Text Ezekiel 2:1-7 Mark 6:1-6
When we moved here to plant a church part of my responsibilities included meeting with the Bishop every month. He gathered other church planters and priests who were over missions to help our churches grow to the place where they became self-supporting and no longer needed aide from the Diocese. While he continually told us not to focus on numbers, his first question each month was inevitably how many we had in worship last Sunday.
I still hear the refrain that serving a church is not about the numbers and yet every year I have to fill out a parochial report for the Anglican Church in North America. I report on our average Sunday attendance, how many baptisms, funerals and weddings we officiated, how much money we gathered and how much we sent to the diocese. When we gather at Diocesan Synod every year the number of votes we get depends on the size of our church. But remember, it’s not about numbers.
My point here is not to be cynical. I understand that keeping track of the numbers is important because there is a business side to the Church. My point is to demonstrate how easy it is to focus primarily on the fruit or outcome of ministry while our lessons today point us in a different direction.
Let’s look first at Ezekiel. How would you like to have had his job? “Son of man, I send you to…a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me…the people are also impudent and stubborn…do not be afraid of their words though briers and thorns are with you and you sit upon scorpions.” For the first 25 chapters of his book he warns Israel, calling them to repentance. They ignore his prophecies and are invaded. As a result God’s temple was destroyed and they were taken into captivity into Babylon. If you were only evaluating Ezekiel’s ministry by how fruitful it was then you would be forced to give him a pretty low score indeed.
Next let’s look at the Gospel and the snap shot we have of our Lord’s ministry in the Galilee region. He was so ineffective in His teaching ministry among them that the text says that He was unable to do mighty works there because of the level of their unbelief. What’s more He began His ministry with 12 Apostles but ended with only 11 after one committed suicide. Again if you were only evaluating Jesus ministry by its fruitfulness you would conclude that He and Ezekiel are tied for last place.
So what are we to take from this? What I hear in these passages, and in many other places in the Scriptures like them is that it’s not about fruitfulness it’s about faithfulness. I don’t mean that fruitfulness is unimportant, but that it should not be our focus. From the perspective of fruitfulness things look badly for them but from the perspective of faithfulness both Ezekiel and Jesus were absolutely successful in their ministries. They did exactly what the Father called them to do in spite of tremendous resistance. So it’s not about fruitfulness, it’s about faithfulness.
If it is that simple, that we are called to faithfulness, then we must ask why this virtue seems to be so difficult to attain? After all Ezekiel was speaking to an entire nation that failed to be faithful and Jesus the text said, marveled at the level of unbelief among His people. How about today? Today we see entire denominations one after the other abandoning the Word of God. How does this happen? St. Paul gives us a hint in Ephesians 2 when he speaks of an unholy trinity, called the world, the flesh and the devil.
Here is how the world assaults our faithfulness. A fallen world has lost its connection with its Creator and so we try to reconcile this problem by desperately seeking favor from one another. And how do we get acceptance? We get it through conformity.
Remember the tremendous power it had over you as a teenager? We would do almost anything to fit in. Or if you were a rebel you would do almost anything to fit in with the kids who didn’t fit in. Rebels would go goth to be unique that is just like all the other unique goth kids. Our parents tried to get us to resist that power with the classic speech, “And if everyone else was jumping off the cliff would you jump with them? We would reply “Of course not!” but in our hearts we knew that we might. The need to be accepted and the fear of rejection are just that strong.
And so even though God had called Israel to be a unique people they chose to fit in with the cultures around them by imitating them. Recall this was their argument for rejecting the LORD as their King and calling on Saul and that started them on a long path of unfaithfulness. The call of the world to conform is powerful. But the Scripture says, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
It is pretty obvious how the flesh makes us unfaithful. It is so very very easy to chose pleasure over sacrifice, self gratification over service, self promotion over humility. And you could write a book today about how folks are being driven by their feelings. Folks are not only offended by anything and everything it almost seems that are seeking new ways to be offended. You can’t ask for a skinny late because that is weight shaming and you also can’t call it a no fat late because that would get you accused of fataphobia. In the end what makes the flesh an enemy of true religion is because the flesh makes it all about me while true religion makes it about loving God and my neighbor.
And we must not overlook the devil. You don’t want to get too spooky about it but we have an enemy and he is real and he wants you to be anything but faithful. If he can sow doubt, or make you feel discouraged or get your feelers hurt, he will do it. He will do whatever he can to make you quit. Remember in the parable of the seeds the birds of the air that stole the seed was the evil one stealing the word of God from the heart. The solution is to shoe the birds away with the power of His Name. It is why we pray “deliver us from evil” every day. And work to grasp the word of God to allow it to take root. You have an enemy but he is not in charge.
