Other messages in this series:
Scriptures: Leviticus 19:1-10; Mark 12:38-44
There’s a saying that goes, you don’t know what you don’t know.
Caroline and I have been watching the PBS show, Poldark. It takes place in 18th century Cornwall, South West England. In a recent episode, the main protagonist, Captain Ross Poldark, leads a small band of men to rescue a dear friend from a military prison in France. In the skirmish with French soldiers, one of the rescuers is killed. Captain Poldark is absolutely devastated at the loss of his friend, and later on, in his grief, he proclaims, “I should have foreseen this happening. I should have seen this happening ahead of time and not let him come.” To which his wife gently reminded him, “You couldn’t have foreseen this. No one could.”
It’s one of the truest maxims out there—you don’t know what you don’t know. This is exactly why they’re called discoveries. Discoveries are usually stumbled into. Even when you already have in mind what you’re trying to “discover”—such as Edison with the lightbulb—when it happens, you’re still surprised. Because up until that moment in time, you don’t know what you don’t know, and only after that moment in time do you now know what you previously didn’t know.
However, as in the case of Edison and his lightbulb, I would think it does help to get to that point of discovery when you’re intentionally on the path of discovery. When you have a general sense of what you’re searching for, and maybe even an inkling of how you’ll get there, but you lack the details knowing that those details will reveal themselves when the time is right. And that’s when the discovery is made. That’s when you start to figure out what you didn’t know before.
People who study cultural and societal trends over long periods of time are our modern-day “prophets.” They look at all sorts of data covering longs periods of time and draw conclusions about where we’re at and where we’re headed based on all that data. While they’re not always spot on, it’s nevertheless interesting to note how well they do understand where things are at. In terms of the Church (capital C church), these folks are telling us that we are now in the same situation with regard to our historical-cultural position that the great explorers Lewis and Clark were when they reached the foot of the Rocky Mountains during their journey for the discovery of the Pacific Ocean.
Lewis and Clark had the highest level expertise when it came to navigating rivers. They knew how to survive in the forest. They knew how to relate to the various native peoples. As explorers, their tool belts we full of well used tools, and each tool in that belt was necessary for the journey. But when they got to the Rocky Mountains, every single thing they knew, every experience they ever had, every bit of knowledge and understanding that brought them safely to that place was now useless. Because the tools for a river journey through the East Coast and Midwest were of no use in the mountains. Moving forward into unchartered territory meant throwing out everything—everything—they knew up to that point. From that point on, it was on-the-job learning. It was learning by trial and error. It was figuring it out as you went along. Why? Because they didn’t know what they didn’t know. But eventually they got to the Pacific Ocean. But it wasn’t without tremendous sacrifice, loss, hardship, and a willingness to rely on those who did know how to survive that part of the land. They eventually got there because they persevered through the unknown.
For whom does our congregation exist?
Everything I’m reading and hearing is telling me that as the Church, we’re at the foot of our own Rocky Mountains. This means that everything we’ve learned about how to successfully do church has reached the end of its usefulness. All of the usual solutions to the typical problems churches have—no longer helpful. All of the answers to the typical questions that come up again again—no longer insightful. We’re truly at a place where moving forward means moving into unchartered territory, and the fact is, all of us, including us clergy, and even including all the so-called experts, haven’t a clue about how to successfully navigate these new lands we’re in. And that’s because we don’t know what we don’t know. But what is true are these two things: One, God knows what we don’t know. Two, In time, we’ll make some new and exciting discoveries about ourselves as well as the journey we’re on. We’ll figure things out. But in order for this to happen, we’re absolutely going to have to let go of the notion that we can just keep on doing what we’ve done for the past 30, 40, 50 years, and think we’ll have the same impact we’ve always had.
Let me ask you a question, and for me this is a foundational question, and the answer to this question must be the basis for what we do from here on out. For whom does this congregation exist?
A long time ago God raised up from scratch the people called First United Methodist in Port Huron, Michigan. Who were the people God intended to bless when he fashioned this church together? As far as I can tell, there are only two possible answers, and only one of them is the correct answer. We exist either for ourselves or for others. We exist to either bless ourselves or to bless those other than ourselves. Which is it?
We exist for the blessing of others. Friends, we’re already blessed.Mightily blessed!God’s blessed us richly and we have no reason to think that it’ll ever be otherwise. But there’s a whole lot of people out there who don’t know the love of Jesus. And the thing is, they don’t know that they don’t know it. They don’t know what they’re missing. That doesn’t make us better than them. And it certainly doesn’t mean God loves us more than them. What it does mean is that we have a job to do, and that job is to figure out how to best share God’s love with a people who need it, even if they don’t realize they need it. Or even want it. That’s our number one task. Developing new and maturing followers of Jesus Christ is our primary purpose as a church. It’s our mission.
