Here’s a sermon I preached at Richmond Mennonite Fellowship in 18 Oct 2009. It is FICTIONAL, although after writing it I saw myself in the character of John. It’s based on Mk 10:35-45 and passages leading up to it.
I don’t know where I went wrong. Somewhere along the way I must have missed something. Not just something—it seems like I missed THE thing, the big, main point. I thought I knew what it was. I was sure that I was doing all the right things and helping to get people saved. But in the end, it wasn’t what really mattered.
For all of my twenty-five years of life, I’ve been a good Christian. I’ve kept all the commandments, went to church, celebrated all the holidays with my family, listened to Christian music, attended youth and young adult meetings, and led Bible studies. When I was a young boy, I enrolled in the best private Christian school in the city and I memorized a good part of the New Testament—well, to be honest, it was actually mostly Paul’s letters. But I knew that, since Paul’s the one that talks about the atonement, communion, and all sorts of other important things, that his writings were quite important. In high school, I was part of our school’s outreach ministry. At Halloween—or Reformation Day, as we would call it—we’d go out and give away tracts to children as they trick-or-treated. We really didn’t seem to make too much of an impact, but my teachers and friends said that the Devil was extra sneaky on Halloween.
After high school, I began my undergrad at a prominent Christian university in Virginia. I made some great friends there and we kept each other accountable during these four years. It was also at this time that I began dating a great Christian woman that I met in one of my classes. In my junior year, we got engaged and then we were married the summer before my senior year.
I graduated a few years ago with my B.S. in management from the university’s business school. I planned on one day opening my own chain of Christian bakeries called “Bread of Life,” a bakery that would serve not only great food, but also the Word of God—we’d print Bible verses on napkins, plates, business cards, and share the gospel with all our customers. But before I could do that, I needed to get some experience. So I took a job with a great Christian job networking agency and helped people find their dream jobs. I loved it, and I made a pretty penny doing so. But I come from a long line of successful and pretty-well-off Christian business managers—in fact, my brother and I learned a lot of what we know about business from our father, so being a good Christian businessman is in my blood. But while James wanted to take over my father’s fish farm, I never lost my dream of opening my own Christian business—the bakery. Life was good. I had a great relationship with my parents, my wife, and, most important of all, with God. It appeared as though God was really blessing me for being faithful to Him.
Then I met Ryan. We were in line at a local coffee shop. I felt that I should tell him about God and God’s saving power, so I offered to buy him a cup of coffee and we sat down on a bench outside. He started telling me that he was about to take a walk around the park because he thought some fresh air would help clear his mind after this party he was at the night before. He told me about some of his friends—gays and hookers and bums that hung around in the city’s slums. Well, actually he didn’t like how I referred to his friends. He asked me to call them sex workers, homosexual people, and homeless people. I thought I’d appease the guy, although I really didn’t think they deserved to be called anything more than what I thought they really were—sinners. Anyway, Ryan kept telling me about them. And the more he told me, the more I knew that he really needed to hear about God. But then all of a sudden I realized that he really cared for these people—the sinful people that I’ve avoided all my life. He really loved them and accepted them for who they were and I wondered if anyone had ever loved me in that way.
Over the next few months, we kept running into each other at the coffee shop and the more I talked with him, the more I wanted to hang out with him. He never asked me to get together, never once invited me to hang out with him. But I kept inviting myself and kept following him around. I found out that he lived in a tiny, one-room apartment downtown, which he shared with random friends who needed a place to crash. He was kind of a hippie—made his own clothes, was a vegetarian, hardly owned anything at all. And as I got to know Ryan, I also got to know his friends—the sex workers and homosexual people—and I came to see that these people really needed to know about God. And I knew that they needed my help.
So I went home and started brainstorming what I could do. I devised a plan to open a ministry to sex workers and homeless people in the downtown area of the city. We could give out meals to people if they’d come to church and we could tell people about how God wanted them to stop being sex workers, stop being homosexual people, and get real jobs, about how God wanted to turn their lives around. I could open my bakery in the storefront and donate the day-olds to the shelter in the back. It was a brilliant plan. For the next several months, I kept making plans and arrangements for my outreach ministry—we could put out a magazine, write articles for the local Christian paper, and hold classes for people so they could have ministries similar to mine. I was going to make a difference. Me. I was going to do it. And everyone would know that I was a good Christian who cared for wretched sinners. I decided to go to my parents and get some money that could supplement my already large bank account. In total, I had gained more than enough money to buy the old bicycle store on the corner, tear it down, and built a big, state-of-the-art ministry centre for these sinners. My wife thought I was a bit crazy, but she supported me.
