A Disciple Is Generous

en1114hartmanJason Brown, a 29-year-old center for the St. Louis Rams, had a five-year, $37 million contract to play football. At one point, he decided that playing football was not giving meaning to his life. He resigned and gave up the balance of his contract. His agent told him he was making the biggest mistake of his life. Brown disagreed. He bought 1000 acres in North Carolina and is now a farmer. He believes that God has called him to be a farmer, and gives the first fruits of what he produces to the poor. The sacrifice he made financially is somewhere around $12 million. [1]

It was interesting to read the article and the comments that were posted. Some people felt Brown made a mistake. In their mind, he could have given away 10 percent or more of $12 million and helped a lot of people. On the other hand, a good number of people agreed with Brown’s decision. Many of them focused on the lifestyle of an NFL football player and lifestyle of a farmer, who can be closer to his family and children. In fact, spending time with his family, was one of the reasons Brown made his decision. Very few people focused on the fact that Brown felt called to change his lifestyle and be generous to the poor.

Over the years, I’ve listened to thirty or so stewardship sermons, and I’ve preached about twenty-five or thirty such sermons over the years. From being a layman, I think I know how difficult it is to listen to stewardship sermons, and I know how difficult it is to preach them from being a pastor. Nevertheless, we do need to talk about money and stewardship, because the financial decisions we make are also spiritual decisions. Money is not all there is to the spiritual life, but it is an important part of growing as a disciple. The spiritual gift of generosity is a gift God wants us all to have.

Paul’s Teachings on Stewardship

imgresAround the middle of the First Century, there was a famine in Israel. The Jewish people, and especially Christians, fell into poverty. The Apostle Paul decided to take up an offering to be given to the church in Jerusalem. Therefore, he began raising the money among the churches of Greece. [2] Paul put Titus, a trusted associate, in charge (2 Corinthians 8:6, 16-17). He also associated with Titus and unnamed brother who was respected by all the churches (v. 18). Paul desired for the church in Corinth to support this offering. He therefore devoted a portion of the letter we call “Second Corinthians” to encouraging the Corinthians in developing the grace of generosity. Our text today comes from Second Corinthians Chapter Nine, verses 6-15.

Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. As it is written:

“They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor;

their righteousness endures forever.”

Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God. This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, others will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! (2 Corinthians 9:6-15).

Let us pray: Generous God: You sent us your Only Begotten Son, though he was rich, dwelling in truth and love as part of the Holy Trinity. He came and dwelt among us that we might see in this act of generosity what it means to be truly and fully human. Come now and fill us with your spirit so that we might become a fully human, generous people. Amen.

A Generous Fellowship

From the very beginning, the Christian church has been characterized by a supernatural generosity. Here is how the early church is described in Acts:

last2bsupperThey devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved (Acts 2:42-47).

Although scholars not are in agreement, it’s a mistake to see in these verses, and similar descriptions and acts, a kind of communism. [3] It is evident from the book of Acts that people who were able sold some of their property in order to help the poor and needy (Acts 2:43). However, it is equally evident both from the New Testament and from other sources that the early church was a generous church. The generosity of the early church was not a natural generosity, but his supernatural generosity. The generosity described in Acts is a generosity born of an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. This kind of generosity does not spring from any human source; it springs from the love and grace of God.

The generosity of the early church was so different from the generosity evident in the Roman world generally that people took notice. Even during times when Christians were being persecuted, the people of the Roman Empire saw Christians carrying for the homeless, the poor, those in need, orphans, the sick, and others. In our own day and time, one of the greatest witnesses the church can give to the Grace of God is to receive the grace of generosity among ourselves and show our culture a better way of life.

The World’s Needs

As I mentioned earlier, Paul’s collection for the church at Jerusalem resulted from a terrible famine that engulfed Palestine somewhere in the middle of the First Century. We can only imagine that the apostle, being a Jew and having friends in Jerusalem, was concerned for the people of Jerusalem and the Christians who remained there. Because of the persecutions that had scattered the early church, it is likely that many of the Christians living in Jerusalem who had financial resources had earlier left for greener pastures. Therefore, the need was great.

My parents grew up in the Great Depression. Kathy’s parents also grew up in the Great Depression. We cannot remember a time of hunger, but our parents and grandparents could remember such a time. Most of us, however, remember the downturn of 2008, what is sometimes called the “Great Recession.” There is nothing more unnerving to parents, those who are responsible for the livelihood of other people, and those jobs are in danger, the elderly, and others, than an economic downturn. Almost every week, we have to help someone in our community who is in economic distress.

