Friday, March 27, 2015

“Give Up Timid Faith” - March 29, 2015

Texts: Matthew 21:1-11; 26:57-75

The NCAA basketball tournament may be my favorite time of year.  There are such great stories.  Georgia State won its conference tournament and got into the NCAA tourney for the first time.  In the celebration after winning their conference tournament, their coach, Ron Hunter was injured – he tore his Achilles tendon.  And so, he was sitting on the bench, not roaming the sidelines, at the end of their game against Baylor.  It looked like a certain Baylor victory, but Georgia State scored the last 13 points of the game, capped off by the coach’s son hitting a 30 foot game winning shot, and the coach literally fell out of his chair and rolled around on the floor in celebration.   

And then there are sad stories.  ISU being a case in point, which we won’t talk about, but you also had #1 seed Villanova losing early.  As the game wound down, the camera focused in on a piccolo player with tears streaming down her face, knowing that as a senior this would be the last time she would ever play with this group of friends in the Villanova pep band.

This time of year, sports fans can be celebrating one moment and in mourning the next.  You can suffer a kind of emotional whiplash.  But of course, it’s not just March Madness and it’s not just sports – it’s life.  Joy and sorrow, laughter and tears, great victories and great losses, sometimes right on the heels of each other.  That’s the way life is. 

We have been journeying through this season of Lent and we come to a day known both as Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday.  And of all the days in the Church Year, this may be the day that most lends itself to spiritual whiplash.  Our scriptures today make for an emotional roller coaster.  The day begins with celebration and ends in depression.  It starts out with triumph and ends with catastrophe.

Holy Week begins with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem for the Passover celebration.  He was entering the capital city, the center of culture and commerce – and the center of faith.  A large crowd gathers.  There was anticipation.  There was excitement and enthusiasm.  There were great hopes that Jesus would be the one to lead the nation to overthrow Roman rule, that he was the Messiah they longed for.  The crowd welcomed him as a king and shouted, “Hosanna!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

It was a great day of hope and expectation.  But Jesus’ popularity and message threatened a lot of people.  When you speak out for the powerless, you threaten the powerful.  When you give hope to those on the margins, you irritate those at the center.  The week started out wonderfully, but the good feelings did not last.  There was increasing conflict.  As he entered the city, everyone wanted to be with Jesus.  As the week wore on - not so much.  Jesus spoke of suffering and dying.  He prayed and agonized over what was to come.  Meanwhile the religious establishment plotted against him.  After Jesus and his disciples shared the Passover meal, he was filled with spiritual and emotional angst.

Jesus asked Peter and James and John, his three closest disciples and friends, to go with him to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray.  He told them that he was “deeply grieved, even to death.”  His anxiety and agitation were palpable.  His friends went with him to pray.  In his time of great need, they were there - but not really.  Jesus prayed that this cup might pass while his disciples fell asleep.

Jesus had no more than said, “Could you not just stay awake for a few minutes?” when Judas arrived with a large contingent, a mob sent by the chief priests and elders.  Jesus was betrayed and arrested and taken to the residence of the chief priest, Caiaphas.  It was a stunning turn of events, coming so quickly after the joy and excitement of only a few days before.

As Jesus was taken away, Peter followed at a distance.  He followed all the way to the courtyard of the high priest.  Interestingly, he sat with the guards while Jesus was being interrogated.  A servant girl approached Peter and said, “Hey, I recognize you – you were also with Jesus.”  Peter denied it.  Another servant saw him and said to some bystanders, “This man was with Jesus.”  Peter said, “I don’t know the man.”  And then some of the bystanders said to Peter, “Certainly you were with Jesus – your accent gives you away.”  Peter and Jesus were from Galilee, but now they were in Jerusalem.  If you have a Mississippi drawl, you might stand out in New York City.

At this point, Peter began to curse and swore to God that he didn’t know Jesus.  And then the rooster crowed, and Peter remembered that after his bold claim that he would never leave Jesus, even if everybody else did, Jesus had said that before the cock crowed Peter would deny him three times.  This conversation had taken place only hours before.  Peter ran out and wept bitterly.

Through this season of Lent, we have considered ways of living and thinking about life that we might do well to give up.  Today, thinking about Peter’s denial of Jesus, our theme is “Give Up Timid Faith.”

As you might imagine, if you plan a 7-week sermon series, you don’t necessarily have all the details worked out in advance.  Working with the text for the day, “Give Up Timid Faith” seemed to fit – and it does – but now that we have got to this week, I don’t feel so good about throwing that label on Peter. 

