October 18, 2020 Sermon
“The Forest For the Trees: Self-Focus”
1st Scripture Reading – Mark 10:35-37
35 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
2nd Scripture Reading – Matthew 16:24-26
24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
“The Forest for the Trees: Self-Focus”
One of the most common occurrences in my ministry goes something like this: a member of a congregation I’m serving approaches me and asks for a minor tweak to the worship service:
- Maybe it’s the singing of their favorite hymn more frequently;
- Maybe it’s changing the style of the songs we sing – I get requests that range from getting back to more of the grand hymns of old to singing more contemporary songs befitting the 21st century;
- Maybe it’s changing the order of one or more elements of the service;
- Maybe it’s changing the bread we eat during the communion meal – you know, switching from pellets to wafers or something more fresh;
- Sometimes it’s changing the number of people who speak during the service…and WHICH people;
- One time, I had a person request that I drink water out of a different style of mug while I was in the pulpit;
- I even had a person once come to tell me that ANOTHER person was going to approach me and request some things…and no matter what the request would be…I should do what the person requested…because that person was a long-time member of the congregation who DESERVED to have things go as she desired – whatever she wanted.
One of the most common occurrences in my ministry is for people to come to me and ask me to make a modification to the Sunday morning worship service – the single congregational ministry in which more people participate weekly than any other – so that person can have the worship of EVERY other person in attendance conform to their own personal desires.
Typically, I respond by pointing out that we have a Worship Committee to make those kinds of decisions…so I can’t unilaterally make such a decision on my own. That never goes over well; typically, the person I’m talking to either doesn’t believe me or expresses that I have the authority to “make an exception this one time.” Which then usually leads to me talking about how many people we have in the congregation and what would happen if EVERYONE got their way on every element of the worship service. Which, I tell them, wouldn’t even be possible because in any given week I’ll have two people ask me to do things that are OPPOSITE or mutually exclusive – one wants more contemporary songs while the other wants more traditional songs, for example. We couldn’t possibly do BOTH on the same Sunday. What I rarely lead with, but what I should probably ALWAYS lead with, in response to these requests is a conversation about self-focus versus God-focus. I typically shy away from this as my lead response because this conversation NEVER goes well; about the last thing ANY church member wants is to feel like their pastor just called them self-focused or not God-focused.
Today is the third Sunday of a 7-week long sermon series entitled “forest for the trees.” It’s based on the saying, “can’t see the forest for the trees.” Throughout my ministry, it has been very easy to feel like we in Christ’s Universal Church struggle with seeing the forest for the trees. So, God has directed me to offer a sermon series to help you – help us – wrestle with this issue, to help you – help us – prayerfully seek discernment about what constitutes the forest and what constitutes the trees…at this moment in human history.
You might recall that what I’ll refer to as “the forest” during this series is what Jesus was primarily about and so what God calls Christ’s Church – us – to primarily be about. And what Jesus was primarily about was communicating the gospel of God’s grace, communicating the message that God offers us life when we by our sins deserve death. And I’ve told you that another way to state Jesus’ primary purpose is in terms of ushering in God’s kingdom here on earth, God’s kingdom, of course, being the place where everyone does the will of our God who is graceful.
Last week, we turned our focus from the forest to the trees, which is what we’ll be doing for the remainder of this series. We’ll be looking at some of the trees – the things that distract us from our primary purpose – we’ll be looking at the trees God identified in the scriptures, particularly looking at how these trees manifest themselves today, how they distract us from our primary purpose in this time and place. AND, we’ll be looking to see what we can learn from the scriptures about how to overcome the distractions, how to look past the trees and get our focus back on the forest, back on our primary purpose.
Today’s tree is self-focus. This self-focus tree – as it relates to our faith – manifests itself in many ways.
One way self-focus manifests itself is when we followers of Jesus do what James and John did – we expect or desire God/Jesus to do for us. I read an article this week called, “The i Test”. The article considers the question, what would we ask for if Jesus asked us – like Jesus asked James and John – “What is it you want me to do for you?” Problematically, so many Christians live as if Jesus IS asking us this question…and we MISS the context and point of this interaction. The story doesn’t begin with Jesus asking James and John this question but rather with James and John TELLING Jesus they want what HIM to do for THEM. And in the story Jesus does NOT grant James and John what they demand. So, I’m pretty sure Jesus asks this question not because he has any intention of doing what THEY want but to point out that they – and we – should not be making demands of Jesus at all. Our task as followers of Jesus is NOT to try to get Jesus to do what WE want – that would be asking Jesus to follow US – but rather to try to follow Jesus, to ask what Jesus wants and then do THAT.
