Gold Stars or God’s Grace? (9/27)



This week’s scripture comes from the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 9, Verses 38 – 50 (NRSV).

38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone[a] casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us. 41 For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

42 “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me,[b] it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell,[c] to the unquenchable fire.[d] 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell.[e][f] 47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell,[g] 48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

49 “For everyone will be salted with fire.[h] 50 Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?[i] Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”


I’m going to say right up front that I like getting credit for accomplishments. Whenever I clean the house when Penny is away, I will send her a text message to let her know that she has a wonderful husband.

In my previous church, our secretary who was responsible for our monthly newsletters provided a powerful incentive for staff members to turn in their articles by the deadline. She had made a homemade gold star as the reward for the staff member who submitted his or her articles first.

Whoever won this gold star that month was allowed to wear that gold star on their shirt the entire month. It also gave you bragging rights until the next month. Everybody wanted to win the coveted gold star.

Whenever I would send my articles in a week ahead of schedule, it was such a disappointment when I learned that some other staff member beat me to it. I wanted that gold star. I wanted people to take notice that I was the newsletter king of the month.

I don’t think that was the spirit my secretary intended when she came up with this reward idea. It was all in fun, but that monthly gold star contest reminds me of how we can easily do things with the wrong motivation.

Is my motivation only about getting credit for doing something, or is my primary motivation to make a positive difference in someone’s life through my faith? Our scripture reading from Mark’s Gospel wants us to think about this question because so often, our motivation is more self-serving than it is others-serving.

One of Jesus’ disciples noticed that someone was casting out demons and so he tried to stop him because he regarded him as a copycat who was stealing their ideas. Jesus, who wasn’t worried about who gets credit for healing people said to him, “Don’t stop him. Whoever isn’t against us is for us.”

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we lived in a world where people cared more about helping others than about who gets the credit?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our political parties would care less about who gets the credit and more about how we can work together to make this world a better place? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if churches would care less about who gets the credit and more about how we can work together to share God’s love with our community?

Jesus is saying to give credit where credit is due even if we may not be particularly fond of the source to whom the credit is due.

When I first arrived at my previous church, the local Christian radio station wanted to interview me as the new preacher in town. I remember thinking how I would take that opportunity to brag a little bit about my new church.

The person who interviewed me was also a pastor but of a different denomination. Not too long into the interview, this pastor began to list all of the good things that my church had been doing in that community. He was naming them one by one.

And here, I had come to the interview ready to toot our own horn, but he beat me to it. He even named some ministries that my church was doing in the community that I didn’t even know about at that time since I was still new. I was so humbled that he would say all of these nice things about my church, knowing that he was also a pastor of a church in the same town.

This person reminded me that it’s not important who gets the credit. What’s important is that we encourage each other to live out our faith in our community and world. That is what is most important!

Whenever pastors attend a pastor’s conference, inevitably someone asks those dreaded words. “So, how big is your church?” Have you ever noticed that preachers always round up to the higher number? That’s interesting that we preachers do those kinds of things.

About three years ago, Penny and I were invited to the retirement celebration of a pastor friend of ours whose last appointment was at a little church. That church was not just the little church in town. That church was one of the most potent little churches in the entire West Ohio Conference.

Even with a small membership, they were one of the top churches in terms of mission giving and social outreach. Everybody in that town, even the people who didn’t attend there, knew that this little church was making a big difference in their community.

The mega-churches may get all the press, but proportionally speaking, my friend’s little church was sharing God’s love with their community in quiet but powerful ways. I’m convinced that the reason they were a healthy church was because they weren’t concerned about who was getting the credit. They were more concerned in just being the church of Jesus Christ in that community.

When Jesus responded to the disciple to not worry about who gets the credit, he was helping them to focus more on having the right motivation.

If we always want to get the credit for the good that we do, Jesus says that our faith will lose its saltiness. We will be left with a bitter taste in our mouths.

There’s an old Peanuts cartoon where Schroeder who is known for playing the piano is practicing Beethoven’s sonatas. The ever critical, Lucy interrupts him and asks what prize he is trying to win.

When Schroder tells her that he isn’t practicing to win a prize, Lucy can’t believe it. She thinks he’s crazy for putting all of that effort into practicing if it won’t help him win a prize. For Lucy, the only things worth doing are when a reward is involved.

