Epiphany 4, January 29, 2017
The Results of Your Mission
I don’t know how many of us here this morning ever has heard of the Six Sigma Strategy. I guarantee you that, if I were preaching this sermon today in Peoria, Illinois, headquarters of Caterpillar, the global manufacturer of heavy equipment for construction and mining. As you can imagine, this equipment has to be precisely put together for efficiency and safety. That’s where Six Sigma was the rule. All equipment had to be within .000001 mm of precision to be acceptable for sale.
That’s fine in manufacturing and engineering. We can measure, we can test, we can correct in manufacturing excellence. So, the company offered its program to non-profits I was a board member of our regional America Red Cross chapter. And that’s where we discovered that we couldn’t Six-Sigma people. They are not always predictable or precise. Results are not always perfect. One of our board members said, “I think our Red Cross Chapter is perfect. It’s people who make things difficult.”
We serve God, who is all-perfect (among other qualities). And we are imperfect. And yet God has given us the responsibility to be bearers of a wonderful message of God’s love and forgiveness to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Now, here’s another problem. As the apostle Paul tells the Corinthians, the message we are to preach is a stumbling blink to the Jew and foolishness to the Gentile. Times are different now and the people to whom we bring the message are different now, but the issue is the same. God calls us to proclaim, by word and action, his merry and power and wisdom. We proclaim God’s results first and then seek results from our witness to God.
Then I recall Micah’s prophetic words, especially the question, “What does the LORD require?” That question can cause us to feel anxious. Most folks do not like requirements. After all, we have to measure up to some expectations—even demands—when we hear the word “require”. We like choices and options. Can I require people to come to church every Sunday? On this Annual Meeting day, it’s a little-known requirement that, to be a Vestry member, among other things you have to attend this church at least three times a year and be a donor of record. (I want to see you and would love to see people much more than three times a year!) Nor do I have a report for people to file on how many “souls I have won to Christ this week” (as some churches expect).
For the Jew of Micah’s time, there were 613 laws by which to measure perfection. Micah asks whether massive amounts of burnt offerings, tens of thousands of rivers of oil, even all firstborn children meet the requirements to please God. Micah says, “No.” God measures results whether we do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with him. Those results are measured not only by what we do today, but the legacy we leave from a lifetime. Yet we are to be about those measurements every day.
How can we get on that track, when we witness the results of the message through us? By knowing that God will work through our imperfections. Not many of us are brilliant or powerful or from important families, by the world’s standards. Yet God chose us through our weakness to show forth his glory, and perhaps that is the greatest result of all. In Christ, God has done far more for us and through us than we ever will know. I have learned this lesson over and over in my own life.
In many ways, I believe that I have become more effective after having become visually impaired. I do not look perfect. There are things that I can’t do that I used to do. But there are many things I can do because God opens the way for me to proclaim the message. And I certainly have been humbled. I say these things only to share with you how on target the apostle Paul is when he says that we get the best results in proclaiming the love of God in Jesus Christ when we realize that, while we make an effort to proclaim, it is God who achieves the results through us. Our lives become more Christ-like, and that’s what people around us see in our witness. People know Christ through us when we can be real about our need for Christ’s love and grace in our own lives.
We never will be perfect in this world. We never will “get results” in this world and be measured for how effective we are. We are to be faithful in sharing the message—and God will do great things with us and for us and through us to bring about godly results.
Epiphany 3, January 22, 2017
The Message of Your Mission
One thing you can count on about the apostle Paul is that you always know where he stands. His message always is clear—at least to those who are ready to hear it.
That’s particularly true as he writes to the people in Corinth. The city is filled with many messages amid many ways of life and many gods that people worship. As we heard this morning in the first chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians, there even are many divisions within the Christian community. Some say that they follow the message of Pull; others follow the message of Apollos, a powerful preacher of the time; others follow Cephas (Peter). Paul sets them straight: “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (I Cor. 1:18)
Paul is speaking to us in our day, too. We have many points of view in the larger church, in our politics and in our society. That is part of our fallen human nature. Unity is not natural. An angry church member once told me, “I know that there are many opinions, but mine is right!” That statement can be sliced many ways. We can have arguments over how to read the Bible and how to interpret it. We can have many ways of “proving” how the Church’s teaching on moral matters should be this way or that way. And God knows we can have many different political opinions.
Yet there is one thing we must remember. As baptized Christians, we have the message, and we are the messengers. But the message is not our own. Our message is that of Jesus Christ. And what is that? As Matthew reports, as Jesus walked along the Sea of Galilee, he proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matt. 4:17) God’s priorities, God’s intention, God’s purpose is at the core of being Christian. So, we need to check every worldview and every opinion at the door. We do not use the Gospel to promote our message. Rather, we are transformed by God’s message, and by his call to us to bring that message into the world around us.
What’s the message we are to share? First, God created us to be one with him, with each other, and with all creation, and to do so with a spirit of generosity. But, secondly, because of our sin and selfish nature, we fail to do what God has meant for us to do. Third, we know that God has given Jesus Christ as the way to return to him and to be reconciled with each other. Fourth, God still is working his purpose out, and God has called us to be the messengers of that purpose. And what’s that purpose? To bring us back into union with God.
