Jesus and his disciples are headed for Jerusalem, where he knows perfectly well there will be a major conflict with the religious authorities, a conflict he expects to lose. He is trying to prepare his disciples for this reality because it has become his conviction that even if he loses—and losing in this case probably means death for him—he will ultimately be vindicated and good news will prevail.
It all seems crazy and distressing beyond measure, but Jesus believes God is up to something in his life, and even though that something appears to be utter disaster, it is actually good news.
Mark says that the disciples did not understand any of this and were afraid to ask him. Which means, of course, that they did understand him. If they were afraid, then they knew enough to have a sense where this was going, but it was not a way they wished to go.
Instead they were having a conversation about themselves. Who is the greatest? Who should be the leader? Who has the answers?
Jesus is disappointed, to say the least, by their distraction. No, he says, everything is upside down in the world I am trying to live and to teach you to live in. To be the greatest you have to be willing to be the least. To be the leader who have to be willing to be the servant. And, as an example, he holds up a child. In the conversation they were having, a child is worthless. A child cannot be great, a child cannot lead, a child does not have answers. But, Jesus says, a child can be welcomed, and that welcome will take you to the very heart of God, where the good news is born.
This story is almost perfectly applicable to where we are as a church today, and I mean “church” in both the big picture sense and the local sense.
If there is one question that dominates the church these days, it is, “How do we reach people out there in order to get them in here?” It is the growth question. We’ve been asking this question for a long time now and some of us have more or less given up. These days this question is often put by our leaders in terms of whether we are an inward-looking church or an outward-looking church, or whether we are primarily about maintenance or mission.
Personally, I have been hearing about these distinctions for all 21 years of my ordained ministry and the promise that if we change our focus, everything will be all right. I have, in fact, in the past preached that particular false gospel. I say false gospel because it has become clear to me, as it has to many other people, including Mary Ann, that these are false distinctions. Yes, it is good to be outward-focused, but you cannot stop being inward-focused. Yes, it is good to prioritize mission over maintenance, but we cannot exactly stop maintaining our buildings, and that’s partly because they are the place where a lot of our mission happens!
And this mission vs. maintenance conversation has the affect among us of having a lot of “who is the greatest” conversation. Who has the answers? Who’s got the program that’s working? I am so tired of clergy meetings where we go around and tell each other what we are doing, what is working. Frankly, it’s like showing off our newest shiniest toy. What we don’t talk about is the legion of broken toys in our closets. If all our new toys worked, we should have tripled the size of the church in the last twenty years.
So what is the new conversation we have to have, the new focus? It is the Jesus conversation, which means at least two things about it: it’s is going to be a Good Friday—Easter conversation (because that’s the shape of Jesus’ life), and it’s going to turn our world upside down (because that is the work in which Jesus specializes).
We can discover one of the bottom-lines of this new conversation in the story from the Gospel this morning: We have to stop talking about ourselves, and by that I mean, we have to stop talking about the church. Here are some words from the Rev. Alan Roxburgh, a Canadian Anglican priest:
For people asking the [growth] question, the church remains the focus of attention. The church is a location and a place where we bring people and certain things happen. Obviously, there are important elements of being Christians that require us to gather in a place to do certain things, like the sacraments,…formation in Christian practices, and so on. But this has become the limit of what is functionally meant by church for too many Christians and their leadership….most people, including leaders, simply assume that the gospel is about getting to know Jesus and knowing Jesus means coming to church.
Roxburgh goes on to talk at some length about Luke chapter 10, a key text in which Jesus sends out the disciples with the message of the good news. He then goes on to say:
In terms of the discipleship community Jesus gathered, it is clear that they were not to function like the disciple bands of other groups. Instead of turning inward, like the Essenes huddled together in expectation of some future tomorrow, Jesus would not allow his disciples to shape themselves around this option… His disciples, like the Pharisee groups, don’t seem to be focused on keeping all the regulations of righteousness… Instead, Jesus gathers and sends out his disciples to announce that God’s future has come among them….Jesus’ work is about being sent out, about leaving places of familiarity, control and security.
We keep trying to turn things around by making the church better, fixing whatever it is we are doing wrong. And we do need to do that, don’t hear it from me that hospitality, generosity, and stewardship are not important. They are. But they will not save us. They are the things that we need to receive people and help them discern their place in our communities. But they are not, by and large, the things that attract.
When I first came to Two Saints, one of the things I heard from many people was that “This church is one of the best kept secrets in Rochester.” When I came to St. Stephen’s with Mary Ann five years ago I heard from several people, “This church is the best kept secret in Rochester.” Recently I did some work with the vestry at church of the Ascension up on Lake Avenue, and several of them told me, “This Church is the best kept secret in Rochester.”
We are awfully good at keeping secrets.
The only way the secret gets told, is if we/you tell it, and let me suggest to you that the secret we need to be telling is not primarily about our churches. It is about the good news. It is about our transformative relationship with God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit or a Higher Power. It is about our lives which are complex stories of struggle and joy, but lived in the hope of that Good Friday—Easter pattern that Jesus showed us is the way God works.
As we build relationships with people, those are the things they want to talk about. The church is just the place where and the people among whom I get fed on this journey. And, by the way, you might give it a try.
I believe one of things our two churches could be doing as a joint project is to learn, to practice, being in these kinds of conversations, not the formulaic “Are you saved?” conversations that are at least the stereotype of our evangelical brothers and sisters, but conversations authentic to us and our tradition of the good news.
Secrets, my friends, most often are forgotten and die. Telling the truth—which, granted, is often risky business—sets people free.