So if the world, the flesh and the devil are working overtime to keep us from being faithful what can we do to develop the virtue of faithfulness so that like Ezekiel and Jesus we can remain strong even in the face of great opposition? Allow me to suggest four things.
First is courage. The Lord told Ezekiel not to afraid of his opponents or of their words. I haven’t stopped to count it to be sure but I have read several times that “be not afraid” or some version thereof occurs 365 time in the Bible. Courage is not a total absence of fear but it is a commitment to not be controlled by fear. Fearful people will desert you in the battle but courageous people keep standing and when all else is done they remain standing. One way to develop courage is to hang out with courageous people. That is one reason godly fellowship is so important.
Second is clarity. Both Ezekiel and Jesus had pinpoint clarity about what they were called to do and that is why they did not cave when they faced opposition. When I was being interviewed by a diocesan committee to determine if they were going to send me go to seminary a woman asked Beth that if they allowed me to go if she wanted to take courses also to keep up with me spiritually. Beth said, “Absolutely not! I believe Ray is called to the priesthood but I am called to Social Work and I am not about to let his calling interfere with my calling.” I’m convinced that is why they accepted me and sent me to seminary. And it is also her clarity of calling that has had her last in her job for over 30 years when the burnout rate is about 3. If you are not clear about who you are in the Lord and what He has called you to do then ask, seek, knock and you will receive what you ask for. I believe that He loves answering that prayer.
I also encourage you, as you are clarifying your vision, to have the kingdom of God central. Jesus said “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you.” That is not a religious motto that is a life committment.
When everything was hitting the fan for the Episcopal Church Beth and I had dinner with a former Archbishop of Canterbury. I asked him, “Your Grace, how do I step into the pulpit this Sunday? What do I tell my people? He said, “You tell them to keep working for the kingdom and don’t get the church confused with the kingdom.” That could be taken wrongly but I immediately knew what he meant. I love Anglicanism and believe it to be the most authentic expression of Christianity that I have experienced but the truth is if the Anglican Communion disappeared tomorrow Jesus would still be on the throne and His kingdom would not be shaken.
Courage, Clarity and the third is Consistency. Notice the last line of the Gospel. Jesus had just been rejected for His teachings by His own people and the text says, “And he went about among the villages teaching.”Woody Allen said, “80% of success is showing up.” It should be obvious that you can’t be faithful if you don’t show up! This Christian journey is a marathon and not a sprint, or as Eugene Peterson described it in the title of one of his books, it’s a “long obedience in the same direction.”
Most of you don’t realize it but Chris Morris who tapes our sermons and puts them on the web is neither a 9 o’clock nor 11 o’clock parishioner. His family’s principal service is the Wednesday night Mass and yet Sunday after Sunday after Sunday he comes here and records us to serve you and others. He has never asked for a dime. He is consistent and faithful and that has resulted in fruitfulness. I have had responses to a sermon from Africa and Australia which never could have happened without Chris. Shout out to Chris and his consistency.
Lastly Continuity. If you will realize that the Lord is building something in your life brick by brick, or as Corrie Ten Boom put it, sowing your life into a beautiful tapestry, then you will be faithful to see it to the end. You will not see your life as filled with random events and a series of coincidences. If you will faithfully walk with the Lord you will often discover why He allowed some things to transpire and realize that previous experiences prepared you for what you are facing today.
David chose 5 smooth stones and was able to put one in between Goliath’s eyes because he had done it time and time again as a shepherd killing lions and bears. And to show you David’s hutzpah he chose the 5 stones because Goliath had a brother and three sons. Shepherding sheep and developing a relationship with the Lord during those lonely years prepared him to shepherd Israel and be a king who was a man after God’s own heart. So look for continuity in your own life. It will build your faith as you see the Lord fulfilling His plans for you. This in turn will result in you being faithful to Him.
So it’s not about fruitfulness, it about faithfulness. Again, that does not mean that fruitfulness is unimportant, but that is ultimately not our responsibility. St. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians “I sowed, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase.” When it comes to the kingdom we do not measure success the way the American Dream measures success. It’s not about numbers and it is not about how large your house or bank accounts are or what kind of car you drive. When it comes to the kingdom there is one measure of success, one prize that we should keep our eyes on. That is when you enter His presence and hear, “Well done good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Master.”