Measuring Success

A sermon preached at St. Francis by the Lake Episcopal Church, Canyon Lake, Texas.

The lectionary readings for the twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost are here.

I’m going to start us off today with two questions:
1. Do you know what the definition of insanity is? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
(And not to deflate any bubbles, but there is absolutely no evidence that Ben Franklin, or Albert Einstein, or Mark Twain ever said such a thing but we can factually trace the quote to the recovery group Narcotics Anonymous.)
2. Does Jesus call us to be successful or faithful?

Now, before I get into the meat of these questions in regards to following Jesus, let’s remember what Jesus has been saying to the disciples and the crowds as we’ve been journeying with Mark’s telling of the gospel narrative these past months:

Jesus said:
Those who want to save their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the good news will save it.
Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.
Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.
But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.

And in today’s reading:
Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.

Do you see the consistency of Jesus’ message?
How is greatness measured in God’s Kingdom?
And if the first is last and the last is first, is there really any ranking at all? Isn’t Jesus saying that we are all on equal footing?

This is the good news! All are welcomed and loved in God’s kingdom; there is no way to earn it; there is no rank or status we can achieve on our own that will gain us entry. Being in relationship with God is a gracious gift of life from the God who created us. And there is absolutely nothing we can do that will make God love us any more or any less than he already does. Or, make God love us any more or any less than any other human being.

The disciples keep trying to get Jesus to tell them how to be the greatest in God’s Kingdom and he keeps answering them the same way: with the good news that following Jesus is about being faithful not successful.

And I get that this may sound like bad news to some: We like clearly defined goals so that we know we’ve done well. We like to confidently proclaim achievement with numbers and facts. We like the certainty of measurable achievements. We like checkboxes we can check off and feel good about ourselves.

And when we become completely goal oriented, we often lose out on the joy of the journey. If you are planning a hike to the top of a mountain and you only think about being the first to the top, you will miss the beauty along the way and more than likely you’ll miss out on some good conversations and relationship moments as you zoom past the others on the same path.

Our relationship with God through following Jesus is just that: a relationship. We can’t quantify the success of our relationships in numbers. Just how long is a successful relationship? When our kids turn 18 do we say we’ve reached the goal and sever ties? When we’ve been married ten or twenty years do we say we’ve reached the goal and leave? Relationships don’t have goals to reach. Relationships are successful because of a whole-self, continuous commitment. Relationships are an ongoing journey of growth and development and a deeper knowing of who we each are. Our relationship with God is no different.

In all of his servant and first/last talk, Jesus isn’t telling us that those who are currently powerless will miraculously have power over those who’ve been lording power over them. He isn’t turning things upside down. Jesus is giving us a whole new way of living, the Way of Love in which no one has power over anyone else and we all work together with God so that everyone has what they need.

Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish theologian, philosopher, and social critic, describes our faith as the very thing that keeps us grounded in our existence in the here and now because our faith is in the eternal goodness of God. Our faith that enables us to live in joyful expectation is knowing that God is always faithful. We can see God’s faithfulness in our history and we set our hope in what Kierkegaard calls the “excess of possibilities” of God’s promise to restore all things to the proper order because that is God’s greatest desire for all of us and for all of creation.

Kierkegaard said, “Life is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be experienced.” Only he said it in Danish.

We cannot measure the “success” of our faith by any earthly standards. Jesus doesn’t show us how to be successful, he teaches us with his very life how to live in faithful relationships: with God, with each other, and with the world around us.

Jesus invites us into this journey of relationship with the invitation “follow me” and then he tells us that it is in the way we love that others will know we are on the journey with him.

Being faithful followers of Jesus is about showing up with a willingness to keep learning and growing and being transformed by God’s love. Faith is a lived reality not a checkbox on a ‘good person’ list somewhere. Living our faith means we are all in, mind, body, soul, on what God is doing through Jesus’ command to love God and our neighbor whether they be a friend or an enemy.

This is pretty heavy stuff, so let’s go back to the questions we started with: Do we keep trying the same behaviors, like the disciples, and expect to find a different answer in Jesus’ words? How have we tried to prove our faith successful?
Have we tuned our ears to hear Jesus calling us to be faithful rather than successful as we walk together the Way of Love?

Jesus says, “whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Do we take this to heart or dismiss it for our own way of doing life?

This leads to one more question before we wrap up: what is a ransom? A payment for the release of a captive, right? Which leads to yet another question (I may need a white board to keep us with all of these questions – is anyone taking notes?): who or what was holding us captive so that a ransom was even necessary?
It can’t be the devil because this mean that the evil forces of this world had some negotiable power over God.
And it can’t be God because Love does not hold anyone captive for any reason.

Do you remember our Yokes discussion two weeks ago and I talked about the yokes of our own choices – those things we let weight us down so that we lose sight of Jesus. In what ways to we let our ideas of success cause us to lose sight of what it is Jesus calls us to be? Perhaps what Jesus ransoms us from is our need to prove ourselves worthy, our need to make it to the top before anyone else or to rank each other according to our ideas of success.

“Doing” is easier to measure than “being”. Yet we are created by God as Beings, human beings. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we use this language to describe our state of existence. Jesus calls us to BE servants of all so that we are freed from the bonds of ‘doing’ in order to prove our worthiness.

Jesus’ ransom sets us free from our own bonds so that we can live on earth as it is in heaven, in the “now and not yet” of our journey following Jesus.

And I’ll end not with a question – aren’t you relieved – but with a quote from Kierkegaard, “Now, with God’s help, I shall become myself.” We discover our created identity in our relationship with God. Our faithfulness to who Jesus calls us to be leads to the things we do in order to serve others. And when we are all serving others, everyone is taken care of because while you are serving others, someone is also serving you. We are all to be servants of all. The doing, the serving, is how we function in our existence as beloved, faithful children of God, living and experiencing life on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

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