Economic suffering is not the only kind of suffering with which Christians are concerned. We live in a world with economic needs. However, in our nation need is more likely to be the result of a pervasive sense of meaninglessness, loneliness, and isolation. Many people in our society lack a loving and supporting fellowship they can rely upon for spiritual and emotional support in time of need. Many people in our society grow up in homes where they were deprived of love and care, and they reach adulthood with deep needs. All human beings, whatever kind of home we grew up in, need that fellowship that we call the household of God, or the family of God, or the church. The need today may be different than the need of the first century, but need exists.

The Grace of Giving

As Paul confronted the need to raise money for the church in Jerusalem, he faced the same quandary pastors face on Stewardship Sundays: He needs to raise funds, but he does not want to undermine the Gospel in doing so. [4] imgres-1In chapter 8, Paul tells the Corinthians that, “… just as you excel in everything – in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us – see that you also excel in this grace of giving” (8:7). Paul teaches the Corinthians that they should not give reluctantly or under compulsion but freely and cheerfully because of the grace of generosity welling up inside of them (9:7). As important as the offering was for Jerusalem, and as important as stewardship is for our church, there is something more important: We must not allow giving to become a matter of law or of compulsion.

God desires that our giving be the result of what God is doing in us by the power of the Holy Spirit at work in our lives. This is why Paul goes on to say that God is able to make all grace abound so that the Corinthians have all that they need (v. 8). Notice that Paul doesn’t say that if you give you’ll get rich. He simply says that we will have what we need to continue to be generous (v. 8). In addition, he goes on to say that God who supplies the seed will provide a harvest of righteousness. In other words, the most important results of our giving are not financial—they are spiritual and moral.

Let’s face it: most of us are not going to get rich. There is no magic formula I can give you that provides that you will always be blessed financially because you given generously. If there were such a formula, we would not need a Stewardship Sunday. Even non-Christians would be giving so generously that all needs would be met if it were true that every time we give we received back in material possessions what we gave.

Hearts Restored by Generosity

What we receive as we experience generosity is a spiritual restoration of our souls. This is why Paul says that we will be made rich in every way (v. 11). “Richness in every way” means being emotionally rich and spiritually rich, as well as having our physical needs met. I just wrote the article for our church newsletter this week. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. There is something about sitting around the dining room table on Thanksgiving and remembering not just the thanksgivings of my lifetime but the Thanksgiving of my parent’s lifetimes, and my grandparent’s lifetimes, and my great-grandparents lifetimes, and on and on that helps me to remember the goodness of God. The goodness of God, and the faithfulness of God, is evident not just in one life, or the life of one family, but in the life of God’s people as a whole.

imagesThis week we were talking about the Garden of Eden and the Fall in one of our classes. One result of the Fall is that we human beings no longer natively trust God and accept what God gives us without fear. Financially, this means we are inclined to grasp and grab all that we can so that we can experience security separate from God. It is, of course, impossible. [5] One reason there is so much anxiety in our culture is that we have taken responsibility upon ourselves to secure a future that is in the hands of God.

When we develop the virtue of generosity, when the Holy Spirit fills us in such a way that we become generous, we are restored spiritually. We become a thankful people, able to trust God for our future and for the future of our families. As we let go and let God in this very important part of our lives, we experience a restoration of our hearts. Our grasping, fearful, anxious human hearts are filled with the love of the God who loved us enough to send his son to save us.

Jason Brown, the ex-football player, probably knows something Paul knew: If a farmer does not sow any seeds, or if a farmer does not sow enough seed, there is a small harvest. There is a correlation between what is sowed and what is reaped. This principle of physical farming is also a principle of the spiritual life: The one who sows generously reaps generously.

One things Jason Brown did learn as a result of his experience in becoming a farmer is that, as he plants the seeds of a future harvest, he stands almost helpless until the plants sprout from the ground. He says that when you see seeds pop out of the ground, it is the most beautiful thing you could ever see. [6] This is also true of the spiritual life. When you see a heart changed, when you see heart filled with the love of God sharing generously, you see one of the most beautiful things you could ever see.

Copyright 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Steve Hartman, “Why a Star Football Player Traded and NFL Career for a Tractor” (CBS News online, December 26, 2014). There have been several articles about this decision Brown made. This story was brought to my attention by Cindy Schwartz of our staff.

[2] David E. Garland, “2 Corinthians” in The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadmans, 1999), 363-415. Much of the historical detail comes from this commentary.