The message we carry is universal. And it’s unique. Each of us has a story (whether we know it or not) about how this message has worked out in life. For some of us, there was a moment in time when these truths, and the truth of Christ, became real to us. That’s when we discover that we are the message. I’ve borrowed that phrase from a book title, You Are the Message. The author is Roger Ailes, who until last year was the president and CEO of Fox News Network. He was the communications consultant to Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential campaigns, and also to Donald Trump. Now you know his political persuasion—but no matter what yours may be, you have to admit that he knows a lot about communicating. As he begins the book, he says that, no matter what the content is of your message, your hearer will decide in the first seven seconds whether you are worth listening to—whether you’re for real, whether you get where they are.
But there’s one more thing a Christian must add. We can speak with boldness and love and truth when the Holy Spirit has come alive in us. Only then can we really be transparent. Only then can the light of Christ really shine through us. Only then are we for real, in God’s terms. So now we come full circle to what Paul was trying to get across to the Corinthians. It’s not about Paul or Apollos or Peter. It’s not about Father John and it’s not about you. The message is about the power of God at work in us through the grace of Jesus Christ. That power and love is at work in us when we are ready for every opportunity to share the love of God in Christ. We have lots of opportunities! May God’s message be alive in us and make us faithful messengers to bring others to his grace and peace.
Epiphany 2, January 15, 2017
The Direction of Your Mission
It’s hard to believe—but there were days before GPS—the Global Positioning System. There were days when we actually had to know how to read maps, or get detailed directions that we’d write down on paper. It’s easy to get lost, even with a GPS. Living in southeastern Virginia showed my wife and me that truth. One day, on the way home to Portsmouth from Virginia Beach, we were on the expressway when the male voice—with a British accent—said, “Take slip road on right to such-and-such south.” We wondered why, but we went anyway. Then, when doing that, he said, “Reconfiguring! Taker slip road on right to such-and-such east.” That sent us back the way we came. And he said, “Reconfiguring!! Take slip road ahead to such-and-such west.” And so on. We were going in circles! Though I can’t drive, I became the navigator and said, “Go this way.” We were on the road home. And I am legally blind….
Human life is like that. We think we’re going the right way in our families, and then something or someone goes in another direction. At work, we get promoted, or our jobs change, or we lose the job. I did some career counseling (called “outplacement”) when a nearby tire plant closed, and 50 jobs were lost. And out of that number, only two came to seek some re-direction in careers. The rest figured that something would happen; in the meantime, they’d just file for unemployment benefits. And they figured that someone would tell them what to do next. Finding direction as a state or a nation also can do strange things to the direction of government. A candidate will say, “Yes, we can!” or “Make America great again!” or “Stronger together!” But Politics is a changeable life, and promises made cannot always be kept. And I will say that Terry Katsma knows that truth as a man of great integrity.
Finding direction is another way of finding God’s purpose and mission in your life. Every one of us has a mission. Every one of us has God-given skills, talents and gifts. But we can’t find that direction on our own. For worldly people, the GPS means “Global Positioning System”—and it can lead us in strange directions or keep us going around in circles. What we need—and, in baptism, what we already have—is a God Positing System. And that’s built into us as followers of Jesus Christ.
To be a follower of Jesus Christ, we understand first that we are followers. We are here to fulfill what he has shown us to do. John the Baptist certainly showed that to be the case. He shouted, “Here’s the Lamb of God—follow him!” Ultimately, two of John’s disciples did that. Jesus asked them—and he asks today, “What are you looking for?” He knows the answer—but the disciples have to discover it themselves
The God Positioning System teaches us that we discover the direction of our mission when we look forward, not backward. I recently read an article that said that Americans have a longing to go back to the world of The Andy Griffith Show and the town of Mayberry. That world never really was, and so are the lives that were living there. They never were. And police officials have told me often in recent years, “There ain’t no Mayberry any more. God’s mission in our lives always is moving us forward and to be lights in the darkness and confusion of this life. We must focus on the vision that God has for this world—that all may be re3conci8led with God, and with one another.
We also discover the direction that God has for each of us when we look inward only so that we may move outward. We move deeper and wider into prayer and spiritual formation so that we can be servants in this world, bearers of light to those who long for the light of Christ. Some think that worship and prayer is for self and for loved ones. As Paul tells the Corinthians, that may be true—but there’s much more. We strive to know God in Christ so that we can make Christ known in who we are and what we do. That’s why the church is not a “family”—it’s a community, with open doors.
Finally, the God Positioning System helps us get the direction in our mission when we discover that we are called to look upward, not downward. The world in which we live will come to an end. We will come to an end. Wat is the legacy that you want to leave behind? When we look downward, we get into trouble. We feel stuck in life, or we’re focused on the wrong things, or we keep going in circles as the inner voice says, “Reconfiguring!” When we look upward, we can focus on what’s important in life and, even more, what’s essential—to worship God, and enjoy him forever, starting today.
So look for your GPS. The real one!