Sermon – Upside Down

October 16, 2012 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Candidate Process, Princeton Seminary, Religion, Seminary, Sermons 

This sermon was preached as a part of my seminary internship at Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church, North Plainfield, NJ on Sunday, October 14, 2012.  This particular Sunday was Blessing of the Pets Sunday, and a number of dogs and a few cats attended the worship service – this will explain the bark and leash rattling and clicking nails that you hear in the background.  This was also my first sermon preached in a church other than my home church.

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Audio: Mark Smith Sermon 2012-10-14

Text:  Mark 10:17-31

Jesus was getting ready to head out on a trip when something unusual happened.  A man ran up to him, and knelt at Jesus’ feet.  This man was different than most of the people who sought Jesus’ attention.  His clothes were nicer than most … he probably spoke in a way that marked him as a wealthy man.

Certainly this man had many things on his mind.  He “had many possessions” – likely this means that he owned a lot of land.  And he had the usual thoughts that go with wealth – how do I use what I have to make more for myself, to give myself security and comfort?  How much do I pay my workers?  What is the market price today?  He didn’t have to worry about paying the rent or the mortgage, or putting food on the table.

But none of these things were on his mind this day.  He asked a question – “Good Teacher – what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  This man wasn’t worried about making and keeping his fortune, or paying his workers – any short-term worries.  No, he was concerned about his own personal spiritual life and living for eternity.  He was thinking for the LOOOONG term, and only about himself.

And Jesus gave him the “Christian 101” answer – obey the Commandments.  Jesus listed several of them:  do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not defraud, honor your father and mother – all of these are commandments that speak of how we are to interact with each other.  All of them are ways to do right by each other, and therefore be pleasing to God.

The man had studied his Scripture.  “Teacher, I have kept these commandments from my youth.”  In this the man revealed that he was not the average petitioner – that he was educated in the Jewish Law and had kept that Law while growing up.

At this point, Jesus realizes that the man needs the “Advanced Christian” course – possibly even graduate level study.  It’s time for the harder part of being one of his followers.  He looked at the man, seeing him as only Jesus could. He loves the man – yes, it says that in the text – and gave him the hard words “You lack one thing.  Go and sell everything that you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  Then, come, follow me.”

These words were hard indeed.  This man had worked his whole life to accumulate this wealth.  And he believed that he was doing what God wanted him to do.  Several places in the Hebrew Scriptures it says that those who obey God’s commandments will be rewarded with prosperity and material wealth.  The Hebrew Scriptures also remind us many times and command us to take care of those in need and to transform unjust economic systems.  Before speaking to Jesus, he thought he was doing the right thing – that he had found things in Scripture that supported his choice to gather wealth.  Jesus saw him and knew differently – that he wasn’t following all of the scriptures, and so Jesus offered a challenge, one that was about more than the man’s own personal question.

It is important to see what he was being offered.  The language used here – “follow me” – is the same language that Jesus used earlier in calling his disciples.  The man was being offered a chance to become a disciple!  But first he must do what the other disciples have done – turn his world upside down.  He must give up his personal ideas about what is right and what is wrong, and take up the new way that Jesus offers.  He’s quite far along that path – he has already mastered the basic requirements of the Commandments.  But to be one of the first Christians, he needs to go further, and take the hard steps of personal sacrifice and re-learning the way that his faith asks him to live. (*bark from pews* – That’s one.)[1]

But he can’t.  We don’t know exactly why, but the instruction and invitation cause this man to go away, with sorrow and a fallen face.  The text says that he went away because “he had many possessions.”  We can only assume that he was unable to accept the changes that are caused by following Christ – the turning of his world upside down that comes with the belief in Jesus.

Belief in Jesus brings a lot of upside-down to our lives, and to the lives of those who knew him.  Jesus lived in a way that crossed the rules of Jewish society.  He lived according to values that were not necessarily held by the culture that he was a part of.  Jesus regularly associated with people who were not acceptable to most – tax collectors, lepers, even prostitutes.  Jesus regularly broke the rules about what you can and cannot do on the Sabbath, and helped people to eat and to heal.  Taking care of those in need and showing them respect were important parts of Jesus’ teaching.