Here’s the challenge for us as we soon turn the calendar to 2022. How we made disciples in the past isn’t going to work as we move forward. How we measured success in our ministries is most likely now un unhelpful rubric. For example, counting the number of people in the pews on Sunday morning is no longer as helpful as it once was in determining how well we’re connecting with the community. First of all, with the pandemic came an explosion of online worship, and now that most churches, hopefully including our own, are learning how to do it well, it’s probably safe to say that we will never see the day when we return to only in-person worship. Which means that more and more are going to connect with us remotely. Which means fewer people in the building—at least for a while. So, this means we have to rethink our entire strategy for connecting with the community. Before, we could say, “come join us on Sunday,” then look for them. But more than likely, if they do take us up on our invitation, it’ll probably be remotely, at least for a while. But if we can’t see or talk to them face-to-face, how will we follow up with them? We’re going to have to figure out new ways of doing things.
So, how we order the life of our church so that we effectively fulfill our mission of making new and maturing followers of Jesus Christ, is the task we face. And doing it in a way that reflects the truth that we’re here for them and not for ourselves. And if we’re here for them more than we’re here for us, then we probably need to start thinking outside the proverbial box.
Most of us pretty familiar with what’s often called The story of the widow’s mite. The term, mite, comes from older Bible versions which speak of the woman’s offering in today’s story as a mite, which is an archaic term meaning a very small sum of money. Usually, when this story is read, the focus is on the woman’s gift. No doubt, a lot of people have been challenged in their own giving patterns through a study of her willingness to give “everything she had.” But how many of us have ever considered her gift in light of what Jesus pointed out to his disciples before she put her money into the treasury? Let me read it again for you.
As Jesus was teaching, he said, “Watch out for the legal experts. They like to walk around in long robes. They want to be greeted with honor in the markets. They long for places of honor in the synagogues and at banquets. They are the ones who cheat widows out of their homes, and to show off they say long prayers. They will be judged most harshly” (Mark 12:41-44).
Looking at the super-religious people, Jesus identified a reality within their own socio-economic system. And I’ll be honest with you; I didn’t catch this before my study for this sermon. In verse 40, Jesus points out that the religious leaders are guilty of “cheating widows out of their homes.” I highly doubt he was speaking metaphorically. I think he was pointing out a common experience for Jewish widows within their culture. They probably lost their homes when their husbands died, and with them, their source of income. From what Jesus infers, the religious leaders either did nothing to address that injustice or, worse yet, maybe even somehow profited from it. Then a few sentences later he draws his disciples’ attention to one of those widows and points out the fact that she’d just dropped into the temple treasury “everything she had, even what she needed to live on” (v. 44). Do you see a connection? She’s often lifted up as the posterchild for sacrificial giving. O, what faith she had, we say. But friends, maybe it wasn’t a matter of faith that drove her to give like that. Maybe it was a broken system in which she lived that “forced” her to give her last two pennies. We’re talking about a corrupt system that failed that widow. I’m suggesting that Jesus didn’t point her out in order to commend her sacrificial giving, but rather, to condemn the economic system that created her poverty.
Are there people living in Port Huron for whom our American system has failed them, leading many of them to live in poverty? Absolutely! So, maybe a significant part of the task of making disciples of Jesus Christ in the 21st century is developing an approach to ministry which seeks to counter the ways society fails them. I’m not suggesting we simply become another social agency, because that’s not our mission. But I do think that there’s a lot more we can do to touch the lives of those in our city who are truly on the fringe and falling through the cracks. For example, what’s to keep us from setting up a mobile dental office to which a few local dentists might contribute their time one day a month? What’s to keep us from addressing at some level the problem created by the existence of slumlords in the community? Or drug addiction? Or financial debt? We don’t have to do everything, but for goodness sake, there’s got to be ways we can meet people where they’re at with the transforming love of Jesus Christ. Again, I’m not going to stand up here and say how that should be done, or even what should be done. That’s something that we’re going to need to discover together. All I’m saying is that there’s got to be more we can do, but more than likely it’ll be a matter of thinking in new ways, not the old ways. It’s time to dream, friends!
I’ve asked Barb Winter to close this message with a song called “Here Am I.” It’s not the familiar “Here I Am, Lord,” from our hymnal, but one from The Faith We Sing songbook. I hear this song sung from the perspective of Jesus. He’s the one singing. He’s the one who at the end of each verse asks of us, “Where are you?” Let me read the lyrics to you. Remember, this is Jesus talking.
- Here am I, where underneath the bridges in our winter cities homeless people sleep. Here am I, where in decaying houses little children shiver, crying at the cold. Where are you?
- Here am I, with people in the lineup, anxious for a hand-out, aching for a job. Here am I, when pensioners and strikers sing and march together, wanting something new. Where are you?
- Here am I, where two or three are gathered, ready to be altered, sharing wine and bread. Here am I, where those who hear the preaching change their way of living, find their way to life. Where are you?
That’s a great question. Where are we? Where will we be tomorrow? Are we there in those same ugly, tough, lonely places, standing with Jesus alongside them? If not, let’s figure out a way to get there