Not long after I moved to Louisville, Kentucky to attend seminary, I was called to serve a fairly large church as their youth minister. We had over 1,500 members and about 75 teenagers. I was only 22 years old at the time and as proud as I could be on the staff of such a large church.
One of the first things that the personnel committee wanted to do after I was called was to turn in my name and driver’s license number to the church’s insurance company so I could drive the church’s vans.
About a week later, I was asked to meet with Norman Hartman, the chairperson of the personnel committee, and the pastor. We went into the pastor’s office. The pastor shut the door. Norman said, “Jarrett, we have a small problem. You’ve had right many traffic violations haven’t you?”
I hung my head down in shame; face all red. “Yes, I have.”
The pastor said, “Tell us about it.”
And as if I was in a confessional booth I started: “Well, I have had a couple of accidents that were my fault. I got a ticket each time. And I believe I’ve had four speeding tickets but none were for going over 70.”
“It says here in this report you’ve had five speeding tickets,” Norman said, sort of reluctantly.
The pastor shook his head.
“One of them was not for speeding. It was for passing someone on a double-yellow line.” Norman and the pastor grimaced.
I tried to explain: “But I was on my way home for school for Spring Break going through this small town in North Carolina called Bethel. And I had been behind this car forever that was going 20 miles an hour! And as soon as we got out of the town, I passed.”
The pastor asked, “With all of those tickets, it seems like they would have taken your license away.”
“They were going to,” I said. But I went to a driver’s improvement clinic so I could keep it.”
Then the news came. I will never forget it. “Well, it’s nothing personal Jarrett,” Norman said, “but we are not going to be able to let you drive our vans. We think it would be too risky. Besides, putting you on our list of drivers would make our insurance premiums sky-rocket. Our agent said that if you don’t get any more tickets in the next three years, you might be able to drive when you turn 25.”
Seeing that I was completely devastated and utterly embarrassed, the pastor said some of the most uplifting and comforting words: “Jarrett I want you to know that you driving record in no way makes me think less of you and your ability to be a fine youth minister. So, hold your head up, it’s not about you. We just can’t justify paying the increased premiums.”
“It’s not about you.” As a pastor, that’s a phrase that I find myself using rather frequently with different people.
One of my church members in Winston-Salem got her feelings hurt when I did not visit her in the hospital. She told someone in her Sunday School class that she spent nearly a week in the hospital and I never once came by to see her. However, the fact was that I had no idea that she was ever in the hospital. How was I supposed to know?
When I found out she was upset, I went to see her. She started the conversation by complaining that if her last name was so-in-so (she named a prominent family in the church) I would have been there. She said: “I know that I’m really not that important in this church.”
I said, “This is not about you. It has nothing to do with who you are or what your last name is. I didn’t go see you because I simply didn’t know you were in the hospital. It’s not about you.”
I had a conversation with someone who has experienced a lot of tragedy recently. She was visibly very depressed about her situation. “I can’t believe that all of this is happening to me? Why is God doing this to me? What in the world have I done to deserve all of this?”
I said, “This is not about you. Your loved one got cancer because he’s a human being and sometimes human beings get cancer. Your car had a flat tire, because that’s what tires do when you run over a nail. And your pet died because that’s what pets do, they die. It’s not about you.”
I believe we are somewhat trained by our culture to take everything personally, to think of ourselves as the center of the universe. We judge all people, experiences, and events, all organizations and relationships on what they do for sweet, adorable me.
This is one of the reasons I believe church can be difficult for us. Because church, what we are about here, can be quite a reach for us because the truth is that Church is about God. It’s not about us.
A friend and I went to chapel when I was in seminary to hear a well-known preacher in our denomination. In his sermon, he talked about people in his church who were committed to selfless service in their daily lives. His examples were inspiring. He talked about people who visited the sick, people who reached out the poor, people who stood up for justice and for what was right in spite of the possible repercussions.”
On the way out, I was thinking of what a great sermon it was when my friend commented, “You know, not one time did that preacher mention Jesus.”