[3] Calvin, who is always alert to what he calls “fantastical” interpretations, believed that the love of the early church was so great that those who had means sold some of what they had to meet the needs of the poor. John Calvin, “Commentary on Acts” in Calvin’s Commentaries Vol. XVIII (Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 1993), 130. I agree.

[4] If one reads chapter 8-9 closely, you can see that Paul does not want to force the Corinthians to give or undermine the role of Grace in the Christian life. He restates this several times. He constantly moves from urging that they support the offering to reminding them that it is a matter of grace what they give.

[5] The parable of the rich man, who builds many barns in anticipation of retirement only to die on the night of his retirement, reflects the understanding of wisdom that there is no security outside of God (see Luke 12:13-21).

[6] See Note 1 above. Jason says, “When you see them pop up out of the ground, man, it’s the most beautiful thing you could ever see.”


A Crisis of Discipleship

Just before the Second World War, a young German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, published a book, “The Cost of Discipleship.” [1] At the very beginning, Bonhoeffer stated his thesis in a way that was prophetic as to his own life and as the the course of 20th Century discipleship. “Cheap Grace,” he says, “is the deadly enemy of our Church.” [2] dbprisonBonhoeffer went on to compare “Cheap Grace” with “Costly Grace.” Costly Grace is that grace which Christ speaks of when he says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Bonhoeffer took up his own cross and followed Jesus to martyrdom near the end of the war.

Bonhoeffer’s book has become famous. Like many famous books, it often spoken of, a few of its most famous quotes find their way into sermons and religious books, but Cost of Discipleship is seldom read and even more seldom followed. Part of the problem is that the book was written in German, and German is a hard language to translate into English, especially for the modern reader that prefers short sentences and simple words. The book is not easy to read or digest. Part of the problem is its message and the message of Bonhoeffer’s life. imgres-1In a culture addicted to “Cheap Grace” easy religion, Cost of Discipleship is very hard to read. An honest reader stands condemned in almost every word. This summer, I read the entire book again and found it as difficult and challenging as when I first read it in college more years ago than I like to admit.

If in Bonhoeffer’s day there was a crisis of discipleship, and “cheap grace” was a problem for the church, the problem is exponentially greater today in the Post-Modern, Western world. Today, the church faces a crisis of discipleship which would have been unimaginable to Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer lived at the end of an era. In Europe, Christendom was fading, but not dead. Today, we live in a truly post-Christian world. Both Europe and America are deeply troubled. We call the culture “Postmodern” because we know what scholars call “Enlightenment Modernity” is over. However, what we experience in the West today is the dying remnants of an age that has come to a the end of its capacity to give meaning and purpose to life.

This is not the first time the West has been at such a point. When St. Augustine wrote “City of God” the ancient world had come to the end of its capacity to give meaning and purpose to life. Rome was decaying. In fact, as the old Augustine wrote City of God, the barbarians were sacking Rome. Augustine did not save Rome. He laid the foundations of the renewal of Western Culture. Men and women built on those foundations a society of great wisdom, beauty, and power.

The radical individualism of Western Culture has created a culture in which everyone and anyone decides for him or herself what they will believe and not believe. [3] In such a culture, it is not surprising that a good many people deny by word or deed those parts of the Gospel which they find difficult to obey or hard to understand. The tremendous growth of media ministries has not helped the problem. When there is a lot of money to be made watering down the Gospel, it is not surprising that some people do. Further, it is in the nature of discipleship that it cannot be accomplished sitting on a couch listening to a televangelist. One must get up and follow Jesus.

Jesus gave the Church a commission: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20, emphasis added). Making disciples is God’s supreme goal Christ has set for his believers and for his church. Making disciples involves being a good disciple yourself, going to where people are, helping them enter the fellowship of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them the things of God, and helping them live a life pleasing to God. Discipleship is not something for a few incredibly dedicated believers. It is for every Christian. We are all called to be disciples and go and make disciples.

Every so often something happens that reenforces the point that we live in a dark time. imgresThis week began with my being confronted with the darkness that infects and harms so many lives. We live in a time in which our nation is experiencing a kind of moral, intellectual, and practical darkness unlike anything we have ever experienced. I began this blog a while ago to celebrate the belief that in following the God of Light and Love we find wisdom for living and a community of love and grace within which to grow in the likeness of God. However, what may be said in a blog touches only a few. The darkness will lift if and when innumerable unnamed and unheralded Christians live lives of simple wisdom and love, shining like a light into the gathering darkness.

Copyright 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship Rev. Ed. (New York, NY: Collier Books, 1963).

