Preaching to the Choir

What’s wrong with preaching to the choir? Someone commented recently that she thought most political ads at this point in the campaign are just “preaching to the choir.” Whoever the intended targets are most political ads are a terrible waste of money that could be used to actually do some good, and I just want them to stop! I plan to vote early this week and how I wish that would somehow trigger a magic switch somewhere in cyber space that would exempt me from hearing or seeing any more hateful negative ads.

But my friend’s comment got me wondering about “preaching to the choir.” We all know it means unnecessarily trying to persuade people of something when they are already convinced. Anyone can sell a product or an idea to those who have already decided to buy, I get that. But consider “preaching to the choir” more literally. With all due respect to musicians who faithfully give of their time and talent in church or elsewhere, I would argue that choir members need to hear the Gospel just as much as anyone else, preachers included. In fact I’ve known both choir members and preachers who need to hear God’s Word more than other folks.

That understanding of what preaching to the choir or those already converted reminds me of something Dr. Everett Tilson, one of my seminary mentors often told us many years ago. He said, “You can’t understand the Scriptures until you are willing to stand under them.” Both the judgment and grace of God are for all of us, saints and sinners alike and we need to hear it early and often, especially in campaign season. As St. Paul put it, “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). And “all” means all, no exceptions, no deferments. Christ died for all of us fallible human beings, and we are in great danger if we ever forget that. When we are tempted to judge others as more sinful or less worthy of God’s love, we are treading on very thin ice.

Humility is a very basic requirement of faith. As any regular reader of mine knows, Micah 6:8 is my default summary of what is required of a faithful follower of God, and the final item in that verse is “to walk humbly with your God.” (See my 10/4/15 post “Finding Our Way Back to God: The Search for Meaning” for a discussion of that text in more depth.) The same advice from a negative perspective is given in the familiar adage that “pride goes before a fall.” But if you check out the biblical source of that proverb, the consequences of pride are much worse than a just a fall. What Proverbs 16:18 says in full is “Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.” Pride is such a serious problem that it comes in at number 4 on the Roman Catholic list of seven deadly sins.

Wouldn’t you think with all those dire warnings there would be less ego and more humility around? But just the opposite seems to be the case in our selfie-crazed society. Dare I say especially in campaign season there is a plethora of hubris in the air? One of the big problems with pride is that it often gets expressed not by building ourselves up but by putting others down so we look better by comparison. If truth be told most of our visits to eye doctors would include a reminder that part of the trouble with our vision is that we can’t see the logs in our own eyes because we are too busy criticizing others for the tiny specks in theirs. (Matthew 7:3-5 and Luke 6:42).

I could go on showing off my biblical prowess by proof texting many other references to pride, but that doesn’t seem wise at this point. An image of stones and a glass house comes to mind! And yes, in this age of digital transparency where all of our actions can be captured on cell phone video and all of our tweets are fair game for public exposure, we all live in glass houses, including the choir. The prescribed antidote for pride is a regular reminder for all of us that the peace of mind and heart we crave never comes from the fame and recognition worldly values tempt us to pursue. It comes only to the humble who know that “the greatest of all is servant of all.” (Mark 10:44).

By the way, that bit about the glass houses isn’t biblical, but it’s close to Jesus’ daring those of us who are without sin to cast the first stone. (John 8:7).

Humbly yours, as one who can’t sing a lick, but I know I belong in that chorus who need to stand under the Scripture.

SIGNS OF LIFE: MINISTRY OF GIFTS, Mark 6:30-44

We’ve had a series of medical emergencies during Sunday morning worship at our church this winter when it was necessary to call the emergency squad.  This has happened so often we’ve thought of asking the EMT’s if they’d like to join the congregation.  After all, they’ve been more regular attendees than some of our members!

I suppose that’s why I dreamed the other night that they came again, but there was a major difference in my dream.  Instead of one ambulance, a whole herd of them arrived in our parking lot, and they loaded up the whole congregation and took us to the ER to check our congregation for signs of life.  Ironically we had just finished singing the old Methodist hymn, “And Are We Yet Live?” when we heard the first sirens.

