- STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH AUGUST 22, 2021
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
Call to Worship Matthew 22: 37
“You shall love the Lord your God
with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.
This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it:
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Lighting of the Christ Candle
Prayer of Adoration and Confession
Lord God, we bless you and praise you. You have forgiven our sin, healed us in times of illness, and gave your own life for our salvation. We are so grateful for your unwavering love and mercy. Your goodness has been poured out on us until it overflows.
We praise you for coming into our world to teach us your way. We confess that it is opposite to all that comes naturally to us. We do not want to serve others or put them first. We seek our own glory. We desire wealth, regardless of what it costs others. We are willing to use people so that we can get ahead or look good. We want honour, but we do not want to suffer for it. We think of ourselves before others and we think of ourselves as better than others. Knowing our tendencies, we praise you because you do not repay us according to the things we’ve done, but you offer us mercy and grace. Forgive us and change us.
We thank you for all our brothers and sisters in Christ, asking you to bless them.
May our worship be acceptable in your sight, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon Ephesians 4: 31
Be kind to one another,
forgiving one another,
as God in Christ has forgiven you.
Prayer for Illumination
Lord Jesus, you laid down your life for your friends. As we hear your word, give us greater love for others, so that we may put them first. Amen.
Acts 16: 16 – 24
Mark 10: 35 – 45
Message: Being the Church: Others First
Let’s begin with a true story. Back in 2008, Sara Tucholsky was a college senior playing for the championship of the Great Northwest Athletic Conference softball league. In the second inning, she hit the ball and watched it sail right out of the park. The fans cheered. It was her first home run ever. Rounding the bases, Sara realized she had failed to touch first. So, she turned back. But, through a twist of fate and her knee, she found herself down on the ground with a torn ligament. She had all the time in the world, so she began crawling in agony back to first base. It was quickly apparent that she would not be able to round all the bases and get home. According to the rules, if anyone from her team helped her, she’d be automatically out. Everyone watched not knowing what to do. That’s when Mallory Holtman and Liz Wallace — two players from the opposing team stepped up. The crowd watched in amazement as they carried Sara around the bases, making sure to tap her left foot on each base. Sara made her home run. And the stadium went wild. But the real heroes of the day were Mallory and Liz, whose team lost the game, but won the day.
I can’t read that story without getting teary. Why is it that acts of sacrifice touch us so deeply? Perhaps because they go against our human nature, while demonstrating the best in people. Dr. Michael McGee confesses, “When I was younger, I would speed towards the parking space to get it before the other car. I was selfish. Even now, I experience impulses to gratify and soothe myself before considering the needs of others. I still have seeds of selfishness.” Putting others first, is not our first impulse. It’s not second nature to us. Yet it is a value and an action at the core of our Christian faith. The cross is all about putting others first. Jesus didn’t die for himself, he died for humanity, for you and I. He put us first.
This is absolutely consistent with his teaching. James and John come up with a great idea. They assume, that in heaven, someone’s going to have the honour of sitting beside Jesus so it might as well be them. In case this might be done on a first come, first serve basis – like calling “shot gun” before a car ride, they approach Jesus to be sure they’re at the top of his list. You can imagine just how “impressed” Jesus was by this. Regardless, he dealt with them respectfully and used their question as a teaching moment. He asked them, “Are you capable of drinking the cup I drink, of being baptized in the baptism I’m about to be plunged into?” (Mark 10: 38). He was, of course, referring to his torturous death on the cross; his sacrifice for others. That James and John even approached Jesus looking for glory for themselves, tells us the answer to that question. But, without giving it much thought, John and James insist they can. Knowingly, Jesus responds, “Come to think of it, you will drink the cup I drink, and be baptized in my baptism. But as to awarding places of honor, that’s not my business. There are other arrangements for that.” (vs. 39 & 40). The other disciples aren’t much better. Upon overhearing the request, they’re miffed with James and John for being so presumptuous. Who’s to say it wouldn’t be one of them? Jesus sets things straight, “Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not to be served—and then to give away his life in exchange for many who are held hostage” (vs. 43 – 45). The kingdom of God is not about who’s most powerful. It’s not about pushing others around, using or oppressing them. It’s not about getting honours or even credit. It’s upside-down to everything we think. In “God’s world, God’s way” the first is last, leaders are servants, others come first. Jesus is our role-model.
In Philippians 2: 3 & 4, Paul directs us, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” This too is opposite to what the world teaches us. A meme I read states, “The problem with putting others first is you teach them you come second.” In the book of Acts, Paul and Silas are drawn into a situation where the motivations of selfish ambition, self-interest has caused some people to exploit a vulnerable girl. The girl suffered due to poverty and economic oppression. She had been bought and sold as a slave and her owners had no regard for her as a person, only as an object they could use. She also suffered due to a different kind of oppression – she was possessed by a demon. The demon gave her the power of divination which was quite a perk for her owners. They sold her ability to see the future for their own financial gain. She was quite a lucrative asset to their livelihood. To her owners, she was a cash cow, not a human being. When Paul and Silas show up, the spirit within the girl recognizes them as people of faith. She follows them around for days, announcing, “These men are working for the Most High God. They’re laying out the road of salvation for you!” (Acts 16: 17). She tried Paul’s patience. We might think the free advertising would be welcomed by Paul and Silas, but it wasn’t. Terry and I recently had a similar experience. We were walking in downtown London, ON and we passed a man who looked like he was living on the streets. He was talking to himself and shooing away invisible things. Obviously, the poor man had mental health issues. But when Terry and I passed him, he looked at us and began talking about reading the Bible and prayer. This quickly turned to cursing us in the most colourful language. He followed us up the street and back and at one point threatened Terry physically. Later we both related our experience to that of Paul and Silas. In our culture, you don’t go up to ill people without homes and attempt to deliver them. However, Paul turned to the woman and commanded the demon to come out of her in the name of Jesus Christ. It did. We would think that was cause for celebration, but the woman’s owners saw their goldmine disappear. Without the demon, the girl was just a girl with no remarkable powers. Not only had her owners lost their source of income, now they were stuck with a slave they’d have to feed. Before we judge these people harshly, we need to consider if they are really that different from us. We have closets full of clothes, made by children in sweatshops half-way around the world. Our lifestyle is luxurious in comparison to most of the world because we purchase goods from unethical companies. Our bank accounts expand because we invest in countries that oppress their own people, persecute Christians, deceive their trading partners and are aggressive to other nations. In short, we live well because we don’t think about the people affected, let alone put them first. Jesus told his disciples, “You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around. When people get a little power how quickly it goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you” (Mark 10: 42).
