Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | January 3, 2021
Maybe last year at this time you made some New Year’s Resolutions. Some of them didn’t turn out like you expected. That happens in any year, but 2020 upended a lot of expectations. If you had resolved to stay home and read more books or watch more television, then 2020 likely exceeded your expectations.
There are some lights showing at the end of our current tunnel. We also know that life being what it is, we cannot predict the future with perfect accuracy. But would we want to? If we could predict the future, then life itself would be far less interesting. It’s the challenge of living that keeps us going. It’s the challenge that keeps us engaged in the struggle.
For me, one of the most awe inspiring statements in the Bible is from our reading today – “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”
We ask children the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Though in terms of becoming children of God, do we ever fully grow up?
When I was 18, I worked at a shoeshine stand in a barber shop. The shop was in a high-rise office building and it catered to a business clientele. Businessmen in suits would get their shoes shined while they waited for a haircut.
“What is it you plan to do with your life?” they would ask.
It was an interesting question, because they assumed no one would want to spend their life shining shoes. So, I would tell them I planned to go to college and study this or that. Well then, a kid with plans; that was okay then.
I’ve had many jobs in my life and they all served to define me in some way. Shoeshine boy, school bus driver, welding machine repair, small engine repair, restaurant worker, lumberjack, janitor, fire-fighter, newspaper delivery, minister.
A friend of mine growing up had big ambitions. He said to me once, “Man you wouldn’t catch me dead shining shoes. I would starve before I shined somebody’s shoes.”
I thought, well then you probably would starve, because pride makes an empty meal. You can’t eat it, but sometimes in order to avoid starving you have to eat your pride. I was proud of my ability to shine shoes. When you’re down there shining someone’s shoes, you see the world in a from the ground up sort of way.
That job taught me some valuable lessons. One being, never look down on anyone. Treat everyone with respect. Be kind. Leave a generous tip. And one lesson that served me well is that when people are having a bad day, or a bad life and they lash out in some way, it’s pretty much guaranteed that it’s not about me.
God gives us the power to become –
To become who are
To become who we are meant to be
To become our best possible selves
To become children of God
As we go through life, we receive advice along the way – some of it welcome and some of it not so much. People tell us what they think we need to know for our own good. Some people discover truth as wisdom by listening and heeding wise counsel. Someone sets a good example and we want to be like that person.
Some people discover the same truth as the experience of the shipwreck of their life when it comes crashing against the hard rocks of reality. We might think regretfully, I should have listened.
There’s also that sense that we can’t do it all. We can’t be all things to all people. Whether it’s related to our work, our family or our friends, in order to be there for others, we must also be there for ourselves. God gives us the power to become children of God, but it is not in our power to make other people into what we think they should be.
This lesson was brought home to me when I was involved in a three-month program called “Clinical Pastoral Education.” Many hospitals in the U.S. offer this program for people training for ministry. The basic premise is to learn the art of listening.
I signed up for the program toward the end of my seminary training. It was at St. Joseph’s Hospital in St. Paul. In those days the hospital had a strong connection with Roman Catholic Church. There were only five students in the group – me and four nuns. I wondered, “What have I gotten myself into?”
What I experienced from the people in the program and the other hospital chaplaincy staff was a deep sense of care and concern for me as a person and non-judgmental acceptance. That might seem like fairly basic stuff, but it was eye-opening for me. I came from a religious system that made clear divisions between those who were saved and those who were unsaved. The whole point of that system was to get the unsaved over to the saved side. Because that’s what Jesus did – to seek and save the lost.
Or so it seemed.
But what I began to see was that how Jesus went about his mission was simple. He basically went around and listened to people. Sure, he was a teacher, but his teaching came from a deep well of understanding of people that came about because he primarily listened.
It was a profound relief to simply learn how to listen to people. That listening was in and of itself an important ministry. To listen with no agenda at hand; to listen without waiting for an opening or hook on which to proceed with a convincing argument. Simply to listen.
After some training, the day I was to go out on my assigned ward and begin listening to people. One of the Roman Catholic Priests saw me took me aside and said, “John, don’t try to save anyone. Just remember that Jesus has already done that.”
That was a burden lifted. That simple bit of advice has stayed with me through so many situations. Especially those where the great temptation is to try to jump in and Do Something! Because what good are you if you can’t do anything to make it better!?
If God is the author of salvation, then God is also the giver of that gift. God is the one who determines what that gift means. I’ve come to believe that God’s determination is, by whatever measure we apply, generous and more generous than our doctrines and dogmas would allow. God is the one who gives us everything we need to become God’s children.
When I lived in Scotland, I noticed that people would tend to ask me two particular questions. One was, “Are you very busy?” and the other one was, “What is it exactly that you do?”
“Are you very busy?” seemed to come from this idea that ministers are always busy, like busy bees. Always doing something important, usually more important than the person or task at hand. People got that impression because that’s how ministers in that system tended to justify their existence. By being or seeming to be busy. If I’m busy all the time, then my work must have value. Then I must have value.
I always answered, “No, I’m not busy. I’m never busy.” I’m never too busy to talk to you.
The writer Henri Nouwen was visiting a friend of his who was a college professor. As they were walking across campus, students and other staff members stopped them numerous times to engage in some question or conversation. Henri Nouwen asked his friend how he ever got any work done with so many interruptions.
His friend answered, “I find that my interruptions are often my most important work.”
Which ties into the other question, “What is it exactly that you do?”
Young people tended to be the ones asking that question. Who is this guy who just seems to show up and what does he do?
My answer is, I show up and remind you that God loves you. That’s basically the job of a pastor. It’s what I do as a hospice chaplain. And much of the time that message comes without the words. It’s the showing up, the being there, the being alongside, the being with, the listening that is the message of God’s love.
So, if I am making any New Year’s Resolutions this year, they might be two simple things –
One – get on my exercise bike each day and pedal for a while.
Two – show up to where I need to be.
God gives us the power to become children of God. It’s a gift of grace. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. Amen.