[2] Id, at 45.

[3] See, Peter Berger, The Heretical Imperative (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1979).

A Disciple Welcomes the Outsider

We have a lady’s book club that meets in our church. Some years ago, they asked me for a suggestion concerning what book they should study. I recommended a novel called The Lamb’s War by Jean de Hartog. [1] imgresWhen I was a new Christian, this book had a profound influence upon my Christian pilgrimage. The book tells the story of the Dutch girl, Laura Martens. Her father, a Quaker, became an adversary of the commandant of a Nazi concentration camp in Holland, where they lived during the Second World War. One day, Laura came to the camp seeking out her father. The Commandant tied her to a radiator and physically abused her in front of her father. The father was then killed. Deeply traumatized, Laura became the unwitting mistress of a German doctor.

When the camp was liberated, Laura was in danger. In particular, so far as the other residents of the camp were concerned, Laura was a collaborator with the hated Germans. Eventually, she was stripped, tarred, and beaten. She was left an even greater emotional wreck than before. Fortunately, a young American, Boniface Baker, who was also a Quaker, had befriended Laura. The story is about their relationship, and her subsequent life from the Second World War until Laura’s death many years later as a mission doctor in Africa

The book is about salvation and healing. It is also starkly realistic: for many, there are limits to the healing we experience in this life. Laura never fully recovered emotionally from her experiences during the war. She became a very difficult person.

It’s been more than 30 years since I read The Lambs War, but it continues to impact my life and ministry today. To her campmates, Laura was a collaborator, and no one likes a collaborator. Yet, Laura had a story that very few people knew, including her fellow prisoners who saw her only as the mistress of Nazi war criminal. Readers, of course, know the whole story; and therefore can have compassion on Laura. Laura was a broken person fighting the Lamb’s War—the the War of the Lamb of God, Jesus, in a harsh and difficult world. [2] Life is often much like this.

The story of Zacheaus

Our text is from Luke chapter 19, verses one through 10. It is a familiar story, one many of us have known since we were children. Here the word of God as it comes to us today from Luke, the traveling companion of the apostle Paul.

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:1-10).

Lord God: When you came to live among us, you were an outsider. We did not recognize you. We rejected you. Finally, we allowed you to die for our sins. Come so our hearts with your spirit that we might share the love you have for the world. In Jesus name Amen

Zacheaus the Outsider

There is a similarity between the story of Laura Martens and the story of Zacchaeus. Laura was an outsider because she was seen as a collaborator with the hated Germans. Zacchaeus was also hated because he was seen as a collaborator with the hated Romans. Tax collectors were hated by the Jews. Under Roman law, a tax collector was responsible to forward a set amount to Rome. Anything he collected in excess of that amount, he was free to keep. Therefore, a tax collector could become an extremely wealthy person. [3] Nowhere in the Roman Empire were tax collectors loved. Palestine was no exception. However, the fierce nationalism of the Jews made tax collectors especially hated. [4]

I have called Zacchaeus an “outsider” because he stood outside the socially acceptable occupations and behaviors of his society. In every culture, there are outsiders. In some cultures, it is demeaning to engage in certain business activities. For example, the ancient Jews were shepherds. The Egyptians detested shepherds because they smelled like sheep. No good Egyptian wanted to be a shepherd. One reason why it was possible for the Egyptians to treat the Jews so badly was that they practiced an occupation that the Egyptians despised.

We would like to think that we live in enlightened times, and that we are beyond persecuting those were different or outsiders. However, it’s not true. All cultures have norms that children learn from the time they are her a born. Our culture is no exception. Subconsciously, we all shy away from relationships with people who we feel to be dangerous or different in an unhealthy way. Last weekend, I had to travel. Airports are places where we have to rub elbows with people who are very different than we are. Most of the time, I don’t pay much attention to coupon passing as I hurry through the halls of a busy airport. Saturday, I was walking from my gate to the car when I passed two women wearing Afghani Burka’s. I hardly noticed anyone as I walked down the airport corridor trying to get home as fast as I could; but, I noticed those two women immediately and wondered what they were doing. I had no reason except that they were different and come from the nation I regard as threatening.

Jesus Welcomes Outsiders

Jericho was one of the wealthiest and most important cities in the ancient world. It sits near the Jordan River. There is abundant water and the land is fertile. 1335027417_jerichoToday, the city is not so lovely as it once was. In the ancient world and was known for its beauty. It had famous groves of fragrant Balsam trees. Just as ancient Babylon was known for its Hanging Gardens, ancient Jericho was also known for its lovely rose gardens. It is said that the Balsam Groves and the rose gardens perfumed the air for miles around. As a visitor entered the lovely city, he or she was surrounded by lovely trees, lovely buildings, lovely gardens, and a lovely fragrance.