I remember the day that I planned on telling Ryan about my idea, which was now firmly underway. I arranged to meet him for lunch and after twisting my napkin and nervously sipping my water for 15 minutes, I told him about my plan. I told him that these people needed to hear about God’s love for them—that they needed to repent of their sinful ways and turn to God. He didn’t say anything at first. I figured he was overwhelmed with my generous offer to help his friends. Then he slowly leaned forward and said, “John, if you really want to help these people, get rid of your belongings, give the money away, and then come and do what I do.”
Well I certainly didn’t expect that! I had decided to give up my dreams of opening my chain of Christian bakeries to minister to these hopeless sinners. I felt like the dreams that I’d had for the past year were shattered when Ryan said this. But I knew he couldn’t have really wanted me to become like him—to actually be friends with these people, to really give up what I owned. I couldn’t do it, so I left the restaurant. I began to secretly follow him around. To see just what he did, and just what he expected me to do. There was no way, I figured, that he could want me to actually give up my things. He must have some friends who are typical, upper-middle-class white folks who grew up in the suburbs. But he really didn’t have too many of them as his friends. In fact, people like me really didn’t like him too much. I saw a different side of him over the next few weeks. I overheard him tell his group of so-called friends—which got bigger every day—that rich Christians, which I guess included me, were going to be punished for getting seasons tickets for Redskins games, for having Fendi bags and Menola Blonik shoes, and for being popular with the upper crust of society. He must have been wrong. After all, for most of my life I was taught that these are the marks that someone has been blessed by God.
After a lot of discernment, I decided to give up my idea of the downtown ministry—or at least put it on hold until I could convince Ryan that it was a good idea. But I needed a new plan, a plan to make me somebody. I didn’t want to be just another nobody. After all, I come from a pretty prestigious family in the business world and I wanted to follow in my family’s footsteps and be somebody that people look up to, that people admire. But every time I got an idea—another business, starting a magazine, doing TV and radio interviews about the work that Ryan, I, and our friends are doing—Ryan shot them all down.
Then one night I told my brother about how all my ideas were put down. James told me that they were good ideas, but that maybe they just weren’t what Ryan thought would help. I learned that he’d also become worried about making a name for himself—probably because our mother pushed us to be all that we can be. He suggested that we just deal with it upfront. So the next day we went to talk to Ryan. Since James had always been the smarter but more shy of the two of us, I spoke up. “Look, Ryan,” I said. “I’ve been coming to you with great ideas for taking our work to the next level, and each time you reject them. Instead of offering you another plan, can you just promise that James and I can become famous? Whatever you want us to do, we’ll do it, but we have a reputation to uphold and we want to get some of the limelight.”
Ryan seem disappointed, but not surprised. He looked at us and said, “Guys, I know where you’ve come from and I know all about your background. The leaders—religious or otherwise—that you’ve known have missed the mark. They don’t understand what it means to have real power. Sure, they have power, but they don’t use it properly. They use it to puff themselves up, to make themselves feel like they matter. I’m can’t believe that you haven’t figured out that I’m not about that. Do you know how many offers I get to write newspaper columns and to do TV appearances? I turn them all down because that’s not the type of power I have or want. My power comes from giving it away, from becoming a servant.”
“We can serve too,” I said. “In fact, we’ve been serving right alongside you.”
“You serve—I agree with you there,” Ryan continued. “By you have not become servants.”
We walked away confused and in shock. I felt sick. I felt betrayed and sick. I felt angry, betrayed, and sick. What the hell? I turned my life around to help these people, gave up dreams, got new dreams, and now gave up money—just like Ryan told me to. I’ve served and served and served. I deserve a place of honour. Did he actually mean what he said a while ago—that we need to give up everything we have? Did he really want us to be servants? What kind of life is that? Where will that get you in this day and age? What the hell? What more could I have done? I did as much as I could to help his friends. But it wasn’t enough.
But I don’t know where I went wrong. Somewhere along the way I must have missed something. Not just something—it seems like I missed THE thing, the big, main point. I thought I knew what it was. I always considered myself to be a good Christian. I was sure that I was doing all the right things and helping to get people saved. But in the end, it wasn’t what really mattered. Where did I go wrong?