Who's In Charge Here?
Sermon delivered by Monique Peddy, Clerk of Session, on Laity Sunday
First Presbyterian Church has an amaing tradition called Laity Sunday, where the service is entirely put together by the congregation and involves as many people in leadership as possible. As you will see from the following, it is not about being in charge or taking over from the Pastor. It is not about giving the Pastor a day off or apprecciating the Pastor. Laity Sunday is about letting the Holy Spirit take over. It is a corporate expression of who we are and what we believe. Who is in charge? God is in charge, just like always.
OK, I don’t know about you guys, but I always think of that as “The Stewardship” passage. Maybe that is because it always comes in October and October is when the annual Stewardship drive starts. More likely it has to do with hearing it and then getting a “sermon” (and I’ll use that term loosely) about how we need to give more to the Church, make sure we tithe, etc. And a lot of times those “sermons” also told us that we would be more Christian if we did it.
Well, my husband is head of the Every Member Canvas again this year so guess what? Nope! You’re not going to hear me drone on about giving to the Church.
In fact, in my opinion, I don’t even think that’s what this passage is about. I think it’s about trying to tell us how to be more Christ like – that is, how to be more Christian.
Part of the passage reads, “25It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." When those around him questioned this, Jesus told them that for us it is impossible, but not for God. “For God, all things are possible."
The passage then goes on to say that those who have left everything behind for Jesus and his namesake will receive a hundred fold in eternal life.
Does that literally mean that you have to leave your family and give away all your money or you’re doomed? Of course not. Jesus often spoke in parables. And of course, we are not reading the passage in its original language, or even its original interpretation. I have a Bible app on my smart phone and it alone has 294 versions of the Bible in 144 languages. Oh, and that doesn’t include the New Revised Standard version that we use as our pew Bible. So my job here today is to help convey the message that I think this passage is giving. And as I’ve mentioned already, I think it’s instructing us to be more Christ-like, more Christian.
I think we Christians are a well-meaning group, practically by definition. And by “Christian” I am not referring to what I always knew as “Full Gospel Christians” who to me are extremists in their views and traditions. No, I’m referring to you and me and many others who may or may not belong to a congregation somewhere. We try to do what is right, we try to be kind, we try to help stop injustice. We not only believe in Christ, but we try to be like Christ. But we are not. We are flawed individuals. And sometimes no matter how well intended we are, we don’t REALLY think before we speak.
When I first started thinking about what I would say today, I was basically going to regurgitate a series of articles written by Christian Piatt. Each article has a different name, but they are all about clichés that many Christians use but don’t really think about. Instead, I’m going to focus on some of his Antidotes to clichés. By definition, a cliché is, “a trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse.” I agreed with some of the clichés mentioned, disagreed with some and more than one made me stop and think. I’ll get to a few of those in a minute, but first, let’s think about something that has been attributed to Saint Francis:
“Preach the Gospel always, and when necessary, use words.” A secondary resource I was using stated that St. Francis said it, but I decided to delve a little deeper and found that he apparently did not say it. Nothing written about him in the first 200 years attributes this saying to him. That is neither here nor there. I think it is a good summary to today’s gospel lesson.
“Preach the Gospel always, and when necessary, use words.” That is, preach the gospel (try to be more Christ-like) by deeds, not what you say.
Our words sometimes can hurt more than they help. Getting back to Mr. Piatt’s clichés, how often have you told someone, “God never gives you more than you can handle.” I understand that this platitude is meant to help the person know that they will get through whatever troubling event is going on or has happened, but, it basically says that if you aren’t a strong person who can handle a burden, then nothing bad will happen. Heck! If that’s the case, I wish we were all weaker people!
We also tend to over use some questions to try to “preach” the gospel. “Do you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior?” was another one of the clichés and honestly, this one made me stop and think. As Presbyterians, we are constitutionally required to ask when ordaining a person to office, “Do you trust in Jesus Christ your Savior, acknowledge him Lord of all and head of the church..” Jesus himself did not call himself Lord, he rejected it. In fact, I just read one of the passages that shows this. “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" 18Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.”
“Preach the Gospel always.” Many of you have heard me refer to my father as a closet Christian. Although he grew up in a Baptist church and graduated from a Jesuit college, he claims to be an atheist. But, he treats everyone fairly (he LIVES the golden rule – Do unto others as you would have them do unto you). I’ve seen him stop on the street and give someone money, and he believes in the power of prayer. OK, that last tidbit might be a bit confusing, but he has a point. He thinks people should pray often. He claims that Wes Cady should go to the catholic hospital in town so the nuns can pray over her like they did for him when he was sick. (He says it must have worked because he got better.) But mainly he says, when people are praying, they are not doing evil things. So, even though he claims to be an atheist, I think my dad preaches the gospel quite often.