In the first place, who am I to call Peter a person of timid faith?  It’s a little like questioning Bruce Springsteen’s songwriting, or calling LeBron James a weak rebounder or critiquing Warren Buffet an overly cautious investor.  Who am I to talk, right?

But beyond that, I’m not sure that “timid” is quite the right adjective to describe Peter.  This is not one of his better moments, to be sure.  But let’s think about what really happens here.

When Jesus is arrested, Peter follows along at a distance.  Why did he follow?  Out of love, out of commitment, out of a crazy thought that somehow he might bust Jesus loose? (I’ve probably watched too much TV.)  Or did he hope to have a chance to testify and vouch for Jesus’ character?  The text just says that he followed to see how this was going to end – the implication being that he knew it wouldn’t be good.  It comes across almost as morbid curiosity.

At any rate, Peter follows.  He is there.  He sits by the guards.  And who else is there?  John?  Matthew?  Andrew?  Mary?  Not. it’s just Peter.  He alone follows right into Caiaphas’ courtyard.  Peter was there, which is more than can be said for the other disciples.  So we can give him credit for that.  It may not have been the brightest idea he ever had, or maybe it was exactly where he needed to be, but either way, this was not for the faint-hearted.  You wouldn’t call Peter timid.  But then – out of fear or out of embarrassment or out of a desire for self-preservation, Peter lies and denies that he knew Jesus.

Maybe we shouldn’t be too hard on Peter, and maybe calling this an example of “timid faith” is not exactly the best way to describe it.  But I think there is something here for us to consider.

We have been looking at the theme of “Give It Up” over these past weeks – taking off on the discipline of giving things up for Lent.  But rather than state things as a negative – as giving something up – we could choose to describe things in positive terms – as taking things on.

Rather than “Give Up Impressing People,” we could think about “Living Authentically.”

Rather than “Give up Worrying,” we could think about “Living with Trust.”

Rather than “Give Up Going It Alone,” we could focus on “Living in Community.”

Rather than “Give Up Enemies,” we could “See worth in every person and want the best for every person, even those who may have it in for us.”  (OK, that’s a little wordy; “Give Up Enemies” might be easier.

Instead of “Give Up Your Life,” we might think about “Live for Something Greater than Yourself.”

And the flip side of “Give Up Timid Faith” is “Live Courageously.”

When we look at Peter’s actions, he shows courage in being there.  For sure.  But his courage only goes so far.

If you think about it, this is absolutely in keeping with Peter as we read about him in the gospels.  The disciples are in a boat, out on the lake.  The wind stirs up, the waves are beating against the boat, and Jesus comes to them, walking on the water.  Everybody is scared to death, but Peter says, “If it is you, Lord, ask me to come to you on the water.”  Jesus does, and Peter walks on the water.  He has courage, he has faith – but he remembered the wind, he takes his eyes off Jesus, and he sinks.  He has courage, he has faith, but just up to a point.

Another time, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” and follows up with “Who do you say I am?”  Peter gives this powerful confession, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.”  He shows great courage and faith and wisdom, but right after that, Jesus speaks of having to suffer, and Peter says, “That can never happen, God forbid it.”  Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan.”  Peter jumped right in, showed great faith, made this great declaration, but then it turned out he didn’t really know what he was talking about.

This incident in which Peter follows Jesus after his arrest, goes right into a place of danger, shows faith and courage - but only so much – before denying even knowing Jesus is entirely in keeping with Peter’s personality.

Like those instant replays at the end of basketball games where they review the play again and again, we can consider how much courage Peter did or did not show and how awful it may have been that he denied Jesus.  But maybe a better question for us to consider is, what about us?  How do we deny Jesus?

It’s a little more subtle for us than it was for Peter.  Bystanders don’t approach us and ask “Do you know Jesus?”  (Actually, somebody knocked at my door this week and asked if I knew Jesus, but that’s a different story.)  We don’t say out loud, “I don’t know the man,” but it is certainly possible to deny Christ through the way we live.

Two weeks ago, an American pastor asked his congregation and TV audience to contribute $60 million so that he could purchase a new Gulfstream G650 jet - an essential tool for ministry.  (And to think that I’ve been missing this essential tool for all these years.)  In soliciting for this needed ministry tool, this pastor’s website said, “We need your help to continue reaching a lost and dying world for the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Jesus apparently never owned a home.  Jesus said, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”  He ran his ministry on a shoestring and was much more interested in caring for those in need than in generating revenue for himself.  He never bought a jet or even a fast camel.  In light of Jesus’ life and teachings, to see the gospel as a means to wealth is to deny Christ.