Booker T. Washington was an American educator, writer, speaker and advisor to several presidents of the United States. He was a leader in his community, promoting entrepreneurs and education as a means to move forward. All this would be remarkable for anyone, but Washington was born into slavery in 1856. He knew a thing or two about oppression. Washington advised, “If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else.” In our world, it seems that we can not lift up one group of people, without bringing down another. We are locked in a power dynamic structured to life up some at the expense of others. It seems that someone must be on top, and someone must be on the bottom in order for the top person to be validated. In God’s kingdom, the playing field gets levelled. The goal is to lift up, first God, and then everyone else. Most people push against being the person on the bottom and certainly wouldn’t choose to be the slave in order to benefit or glorify, lift up or save someone else. But it is not that way with the followers of Christ. We are to serve and esteem others. The question is: how does that level the playing field? How does becoming less lift us up?
A farmer hears of a wiseman visiting a nearby village. He sets out to ask the man a question: Why, even though I work hard, am I still poor? Along the way, he meets 3 people, who give him food and a night’s lodging. They also have questions. Since they can’t make the trek themselves, they ask the farmer if he will bring their questions to the wise men. The farmer agrees. When he arrives, the wise man informs him he can only ask 3 questions. The farmer has a dilemma because he now has 4 questions. He considers which persons question he can leave out, but concludes that instead of asking his own question, he’ll ask the questions of his new friends. The farmer journeys back and gives his friends the answers. In return his friends thank him with 3 gold coins and invite him to return at any time. The farmer leaves with a pocket of money and a heart filled with love. In the process, he has discovered the answer to his question: putting aside our own needs gives us what we need.
In a research study people were given money to spend. Half the subjects were instructed to give the money to someone in need. The other half were instructed to spend it on themselves. At the end of the day, the subjects who gave the money away were happier. Giving is good for us. We shouldn’t be surprised – Jesus told us it was the way to go. Putting others first, not only makes them happier, it makes us happier and it makes the world a better place.
Do you remember Dr. Michael McGee who’s goal it was to get the best parking spot? He concurs, “What I’ve learned is that I am better off if I put others first. When I let someone go in front of me in line, I feel good. Last week I cancelled a meeting and went to visit my mother-in-law, who is recovering from an illness. It felt good to do this”. Putting others first may not bring us glory or power or money, but it brings us peace and joy.
Recently, this picture has been circulating on the internet. It shows a man and his son walking through the rain. The father is soaked to the skin as he holds the umbrella over his son to shield him from the downpour. As a loving father, he is putting his son first. And he is also teaching his son how to love because love is putting others first. Putting others first may not bring us glory or power or money, but it brings us peace and joy. And just as Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross models for us the way that God’s kingdom becomes a reality on Earth, perhaps we will model the same for others.
After giving up his place in a wealthy family, living in poverty and devoting his life to others, St. Francis of Assisi concluded, “Above all the grace and the gifts that Christ gives to his beloved is that of overcoming self.”
Silent Prayer and Reflection
Offertory Prayer: Lord God, we bring our gifts. In doing so, we deprive ourselves of something, yet we bring our gifts happily. Use them and us to reach out to others. Amen.
Prayer of Thanksgiving and Intercession
Creator God, we thank you today that you have seen fit to include us in your kingdom. We thank you for Jesus, who was willing to give up the glory of heaven to become a servant to us. If this wasn’t enough, he gave up this gift of life to die a horrible death for our salvation. We thank you for putting us before your own Son. We thank you Jesus for putting us before your own safety and well-being.
We thank you for the many blessings and gifts that you give us. We are grateful for the emotional blessings we receive through family and friends and through a sense of purpose. We are grateful for the physical blessings of good health in body and mind, and for providing for all our needs in abundance. We are grateful for our spiritual blessings of forgiveness, acceptance and a relationship with you. We look forward to the day when we will be welcomed into your realm.
We pray for your Church. In some places, Christians suffer and even die for their faith. Give them wisdom and courage. Closer to home, churches are closing and people are hurt and grieving. Comfort them. In our own congregation, we are missing one another and the time we share together. We are in a time of change and transition which both scares and excites us. Give us the ability to put others first.
We pray for our world, in all its wonder and beauty; in all its brokenness and sin; in all its darkness and evil. Shine your light so that people may turn to follow you. We think now of particular places, people or problems we have heard of this week.
We pray for those who are sick, asking for healing.
For those who are suffering mentally, asking for peace.
For those who are grieving, asking for comfort.
For those who rebel against you, asking for opening hearts.
For those who seek their own good, asking for humility.
Thank you for hearing these prayers and for your loving providence, in which you consider all our needs.
Hear us now as we pray with Jesus saying…
The Lord’s prayer.
Invitation to Mission
We go out to a world in need
to share the hope we have in Christ.
To weep with those who weep
and to rejoice with those who rejoice
To serve others
as Christ serves us.
Benediction May the Triune God bless you and keep you.