Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | February 6, 2022
One time I was at continuing education class and listening to a lecture by a renowned professor of something. He was talking about church leadership. He said that we pastors needed to go back to our churches and recruit people for the ministry. Not just any people, but the brightest and the best. What the church needs, he said, is stellar candidates for ministry. The brightest and the best.
I wondered how many of my colleagues in the audience thought like I did that if brightest and best were a requirement for ministry, then we would not have made the cut.
A question occurred to me, where did he find that in the bible? I certainly don’t begrudge anyone their gifts and talents for excellence
When you look at the folks that Jesus brought into his fold, brightest and best doesn’t seem to be a required trait. When Jesus met Simon Peter, whom he would designate as the rock upon which he would build his church, Simon Peter, said, “Get away from me – I’m a sinful man.”
Jesus said in effect, “That’s okay, you’re just what I’m looking for.”
One summer I worked in the Lloyd Building Barber shop as the shoeshine boy. The Lloyd Building is a 16-story office building in Portland housing a variety of companies. Those were the days when the business uniform was a suit and a tie and a good shine on your shoes. I didn’t get rich shining shoes, but I earned enough in one summer to pay for my first semester of college.
One thing I picked up in that job was an appreciation for a good suit and a good pair of shoes. Sometimes my customers would engage in conversation; questions mostly –
“So, what are your plans?” As if shining shoes could never be a career option.
I would say, “I’m going to Portland State in the fall.”
“Oh? What are going to major in?” or even, “What do you want to do with your life?”
I would answer one of three ways – “I’m not sure at this point,” or “I might study law enforcement,” or “I might go into ministry.”
The first answer would be met with, “You’ll figure it out.”
The second answer would be met with, “Hmm, good for you.”
And the third answer would often be met with, “Why would you want to do that?”
The answer to that question was difficult to articulate. It had something to do with ministry being an interesting way to make a living. But more than just making a living, because as they say, “We’re not in it for the money, or shouldn’t be,” being in ministry could be an interesting way to go through life. And that’s because people are interesting.
The story is told of Jesus gathering together his core group of followers. He didn’t require a detailed job application. He found people whom he thought were interesting, and basically said, follow me. Some people did so gladly, and others had to be convinced.
When Simon Peter felt the pull of God’s Spirit in his heart, he said to the one bringing it to bear, “Go away from me. I am a sinful man!” He didn’t mean that his deeds were too awful or that his soul was too sullied by evil. He meant, “I don’t have what it takes to be your follower. I’m just an everyday kind of guy. I fish for a living. What can you possibly see in me?”
When Jesus went around looking for people to follow him, and to eventually go on and share with the others the reality that he was bringing into view, the attitude of someone who said, “But I’m not qualified,” was one of the primary characteristics he was looking for.
The nature of the realm of God that Jesus brought into view was what we might call a “grassroots” movement. God did not start at the top of society and work down from there. God started on common ground and worked outward from there.
The first hearts that Jesus reached out to were attached to hands with calluses on them. They belonged to people who would not think of themselves as qualified for work in the realm of God’s Spirit. They were common people, coarse even.
But Jesus knew something about people. What he revealed was that God was for all people. Everyone belonged to God, including people who labored for a living, who were not highly educated or well spoken. We tend to take that idea for granted, but in his day it was a radical idea. In the time of Jesus, it was a commonly held view that the people who made a profession of religion were the closest to God. The priests and teachers and those who went around filling in the outward form of religion.
Jesus knew that in order to draw people to God’s realm, where everyone was invited and welcome, you could not look down on people and expect them to respond favorably. The best way to reach the heart and soul of the common people was simply to look them in the eye, from the perspective of common ground. That’s why he invited people such as Simon Peter and his friends to be his first followers.
When we were in Scotland one of the questions people often asked was, “What brought you to Glasgow?” which was a way of asking, “Why did you come here?”
I had been at Peace Presbyterian in St. Louis Park for nearly twelve years and figured I had one move left in me. Typically, at that career point, one goes on to “bigger and better” things. So I polished up my resume and put it out there. But I was also wondering not so much about bigger and better things, but rather, where is Jesus calling me to go? Some interesting conversations followed.
One search committee asked, “What attracted you to our church?” I in turn asked them, “What attracted you to my application?” They were honest in their answer.
“You have a doctorate,” they said. “Any minister who comes to this church has to present a certain status. The fact that you have a doctorate is a foot in the door.” I thought, Jesus never said, “Follow me and I will make you a foot in the door.” I passed on that one.
Another church had this as part of its mission statement: “Most congregants come from 5-10 miles in order to worship here, and the Sunday experience is vital. This destination aspect to our location, along with the demographic profile of the congregation, requires an intelligent, biblically based sermon on Sunday mornings and a vibrant worship experience as the foundation for discipleship in order to make it worthwhile to make the drive.” Though they were offering a hefty six-figure salary, I decided I didn’t want to worry about whether or not my presentation of the Good News was going to be worth the 5-10 mile drive.
I went to Scotland because I friend over there told me about a church that no one wanted to go to, because of the reputation of the neighborhood. Poverty, social deprivation, and a life expectancy of 62 years. They hired me because I was the only minister who applied for the job.
One day after being there some years, Lindsay and I were having lunch with our friend Ian Galbraith, who was an organist in a different Glasgow church. Ian told a story about when he first started his work as an organist. He was just fourteen years old when he began playing in church. He started at about the same time a new minister came to his church. He described the new minister as quiet, thoughtful, kind and soft-spoken; a bit of an intellectual.
The new minister followed on the heels of a minister who had been hugely successful and very popular. That minister went on to become famous and he drew in huge crowds whenever he preached. Within a few months of the new minister arriving the crowds had dropped off.
Ian asked his parents about it. Why did so many people walk away from the church? As much as he appreciated the new minister, was there something wrong with the man? His dad told him something he always remembered. He said his told him, “The former minister always entertained you. This new minister makes you think. I guess more people wanted to be entertained in church than to be made to think. But in the long run I would rather gain something to think about from church, than something to entertained with.”
I suggested that there were probably more people still in church to this day because of the ministry of the one who made them think, than there were because of the one who merely entertained.
God’s call remains in effect in our lives. This church, this community of faith has a mission. Perhaps like Peter and his pals mending their nets after a non-productive night of fishing, God is reminding us that we’re not done yet. The Lord continues to be about the work of calling people to follow Jesus. As when he first began his ministry, he calls people from the common ground of life. People like me, people like you. It is never about being successful. It is always and only about being faithful. Amen.