Sunday's Sermon -
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer.
A few weeks ago I spoke about “no one ever said it would be easy.” Today I went to share that it is not about us!
Throughout the Gospels, the disciples often ask Jesus about rewards for their following him – who will sit at his right or left hand in glory, who will rule with him. Jesus continually dismisses such talk and tries to remind his disciples that his kingdom is not an earthly one and any “reward” the disciples may experience, will not come in this world, other than the reward of following Jesus.
In today’s Gospel lesson from St. Matthew, Jesus himself speaks about rewards, beginning with “whoever welcomes you welcomes me” and concluding with his wonderful call to care for the poor, “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones … will not lose their reward.”
But, Jesus’ “rewards” are really not about us, or, as I am titling this sermon, “What made you think it was about you?”
Here is a story I like:
A young pastor began a new congregation. He worked hard. People responded. The congregation grew even quicker than the pastor had ever dreamed it could or would. Worship, education, outreach – all went very well. The pastor should have been pleased.
But he wasn’t. He was actually frightened a bit. One day, in his private prayers to God, the pastor found himself saying to God: "I’m too young, I’m not strong enough or wise enough or mature enough to do this!"
God’s response was quick and clear, “What made you think it was about you? It’s not about you; it’s about me, God. This is my work, not yours."
Well, that is, of course, a made-up story, but it contains much truth.
"What made you think it was about you?"
Now, it is very easy to understand why we, you and I, would assume that all of life is about us. Everything in today’s culture tries to tell us that it is all about us: media, our peers, sometimes even our parents - perhaps a bit of our own immaturity or even bad teaching – all of these can reinforce the message that it is all about me, it is all about us.
Perhaps we have been listening to what the Bible would call “false prophets,” secular prophets perhaps but no less false.
The issue of prophesy and its validity or truth comes up in our Old Testament lesson from Jeremiah. Jeremiah and Hananiah were both prophets of Israel during the exile in Babylon. The people of Israel had been carried off to be captives in a foreign land and all they really wanted to do was get back home, to their land, their temple and their way of life.
Hananiah, with what I’m sure was all good intentions, was preaching and prophesying about how all the temple vessels would be collected and returned to Jerusalem, and that the exiles were about to be set free from their exile.
Jeremiah, however, responded cordially, telling the assembly that he hoped what Hananiah was saying would come true, but that the real test of a prophet is when what he says actually happens. In a more modern context Jeremiah might have said, like “Jerry McQuire,” “Show me the money!” Show me how this will happen.
But, Hananiah continued to predict that good times were just around the corner. He preached exactly what the people wanted to hear, rather than going the route of God’s truth, which was what Jeremiah was all about.
And, of course, Jeremiah was right and Hananiah was wrong. It was not yet time for the Israelites to return to their homeland. That is not what the people wanted to hear, but it was the truth. And, it was not about them.
Jesus did not to take the easy way out either. Jesus spoke the truth, even when it was not what the people wanted to hear. Especially here in Matthew’s tenth chapter, Jesus has called his disciples, given them authority and sent them out to do God’s work. Today Jesus tells them about their rewards.
What do you think of when you hear the word “rewards?” Perhaps like me and the disciples, you think of earthly rewards: perks and privileges and riches, of frequent flyer miles, maybe coupons and bonuses. Maybe winning the lottery! Think of all of those television commercials about winning the lottery – all your problems will be solved if you just buy a lottery ticket!
Those are the kinds of rewards that modern society promotes and they are very seductive.
But, those of us who try to follow Jesus and his teachings know that rewards in terms of this-worldly-rewards are not what Jesus brings. Jesus does not bring us an easy life, as I shared with you several weeks ago. Jesus brings hope and salvation, but not rewards in this world.
It is just not about us.
I love this quote from scholar Barbara Brown Taylor – Taylor says, "What the Bible tells us over and over again - what our lives tell us - is that the only reward for doing God’s work is doing God’s work. Period." The earthly reward for doing God’s work is simple doing God’s work!
Let’s face it, "What’s in it for me?" is not a biblical question! We do not join a community of faith for programs and services. We join for worship and service and those are not ME oriented.
And, think of this, we normally do not ask, "What’s in it for me if we become friends?" or "What’s in it for me if I fall in love with you?" or "What’s in it for me if we have a child?" or "What’s in it for me if I do the right thing?" We just do these right things because they are the right things to do. And none of them are about us!
The truth is that you and I, at heart we yearn for a spiritual connection to God and a communal connection with our neighbor. And in our hearts we know that these are the important connections and that we are put in community to want the right things. And, that those right things are also what God wants, those things that are a reflection of how God desires us to be.
Still, expecting this world rewards is very seductive, at least it can be for me. Can I tell you how easy it is, even this early in my ministry with you all, to look out on a Sunday morning and think about those folks who are NOT here? Where is so and so? Is there something wrong with me that they are not here?
This is terrible thinking – it is NOT about me or you.
When we baptize our children, we make the baptismal promise that Jesus has "set us free from the bondage to sin and death, and has opened the way to the joy and freedom of everlasting life." We celebrate that "those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, will find it."
Preparing for this sermon I heard a wonderful fable about a women’s Bible study group. The women had chosen to study Malachi 3:3, which says that God "will sit as a refiner, a purifier of silver."
Not really understanding that concept of silver making, one of the women volunteered to go discover the process of refining silver. She made an appointment with a silversmith and, on arriving at the smith’s shop, she was escorted to the place of refining. The silversmith held the piece of silver right in the center of the flames.
Watching the silversmith, the woman thought about what that might say about how God deals with us, and she asked the smith, "Do you have to hold the silver in the hottest part of the fire?" "Oh yes," he replied. "If I look away for a moment it could get too hot and be destroyed. If I don’t let it get hot enough, it will not become pure and therefore workable for my purposes." "But how do you know when it’s refined?" asked the woman. The silversmith replied, "When I can see my own image in the silver, I know it is pure."
It is not about us! The reward of doing God’s work is simply doing God’s work. And we do it until the moment when the Creator’s image can be seen in us. And that is our reward, what should be our only needed award, that Jesus might be seen by others in and through our actions.
Again, that wonderful Barbara Brown Taylor quote, "What the Bible tells us over and over again—what our lives tell us—is that the only reward for doing God’s work is doing God’s work. Period."
It is most certainly not about us, it is about Jesus. And following Jesus is our reward, that Jesus might be seen by others in and through our actions. And that is reward enough!
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Mt. Olive Lutheran Church, Santa Monica, California