Lately I’ve been reading the book “Tuesdays with Morrie” by Mitch Albom.  This is the true story of a young man, established in his career, who goes back to Boston to visit his professor, a professor who is dying.  They meet once a week for fourteen weeks, and just talk.  One day they talked about the culture that we live in.  Morrie, who is the professor, said “People are only mean when they are threatened.  And that’s what our culture does.  That’s what our economy does.  Even people who have jobs in our economy are threatened, because they worry about losing them.  And when you get threatened, you start looking out only for yourself.  You start making money a god.  It is all part of this culture.”  This is just as true today as it was in 1995 when Morrie said it, and it was true in Jesus’ time as well.  The rich man was a part of a culture like that – where most people valued wealth and power rather than doing right by each other.

Following Jesus calls us to believe and think and do things that cross the values of our own society.  While parts of society tell us that building up wealth and personal security are the most important values, our faith calls us to help those in need – those who are not doing as well – financially, physically, or spiritually.  Society tells us to imitate each other, particularly in consumption – getting the latest smart phone or television or car – while our faith calls us to love each other as we love ourselves.  Society today pushes us to think first of ourselves, then of the community, while Jesus saw everything as a communal.  What would it look like if those of us who have enough money … and maybe a little more … gave some of that to others?  What would it look like if we increased our priorities in this congregation on mission giving and mission service in our community?  What would it look like if those who have skills and free time found a way to help others with their needs?  These actions show our upside down values – values that don’t match the world around us, but do match our faith, values that show that we are committed to the community.  Consider what following those upside-down values might look like.

Millard Fuller was a self-made millionaire from Alabama, who at the age of 29 was facing physical, relational and spiritual challenges because of his success.  He was experiencing a crisis about the kind of life that he was leading.  And after doing some soul-searching, he – along with his wife – decided to recommit himself to his Christian background.  He and his wife decided to sell everything that they own, gave the money to the poor, and looked for a way to live their faith.  They went to live at Koinonia Farm in Americus, Georgia and searched for a way to apply themselves to the problems of the world in a Christian way.  Ultimately, they focused on housing for the poor.  They felt that what the poor needed was help getting started, rather than charity, in order to build a new life for themselves.  They began working to build modest houses with no-profit, no-interest loans, and they asked the new homeowners to build “sweat equity” in their home and the homes of others in the program by working on the buildings.  In doing so, they reduced the cost of each house to something that the homeowners could afford, and also allowed the homeowners to build pride in their work, as well as strong relationships.  In 1976, this organization became Habitat for Humanity, which has now built over 500,000 homes.  Fuller is quoted as saying, “I see life as both a gift and a responsibility. My responsibility is to use what God has given me to help people[2] in need.”  Fuller heard Jesus’ call to turn his life upside down and follow him.

This example is very much like the choice that the rich man in our passage faced, and in Mr. Fuller we have a man who chose to take that other option.  While the changes that he made in his life, after a decision to align that life with the call of Jesus, helped to heal his broken soul they did so much more than that.  These changes allowed for something new to begin and grow, helping to bring about the mission of God in our world.

So this leaves us with a few questions to ponder –

What is Christ calling you to do that is at odds with the messages of the world, in a big way or in a small way?  Are you being called to leave something behind that doesn’t match your Christian values?  Are you being called to use free time or resources that you have today to do something to help others?  Can you pray for the needs of others?

How are you asked to act in a way that is upside down, and yet right?

How are you asked to act in a way that is upside down, and yet right?

May we all find a way to follow the call of Jesus in our lives, so that the community can reap the rewards that God has in store for all of us.  Amen.

– Copyright © 2012, Mark R. Smith


[1] Before the service, during Announcements, the pastor quoted something I’d said before the service in her office:  “My rule is that if you bark three times, you come up and preach the sermon.”

[2] The original quote says “his people”.

Seminarian Mark Smith Preaching

Ham and Eggs – Breakfast with Moderator Bruce Reyes-Chow

November 12, 2008 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Religion 

(I forgot to bring my camera, but Sara didn’t.  Pictures as soon as I get them from her.)

Today Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow – the Moderator of the 218th General Assembly of the PC(USA) – came to Lawrenceville, NJ.  The Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville hosted him for the 2nd time for breakfast and conversation.

I’m not going to go into details on any issue in particular for several reasons.  One – I don’t remember the details so well.  Two – this post is about both national issues and my local congregation, and I’m reticent to be controversial locally.  Three – at one point Bruce said “Let me get my words right – you never know who is blogging about this” and a number of folks from my church reportedly looked at me.  Hmmm.