When we get this wrong, when we believe Jesus wants the focus to be on US instead of on Jesus, the article I read suggests we fall into two kinds of faith-traps. The first is the trap of false expectations – thinking Jesus will make life awesome and trouble-free, thinking Jesus will take away the consequences of our sins, thinking Jesus will help fix our relational problems and other struggles. And the second trap is misunderstood blessings – thinking that Jesus will bless us with whatever WE want instead of the kinds of things Jesus actually said he will bless us with. Jesus said we would be blessed with love (which doesn’t mean approval of our actions), with healing (but not always total healing or even the kind of healing we desire), with forgiveness (which doesn’t mean permission to continue in our sinfulness), and with truth (that’s God’s truth, not our truth). Y’all, when we get this wrong – when we think Jesus is about doing what WE want – we’re expressing a faith that is DIFFERENT from what Christianity is supposed to be; Christianity is supposed to be about us doing what JESUS wants.
A second manifestation of this self focus is very much related to the first. It’s creating our own faith. I’m not sure I’ve ever met a Christian who would claim to have created their own faith – they proclaim to be practicing the faith called “Christianity”, and yet, I’m not sure I’ve ever met a Christian – myself included – who hasn’t done this at least a little. At some time or another, almost all of us make a literal or metaphorical checklist of attributes of God that are acceptable to us…and we then imagine God MUST conform to our checklist of desirable attributes (whether or not God actually DOES fit with our list is beside the point.) I’ve known so many people who’ve said, “I couldn’t possibly worship or follow a God who [fill in the blank.]” Y’all, whenever we do that, whenever we define God based on what we want rather than based on who God actually is, we create our own religion. If you place limits on who God can be in order for you to worship God or follow God, you’re not giving God the space to be God. But it’s even worse than that, you create a God of your own making and then communicate your own personal God to others as if the God of your making is somehow THE one true God. I hope you can see that this is a problem. It has quite a lot to do with why we’ve got so many people out there in the world claiming to worship the one true God…even while they’re worshipping a God who is very DIFFERENT from the one true God their neighbors claim to be worshipping. Things have gotten so out of hand that Christian disagree on thousands, maybe even millions, of attributes or aspects of God.
The third way this self-focus tree manifests itself has to do with taking our eyes off the needs of the world.
It’s easy to take our eyes off the needs of the world, isn’t it?
- It’s easy to get so bogged down in our own pains, our own illnesses, our own problems, that we either can’t or won’t look to the needs of others.
- It’s easy to believe and to say that there are so many problems closer to home – whether we mean our own family and friends, our own city, our own nation – it’s easy to say there are so many problems close to home that we can’t focus very far out – certainly not as far as Puerto Rico or El Salvador or further.
- It’s easy to get so concerned about the long-term viability of our material resources that we say we just can’t even look to the needs of others because, if we discover any needs out there, we simply won’t have the resources to do anything about them…so we put blinders on.
But here’s the thing, if we take our eyes off the needs of the world – for any reason – we take our eyes OFF of our primary purpose. Because God’s grace was about doing for others – us – meeting the primary need of people. And God’s kingdom is a place where people see and meet the needs of others. When we participate in taking care of the needs of the world – like Jesus did – we LIVE the gospel of grace as a wonderful reminder for ourselves and a wonderful model for all the world. AND, when we follow Jesus’ graceful example of doing for others, helping others, meeting needs, that’s HOW we usher in God’s kingdom here on earth. So, if we focus on ourselves in a way that takes our eyes off the needs of others, we lose our ability to participate in ushering in God’s kingdom.
The final way this self-focus tree manifests itself (that we’ll talk about today, anyway) is different from the other three in that it is more of a corporate thing, a whole congregation thing, can even be a whole universal Church thing. Since, we’re talking about SELF-focus, something that sounds very individual in nature, you might wonder how it can apply to whole congregations and even the universal Church. It has to do with how the corporate Church does things to ENCOURAGE self-focus. The Church can do that, DOES do that, sometimes, doesn’t it?