Zacchaeus, the tax collector, wanted to see Jesus. He wanted to know more about this Rabbi about which he had heard. Perhaps, he had heard that one of his disciples, Levi or “Matthew” as we know him, was a tax collector. As an outcast, Zacchaeus wanted to see this Rabbi who might even welcome him and seemed to love sinners.

Unfortunately, Zacchaeus had two problems: He was short and people hated him. When he arrived at the city gates to see Jesus, he could not see the road. He would have to stand in the front row near the road to see Jesus. However, the people of Jericho hated Zacchaeus. Therefore, no one moved over so that Zacchaeus could see Jesus enter the city and judge for himself what kind of a person Jesus was. In fact, scholars believe that people probably hit Zacchaeus from behind and pushed back against him, just to prevent him from being able to see. Like tarring and feathering the body of a young girl, this was a way to see that a hated collaborator got exactly what he deserved.

Unable to get to the front row near the road where he could see Jesus, Zacchaeus did the next best thing: He found a sycamore-fig tree (Luke 19:4). Sycamore-fig trees are relatively short. They have low lying limbs and are easy to climb. Zacchaeus would have no trouble climbing such a tree, so he did. imgres-1Just about this time, Jesus passed by. We are told that Jesus looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today” (19:5). Zacchaeus came down and welcomed Jesus into his home (v. 6). Jesus was not afraid to be seen with the outsider. Jesus was not afraid to have fellowship with a man no one else liked or respected. Jesus was pure—purer than any of us—but he was not afraid to be in contact with those less pure. Not everyone was so generous or open-minded. In fact, we are told that the majority of the people looking at what was happening were upset! (v. 7). They could not believe that a rabbi, a man of God, would be the guest of a tax collector and collaborator with the Romans.

This is, perhaps, a part of the story 21st-century Christians have a hard time understanding. In the ancient Middle East, and even in the Middle East today, hospitality is an important virtue. However, like all virtues, it was to be practiced at the right place and the right time. In Jesus’s culture, when a person accepted hospitality from another, he became indebted to that person. Table fellowship implied a relationship which could not easily be broken and created a reciprocal obligation. [5] For Jesus to accept the hospitality Zacchaeus, was for Jesus to in some way become indebted to Zacchaeus, to owe him hospitality in return and tacitly to approve of Zacchaeus in some way. As a rabbi, as a leader of the people, and as a devout Jew, Jesus should not accept the hospitality of a sinner, a tax collector, a collaborator, an exploiter, an evil man. Nevertheless, Jesus did.

We live in a different world, and in some ways it is easier socially for us to reach out our own comfort zone and have fellowship with those who are outsiders. However, at the deepest level, we are no different than the ancient Jews. We find a difficult to make friendships with those who come from other nations, some of whom we secretly fear. We find it difficult to have social relationships with people who are of a different race, a different culture, a different religion, a different social background. It doesn’t have to be the case that we perceive people as dangerous to have difficulty accepting them. It is interesting that our text notes that Zacchaeus was rich, as if his wealth was also a barrier to him having relationships with his fellow residents of Jericho. We can be prejudiced against those who we feel have accomplished more than we have accomplished or have more money than we have just as easily as we can be prejudiced against those who we perceive as immoral or dangerous.

Jesus was not Afraid

Jesus showed us a different and better way. I mentioned my experience in an airport terminal for a reason. Why did I notice two women dressed in Burka’s and no one else on the long walk from the last gate to the parking garage? Was it simply because they were different? Or, was it because I was afraid? When people belong to a race or religion or creed that has threatened or harmed us or our nation or our loved ones, we are afraid. When people are different, we are also naturally afraid. This is part of human nature. It was true in the ancient world; and it is true today. Subconsciously, we all fear or suspect those who are different from us. We also sometimes fear and/or resist relationships with those who we feel inferior to or whom we find challenging.

Jesus did not fear or shy away from those who were different. He was not afraid of the outsider. In fact, he viewed Zacchaeus as an outsider who needed to become an insider. Jesus viewed Zacchaeus as a person outside of the kingdom of God, outside of the People of God, outside of the church of God, who needed to be inside. Jesus also knew that the surest way to bring Zacchaeus from the outside to the inside was too become his friend. Therefore, Jesus accepted an offer of hospitality – in fact he created an opportunity for hospitality – and developed a relationship with Zacchaeus.