But we don’t need to beat up on televangelists.  When we put profit above principle, when we measure the worth of others – or ourselves - in terms of dollars and cents, we are denying Christ.

When we join in on putting down those who are outsiders or making fun of somebody who is different, when we heap abuse on those with whom we disagree, we are denying Christ.  Jesus asked us to love our enemies.  Paul wrote, “Be kind to one another, gentle-hearted, forgiving one another,” but that can be awfully hard.

I was watching a CNN special this past week about atheism.  They interviewed a college student who at age 16 told his parents that he just didn’t believe in God.  This was a traumatic thing for his parents, who were very pious, very religious.  They told the interviewer, “It is really hard because our son is dead.”  They said that was not something they had decided, but according to the Bible, he was dead.  To me, it was very sad, and hearing the way these parents spoke, it occurred to me that if my mom and dad had been like them, I might be an atheist too.  We worship a God whose love will never let us go, but these parents had given up on their child, someone they readily described as a good kid, because of his beliefs.  He was probably 19 or 20 years old.  The weird thing was, hearing this son speak with grace and understanding toward his parents, he seemed to be acting more like Jesus than his very religious parents.

There are a lot of ways that through our actions or inaction, we may deny Christ.  And often it can have to do with courage, or a lack thereof.

It can take courage to act differently than the prevailing culture.  It can take courage to speak for justice in a world that is a lot more concerned about making money than it is in doing the right thing.  It can take courage to value people and relationships more than image and appearances.  It can take courage to care for the least of these when there are those who will dismiss our work as simply taking a political position.

It can take courage to pursue a vocation that uses your best gifts to make a difference in the world when friends and family may not be especially supportive.  It can take courage to go to one who has wronged us and work for reconciliation.  It can take courage to buck a me-first culture, get-ahead culture. 

Courageous faith can be difficult.  It can be costly.  And as Jesus showed us – it might even get you killed.



  

Friday, March 13, 2015

“Give Up Enemies” - March 15, 2015

Text: Matthew 5:43-48

In this season of Lent, we have been looking at the theme of “Give It Up” - considering beliefs and habits and behaviors that we would be better off without.  And it has not been easy going.  “Give Up Impressing People.”  “Give Up Worrying.”  “Give Up Going It Alone.”  All very difficult.  It would be a heck of a lot easier to just give up Doritos for the 40 days of Lent and be done with it.  

And then this morning, Jesus would have us consider another nearly impossible choice: give up enemies.

Our text is from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and Jesus’ ethical demands are so hard that commentators through the ages have tried to make it more palatable.  Some have looked at Jesus’ teachings as ethical ideals.  We won’t live up to them, of course, but at least they are something to shoot for.  Others have argued that Jesus sets the bar so high that his teaching is actually designed to drive us to despair – to help us realize the impossibility of satisfying God’s righteousness and help us to recognize our complete dependence on God’s grace.

But there is no evidence that the early church understood Jesus’ teaching in this way.  And just reading the passage, one doesn’t get the feeling that Jesus is playing with his listeners.  It comes across as though he really meant this.  We really are asked to love our enemies.

Jesus’ words raise a few questions for us, the first and simplest being – who is my enemy?  Who are we talking about here?

You know, we live in an enemy-rich environment, don’t we?  It is very easy to find enemies, and especially enemies of the nameless, faceless, generalized sort.  


When I started college, there were quite a few Iranian students at my school.  By and large, they were great people.  Shirooz was in pre-med and was a goofy, fun-loving guy.  I was in a religion class with Muhammad, a very endearing Shia Muslim from Iran.  It was a small seminar class and we all made presentations about some aspect of our own religious tradition.  There was another Iranian guy I knew who drove a DeLorean – if you remember the car in Back to the Future, that’s a DeLorean.  But one day, everything changed.  Protesters in Iran overran the American Embassy and took everyone hostage.  And suddenly, people like Shirooz and Muhammad and the guy with the DeLorean were hated enemies.  Somebody fired a bullet through the apartment window of an Iranian student on campus.  Today, lots of folks consider Iranians as our enemies.  They are enemies by virtue of being on the wrong team.

There are national enemies, but those are far from the only people who are enemies by virtue of being the other or the outsider.  Those who have the wrong political convictions or live in the wrong place or have the wrong ancestry may be thought of as enemies. 

Fred Craddock died this past week.  He was very influential in preaching circles because rather than taking the stance of “I am going to reveal the truth to you in 3 points with a nice poem to wrap it up,” Craddock looked at the way that scripture itself spoke to us, and it generally isn’t like those three point sermons at all.  Instead, Craddock used story and narrative and an inductive approach that made the sermon come alive and allowed listeners to make connections and figure things out for themselves. 

