October 17, 2021
So our second reading today is from Mark’s gospel. To set the stage… Jesus and his disciples are on their way to Jerusalem. Jesus has just told them… openly… plainly… what is going to happen there. Words that echo just what we heard from Isaiah… wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities. That’s when brothers James and John come to him with a request… a request born of a different spirit. Listen for the Word of God as it continues to speak to you today.
READ Mark 10:35-45
So today is Commitment Sunday. And I have to tell you there always comes a bit of pressure on the sermon for Commitment Sunday because I am sure… I am sure… that the quality of the sermon will be reflected in the final pledge number we receive this year. I pray deeply every year that’s a joke.
But still… it is Commitment Sunday… and a part of me every year always feels the pressure to turn this sermon into some sort of state of the institution address… which to paraphrase a popular line… I can confidently say that the state of the institution is strong. Even deep in our second year of Covid, the institution that is Parkway Presbyterian is in good shape. A bit frayed around the edges… of course. What isn’t these days? But our core as an institution… today… at this moment… is strong. Which… as I’ve tried to tell you again and again… is really due to the collective you. Yes… Commitment Sunday is heavily about the church finances… and financially… because you have kept the commitment you made this time last year… financially we are able to strive for balance between institution and ministry.
Let me unpack that a bit. On the one hand a church is an institution. It is a building. It is the staff. It is all the business things that gives us as a congregation a physical presence in the world. What happens time and again as the cost of the institution becomes overwhelming compared to the amount of the giving… what happens in congregations time and again is that the congregation loses balance… and the maintenance and preservation of the institution becomes the de facto ministry of the church. With Parkway… we are not at this point… yet. And I say yet, not to create some manner of Commitment Sunday false anxiety give more give more… I say yet because the reality is it doesn’t take much for a church to lose balance and… and… in this day and age where we see declining attendance and membership in churches across the board… it would be unwise for us to say that it can’t happen here.
We strive for balance between the maintenance of the institution and the ministry to which we are called… the reason why the institution was created in the first place… the reason why the institution exists and is handed down from generation to generation… as a tool to do that which God has gathered us together through the Spirit to do… ministry.
On this Commitment Sunday, it’s not to the institution I’m going to ask you to give your commitment. In a way… that’s a given. We are sensible people and I don’t think you need an elaborate song and dance to understand the basics of institutional maintenance… the paying of bills, the maintaining of our property, the paying of the staff. Anytime you want to see where the money goes… come visit me… talk to an elder… ask one or even both of our treasurers… we will gladly show you the latest financial report and tell you probably more than you’ve ever wanted to know about the church’s finances and how we are managing those assets. It’s not a great mystery here at Parkway… nor is it that hard to understand.
On this Commitment Sunday it’s the ministry of Parkway that I want you to commit to. This brings us back to our scripture… finally, right?
James and John ask Jesus, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Doesn’t that just say it all right there. We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you. I came to this passage today trying to question my preconceived notions of what I would find here. I wanted to give James and John the benefit of the doubt. Maybe… maybe… like so many well-known passages… maybe I’ve gotten stuck in the usual well-worn rut of a particular interpretation that maybe… maybe… isn’t as sure as it seems. Maybe there’s a different angle. And maybe there is… but saints I can tell you… this time… I didn’t find it. Their request is so obtuse. It’s so far on the other side of the spectrum from what Jesus has just told them about what is getting ready to happen in Jerusalem. James and John may be walking with Jesus… but they’re walking a different path.
In this section of Mark’s gospel Jesus has now told the disciples three times what will happen in Jerusalem… “the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him and spit upon him and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.” Three times they have heard this message… and three times Jesus took the opportunity to lay the foundation of their ministry to come. The first time, Peter rebuked Jesus, who then taught that “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” How well did that message stick? After the second time Jesus tells the disciples what is going to happen when they reach Jerusalem, the disciples were caught arguing among themselves over which one of them is the greatest. Jesus then took that opportunity to teach them… first taking a little child and putting that child among them… taking that child up in his arms to make the image even clearer… “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Now Jesus tells them for a third time what will happen in Jerusalem… for a third time… and that’s when brothers James and John decide to approach him with this request of their own. Do for us whatever we ask of you.
