No Competition


The Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost

The Rev. Austin K. Rios
St. Paul’s Within the Walls
September 27, 2015

This past Friday, the Tri-Mission diplomatic community, which consists of the US Embassies to Italy, the United Nations Agencies, and The Holy See held an event on embassy grounds to expose its employees to various organizations of interest in Rome.

St. Paul’s, the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center, and Children’s Choir of Rome were all invited to participate in the event and so Rhonda Abouhana, Daniela Morales, myself and children’s choir member, church participant, and refugee center volunteer Aja piled into the car and headed off to the event with brochures and signs in tow.

After an involved security process, we made our way to a back parking lot that was set up with rows of tables and chairs.

Other invited groups and organizations were setting up their displays at the blue covered tables that formed an L around the outside of the rows of tables and chairs, and we found our reserved spot in the angle of the L and began doing the same.

Looking around, I saw several other church leaders I know sitting behind their own displays for their churches and ministries.

There were Father Greg and Father Steve from Santa Susanna.

Pastor Dave from Rome Baptist.

A representative from Rome International Church had a nice display with arts and crafts for children, and as I saw Aja drift over to the table, there was moment in which I thought to myself, “Man, I should have thought about something more engaging for kids in our display.”

It was just a fleeting thought, but I kind of caught myself for a moment.

Did I somehow really believe that this was some kind of church competition?

In reflection, it can often seem that there is a sort of pressure for pastors and priests to get people into the pews, and get people to participate in the many programs and ministries of our churches.

In a time in which church affiliation is shrinking and the “pool” of possible parishioners seems smaller, this sort of theology of scarcity can be prevalent and extremely destructive.

I have seen churches go to great lengths to denigrate other churches in order to build up their membership…have seen priests and pastors eschew collegiality for the competitive drive to grow a church and pump up the financial numbers.

While this may be a successful business strategy and may lead to greater opportunities for the church or the leadership in the short term, it erodes a fundamental aspect of what it means to be church.

“Whoever is not against us is for us.”

From the beginning of this movement and way that Jesus lived and tried to pass on to his disciples, the temptation to minimize the scope of the mission has always been present.

We humans have a fair bit of tribalism in us, and unless we are taught differently, we often choose to define ourselves over and against someone else or some other group.

“God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector,” said the Pharisee in Luke 18.

I am not like her, thank you Jesus.

Well, we don’t do things like they do.

Instead of being able to affirm who we are based on positive statements, we can too readily see ourselves only in the dim mirror that we cast upon others, and that kind of assessment always leads to a fair amount of distortion.

Jesus was keen to make sure his disciples did not fall into this trap.

In the scene today, his followers have seen someone else casting out demons…someone who is not part of their crew.

An outsider.

Their initial reaction is to see this redemptive work as a threat to them…and the “someone” as a competitor in what they have come to believe is a scarce market for exorcisms.

Instead of seeing the mission of God spontaneously breaking out afresh in the world, and rejoicing because of it, they seek a judgment from Jesus that will reinforce the tribalism in which they believe and punish the outsider for “doing what they are doing.”

Oh there are so many perils that await us people of faith if we settle for such limited vision!

Just think for a second how such a mindset prevents the disciples from so much joy, so much hope, and so much of the goodness that God has intended for us humans since the foundations of the world?

If the world is just an arena for combat and competition, then its mysteries, treasures, and glories will remain hidden forever just beyond the periphery of our vision.

If our faces are set to confrontation, then the more satisfying graces of cooperation and community will escape us, and in the worst of scenarios, will appear to us, not as the gifts that they are, but as threats to our own success, happiness, and salvation.

Jesus will have none of this.

He soundly dismisses this way of being in the world and even goes to the length of saying that it would be better for us to have a millstone hung about our necks to drag us swiftly to the bottom of the sea than for us to cause others to stumble because of such misguided thinking.

Sayings like this make me think of Mafia tactics and of Jonah among the weeds in the bottom of the ocean.

Jesus makes the point strongly because there truly is no place in this alternative kingdom that he is proclaiming for the small politics of tribalism.

If the world is to change, and if God’s mission is to reach the ends of the earth, then the disciples and all future followers of Christ need to see themselves as leaven in the bread, as light in the darkness, and as catalysts in the reaction that God is bringing about in the world.

Celebration and collaboration are what we are called to when it comes to matters of faith, not competition.

And when we give ourselves to that perspective, strangely enough, we gain eyes to see goodness and grace rather than threats in the actions and efforts of others.

Once I banished that brief competitive thought from my mind at the embassy event, I began to see so many wonderful and life giving things.

I saw Aja playing with other children in the parking lot, dancing and blowing bubbles with the assistance of an air conditioning fan.

I saw a baby boy who was just learning how to walk, relishing the feeling of his weight going into his wobbly legs and into the ground, and saw him dancing to the DJ’s beats and trying his best not to stumble as his parents watched over and walked with him.

I saw a member of Santa Susanna singing boisterously to Toto’s “Africa” and got to share the opportunity of playing air drums and singing the chorus together.

There’s nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do
I bless the rains down in Africa
Gonna take some time to do the things we never had…

Can I just tell you that these thoughts and these sights are holy… simple yes, but available because I was not dragged into the dark depths by the millstone of limited vision?

How sad if I had been dragged away from such beauty!

Jesus would not have been glorified, and I might have run the risk of making others stumble because of my inability to step into something larger.

I don’t know how you choose to view the world in which we live, and the church in which we are called to participate.

I hope this week that whatever you do, you find ways to see, acknowledge and support the spontaneous outbreakings of the kingdom, and relinquish any hold that tribalism and competition has upon you.

Not only will you avoid being dragged away from great beauty and cast into an ocean of shadow, but you will eventually find new companions for the journey instead of competitors that need vanquishing.

Then you will truly experience the flavor of life… you will “have salt in yourself…and be at peace with one another.”

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