We live in a culture in which many people are afraid of the church. They may never have been inside a church building. In some cases, they been inside a church building but the experience was not favorable. Such people have little or no understanding of Christians or Christianity. To such people, we can seem a bit dangerous.

Years ago, in Houston, I had to go to a prominent black church and make a small presentation. In order to attend this church, I had to drive through an area of Houston I normally would not have entered. When I got to the church, it’s customs and style of worship were very different than I was accustomed to. Although when I left the church I felt welcome, when I entered the church everyone looked at me because I was the only person in the church wearing a three-piece suit, a white oxford shirt, and a Brooks Brothers tie. My discomfort didn’t last long because the pastor and elders of the church almost immediately recognized who I was and why I was there. They came, welcomed me, and took me to where I should sit. They talked with me, and pretty soon I felt at home.

Christians are now often seen as different and perhaps dangerous. If we do not reach out and give hospitality to strangers, strangers are very unlikely to reach out and seek hospitality with us. This is not the first sermon over the last few years on the subject matter of hospitality at Advent. This is not the first sermon about reaching out to those who are different. I think, perhaps, the reason this sermon was placed in this series was to remind us to take seriously the call of Christ to go to the outsider and invite the outsider inside so that the outsider can become a Christian and be a disciple of Jesus and experience the joys of being inside the kingdom of God.

The Outsider Becomes an Insider

Zacchaeus, touched by Jesus’s warmth and friendship, had a change of heart. This man who was known for his greed and his grasping looked at the crowd and said to them, “Look, Lord here and now I give half my possessions to the poor, and if I cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” (Luke 19:8). Then, Jesus looked at Zacchaeus, and said “Today, salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham” (v. 9). And then, I think, Jesus continued on, after glancing at the crowd to be sure they were listening, and said, “For the Son of Man came to seek and save what is lost” (v. 10).

God saved us when we were outsiders. He asks us to go into our world and there to invite outsiders to come in and be a part of the family of God. Sometimes, it’s not easy or comfortable. This may not always be true, but in my experience it’s always been true: There is no joy quite as great as as welcoming an outsider into the Kingdom of God.

It’s almost winter. When it’s cold, and when the wind is biting, there is that moment when we opened the door and welcome a friend inside. As they passed the threshold of the door and clap their hands together, they almost always smile and say, “It’s great to be inside.”

Copyright 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Jan de Hartog, The Lamb’s War (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1980). Hartog eventually moved to the United States. While living in Houston, Texas, he wrote a book, “The Hospital” that became a well known critique of the state of indigent care in Houston and provoked many changes. He was a Quaker by the end of his life.  He died in Houston a few years ago.

[2] The Quakers have an entire theology of peace which they sometimes call by the name, “The Lamb’s War.”

[3] Ronald F. Youngblood, ed., “Tax Collector” in The New Illustrated Bible Dictionary Rev. Ed. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publisher, 1883), 1227-1228.

[4] See, William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke in “The Daily Bible Study Series Rev. Ed. (Philadelphia, PA: 1975), 233ff. The historical narrative is based upon his commentary.

[5] This is at root why it was difficult for Peter to imagine that he should have table fellowship with Gentiles and why he and Paul had an argument in Galatia. See Galatians 2:11-14).

Discipleship and a Servant’s Heart

August 6th of this year the New York Times published an editorial that caused quite a stir. Howard Shultz, the Chairman and CEO of Starbucks, wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times entitled, “America Deserves a Servant Leader.” [1] I recommend the entire article, but just want to read a quote from the beginning:

“From the earliest days of Starbucks, I’ve been captivated by the art of leadership. I was mentored over three decades by Warren Bennis, the eminent professor and scholar on leadership. I’ve gathered insights from peers, and I’ve drawn inspiration from our 300,000 employees. But nothing I’ve read or heard in the past few years has rivaled the power of the image I viewed on my cellphone a few years ago: Pope Francis, shortly after his election, kneeling and washing the feet of a dozen prisoners in Rome, one of them a young Muslim woman, in a pre-Easter ritual.”

Shultz went on to reflect on the poor current state of leadership in America, and especially on the poor political leadership we are receiving from both parties. People immediately thought Shultz would run for President, but he did not feel the call to do that. He felt called to lead Starbucks.