Do for us whatever we ask of you. It’s the wrong spirit. Can you hear it? Do for us whatever we ask of you. Commitment Sunday is a great Sunday to remind us that the church doesn’t exist to serve us… neither the institution nor its ministry was meant to be self-serving. James and John… they haven’t learned yet from Peter’s rebuke. There is no self-denial… there isn’t an inkling of cross in their hearts as they approach Jesus with their question. That child Jesus held in his arms… that child has been forgotten. James and John are still thinking that following this Jesus is going to bring them power and importance in this world. On the left and on the right… they will stand in the typical places of honor and prestige. Do for us whatever we ask of you. Us. Me. Mine. Dear Lord Jesus put us in that place where we can work our will in your name on those around us. Wrong spirit. Wrong path. James and John are not heading toward Jerusalem.
You see… I don’t want you to commit yourself to a self-serving ministry… the kind of ministry that fulfills your demands or your image of what church ought to look like and sound like and act like… all that surface performance that means little. Think about little church tyrants. I know you’ve encountered them. I know I’ve encountered them. Little church tyrants who have to dominate and control everything that happens in the life of a congregation. Little church tyrants who bully and bring everything down to their level. Little church tyrants whose demands will never be satisfied… who can never be appeased no matter how much you try or bend things to satisfy their will. Little church tyrants who after years of being told what happened in Jerusalem and what it means… little church tyrants who will still walk up to Jesus and say, “Do for us whatever we ask of you.” Afterall, we give a lot of money to your church.
That’s not the spirit of ministry I want you to renew your commitment to. In fact, if that sounds like you… what I want from you this morning is to let it go. Drop it. Leave it behind here on the way to Jerusalem. Free your hands from whatever they are grasping to possess and open them instead to be equipped for the work of ministry.
Jesus lays out for us here in Mark three marks of an equipping ministry… that’s what I want you to commit yourself towards… that’s what I want you to pledge together for us to create… an institution that works to equip the saints so that they can go out and meet the world today and do the work of ministry… bring the gospel to those in need… spread love instead of hate… be quick to show mercy instead of judgment. As an institution, Parkway Presbyterian is in the business of making disciples of Christ Jesus. That’s what we are about… that’s what you are making possible. Three marks of an equipping ministry. Deny yourself and take up your cross and follow Jesus. Welcome and embrace not just the literal child… but what the child in Jesus’ arms represents. And to know that answer you have to open your heart… and trust me… once your heart is open you will begin to see the children of God all around you. And finally… what Jesus teaches today in response to all the James and Johns among us still… whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave to all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. That’s the nature of Christian ministry.
And how can we serve if we have not equipped ourselves to be servant disciples? Commit yourself to that spirit. Instead of demanding that you get your way in this or that useless fight… demand instead that you want to increase your knowledge in theology or in scripture. Demand to learn and improve your mind in the faith to build your confidence so you can go out. Demand that of Meg and myself. That’s why you’re paying us to be here as part of Parkway… to serve in a way that equips you for ministry. Truth is… we live for that. The Mission Committee is chomping at the bit to connect with GreeNest but Covid keeps holding us back… they want each of us to grow in service. Commit to giving your time by volunteering… letting that experience and other mission opportunities grow your faith yet again. Covid restrictions won’t last forever… I hope. But Covid restrictions have also restrained our music ministry… still I believe strongly we’ve only seen a small sampling of what Carson and Caroline are capable of becoming. Their growth, however, is tied to your commitment and your willingness to put yourself out there to grow in the faith through music. Saints, commit yourself to the care and service of one another… especially those in our congregation whose age is making their world a bit smaller these days. I hope I said that delicately enough. Equip yourself to love and visit and phone and help with the small things that always seem to need to be done, but sometimes gets harder and harder. Want to embrace that child… they are all around you. This is where we will always need to be a priesthood of all believers… and not just leave it to one or two alone. The usual 10% can’t be responsible for everything that happens in our congregation.
On this Commitment Sunday… the commitment I want you to make… really make… is to love one another. I think that gets said time and again in this book of ours. This is the purpose behind our institution. This is what you are giving to… pledging to… that we use what we have so that we can better love one another as Christ loves us. On this Commitment Sunday this is what I want you to commit yourself to… to being the church you’ve always wanted in your heart Parkway to be. If we can imagine it… we can create it… with a little work and a little time… and with the Father, and Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.