The group of about 50-60 that attended was made up primarily of ministers serving in a congregational capacity – mostly from the Presbytery of New Brunswick but also from quite far away in some cases.  There was a smaller contingent of seminarians, another group of non-congregational ministers, and some others who aren’t ministers from our congregation and other places (like me).

The food was excellent – egg strada, homebaked breads, and lots of fruit.  The tables were particularly well-decorated.

The conversation took the form of about 90 minutes of question and answer.  The topics varied broadly but included:

  • Multi-cultural churches – how they succeed and when they might fail
  • New Church Developments, including tips from Bruce based on his experiences at Mission Bay Community Church
  • The use of web 1.0 and web 2.0 technology in ministry, including the upcoming re-design of the PC(USA) website
  • Bringing even the smallest PC(USA) churches onto the Internet through the use of single-page websites for the church (at a cost that Bruce estimated to be about $100 per church)
  • Preserving mission in an era when church budgets may be shrinking
  • Shrinking congregations – when is it appropriate to talk about the end of a congregation’s life?  How do we talk about leaving a legacy through the church’s property and other assets?
  • Supporting small congregations that are not New Church Developments, do not believe they are at the end of their life, and want to redevelop.
  • Providing a living wage for pastors in small churches
  • Campus ministry and keeping young adults engaged with the church
  • Seminaries realizing that not all graduates will be able to go into full-time ministry, and potentially helping them get ready for 1/2-time ministry, 1/2-time something else
  • Information on how many appointments the Moderator makes after General Assembly (a very high 100+ this time around), and how little impact the Moderator has on the work of those task forces after making the appointments
  • Praise for New Brunswick presbytery for having enough interest to need a waiting list for the Social Witness Committee
  • an off-hand reference to “Friends Are Friends Forever” that went over the heads of anybody who wasn’t in the 30-45 age group
  • a reminder that Bruce and Vice-Moderator Byron Wade are willing to send video greetings to any group that requests such far enough in advance

I know that I’m missing some of the topics, but that’s most of them.

As always Bruce was engaging, funny, very authentic and willing to tackle the tough questions.  I’m impressed that while he is clearly more comfortable addressing groups of strangers now that he has 6 months of Moderator experience under his belt, he still speaks very openly and authentically and humbly.  His content and delivery are surprisingly consistent between his in-person appearances, his blog writings, and his blog videos (and his tweets on Twitter for that matter).

In short – a good time was had by all, and it was worth getting up early to be there.

Thanks, Bruce, for including Lawrenceville in your NYC/NJ trip.

A Great Sunday, part 1

January 28, 2008 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Religion 

Yesterday, the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville held “Levi Sunday”.

The name is a reference to the Levites, and also a sign that we were encouraged to wear jeans (brand not important).  The keyword for the day was service.

We started in the sanctuary for worship.  It started normally, and this week had the choir out of the loft and in front of us along with the children’s choir.  The readings were from Numbers 8 (we left out the bit about the bull) and James on good works.  The sermon was a quick tag-team conversation by both pastors.

When we reached the offering, the service relocated.  All of us were asked to put our paper offerings in the plate as we exited the sanctuary to head for multiple parts of the church to do service projects.  When we came in before the worship service we were each given a name tag with a color on it.  The colors separated us into our tasks.  One group assembled hygiene kits for Crisis Ministry of Trenton and Princeton.  Another group made Baby Kits for Church World Service and yet another group made School Kits for them – these are to be used in disaster areas.  Yet another group (mine) assembled bag lunches for the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen.  We were given worksheets to complete if we had time after the tasks.

When all were done, the congregation reassembled in the Fellowship Hall and concluded the service with a hymn, the Benediction, and a Choral Amen.  Then everybody had lunch – 6 foot hoagies and chips and dessert.

Chaos and order were clearly in tension as the tasks were completed.  In the lunch assembly room we had more people than we could possibly use, and ended up with each person building a lunch piece by piece or making sandwiches while another group formed an assembly line.  In about 20 minutes we assembled over 100 lunches using something like 30-40 people.

I also think everybody got the messages.  We are saved through faith but good works are also important.  Good works are the offering that we make in thanks for grace.

Our congregation is really good at mission.  We send lots of money out into the world to do good things.  We send lots of people out to do good things – disaster relief, service in the community and beyond.  This day linked that service to our beliefs.  I believe that I said something about our youth in a meeting recently – they know (and do) the right thing to do, but they’re a little fuzzy on the reason why.  I think the whole congregation is sometimes a little fuzzy too.  This helped.