Craddock came from dirt-poor beginnings in East Tennessee and while he was a very learned scholar, he could connect with anybody.  In retirement he helped start a church in the rural community where he lived in Georgia, as well as starting a center that helped fight poverty in that area and did wonderful work.  I never met him, but through his books and sermons and influence on people I learned from, he influenced me, and I was saddened to hear of his loss.

This past week, the president of one of the Southern Baptist seminaries chose to criticize Craddock.  In fact, on the day of his funeral, he said that Craddock had damaged the state of preaching in this country by devaluing the authority of scripture and the authority of preaching.  I disagreed, of course - as far as I was concerned, Craddock elevated the place of preaching and engagement with scripture and the role of the Spirit, as well as respect for the congregation.  What he had devalued, perhaps, were self-important preachers who want to claim authority for themselves.  But even more than what this person said, the fact that he chose to criticize this humble and beloved man on the day of his funeral was just plain tacky.  I was offended and I can’t imagine how this would have felt to his family.

I know that it has something to do with my own upbringing, but it is hard for me not to see fundamentalists like this seminary president as the enemy.

We all have enemies.  Maybe you don’t think of people quite in those terms, but what we are talking about is those who have hurt you, excluded you, dismissed you, talked bad about you.  We are talking about the person who is always unkind to you and you have no idea why.  We are talking about the neighbor who you would pay good money to have them move to New Jersey.  We are talking about those whose lives stand completely against the things you hold dear.  This is not to mention the whole category of “frienemies,” those friends that you can’t really trust and who are likely to hurt you or betray you at the drop of a hat. 

Maybe you are not inclined to think of yourself as having enemies, or maybe on further review you can think of an enemy or three.  Maybe a bigger question is, “How do we love people like this?  How do we actually love our enemies?”

We need to say right away that loving someone does not necessarily mean liking them.  What we are talking about is getting to a place in your heart where you do not bear them ill will.  My seminary ethics professor Henlee Barnette, God rest his soul, talked about love as “willing the well-being of the other.”  That’s a good way to understand it: wanting the best for the other, wishing them well.
 
Maybe a starting point is to keep this idea of loving our enemies before us.  We get all kinds of reinforcement for hating our enemies – not so much for loving them.  Martin Luther King Jr. preached a sermon in 1957 on “Loving Our Enemies.”  Here was a person with serious enemies – people who threatened him people who wanted him dead.  And yet he knew how important this was.  King said that he tried to preach on loving our enemies to his congregation at least once a year – it was that important.  He was 28 years old, but he understood that Christian faith was about loving everyone, even our enemies.

We often think of this idea of loving your enemies as a Jesus thing, a New Testament thing, and it is one of the distinctive teachings of Jesus.  But there are roots in the Old Testament.  Our reading from Exodus says that if you see your enemy’s donkey or ox wandering off, bring it back.  If your enemy’s animal is in trouble, help it.  When there is an opportunity to do good for the one you hate, do good.  That can be a place to start.  Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  Getting to a place where you can pray for your enemies can be a place to start.

A couple of years ago, Chick-Fil-A owner Dan Cathy was very public in his opposition to marriage equality, and LGBT activists found that his company had contributed large amounts of money to anti-LGBT causes.  So Campus Pride, a national organization for gay and lesbian college students and their allies, started a boycott of Chick-Fil-A.  It became a highly publicized campaign.  Some picketed Chick-Fil-A’s while others flocked to the restaurant to show their support for the company’s position.

In the middle of the controversy, Dan Cathy made a phone call to Shane Windmeyer, the national director of Campus Pride.  Windmeyer was surprised by the call and quite suspicious, but that first conversation lasted an hour.  It led to other conversations and emails and text messages and in the coming weeks to in-person meetings.  Neither changed their beliefs, but they both changed the way they viewed the other.  Cathy had been na├»ve about the situation faced by gay and lesbian students on campuses and how the organizations he had supported made that worse.  Windmeyer came with stereotypes about Dan Cathy and found these stereotypes to be completely wrong, finding him to be always kind and genuinely interested in his viewpoint.  Their interactions were sometimes a little awkward but always respectful.  In time they got to know one another on a personal level, sharing about their lives and their families, and then Dan Cathy invited Shane Windmeyer to be his guest at the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, one of the college football bowl games.

Both were kind of stunned to find themselves in this position.  And this was a big risk for both.  Windmeyer’s colleagues might have thought he was being played by this billionaire entrepreneur.  Dan Cathy might have faced the ire of his conservative base – and maybe even a boycott from that side - for welcoming a gay activist to his luxury box.

