Last week, I was at a conference for pastors. It was a long and intense conference – seven days – and during those days we were invited to look at the big picture of our ministry and our lives. There were pastors there from all over the country – Ohio, Missouri, Colorado, Texas, North Carolina, Alabama, Pennsylvania, and of course Virginia. There were pastors there who served churches with 20 people on a Sunday morning to those who ministered to 3,000 members on their rolls. During the week we looked together at every part of what it means to be a pastor – leadership, vocation, spiritual health, physical health, financial health. And at the end of the week we put down on paper what steps we wanted to take once we came home. On the last day, we met together in worship and shared these plans and hopes and dreams with one another.
And I can still remember the words of one pastor who shared in that space. He’s a solo pastor in eastern Ohio, serving a church where the closest grocery store is 25 minutes out of town. I really liked talking to him during the week, because neither one of us had any idea what that perfect plan for being a pastor and leading a church looks like. We just like to talk and be with people, to learn and teach about scripture and God, and to worship alongside others.
In worship that day he didn’t start off with a list of things to do or not do. Instead he began by telling us of something that happened the day before. “Yesterday, I didn’t know where to begin on this plan. So I took some time and prayed. And I kept asking God over and over again, ‘What do you need me to do? What do need me to do?’ Then finally I heard back… And God’s answers was, “Nothing! …Nothing! I don’t need you to do anything more. I Just want you to know that you are loved by me. I want you to know that you are wonderful. And you don’t need to do anything to make me love you.” And as he said those words to us in that worship space, you could feel a physical sense of peace wash over all of us pastors there. Because we needed those words too. We needed that reminder of grace.
So his plan for going back to Ohio was to make sure that message didn’t get forgotten. As pledge campaigns and creating budgets and moderating session and all the tasks of ministry would come back to him, he wanted to make sure that that message didn’t get pushed to the side. That he would give space and time to remember it. And that he would make sure to share it and lead it by example with his congregation: You are loved by God. You are wonderful. Be you.
Our passage today is not about us and the work we need to do. It is not about law vs. grace, Jew vs. Gentile, Old Testament vs. New Testament, though there are many preachers who claim it is so. Instead this is a passage about who Jesus is for us.
The passage begins with Temple authorities shocked by what Jesus is doing: overturning the tables of money-changers, teaching tax-collectors, healing foreigners, eating with sinners, proclaiming good news of a coming kingdom of God. And so they ask him, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus doesn’t answer it the most direct way. He talks about John the Baptist and his baptisms in the desert.
But in his answer he reminds us of his own baptism by John in the Jordan River. He reminds us of the Holy Spirit ascending upon him, the sky opening, and a voice from heaven saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Jesus is reminding us that his work is God’s work. His love is God’s love. His mercy and good news are not the ramblings of a crazy preacher, but the heart of the God who made us all and loves us beyond any measure. In Jesus, the fullness of God’s love lives and saves and welcomes us back into God’s arms. That is by what authority he is doing all of his radical work.
And only after this does Jesus point out our role in his work. And interestingly, he doesn’t lift up the religious or the pious. He doesn’t lift up prophets or missionaries. He doesn’t lift up the people you would expect. Instead he lifts up the tax collectors and the prostitutes. “[They] are going into the kingdom of heaven ahead of you.”
And if you look at what tax collectors and prostitutes do in the gospels, it is not that they built new churches or wrote bestselling books or started up soup kitchens – things that we might still think we need to do to be a good Christian today. What they did is live into joy and peace. They told people stories about Jesus. They invited him and others to dinner. They confessed to God and gave thanks for forgiveness.
In the world’s eyes, they didn’t accomplish anything grand or big. But they knew that they were loved by God. They knew who Jesus was for them. They knew that once they were no people, now they are God’s people. Once they were separate from God. Now they are united. Once they were cast out, now they are welcome. They knew the joy and peace of God saying to them: “You are loved. You are wonderful.”
We in the church have the same disease as much of the world. It is the disease of “more.” More rules, more meetings, more tasks, more things to put on a resume, more checkmarks to make us worthy of being called Christians, more that we need to do before we can ”deserve” God’s love. And once you have that disease of “more” you know that it doesn’t ever stop. There is never enough. We just keep saying, “I need to do more and more and more.”
And like those temple authroities that disease of more can keep us from our primary goal, the one thing we all need more than anything else: Know that you are loved by God. The Temple leaders were active. They did a lot. But with so much activity and rules and structure they missed what was right in front of them: God’s love in Jesus Christ.
There are many actions and services you offer that make a huge difference for us as a church and community. Teaching children in Sunday school. Creating a budget and caring for the offering. Serving on session. Practicing music. Shopping at the food pantry with neighbors. These are all things that are needed. I don’t want to say that work and action and service don’t matter. They do. But I never want the tasks to get in the way of knowing God’s love. I never want us to get so wrapped up in daily and weekly tasks that we forget why we have given over our lives for the sake of the gospel in the first place.
We as a church should be a place for peace, not more worry and stress. We should be a place where all people have a moment to take a breath (pause) and know that God loves them, just as they are. We should be a place to be open and honest and free.
Now I don’t know the perfect way or steps to get there. What I will say is that I am here to journey in faith with you. I am here to listen and pray and share what I know. I am here to pause and take a breath with you. I am here to be reminded of God’s love and point to ways we can see it alive in our world.
I want us to be active and live and serving. But not out of the disease of more. Not out of fear or guilt or stress. But out of joy. Out of wonder. Out of a adventure and fearlessness for what God will do next. Out of love. Out of knowing God loves me just the way I am, and because of that I can do great things.
So for this week, I don’t have any challenge to you except this:
Know that you are loved.
Know that you are wonderful.
God’s going to do the rest. Amen.