Like this disciple who came to Jesus, sometimes we forget that the reward in serving others is in the act itself. We don’t need to worry about who gets the credit or the recognition.

Several years ago, I bought a treadmill at a sporting goods store, and the guy who sold it to me mentioned something about his church and after I told him that I was a pastor he said, “Let’s have lunch some time.”

     So we met for lunch one day and I asked him to tell me about his church.  And he said,

“It’s an interesting story because a few years ago, our church was about to close.  Our pastor at that time announced he would be leaving and since we were declining in numbers and having a hard time financially, our denomination was thinking about closing us.  But at the last minute, they decided to give our church one more try and they sent us a new pastor.”

   And he said, “God has really blessed us because we’re now worshipping over 500 on Sunday mornings and we’re reaching new people in our church.  It’s been a huge turn around for us.”

     So I asked him, “What is the reason your church has made such a dramatic turn around?”  And he said, “It was all because of one question that our new pastor asked our congregation when he first came to our church.”

     At this point, I was on the edge of my seat, curious to know what that pivotal question was.

He said, “All this pastor asked us was this. ‘If our church would cease to exist, would our community miss us?’  And he kept asking us this question again and again and again.  And that’s when we decided to become more intentional in serving the people outside of our church walls.  And the more we served in our community, the more that people in the community wanted to check out our church and we’ve been growing ever since.”

     After our conversation, I picked up the check and said “This one’s on me. Thanks for sharing your story.”
     As I drove home from lunch that day, I kept thinking about that question. “If our church would cease to exist, would anybody miss us?”

     That question has stayed with me every since that lunch conversation. If our church would cease to exist, would anybody miss us? Maybe instead of gold stars, our motivation should be more about God’s grace.

It was God’s grace that led Jesus to do all the things that he did like teach, heal, forgive, and reach people who felt separated from God’s love. Jesus didn’t do all of these things because he was hoping to receive a gold star. He did all of these things for one reason. He was the embodiment of God’s grace for the world.

Gold stars are about our personal little kingdoms. God’s grace is about God’s kingdom. And here is what is really interesting about this. When we don’t worry about who gets the credit, God’s kingdom is able to grow and grow and grow and grow.

I read about a church that was declining and really struggling to survive in their community. The pastor felt led to hold a visioning retreat for his congregation to spend time thinking about where God might be leading them as a church.

During the beginning time of the vision retreat, members continually focused on the need to attract young families and children to their church. As a result, they listed things they might do to reach younger families. They thought about beginning a day care, hosting family friendly events, and giving their children’s Sunday School ministry a makeover.

While all of these things were good ideas, there were some key leaders who kept mentioning the nursing home that was just down the block from their church. As they continued to pray about God’s vision and how they might attract young families to their church, they couldn’t stop thinking about this nursing home for some reason.

As the retreat went on, it was becoming apparently clear that the vision God was giving them wasn’t so much about getting more children in their church. It was to be a good neighbor to that nursing home. Even though everybody agreed that starting a ministry with this nursing home was a nice thing to do, they still didn’t see how their church would attract young families.

Following the vision retreat, they began to reach out to their elderly neighbors just down the block. They visited the nursing home residents on a regular basis. They made little crafts to give to them as presents. They delivered goodie bags that included fruit and cookies and handed them out to the residents and the workers. They provided fun parties and they began offering an informal worship service each month for any resident who desired to come.

As the church was heavily involved in reaching out to their nursing home neighbors, the strangest thing happened. Church members began to notice that more young families were visiting their church.

They discovered that many of these young families were the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of the residents of that nursing home. The families of the nursing home residents were so appreciative of the church’s ministries with their loved ones that they began to attend their church which was just a block away.

By not having the focus be on their own interests as a church, and focusing instead on living out God’s vision in being a blessing to their community, the church began to experience new life and vitality. Instead of focusing on gold stars, they were focusing more on God’s grace and sharing that grace with people outside the church. They were once again salty Christians.

The next time I clean the house when Penny is away, I will still probably take a picture of my masterpiece and send it her way to impress her yet again. And when I send in my newsletter articles days ahead of the deadline, I will still enjoy hearing those words, “Oh, thank you, Pastor Robert. You are once again King of the newsletters this month.”

     My prayer for me and for our church is that there will be something even greater than gold stars to motivate us in living out our faith. Gold stars are nice, but God’s grace is so much better.