The other day I began working on the sermon for Sunday. Sermons don’t just fly out of my mouth. They take a lot of time, prayer, and preparation to get into the 20-25-minute discussion on Sunday mornings.
This week, I’m preaching on the story of the Shrewd or Dishonest Manager (depending on the description your translation uses) from Luke 16:1-13. It is the lectionary passage for Sunday. As I began preparing for the sermon, my eyes turned towards the follow-up story. The story is one where the Pharisees are having a little disagreement with what Jesus had said.
A group of Pharisees having a problem with Jesus? Now, where have I seen that before? Oh yeah, almost every time Jesus interacts with the crowd or offers a deeper interpretation of the Scriptures (when Jesus refers to the Scriptures, he is talking about what we call the Old Testament). The Pharisees go to Jesus and say, “Well, you can’t be talking about us.” Keep in mind, the previous story has a lot to do with how we treat and view money. What they are basically saying is, “We have no problem with money. Isn’t that right, Jesus.”
I’m intrigued by what Jesus says in response. He says, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.” (Luke 16:15b, NRSV)
Jesus really gets to the heart of the matter. He calls the Pharisees out for wanting to be seen as good and holy by the public instead of being focused on following in God’s footsteps. They want the people to look at them and say, “We love you!” They would rather hear that than God’s saying, “Good job, good and faithful servant.”
That is where the passage has struck a nerve with me. I know, personally, how tempting it is to be more concerned with how people view me than how God sees the work that I do. We all love personal accolades and to know that people value your work and effort. There is a fine line between depending upon that and respecting the words of others. If I am more focused on how people view me, as a pastor, then I am not able to work the work God calls me to do take on.
Where this is a real struggle for me is when it comes to leadership decisions. Because of personal experience, I overly stress when I have to hold people into account for their actions or deal with difficult moments or people in the life of the church. I would rather hide under my desk as Charley Steiner did in a famous SportsCenter commercial involving Evander Holyfield. I face them, because it is my calling, but I would rather I didn’t have to deal with them. I recognize that within this is a desire to be liked by everyone.
Here’s the thing … I’m not going to be liked by everyone. If I am focused on what too much, then I will be less likely to make a difficult decision, do what needs to be done, or encourage the congregation to move forward. This has been something I have been working on for several years, and I am a lot better at it now than I was when I first started in ministry.
The same mentality is involved with the sermon. If all I do is listen to what people say – “I like how you preach;” “I wish you didn’t preach on that;” or “Go back to the pulpit;” – I can run into the same trap of being more concerned with the words of others than on what God is calling me to do or say.
Words of affirmation are good and necessary. We need them to encourage us in difficult moments and to affirm us in our work. They cannot be our sole motivation for doing what we are called to do in life.
In our personal lives, if our main motivation for following Christ is to be seen as a “good and holy” person by others then we are not really interested in being a disciple. We are following ourselves. Our faith, then, becomes a status symbol where we are trying to receive something from others: honor, prestige, and respect.
The same holds true for a congregation. If our main motivation as a church is to make everyone happy to where they will come back next week, give more, and volunteer more, then we are missing the boat on what it means to be the church. We are, then, more like a social club and volunteer organization and not attempt to live as a life-changing movement of God.
As we seek to grow closer to Christ, one of the questions that we need to ask ourselves every day is this: Why are we following Christ? If it is to receive affirmation or acclaim from others, then we are missing out on the depths and riches of God’s love. If it is to grow in God’s love and to share that love with others … then, we’ll experience what this life is truly all about it.
So, why are you following Christ? What matters the most to you?