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Posted on Jan 29, 2017

Starting with why—sermon for 29 January 2017

Starting with why


 Mar Elias Educational Institutions (MEEI), Ibillin, Galilee, Israel. The Beatitudes in different languages are written on the steps. Photo Credit: hoyasmeg Flickr via Compfight cc

January 29, Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany:

Psalm 15;
Micah 6:1-8; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12

Draft text of the homily, please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.


Simon Sinek is a marketing consultant and popular speaker…his 2009 Ted talk is still listed as the third most popular Ted Talk of all time…undoubtedly some of you have seen it…It’s on How great leaders inspire action, and it focuses on his core concept of “Starting with Why.”

His argument is that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. Why you do something, he argues, is vastly more important in terms of motivating others than the product or the program that you are trying to interest them in.

In his Ted Talk he uses the example of Apple computers…most marketing would have Apple’s pitch be: “”We make great computers. They’re beautifully designed, simple to use and user friendly. Want to buy one?” “Meh.” 

What Apple marketing does instead, he says, is flip this around and start with: “we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently. The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use and user friendly. We just happen to make great computers. Want to buy one?” There’s a different emotional pitch to that.

Ok. Despite the fact that I am preaching this from an iPad, this isn’t an Apple marketing pitch. But since I saw this talk a number of years ago, I’ve been thinking about this in terms of church. What is it that we’re trying to do? Where are we going? Who is coming with us, and why? Why. What is our “why?”

I find it a provocative question. When we talk about Christian formation, and mission and evangelism and stewardship…those are the “what we do…” But the why is embedded within it. What if we started with “why?” Why do we want our kids to have a rich faith formation program? Why are we involved in outreach to MANNA, and pilgrimages to City Reach and El Hogar? Why is music and communal singing so important? Why are we trying to be more welcoming, and more explicit about the many ways we practice our faith?

I also find it a very biblical one because Jesus actually starts with “why.” He doesn’t start with a 12 point plan to bring the realm of God on earth. He says, “it’s here.” “Repent—turn around—pay attention.” He goes up to the top of the mountain, sits down and starts…Blessed are the poor in spirit…blessed are the meek…blessed are those who mourn…blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.”

Well, in one version he goes up on top of a mountain. In another he starts with a bold pronouncement in the synagogue, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor….release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

The context changes…but the message is the same, the realm of God is here…the goodness of God, the mercy of God, the justice and peace—the Shalom—of God can be seen in the land of the living. Because God is with us. Follow me and we’ll help others see that too.

That’s why.  The values of the Beatitudes are the core truth, and the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus is the clearest, and sharpest lens we have for seeing and acting on that truth…the truth of the love of God. That’s what we’re about.

Sinek says:  “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it, and what you do simply serves as the proof of what you believe.” Or as Jesus would say, “by their fruits you shall know them…”

The Beatitudes, and these words from Micah (O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”), and Paul (“For [some] demand signs and [others] desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified”), are our core values…our “why” … and maybe we could add the words from the Psalms as well…”no guile upon our tongues, not heaping contempt upon anyone, but speaking truth from the heart.”

These are the values that are non-negotiable…they are why we do what we do. When we lose sight of that—and we often do because we are humans and the church is a human institution—when we lose sight of that, we can easily start to follow other paths and other gods…

We can also lose sight of them because the world very often claims the exact opposite to be true…in every conceivable way, through every medium we are so oversaturated with…the world proclaims (and makes a very compelling case), that the poor just get poorer, the meek get trampled on, and those who hunger and thirst for food, water and righteousness just keep getting hungrier…and the church is destined to slip further and further into irrelevance.

Not succumbing to that means we need ways of remembering those core values…and we need practices and patterns in our lives that can interrupt the incessant drumbeat that separates the world into merely winners or losers. We need places to be re-centered in our core values and where we are strengthened to go back out into the world able to see and witness to the goodness of God in the land of the living.

How do we do that? What are those patterns, and where are those spaces? Jesus’ life and ministry offers a pattern. It’s a pattern that has been used and recommended and passed down for thousands of years. It functions like a breath, like a infinity loop, or a moebius strip, that draws us ever deeper into the heart of God. It’s the pattern of formation and mission…the pattern of contemplation and action, the pattern of retreat and engagement. It’s an iterative and ongoing process…like breathing.

We are drawn in and learn about these core values, the stories of the bible, the stories of our faith, and then we go out and try to live that out, in our jobs, in our parenting, in our caretaking, in our volunteering. And out there we see a lot of things…some of it looks like God at work, but a lot of it doesn’t…so we come back and share what we’ve seen, we question, we discuss, we sing, we learn about prayer and other spiritual practices that will sustain us in our daily lives—practices that will be “strength for the journey”—we’re fed, and we go back out. Day by day, week by week, year by year.

If we get stuck in one part of that cycle bad things happen…if we get stuck in the action/mission part…we burn out, we become cynical…if we get stuck in the contemplation/formation part…we become completely ineffective, truly irrelevant, and easily ignored. If we are not intentional about our practice we quickly lose sight of the core values and the world starts to look very dark.

We need both…rich, vibrant, life-giving practices (both individual…those you do regularly on your own, and communal…those you do regularly with others), and we need to have experiences of coming into contact with an “other.”

Right after the service, we’ll all head downstairs for a community lunch…everyone is invited…and we’ll have our annual meeting. In the annual report that was sent out through the email this week, and is available in hardcopy downstairs, you’ll be able to see the many, many ways we have of working both sides of that infinity loop…the formation we offer for children, youth, families, the prayer retreats, and book groups, the small group ministries we are forming.

You can read about the outreach opportunities we have: the Brookline Food Pantry, the MANNA lunch programs, the pilgrimages to City Reach, and El Hogar, and others…you can read about how we are sharing the treasure of our building by hosting numerous twelve step groups, arts groups, choirs, the Corner Co-Op and the Korean Evergreen Church…you’ll be reminded, yet again, of what a vibrant, spiritual center All Saints is for so many. And I hope that you are as energized and excited about all of that as I am. But I also hope that through it all you can see, and feel, and know the core values we hold…the truth that we proclaim and strive to live out every day…that the poor are blessed…the meek are blessed…the merciful…the peacemakers…those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are blessed…and it is Christ Jesus who helps us see that. That it is Christ Jesus who teaches us how to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.

That is it God’s love…God’s all encompassing, creative love…revealed through the light of Christ…that’s why we do everything we do.