Neither changed their basic convictions, but both were able to see the other not as an enemy or as an opponent, but as a person with opposing views – and there is a big difference.  Both were able to better understand the other.  Chick-Fil-A continues to donate millions in grants to organizations that focus on youth, education, marriage enrichment and local communities, but no longer contributes to the most divisive anti-gay groups.  They made this change months before LGBT activists knew about it, and it was not done in exchange for anything.  Campus Pride dropped their boycott of Chick-Fil-A.  And Dan Cathy and Shane Windmeyer gave up an enemy. 

It is a rare thing, but these two very different people gave a great example of how to love one’s enemies.

It is not easy, and more often than not, you are not going to be going to a bowl game with your enemy, but getting to know and seeking to understand the one you call enemy is a good starting point.  I will sometimes remind myself that the most hateful people are not very happy and have generally been on the receiving end of hatred themselves, and while this does not excuse behavior it can maybe be a starting place toward loving one’s enemy – or at least praying for them.  

This leaves us with one more question.  Why?  Why should we bother?  Why would we even want to love our enemies?

In Martin Luther King’s sermon on loving your enemy, he told the story of traveling with his brother late one night.  It seemed like every car they passed had its bright lights on and didn’t dim the lights.  King’s brother was getting angry about it and said, “The next car that doesn’t dim its lights, I’m going to turn my brights on for them.”  King said that if everybody had their brights on, nobody would be able to see and there would likely be a collision.

He compared this to hating others.  Somebody has to have sense enough to dim the lights.  If we don’t, he wrote, “We will all end up destroyed because nobody had any sense on the highway of history.  Somewhere somebody must have some sense. (We) must see that... hate begets hate… and it is all a descending spiral, ultimately ending in destruction for all and everybody.  Somebody must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate and the chain of evil in the universe.  And you do that by love.
 
Another reason to give up enemies is that carrying hatred in our hearts affects us.  When we limit the scope of our love for others – when we limit those whom we wish well – it does something to us.  It diminishes us.  It makes our hearts smaller.  Holding on to hatred gnaws away at who we are.  The other night I saw Don Lemon on CNN interviewing a Klu Klux Klan leader.  The recent incident with the fraternity in Oklahoma and the ongoing protests and shooting this week in Ferguson have proven to be recruiting opportunities for the Klan.  I’m not sure why they even tried to interview this man, because he was so filled with hatred that it was hard to even have a conversation.  Hate had completely eaten him up.  For our own sakes, Jesus says, love everybody – even your enemies.  Which is a way of saying, give up having enemies.  Refuse to put people in that category; refuse to let relationships be defined by hatred. 

We are to love our enemies because love has a transforming power.  Hubert Humphrey was a former vice-president of the United States. When he died, leaders from all over the world attended the funeral.  This was not very long after Watergate.  Former President Richard Nixon was there for the funeral, but it was like he was toxic.  Eyes turned away and conversations ran dry around him.  Nixon could feel the ostracism surrounding him.

Then Jimmy Carter, who was then president, walked into the room.  Carter was from a different political party and in many ways was elected as the anti-Nixon.  As President Carter started toward his seat he noticed Richard Nixon standing all alone.  Carter immediately changed course, walked over to Richard Nixon, held out his hand, smiled broadly, and embraced Nixon, saying “Welcome home, Mr. President!  Welcome home!”

The incident was reported by Newsweek magazine, which wrote: “If there was a turning point in Nixon’s long ordeal in the wilderness, it was that moment and that gesture of love and compassion.”

We are called to love our enemies because it makes a difference in us, and it can make a difference in them.  And even more, we are to love our enemies because this is the nature of God.  “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  This sounds like the most impossible task of all.  How can we be perfect?  What this refers to is being complete – essentially, let your love be all-encompassing, as God’s love is all-encompassing.  Of course, that is not exactly easy either, but Jesus is calling us to give up enemies, give up hatred, give up getting even, and be filled with God’s love that reaches out to all, wanting the best for everyone  – even our enemies.  That kind of love is a miracle – a miracle that God wants to work in our hearts.  Amen. 

Sunday, March 8, 2015

“Give Up Going It Alone” - March 8, 2015

Text: Hebrews 10:19-25

One of the cultural values that Americans tend to share is individualism.  We believe that everybody has a right to their own opinion, a right to make their own choices.  We celebrate the rugged individualist, the self-made person.  “Making it on your own” is a great achievement, and depending on others is often viewed as weakness.

Think about some of the common expressions we hear.  “It’s a free country…” “I have the right!” “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.”  “Nobody’s gonna tell me what to do!”

