Sunday, September 24, 2006

Called to Lead, Called to Serve

House of Prayer Episcopal Church
September 24, 2006

Year B: Proper 20
Wisdom 1:16-2:1-22
James 3:16-4:6
Mark 9:30-37
Psalm 54

Called to Lead, Called to Serve

I wonder what it’s like to be Mark Beckwith this morning. Yesterday as many of you know he was elected the next bishop of Newark on the third ballot. It all happened so surprisingly fast that I missed it – by the time I got to the convention at lunch time we already had a new bishop-elect.

Well, this morning I imagine Mark Beckwith standing among his congregation up in Worcester, Massachusetts and reading today’s gospel. He must be feeling a mix of emotions – excitement, fear, joy and sadness. A huge weight of responsibility has just been placed on his shoulders. But, whatever mix of emotions he’s feeling, the fact is he has been called to be a leader, he has been called to be our leader. So it must be something the day after the election to stand among your people and read Jesus’ surprising, upside-down words to the bickering disciples. Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Ah. So, congratulations Bishop-elect Beckwith – sure you get the fancy title, the pointy hat, the purple shirt, and all the rest – but today Jesus is reminding this new bishop that since he is called to lead he is called to be servant of all. Poor guy!

But wait a second! You know, actually Jesus isn’t only talking to Mark Beckwith this morning – Jesus isn’t even only talking to bishops or priests this morning. No, Jesus is talking to all of us. Jesus is calling all of us, each in our own special way, to lead. Jesus is calling each of us, each in our own special way, to serve. In our baptism we all have accepted the challenge of leadership and service. Let me remind you of a couple of the questions in the Baptismal Covenant:
* Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
* Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
* Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

If we answered “I will, with God’s help” to these questions (and I know we did!) then we – all of us – not just bishops and priests and wardens - have accepted the call to lead and to serve.

In today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel I love that the disciples are once again bickering – really rings true, doesn’t it? And what are they arguing about? Of course -who is going to be number one, who is going to have power. Typical. But when we take a closer look at this story we see that Mark has the disciples bickering right after Jesus has revealed something awesome and amazing and frightening. Jesus has predicted his own betrayal, death and resurrection. No surprise, the disciples don’t understand what Jesus is saying and they are afraid. But rather than ask Jesus to explain his amazing prediction, they change the subject to something much more manageable – they argue about who’s going to be in charge – who will be the greatest.

So here Jesus has revealed the heart of his mission to his closest friends. But rather than opening themselves up to this overwhelming reality, the disciples close back in on themselves.

Has this ever happened to you? Have you ever felt that it’s all too much to handle? That there’s too much going on? Maybe you’re trying to juggle two jobs? Maybe you can’t find a job? Maybe you have a new opportunity but you’re not sure if you’re up to the challenge? Maybe the kids are driving you nuts? Or are your parents driving you nuts? Maybe you or someone you care about is facing illness? Like the disciples have you been confronted with something big and challenging but rather than opening yourself up to it have you closed up within yourself?

I know that I have been going through something like that lately. I’ll even admit this in front of a member of the Commission on Ministry. As many of you know, the end of the long road to ordination is almost in sight for me. But lately I’ve been having a hard time being enthusiastic about the seminary and even the church. I find that I’m tired of all the fighting about sexuality and power. I’m tired of people being totally sure they are right and that God is on their side. I’m tired of the seminary and the often tense and intense environment over there. And, of course, like you I’ve been very sad that Pastor Judy, and probably I, will be leaving House of Prayer. So, anyway, although I had a great summer I’ve pretty quickly gotten myself into very negative rut. Could just be senioritis, but I think it’s more than that. The expression that Sue has heard me say too often, and even my parents have heard, is “I’m just sick of it.”

Just this Friday I hit a low point. In the morning we had a class meeting over at the seminary about General Ordination Exams and beginning to look for jobs. Oh, boy – more stuff to worry about - really not what I felt like talking about. I went home and instead of working on this sermon as I planned, I just sort of moped around feeling anxious and just plain old unhappy.

Finally when Sue got home we talked about my gloomy mood. And as we talked I realized that I had turned in on myself. Faced with some big, exciting, but frightening changes I forgot what it’s all about and why I had gotten myself – or God had gotten me – into this in the first place. And as I read and re-read today’s gospel I came to understand that Jesus is calling all of us to lead by serving. Jesus is calling all of us to set aside our petty bickering. Jesus is calling all of us to move beyond ourselves, move beyond our fears, beyond our wants and open ourselves up to the full life that God dreams for us. Jesus is just up ahead of us on the road – calling to each of us, saying “Come on, I have something wonderful to tell you – you are called to lead – you are called to serve.”

And so the disciples were called to move beyond their own fears and to lead and serve. And so we are called to move beyond our fears and to lead and serve.

During the bishop election there were two phrases from the candidates that stuck in my head. The candidate from Florida, Chip Stokes, talked about how he would challenge our churches to be excellent. I know some people were put off by that, maybe even here at what some of you call the “slightly less than perfect church.” But I thought a lot about what he said and I wondered what exactly it would mean to be an excellent church. Stokes talked about things like having a physical plant that was in tip-top shape, a full program of activities, and so on. Fair enough. But the more I thought about it, I decided that excellence for a church can’t just be the same as excellence in a school or the business world. Excellence for a church can’t just be the bottom line – although of course finances are important. And anyway in today’s gospel Jesus makes it very clear that his standards are not the standards of the world.

Which brings me to the other phrase that has stuck in my head these past few weeks. When asked to define evangelism, our next bishop, Mark Beckwith, quoted a 19th Century missionary who said “an evangelist is one beggar telling another beggar where the bread is.”

A powerful image. And it seems to me a great definition of what it means to be an excellent church and to be true Christian leaders and servers. As I said to Pastor Judy a couple of weeks ago, House of Prayer is excellent in ways that really matter – yes, sure, the buildings may still need some work, but here we genuinely care for our sisters and brothers. Anyone who was here last week and stood in our Circle of Prayer knows the power of that love and care. We are a real Christian family.

And also last week in the midst of sadness and fear we came together for the International Festival. Maybe the numbers weren’t quite what we might have hoped, but once again this little church came together to celebrate and to enjoy each other’s company. At one point as the music was blaring and lots of kids were running around, Deacon Kathleen leaned over to me and said “This is a real family church!”

And so it is. House of Prayer is a family church and it is an excellent church. But our new bishop’s words still ring in my ears – an evangelist is one beggar telling another beggar where the bread is.”

So my fellow beggars, we are called to do some work. We are called to move out beyond ourselves and to serve the world beyond those doors. We are called to set aside our own fears and anxieties and reach out for the full life that God has promised us. In our baptism we Christians are all called to be leaders - we are all called to be great - we are all called to be excellent. We are called to serve.

These next few important months maybe we can take some time and reflect on how we at House of Prayer can reach out even better to the beggars of every kind who are just outside those doors in Newark and beyond. We know where the bread is – it’s right here – it’s here with us – it’s in the Word of God, it’s in our prayer circle and especially at our altar. We know where the bread is – it’s in our care and love for one another. We know where the bread is – it’s playing on the swings out in the church yard, enjoying good food and dancing (or trying to dance) to a reggae beat. Oh, we know where the bread is, all right. The question is - will we let the other beggars know?

As we face the future we may feel fear and anxiety. But today’s gospel reminds us that Jesus is on the road with us every step of the way. He’s calling us to lead; he’s calling us to serve. Jesus is on the road just up ahead of us saying, “Come on, I have something wonderful to tell you – you are called to lead, you are called to serve.”