What else can we do to be more Christian? How about talk less and listen more? By the way, Mr. Piatt had a list of 29 clichés in his series of articles, so this one definitely makes sense. Twenty-nine trite expressions that have lost impression by overuse. Talk less and listen more. Quite often, we read in the Bible of someone telling Jesus their plight and the passage reads, “Jesus listened…” And when he did speak, he often left room for interpretation.
Or maybe we can be more Christian by Stop trying to fix everything. Sometimes people just need to talk and put their problems or concerns into words and they need someone to listen. They are not necessarily asking you to fix it. Just getting the problem said out loud may be enough to help them get some peace so that they can go forward.
Give generously of yourself. And I don’t mean your money. Yes, clean out your closets and give items to C.U.P.S. and donate to charities. These things ARE important, but they are not my point. As I’ve already said, this is not a stewardship sermon. “Christians” often approach people with a “you need what I have” attitude, or “I’m saved and you’re not.” Talk about not being very Christian! Give of YOURSELF. Make yourself vulnerable, and open yourself emotionally. It may help the person you’re with open up themselves.
Be grateful for what you have. That one came true to me 11 years ago. It was early September, a Monday. Money was tight and I was driving an aging van. The front door on the passenger side had long since failed to open from the outside. The past weekend, the driver’s side door broke in a similar way, so the only way in from the outside was through the sliding door on the passenger side. On that Monday, I left the office to pick up some lunch and my transmission was acting up. I couldn’t think of anything worse happening. We just didn’t have the money to repair these things. But then, it was as though I got “Gibbs slapped.” For those of you who may not know, a “Gibbs slap” is something a character on NCIS uses. It’s a slap to the back of the head and is used as a wake-up call. This wake-up call, this Gibbs slap, made me realize that no matter how hard I thought my life was, no matter how tight I thought money was, there were millions (yes millions) of people in the world who had it worse off than I did. I live in a country where I am free. I can question the government, I can speak my mind. I and my family had our health. My husband and I both had jobs. Our children were happy and well behaved. Yep. I had it pretty darn good. We’d get over the money problems and things would get better. By Monday afternoon, even though I had all of these problems, I was grateful for the good things I had.
The next morning was September 11, 2001 and planes hit buildings in New York and Washington DC and near a small town in Pennsylvania and thousands of people lost their lives. Wives lost husbands, husbands lost wives, children lost parents, friends lost friends. I remember that day very distinctively. I was not only grateful for the good things that I had, but I was even more grateful that I had figured that out the day before and that it didn’t take this horrible tragedy to make me realize it. And so I prayed.
That’s another thing we can do to be more Christian. We can pray. And it’s not necessary to use words to pray. It’s not even necessary (or even a good idea) to tell someone we are praying for them. Prayer doesn’t have to be formal. Prayer doesn’t have to be spoken. Years ago, when Dorothy Andrew had her lung resected, in hopes of easing her breathing problems, I would, several times a day, take a deep breath and think, “this one is for you, Dorothy.” One Sunday, I was talking to Phil and mentioned that I didn’t feel like I was a pray-ing person, but that I would take a deep breath and think about Dorothy. In his characteristic deep voice, Phil looked at me and said, “Hell, that IS a prayer!” So here I was, thinking that prayer had to be formal and I was doing it without realizing it. So pray. Send good thoughts to others, try to right injustice.
Be open to the possibility that you are wrong, or at the very least, not completely right. Personal faith evolves over time. Even if you’ve been a lifelong Christian, your beliefs are not the same as when you were a child. I’ve heard many stories about how people enjoy or even turn to the Presbyterian church because we not only allow questions, but we encourage them! By being open to the possibility that the person you’re with can teach you something you are honoring their wisdom and experience. And don’t forget that person may be younger than you.
Own your love. Yes, God loves your neighbor, Jesus loves your neighbor, but WE are commanded to love our neighbor. We hear people say all the time, “God loves you” or “Jesus loves you.” Own YOUR love. Tell someone YOU love them. You’re opening yourself up and making yourself vulnerable, just like I suggested earlier.
See yourself in the "Other." I’m going to quote directly now from Mr. Piatt’s Antidotes for Christian cliches, because I like the way he puts it. “Somewhere along the way, Christian outreach became more about personal conversion than about empathy and compassion. One of the biggest turn-offs I hear about Christians is that folks see us as trying to make everyone like us. But Jesus himself was moved, affected and -- yes --changed by the people he encountered. And lest we forget: the Greatest Commandment was not to convert people to Christianity; it was love others with all you have and all you are. Part of loving others is actually understanding what they want or need, not just giving them what you think they want or need.”
So, I hope you leave here today, enjoy some barbecue, enjoy some coffee and chocolates later on, think about the opinions I’ve expressed, try to be more Christian in the best way that YOU can and understand that the person sitting next to you may not do the same thing in trying to be more Christian. Amen.