Individualism impacts society in all sorts of ways, and it certainly impacts religion.  An emphasis on individual choice is the reason there is a smorgasboard of religious options out there.  As Baptists, we have a strong emphasis on personal faith.  We believe that every person has the right and responsibility to choose whether and how to worship, and that we each choose to follow Jesus for ourselves.  This is signified in believer’s baptism, as we freely choose to follow Christ. 

Over the years, there has been an increasing emphasis on personal faith and individual choice in faith groups in our country across the board.  Church historian Martin Marty famously called this the “Baptistification of American religion.”

Both religiously and otherwise, there is much to applaud in this focus on the individual.  Individual freedom helps to encourage creativity and achievement.  It is good to think for ourselves.  But life is not lived alone, and as individuals, we need the wisdom and support of the community.  We can fall into this trap of believing that self-sufficiency is the highest good and that we don’t want or need anything from anybody.   

Our text this morning from Hebrews helps us as we think about this relationship between the individual and the community.  Now, Hebrews is probably not the most popular book in the Bible.  The letter to the Hebrews does include what is called the roll call of faith in chapter 11 and after this list of heroes and heroines of Israel, chapter 12 begins with a familiar passage, speaking of the way we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.  There is also a great benediction at the end of Hebrews that is sometimes used in worship, and we will use that benediction today.  But beyond that, Hebrews is not all that familiar, certainly not as familiar as other New Testament letters like Romans or I Corinthians.

Maybe the reason for this is that Hebrews is not an easy book for devotional use - or for sermonizing, for that matter.  It involves a long, sustained argument that refers frequently to Israel’s wilderness journey and the Jewish sacrificial system.  Priest, altar, sacrifice, atoning blood, cleansing rituals, priests of the order of Melchizedek, the curtain of the temple – these terms and ideas are not familiar to us and this makes Hebrews rather tough to understand. 

We do not know who the writer is.  Hebrews was traditionally attributed to Paul, but this was questioned from the very beginning, and the literary style and usage of Greek is unlike that of Paul.  Some have argued for Barnabas, or Silas, or Apollos, or Priscilla, but we really don’t know.

In light of all this, you may be asking, “Well Dave, since we are talking about things to give up, why didn’t you just give up Hebrews?”  Which is a fair question.  But the reality is, the Bible is not always easy and maybe it isn’t meant to be easy.  We can benefit from digging into some of the tougher parts of scripture.

And so, we jump in today toward the end of an extended argument about the nature of Christ.  The priest makes sacrifices on behalf of the people but must do this again and again, over and over.  Another sacrifice is always needed.  But now, Jesus is the great high priest who has made a sacrifice for all time.  The writer quotes Jeremiah and says that God has made a covenant with us and written it on our hearts.  Faith now is not so much about the externals of religious practice, but the inward working of our hearts.

In light of all of this, we may confidently approach God.  Since we have been cleansed and our hearts made pure, we are to draw near to God with a sincere heart.  We are to hold unswervingly to the hope we profess.  Hebrews was written to a church in a time of crisis.  Maintaining the faith in a time of growing persecution was difficult, and this letter is intended as encouragement.  Through Christ, we may approach the God whose covenant is written on our hearts and we may hold on confidently to our faith.

This brings us to what I really want to look at today, verses 24 and 25: “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

There is a word here for those of us who are inclined to be do-it-yourselfers not just when it comes to home projects or car repairs, but do-it-yourselfers when it comes to life.  We may live as free individuals, but we need the community.

First, we are to “provoke one another to love and good works.”  I love that.  We usually think of provoking someone as a negative thing, but here it is very positive.  We are supposed to provoke, to incite one another to do good.  We need the community to spur us on to live out our calling as Christians.

I read a great story about a pizza place in Philadelphia.  Mason Wartman worked on Wall Street and was doing well but didn’t really enjoy what he was doing and decided to make a change.  There are a number of dollar-a-slice pizza shops in New York, and he thought that the concept would work well in Philadelphia.  So he opened Rosa’s Fresh Pizza.  (I guess Rosa sounded more authentic than Mason.)  He opened this pizza shop, a simple place with a simple menu serving good pizza, and it was doing OK when one day, a customer came in for a slice and asked if they ever had homeless people come in for pizza.  Mason told him that sure, they did, and the customer gave him a dollar and said Mark should use that to buy a slice for a homeless person.

Mason jotted it down on a sticky note and posted it behind the counter.  A couple days later, a homeless guy came in.  He had 55 cents on him.  Mason told him to hold on to his change and gave him the sticky note to pay for the pizza.  And soon word got out.  At Rosa’s, you can pay it forward on a slice of pizza, and if you don’t have money for a slice, it’s OK, somebody has already bought a slice for you.