In the ER there was another patient in the cubicle next to ours, and HIPPA privacy laws or not, I could tell from the conversation I overheard through the flimsy dividing curtain that it was another congregation.  From the pieces of conversation I got between the doctors and nurses, I knew that other patient was in trouble.  They were checking the vital signs and none sounded good:

  • Spirituality – detected in the brain but not in the heart
  • Mode of Worship– luke warm and dropping fast
  • Small group involvement – below normal
  • Loving Community relationships– compound fractures and divisions
  • Evangelism and outreach – barely detectable

Pretty soon I heard the steady hum of a heart monitor that had flatlined.  I heard someone, I guessed the hospital chaplain, explain the death by quoting parts of the New Testament letter of James.  I questioned his bedside manner, but the words rang true –“Be doers of the word and not merely hearers…Faith without works is dead.”

That got me to wondering.  When new people first enter our church building do they see those signs of life?  Do they experience the final vital sign that is our topic for today — a congregation that shares God’s gifts in ministry and service to others?

Mark 6 says the disciples came back from their mission trips and their evangelistic efforts at school and work and “reported to Jesus all that they had done and taught.”   How different would our lives and our church’s life look if we intentionally reported to Jesus every day what we did that day for the good of God’s creation and God’s children?

Please note, I celebrate all the wonderful ministries our congregation is already doing – the ones going on for years, decades, some even for the 177 years we’ve been here.  And I love the new ministries, like the Knit Wits (who make warm hats for homeless folks) or our Kids Morning Out program that reaches out to the smallest members of God’s family.     So this isn’t about a guilt trip – those don’t ever take us anywhere God wants us to be.  This is about examining our hearts to see if we are discerning correctly what God wants us to be doing here in this place as a church in 2012.

One of the Jesus tests for answering that question comes from Matthew 25 where Jesus reminds that what we do for the least of our sisters and brothers is what we do for Christ.  Sometimes the least of us go to great lengths to hide their needs from others and from God.  The least could be someone who appears to have the most.  I read in the news this week that actress Jennifer Aniston spent—are you sitting down–$141,000 last year to maintain her youthful appearance.  After being shocked and angry at what she spent on hairdressers, personal trainers, a private nutritionist, and laser peels (I don’t even want to know what that is), I wondered if anyone is also ministering to her spiritual needs.  Is anyone sharing with her the good news that God loves her just the way she is without spending all that time and money on her exterior image?

The ministry of gifts is the rubber meets the road vital sign for the church.  Health professions measure our health by checking blood pressure and heart rate, weight and cholesterol.  What yard stick do we use to check how alive we are as a congregation?  Is it good enough to be doing better than the Presbyterians or Baptists?  Or more than our unbelieving friends and neighbors?  Sorry, Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook that easily.  Jesus himself is the gold standard, the best model of servanthood and the sharing of gifts.

Look at how Jesus lives that out in the familiar miracle story of the feeding of the 5000.   First, Jesus sees the crowd as they get off the boat on the way to a much-needed spiritual retreat.  Mark tells us that Jesus and the disciples were so busy ministering to the crowds who pressed in upon them to be healed and taught that they “had no time even to even eat.”  That’s way too busy.  Jesus sees the weariness and the need for a time away to rest and renew.  So they get in a boat to cross the lake, but the crowds saw them leaving and started texting and tweeting to their friends; so when Jesus and the disciples got to their destination to get away from it all – it was all there waiting for them.

How does Jesus respond to the needs of the crowds clamoring for time with him?  What we’d expect – he sees they are like sheep without a shepherd and he has compassion on them.  That’s all well and good.  I have compassion every time I see a homeless person standing by a freeway off ramp holding a “will work for food” sign.   I pray for them or even give a little cash, but then I quickly move on to my intended destination.  Not so our mentor servant Jesus.  He responds to the need he sees and postpones the R&R he and his boys really needed and were counting on.  He sees and feels the spiritual hunger of the crowd, and he teaches them.  He doesn’t toss a pious platitude to them or say “take two proverbs and call me in the morning.”   He sits down and listens to them, teaches them until the sun begins to set and his disciples interrupt to say it’s time for supper.