One negative force impacting America is the loss of confidence in leaders. In fact, there is an overwhelming sense that the majority of our political leadership of each party is in some way incompetent or corrupt. Our business leaders are not held in any better esteem. The well-known events of the collapse of the mortgage back security industry and the lack of accountability in the banking community has left a generation of young people alienated from business. Even the church is suspect, primarily because of a few well-known incidents involving celebrity preachers. The result is a lack of confidence in almost all sources of leadership for our nation: Congress, the President, the Supreme Court, government, academia, business, the media, and even non profits and the church. [2]

Jesus Washes the Disciples’ Feet

What are we do do? First and foremost, we should look to Jesus and to the leadership of the People of God. Our text this morning is from the Gospel of John, chapter 13, beginning with verse 1:

It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love. The evening meal was being served, and the devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.    He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” Jesus answered, “A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean. When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them” (John 13:1-17).

 Let us pray: God of Love, who served us at our greatest point of need, our need for your grace, come and illumine our darkened hearts  so that we may be transformed into the form of the one who came to save us and show us the Way everlasting. Amen.

Jesus: Our Ultimate Leadership Role Model

imgresOur text is from the end of Jesus’ active ministry. In the Upper Room, Jesus came to the end of his last week of life on this earth. His public ministry of teaching and healing was complete.  Jesus would now do the one, last great work for which he came. Knowing that his time with the disciples was short, Jesus arranged to have one last meal with them before the Passover Celebration during which he was to die. During this meal, he demonstrated to them what true leadership will be like in his church by washing everyone’s feet.

In the ancient world, men and women wore sandals, and roads were primarily dirt paths. As a person walked, and especially as a traveler completed a journey, there was dirt on his or her ankles and feet. It was the custom for homeowners to keep a large pot of water at the front door of a home for the washing of feet. Normally, if available, a servant would do the foot washing. Jesus had no servants. Therefore, it might be expected that one of the Twelve, perhaps John, the youngest, would wash the feet of the disciples on this night of the Passover Meal. But, not one of the disciples, not even the youngest, was willing to undertake the menial task. [3]

Seeing that no one else was willing wash his feet and the feet of the other disciples, Jesus striped off his outer clothing, bound his loins like a common servant, and began to wash their feet. The disciples could not have missed the meaning of this event: Of all those present, Jesus was the last person who should have performed the task. He was an adult male – not a child. He was a Rabbi – and Rabbi’s were hesitant to be seen less than fully clothed. He was the leader of the group, and as the leader one would expect that he should have had his feet washed, not be the one to wash the feet of the others. Nevertheless, Jesus washed the feet of his disciples.

Peter, who had probably not undertaken the task himself because he was the “leader of the Twelve” and “the Rock” upon which Jesus was to build the Church, attempted to stop Jesus, but it was too late (see, Matthew 16:18; John 13:6-9). Jesus had already determined to wash the feet of the disciples and teach them a lesson in humility. It is as if Jesus was saying, “If you want to be one of my followers, you must be willing to serve one another just like this.” Just to be sure that the disciples got the point, he taught them saying:

You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them (John 13:12-17).

In Jesus’ new paradigm of leadership, servanthood is primary, for it is in serving one another that we fulfill the commandment to “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). [4]

The Perennial Lack of Servant Leaders

imgres-1We often talk about the lack of servant leaders today, as if there were a time in human history when people were naturally inclined to serve one another. The Gospels argue against such an interpretation. In Matthew and Mark, a story is told of the ambition of James and John to sit on the right and left of Jesus (Matt, 20:17-19; Mark 10:32-34). In Luke, the story is of the jockeying of the disciples for preeminence. [5] Jesus warned his disciples that among the Gentiles (that is us) leaders are to be known by their position, power, and right to use the executive jet and have the best offices. In the Kingdom of Heaven, leaders are known by humble service.

The world has always lacked humble servant leaders. In the West and in the East, leaders have usurped power and served their own ambition. [6] That is human nature. In our own day and time, we have seen the great need that exists for leaders that put the interests of others above themselves. But, we cannot expect our leaders to put our interests above theirs if we are unwilling to serve the needs of our friends and neighbors. That is why, as Jesus knew, the solution to the deep problem of human pride and ambition is humble service.

This is why the Christians and the Church are so crucial: Without the example of Jesus and the Church, there is little basis in our society for anyone to engage in servant leadership. Jesus invented Servant Leadership. Before Jesus and the growth of the Christian religion, the world had not almost no idea of servant leadership. There was no example of what servant leadership might look like. It is not surprising that in Post-Christian America our leaders are seldom, if ever, servant leaders. If power is all there is, servant leadership makes little sense. [7]

Requirements for True Servanthood

How can we develop servant leaders at Advent, in our community, and in our nation?

