that means to untie or unbind. Jesus came to untie us—to free us from false security and the need to compete for power and status and the one-up-man-ship that is the world’s way, not God’s. He came to untie us from the fear of thinking we’ll never have enough; to release us from a world steeped in materialism and greed. And he did that so that we might in turn go out and unbind others—bringing them to the place of freedom and grace he has offered to everyone.

Over the years I have arrived at the tithe as the standard of giving for me. Giving 10% of your income may seem outrageous, even foolish, but I see it this way: I get to keep 90% of all that God has given me. I do that with great love for you and for all this amazing community has meant to me. I do that because I believe passionately in this remarkable church as a life force in the making of God’s kingdom just as I believe the sun rises. Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.

These are difficult economic times. Some of us may have lost jobs. Others have had salaries reduced. Thank God, many of us are OK, maybe even more than OK. I know all of us will do what is possible to provide support for God’s work in and through this church so that it can empower people for service. Coming to grips with how we will do that is a tough task, but Jesus never promised those who follow him that their life would be easy. He only promised that it would be a good life, an abundant life, a life that would make a difference.

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