I’ll use a recent example in Church history to explain what I’m talking about. Do you remember the time in the not-so-distant past – around the time I was in seminary, actually – when a topic of conversation throughout the protestant Church was what came to be known as “the worship wars”? This was the discussion, debate, and sometimes battle in the Church regarding what type of music was best for congregations to sing during worship services. It eventually led to a debate about the style of more than just music but of the whole worship service: contemporary versus traditional. Since I was in seminary when this battle raged, I was in a position to view the battle from two different perspectives. In classes, I got to hear and witness and participate in the theological aspect of the debate, which usually centered around which style of music and worship best helped people connect with God. But in the congregations I served as a student associate pastor, I got to heat a VERY different perspective. In those congregations, very few people – in fact no one I can recall – were talking about connecting with God; they were ALL talking about which style of music and worship THEY liked best as individuals. Most of the conversation centered upon entertainment value. Many people I talked to in those very traditional congregations would periodically attend a more contemporary worship service and then come back to do two things: sing the praises of the music and flow of contemporary worship AND complain loudly about the theology of the music and all the other messages they encountered in those contemporary worship services. Many of them STILL chose entertainment over their connection with God and left their long-time congregation for a more contemporary one.
By the way, I see this happening still today. And the point is this: as a congregation, as a denomination, and even as a whole Church, when we engage in certain types of conversations and actions, we LEGITIMIZE self-focus on the part of Christians – and even non-Christians who are looking in at the Church. With that whole “worship wars” thing, the Church essentially proclaimed that doing what you like, doing what you want, focusing on yourself and your desires and your entertainment value while you’re ostensibly engaged in the act of worshipping God IS OK. In other words, we endorse self-focus. Ya’ll, we don’t just do that with music and worship style; we do that with all kinds of things:
- When we put out “suggestion boxes”, asking people to tell us how THEY WANT things to be done and what ministries they want us to do (usually without even requiring their participation in those ministries), we endorse a self focus. (I really served a congregation that did this.)
- When we attach signs and plaques with the names of donors or loved ones who’ve passed on and are being memorialized, whether we want to admit it or not, whether we want to talk about it or not, we are communicating that it’s acceptable and even encouraged to focus on people – on US – as opposed to keeping our focus on God.
- When we encourage our friends and church family members to tell the Worship Committee to allow their favorite song to be sung more frequently or to have ANY worship element conform to their personal likes and desires, we endorse and encourage a self-focus.
- When we discuss as topics at Board Meetings, Cabinet Meetings, or Congregational Meetings ANYTHING having to do with what individual people want instead of what God wants, we endorse and encourage a self-focus.
- When we vote on anything without explicitly telling people we’re voting based on our discernment of God’s will as opposed to voting based on our own desires, we endorse and encourage a self-focus.
- Even when we get so worried about declining numbers that we allow people who practice behavior that is destructive to the congregation and its mission to keep doing what they’re doing without confronting them, we endorse and encourage a self-focus.
And hopefully I don’t have to tell you if we’re encouraging others to focus on what THEY want instead of what God wants, we are taking our focus off the primary purpose of the Church.
OK…this self-focus thing is real. It gets in the way of our primary purpose sometimes. But, what can we do? Much like last week, the answer is really very simple, and it’s found in our second scripture reading for today. The answer is quite simply to “deny ourselves”, and, as congregation, as Church, to reinforce that DENYING OURSELVES is a great big part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
There are two things about doing this “deny yourself” thing that I want to share with you. First, this isn’t a matter of degrees. Jesus didn’t say “deny yourself a little more than your neighbor.” No, there is an implied word – “COMPLETELY” – following Jesus’ statement. In other words, Jesus wasn’t saying, “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves a little more than the next person” but rather was saying “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves COMPLETELY.” Y’all, the next thing Jesus said, about taking up our cross – that was about a COMPLETE denial of ourselves. The second thing about this “deny yourself” thing that I want to share is about how to encourage this in community. We need to bring the language of denying ourselves into our conversation. When we start talking about what we want in meetings, when we start making decisions on the basis of what we want, maybe even BEFORE we get to that point, we’ve got to be talking about and emphasizing self-denial as a FUNDAMENTAL part of our identity as followers of Jesus. Regular and intentional conversation about denying ourselves WILL lead to the action of denying ourselves…all so we can fulfill our primary purpose.
I want to leave you this morning with Jesus’ words that concluded our second reading for this morning. Jesus gave the reason for losing self-focus, for seeing past this tree: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Would you rather lose life or find life?