  1. First, Servant Leadership begins with Caring Deeply for People. Scripture tell us that we should “serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:13). No one will ever serve another person until they unconditionally care about them. We will never serve another person; really serve them, until their needs are just as important to us as are our own. Love is sacrificing what I want for the benefit of another person because that other person is important to me. Servanthood begins with love, because love is what draws me out of my selfish self-centeredness.
  2. Second, Servant Leadership requires the Humility to Serve Others. Jesus says, “a servant is not greater than his or her master” (John 13:16). We will never serve one another until we have the servant “mind of Christ” (Philippians 2:5). The reason no disciple washed the feet of the others was because each felt that someone else should undertake this menial task. Hey all lacked humility. It is humility that teaches us that we are all human, all made of the dust of the earth, and in the eyes of God, no one of us is better than another.
  3. Third, Servant Leadership requires Commitment. Jesus was willing to pay the cost of loving his disciples and us. He was willing to serve, to do menial tasks, ultimately to go to the Cross. We won’t be humble servants of one another until we are so committed to another person, to our children, our spouse, our friends, our co-workers, our neighbors, our fellow Christians, our community and nation, that we are willing to pay the cost in time, in energy, in self-denial in order to meet their needs. [8]

The Church as a Source of Servant Leadership

More than thirty years ago, Robert K. Greenleaf published the most important book in leadership written in the 20th Century, Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness. [9] imgres-2Greenleaf anticipated our current crisis and understood that people are starved for a deeper sense of relationship and community, and that a servant-oriented leaders are essential. [10] Greenleaf also emphasized the importance of the church and religious institutions in creating servant leaders. If the Church does not engage our culture and train up the next generation of servant leaders, it is hard to believe that any other institution or group will.

Earlier this year, our church had a “leadership summit”. No institution, not even a church, can grow and prosper beyond their servant leadership capacity. This is, at root, the problem our nation faces. What we want to do over the next few years is to train more leaders—and not just any kind of leader. We want to train servant leaders. As our church and other churches train servant leaders for our homes and congregations, everywhere our members work, play, or serve will be inevitably changed.

There is no quick fix for the lack of servant leaders in our society. In fact, the problem may well grow worse if there is no spiritual and moral renewal of our culture. A culture mad about power, influence, affluence, and the search for personal pleasure is not fertile ground for the growth of servant leaders. Nor is such a culture likely to take seriously concern for the poor, the middle class, or those who have little political or economic power. Only those who follow the God who loves the poor, cares for families, lifts up the powerless, and gives grace to the humble, only the kind of God who would die on a cross, can create the kind of servant leaders we need.

The exclusion of Christianity and faith from business, politics, government, and the rest of the “public square,” and the relentless attempt to exclude Christian values from public debate, is a great mistake. It cuts our culture off from one of the most potent sources of respect for truth, of respect for people, of a love of beauty and goodness. A culture that cuts itself off from the spiritual values that give rise to servant leaders cannot expect them to grow in the dry and arid spiritual soil such a culture inevitably creates.

Copyright 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Howard Schultz, America Deserves a Servant Leader” in New Your Times, August 6, 2015.

[2] See Gallup Pole, “Lack of Confidence in System” (June 2-7, 2015).

[3] See, Charles Barclay, “The Gospel of John” in The Daily Bible Study Series Vol. 2. Rev. Ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1975):138-139.

[4] See also, John 13:34; 14:15; 15:17.

[5] The story is told in approximately the same way in Mark 10:35-45 and in Matthew 20:20-28. In Luke, the story is told in form of a dispute among the disciples. Luke puts the point in these words: “Also a dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.” (Luke 22:24-26).

[6] Exhortations to servant leadership and avoiding selfish, self-centered, power centered leadership occur in the Tao Te Ching and in the Bible, in the East and in the West, among wise leaders in differing cultures, because all cultures have their Napoleon’s and their Attila the Huns.

[7] It is interesting that Howard Shultz was impacted by the example of Pope Francis. It is only a Christian leader that would have had a foot washing ceremony. Our culture seems to want something it cannot have without Christianity and Christ.

[8] In a book entitled, Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love Rev. Ed. (Memphis, TN: BookSurge, 2014), I have looked at the commitment of a servant leader through the lens of the Tao.

[9] Greenleaf, Robert K., Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness Mahwah, NY: Paulist Press, 1977.

[10] See, Greenleaf, “Community: The Lost Knowledge of these Times,” 37-39 and “Servant Leadership in Churches,” 218-248.