One woman said that she gives about $5 a week paying it forward on pizza, but one day she came in for a slice and realized she had left her wallet at home.  She kind of felt bad about it, but it was OK, she went ahead and had a slice that somebody had already paid for.  One regular said that he had been homeless for seven years.  He had got things together and had been off the street for three years, and now he was glad to be able to come in to Rosa’s and pay it forward to others.

Philadelphia has one of the highest poverty rates among our largest cities, but there is a dollar a slice pizza shop there that has found a way to make a small difference in the lives of people who are struggling, and has found a way to provoke others to love and good works.  The wall inside the place is now littered with a rainbow of brightly colored post-it notes representing pizza slices already paid for, many with a cheery note from the donor. 

The text says, “Let us consider how to provoke one another to good works.”  Well, let’s do that.  Let’s consider this.  How can we spur one another on to doing good?

And then, our passage speaks of the importance of worship.  “Do not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some.”  This was included in this letter because it was an issue.  We don’t know for sure, but later chapters in Hebrews suggest reasons some may have been absent from worship – fear of persecution, feeling that the group was not really essential to personal faith, tensions among leaders in the church.  There are some of those same issues today, along with a lot of folks who feel that they have more important things to do or who just can’t seem to make the time in their busy schedule, or maybe they find the church irrelevant or they have been soured on the whole thing and have given up on church.

Spiritually speaking, we can be tempted to feel like we can go it alone, but faith is not intended to be an entirely personal enterprise.  We need the strength and guidance and wisdom and support of the community.  We may feel like we are doing just fine, but when illness or crisis or pain comes along, we need the community.  When the trials of life come along, when there are times of uncertainty, when there are times of struggle, we need one another.

And it is not simply that we need others; others need us.  None of us can really go it alone; we all need one another.  We gather for worship not just for ourselves; we come for the sake of others.  And we need to gather together to connect to the source of love, the source of goodness, the source of our lives.

In the same vein, the writer says that we are to encourage one another.  There are so many places where we need encouragement, and where going it alone just doesn’t work very well.

Do you ever feel like you need to get with it on an exercise program?  I could raise my hand here.  When you are part of a group, whether it is playing basketball or golf or tennis or working out at the gym or doing water aerobics, it makes a big difference because we can encourage one another.

Have you ever had physical therapy?  I have had physical therapy a few different times.  In each case, there were exercises that I could do at home, and I did them, but it wasn’t the same.  Going it alone did not work nearly as well as having the physical therapist push me and encourage me.

I was listening to the radio in the car this week when a woman was talking about a group for those who had lost loved ones in airplane accidents.  This woman had lost her father in a plane crash, and the grief was deep.  And it was hard talking to people, she said, because she felt like nobody had been through quite the same thing.  But then she ran into someone else in the same situation.  They started this group, and it turned out there were others going through the same thing.  The group was a place where people found healing and encouragement.  Being together worked a lot better than going it alone.

It is true for all sorts of things.  Whether you are battling an addiction or caring for someone who is seriously ill or learning to ski or doing a home project or planning a big event, it works better if you have help and encouragement. 

Susan and I are a part of the Ames Area Religious Leaders Association, a group of local clergy, as well as an American Baptist clergy group with members from around central Iowa.  Each group has meetings and programs, but for me, the more important thing is connections with others who serve in ministry.  There are those who have more of a Lone Ranger approach, but a long time ago I learned to give up going it alone.

It is easy to feel like we can handle our problems by ourselves, that we don’t really need others.  And for a lot of us, it can be very hard to accept help.  Many of us here are the ones who provide help.  We are quick to lend a hand, we are dependable, we want to be there for others.  But it is much harder to accept help.  We don’t want to be vulnerable.  We don’t want to be needy.  We see ourselves as self-reliant, self-sufficient, and we want to handle our problems by ourselves.  But we all need help sometimes, and refusing to let others help, refusing to be vulnerable, putting up this wall, this front of having it all together, denies others the chance to share, to care, to encourage. 

We are all in this life together, and we are not made to go it alone.  This truth extends beyond our circle of friends, beyond our church community.  There is a sense in which this extends to the whole world.  We are all in this together.

The London subway is not the most elegant of places.  Way too many people are crowded into a confined space, and getting on and off the train can be an ordeal at times.