Ok, another need has arisen, this time not spiritual but physical hunger.  Notice the difference between Jesus’ response to this need and that of the disciples.  The disciples are anxious to get on with their own agenda.  They say, “Let’s send them over to Chipotle or Subway so they can buy themselves some food.”  “ Nope,” says the Lord.  He looks Peter and John and the others right in the eye, and he says, “YOU give them something to eat.”     And what does he get from the disciples?  Excuses.  “We don’t have that kind of bread, Jesus; we’ve barely got enough for ourselves.  There must be 5000 of them.  We can’t possibly feed them all!”

Jesus says, “Go, and see what you’ve got.  Check out your available resources.”  Jesus asks us to take that kind of inventory too.  What do we put on our list?  We don’t think about all the gifts we have as a congregation.  The big ones are obvious – the music program, the mission trips, the weekly trips to serve a meal to the homeless, Sunday school teachers & youth leaders, committee chairs – but what about the gift of a friendly smile to a stranger, the ministry of calling a child by name so she knows she matters, setting up chairs for worship, rocking an infant in the nursery.  And the ministry of gifts is an even more effective witness when we do it away from the church building.  Forgiving a rude driver on the road or giving up your spot in line at Kroger’s to a harried father with 3 squirmy pre-schoolers in tow – those are gifts of ministry to God’s children.  And let’s not overlook the gifts of ministry children offer us –their curiosity, pure innocent honesty, exuberance and energy.  In the Gospel of John’s version of this miracle (John 6) the food Jesus uses to feed the masses comes from a little boy in the crowd.

It is a gift to grow food for the hungry in your garden or to lead a community organization, mobilizing efforts to change things in our society and world that are unjust or just plain wrong.  We all have unique gifts,  and our call is to take whatever God has gifted each of us with and re-gift it to those who need it.

So the disciples report back to Jesus with a meager 5 loaves and 2 fish.   They give it to Jesus; he blesses it – offers it to God and has the disciples share it with the crowd.  Not only does everybody get food to eat, Mark tells us that they all are satisfied.  And not only that, there are enough leftovers to feed the next hungry people already coming down the road.

In the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 7), Jesus says, people will know us by our fruits.  [I held up a beautiful large red apple in one hand and a very black, over-ripe banana in the other]  What kind of fruit do we want to be known for?

Remember we’re not talking about buying new expensive gifts, just sharing the talents we already have.  When he feeds the multitude, Jesus doesn’t ask the disciples for more than they have – that would be terribly unfair, but he does ask us to trust him with ALL that we have – whatever that may be.  There’s a great example of the miraculous results the  spontaneous ministry of gifts can have in a short documentary on you tube about a little known part of the events of 9/11.  “Boatlift: The Untold Story of 9/11 Resilience” tells how immediately after the towers collapsed thousands of frightened people were desperate to get away from ground zero.  They had no idea what other attacks might be coming.  But the subways and bridges were all shut down, and as the film’s narrator Tom Hanks says, “Many people realized for the first time that Manhattan is an island.”  The miracle is that 500,000 people were evacuated from Manhattan in just 9 hours by a group of volunteer tug boat and ferry boat captains who saw a need and put out a radio plea for other boats to join them.  They had no plan, no organizational chart.  Dozens of good people simply decided to share the resources they had available – no more, no less – and their gifts bore great fruit.  (For the full story, go to  www.youtube.com/watch?v=MDOrzF7B2Kg.

When they do the EKG to check on the heartbeat of Jesus followers at Jerome Church, what fruits will they know us by?   What can we report to Jesus that we have done in the past and will do today to feed the spiritual and physical hungers of his children?

The bottom line is this – when the time comes for Jesus to check my spiritual vital signs he’s not going to ask me why I didn’t take my canoe to help with the boatlift on 9/11, or why I didn’t sing like Josh Groban, or minister to the desperately poor like Mother Theresa.  Those gifts belong to others, not me.   All Jesus is going to want to know is if I’ve been the best Steve Harsh I could be and used the gifts and talents God gave me to show God’s love and mercy to my sisters and brothers

Jesus will remind me that life isn’t Facebook.  We can’t just push a button and unfriend the annoying or the needy.  We are called to share the gifts of ministry with them all, the least and the most of them – the poor and the poor in spirit — to share with them all the gifts we’ve been given.  And when we do, miracles happen, and it is more than enough.