And he was right. If you did not know anything about the church, on the basis of that sermon, you might think that the church is basically a volunteer social service agency, some sort of well-intentioned civic organization, and nothing more.
I believe this is the danger of being such a mission-minded church. We make the church more about people than we do about God. We say: “The church is not this building on the corner of Church and Main. The Church is not bricks and mortar. The church is the people. The church is me, and the church is you, and the church is about the people who are outside these walls.
That’s a far cry from speaking of the church as: “the body of Christ.” And it’s a long way from today’s scripture lesson.
The crowds are chasing after Jesus, thinking that he will produce bread on demand. Jesus tries to teach the crowds that they ought to hunger after bread that is eternal life. “I am the bread of life,” he tells them. That’s what Jesus often does, especially in the gospel of John. He turns our earthly, selfish needs away from ourselves, and toward the things of God, things eternal. This Sunday, as on most Sundays, our scripture lesson is not about us, it is about God.
However, if we are not careful in our culture, and as I said, especially in a progressive, mission-minded church such as ours, it is easy to get confused into thinking that the church is mostly about us, that worship is little more than a pep rally to motivate folks to live better lives, and go out and to serve others, and that the supreme test of our Sunday is that “we get something out of it.”
And yet, it is my duty to tell you, and to keep reminding myself, that “This is not about us.”
What is this about? It is primarily about Jesus, crucified, risen and presently reigning. This is about God. William Willimon once put it this way: “worship is primarily about learning to suppress some of our self-concern and cultivate more God-concern.” Sunday is a time we confronted with God’s feelings about us. Worship isn’t some pep rally to get us busy doing things for God, but worship is primarily an occasion when we celebrate what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.[i]
There is a word for worship that we don’t use very much. Maybe it’s because we don’t feel it that often. That word is ecstasy. The tragedy is that we probably only think of this as a name for an illicit drug or as some other type of physical arousal. The word ecstasy comes from the Greek, meaning literally to “stand outside one’s self.”
When we are in ecstasy, we stand outside ourselves. That is a very hard thing for modern people like us to do. For our culture encourages us to delve deeper into ourselves, constantly monitor our personal feelings, continually worry about questions like, “What am I feeling now? What am I thinking? What am I supposed to be doing?”
Sunday worship is a blessed opportunity to look beyond ourselves, to get outside ourselves.
When I was taking a pastoral care class at Gardner-Webb a few years ago, the professor asked us to share our feelings, to talk about our fears and frustrations, and to courageously look within ourselves. At first, it was a bit awkward, but eventually we all joined in the session. After all, most of us, especially pastors, despite what we say, we really enjoy talking about ourselves.
And yet one of the pastors had very little to say. He said to the group, “I tried looking inside myself on a number of occasions, and frankly, I don’t see much there. To tell the truth, I think I am a rather superficial person, rather weak. I am not sure that I have much of significance to share with the group.”
The professor assured this pastor that this was not the case and that whatever he shared would be significant to the group. I remember thinking that this was a person who obviously needed greater self-confidence. We all encouraged him.
But then the pastor said: “I really feel that some of the most interesting things about me are the things that are outside of me—my relationships, my family and friends, and my God. I think that the most interesting thing about me is that God has chosen me, me with all my inadequacies and failings, to do good work for God. I think that is what makes me special. The significance of my life has come from outside my life. If I stripped away all those who are outside me—my family, my children, my wife, and the people in my church, and my God, I don’t believe there would be much there.”
I thought that his statement was one of the most profound Christian statements I’d ever heard. He could have put it another way, namely, “It’s not about me.”
Thanks be to God that it is rather about God, God who loves us so much that God became one of us to save us, to be with us, to give significance to our lives that we could not have given them on our own. Thanks be to God that we are not called to leave this service to love others simply because we are supposed to be good, ethical people. No, we leave this place to love others, because God in Christ first loved us.
[i] The inspiration for this sermon came from a sermon by William Willimon that was printed in Pulpit Resource, Logos Productions, 2006.