Meetings and trip

September 27, 2007 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Religion 

It’s been another busy week in Mark-land.

Sunday we had the real Sr. High youth group kickoff session.  We had fun, got introduced to each other, played around, and ate ice cream.  It’s a good group of youth including not one but TWO exchange students.

Monday evening we had the first meeting of the Welcome and Outreach Task Force that I am co-chairing.  As I’ve said before our charter is to study visitors, inactive members and the local community and then to make recommendations on what the church could do to create an atmosphere of hospitality and invitation.  It was a good meeting – mainly kept to start up tasks and ideas.  We have two challenges.  First is scheduling meetings – the folks on the team are really busy and it’s hard to find a 1.5 hour time slot that works for everybody.  Fortunately I discovered (after some hints from the pastor and another team member) Meet-O-Matic.  That should help.  The second challenge is that we have one team member who has no Internet access (or inclination to get access).  We’ve appointed a team member to be that member’s “Internet buddy”, and we’ve covenanted not to make any decisions via e-mail without getting her input.

The team is very diverse (as diverse as we could get given the congregation’s demographics).  We have people who have only been attending our church since last spring and people who have been members for over 25 years.  We have a pretty good age spread, and the gender balance is good.  The skills and interests of the group members are fairly well balanced, too.

One interesting concept that came from this meeting is the definition of our “mission field” – the land area that we are targeting.  The traditional idea was that we serve a 3 mile radius from the church building.  However, over 1/2 of the team lives outside of that radius.  This means (by extrapolation – and it does work out that way) that a significant percentage of the church membership drives past another Presbyterian church or three (not to mention other denominations) to get to our church.  We are thinking that we might have two tiers – the 3-mile “local” tier and a larger area.  We decided to add “active members outside the 3-mile radius” to the list of groups studied to see what draws them to drive a distance to be part of our community.  We’re also going to be mapping the households using software yet to be determined (Google Maps?).

So that was Monday evening.  Did I get a break Tuesday evening?  No.  Carolyn decided that this was the week to re-seal the driveway while it is still warm enough.  (It did need it)  So I got home Tuesday evening and it took the two of us just about 1 hour to put a coat on the driveway.  She was nice to me Wednesday evening and put the 2nd coat on herself (a thinner coat).  I just had to cook dinner.

Tonight is laundry, and then Friday evening I’m going with the Sr. Highs up to Camp Johnsonburg for a quick overnight retreat.  We’ll be home about 3pm on Saturday – just in time to see Rutgers play Maryland (my brother’s alma mater) in football.

Sunday I’ll have church in the morning.  I’m attending an adult forum on what makes Presbyterians different from other denominations.  I have homework to do – matching the names, dates, and a short summary of the Confessions.  Sunday evening the church is doing the first ever Jazz Vespers.  The youth are attending together, and I’m probably going to bring Carolyn along too.

Who was it that said “You can sleep when you’re dead.”?

New Members in Mission

February 19, 2007 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Church New Member Process, Religion 

Quotidian Grace writes about her recent experience attending a new member’s class at another church.  (I’m not entirely clear on whether she is changing churches or just sitting in – she’s the moderator-elect of her presbytery.)

The really interesting part of her experience is the Saturday “workday” that they did.  The new members were taken to one of the church’s outreach agencies to work for a 1/2 day.  They did the usual mission work – packing sack lunches, working in the Thrift Shop.  At the end of the day they heard about other mission opportunities (and learned even more in the regular Sunday session the next day).

The group even made sure that they were thanked and given pictures (electronically) of them working.

This is a great idea.  At Camp Johnsonburg, the campers do a small project to help out the camp every week (it could be as simple as looking for trash on the meadow).  The camp Leadership Training Program (formerly Counselor-in-Training) senior high’s do a big project for the camp – usually building or creating something (the camp’s labyrinth is a good example).

We got an overview of mission opportunities at the Lawrenceville church new member class.  We even got to see most of the internal ones just before the classes started at the annual stewardship fair (and the new class just got to see the external ones yesterday at the annual mission fair).  But we didn’t actually roll up our sleeves and do something.  The new member class was a nice way to get slightly acquainted with some of the other new members, but I would have really liked the chance to get to know people in the way that only happens when you work on something together.

Kudos to the Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church in Houston!