A few weeks ago, a man was waiting to board the subway train and was not in the mood for politeness or pleasantries.  Another man stood in his path, so he shoved him out of the way, and just so that there was no doubt as to his intent, he told him to go…  well, he used a vulgar expression.  Apparently this was morning talk for “Excuse me, sir, I need to get by.”  Maybe the man who had shoved and cursed thought nothing more of it.  He went about his day and he even had a job interview later in the afternoon.

But when he walked in to his interview, he realized immediately that he had made a huge mistake.  Because his interviewer turned out to be the very man he had cursed at on the subway. 

Matt Buckland was the interviewer.  You might think that he would reciprocate the man’s greeting from earlier in the morning, but he told BBC, “I approached it by asking him if he’d had a good commute that morning.  We laughed it off and in a very British way I somehow ended up apologizing.”  They went through with the interview but not surprisingly, the guy did not get the job.

It might be helpful to remember that we are indeed all in this world together and that it does not serve us well when we go it alone.  It’s not that you need to treat other people well for what you get out of it, because it might help you land a job - though that might be true.  But more to the point, living with a sense of connection with others, a sense of connection with God’s world out there, is simply a better way to live.

Doing life on our own is not God’s design.  After all, within God’s own self we find community.  We speak of God as Creator, as Christ, as Holy Spirit – there is interdependence and community modeled even within the nature of God.  And then, God calls us to be God’s hands and feet on this earth.  Together, we are the Body of Christ.  Apparently, even God doesn’t go it alone.

And if God doesn’t go it alone, then maybe we shouldn’t either.  Amen.

Friday, February 27, 2015

“Give Up Worrying” - March 1, 2015

Text: Matthew 6:25-34

Some churches have outdoor signs with those changeable sign boards that can be used to announce the coming week’s sermon title (as though that will draw the crowds in) or to advertise church events or share inspirational messages.  But those sign boards are also a good opportunity for bloopers.  One sign read: “Don’t let worry kill you – let the church help.”

Our scripture this morning addresses worry.  Jesus said a lot of hard things, a lot of deep things, and – let’s be honest – a lot of weird things.  “Love your enemies.”  “Turn the other cheek.”  “It is harder for a rich person to get into heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.”  “If you save your life you will lose it and if you lose your life you will find it.”  These are some of the more notable of the odd things Jesus said.

But this one would also have to be among the stranger things Jesus’ said: don’t worry.  Don’t worry?  Are you kidding me?

Worry comes pretty naturally to a lot of folks, and let’s face it: we have had a lot of practice.  There is a cartoon that shows a guy sitting up in bed, scribbling on a note pad while he talks on the phone.  He says, “When I have trouble sleeping at night, I find it’s sometimes helpful to jot down my anxieties.”  Then you notice the walls of his bedroom and they are just plastered with sticky notes listing all kinds of anxieties - war, recession, killer bees, hair loss, radon gas, on and on.

If we were to make a list, we could probably take most of the morning jotting down reasons for worry.  Just among my circle of family and friends and acquaintances, I can count unemployment, bad mortgages, struggling children, aging parents in poor health, cancer treatments, divorce, mental illness, student loans, inscrutable teachers, maddening neighbors, balky vehicles, and workplace problems.  We worry about our classes, about housing arrangements.  We worry about what other people think.  We could add to our list items ranging from icy roads to environmental disaster, from influenza to terrorism and climate change.  Not to mention the emotional state of the Cyclones and how they will do in the Big 12 tournament.  

It seems like we are just wired for worry.  And contemporary logic would seem to suggest that if you’re not worrying, then you must not be paying attention.  A news report this past week told us that terrorists in Somalia are encouraging like-minded people to attack shopping malls in North America.  I’m not sure what we are supposed to do about this, except that we are supposed to worry.  You turn on TV and there is breaking news.  It seems urgent.  It seems scary.  Never mind that they have been talking about the same breaking news all day long; it is designed to grab our attention.  Breaking news usually means bad that we should worry about.  Worry is a strategy for TV ratings. 

Worry can influence every part of our lives, even the fairly mundane things.  We worry whether we really did turn the iron off or lock the door.  We worry over whether our kids will have the good sense to wear a warm coat and gloves and a hat when it is 10 below outside.

And as much as anything, we worry about the future.  Students worry whether they will be able to get a decent job.  Families worry over whether they can pay the bills.  Adults worry over whether their retirement nest egg will be sufficient.  And churches worry.  A lot of churches look at their demographics, look at the saints who are providing a lot of the financial support and leadership, and wonder what kind of shape they will be in a few years down the road. 

We’ve all got reasons for worry, and most of us are pretty good at it.  But Jesus comes along and says, “Do not worry about your life.”

It sounds ridiculous.  What do you mean, don’t worry?  How can we not worry?

Right up front, we need to say is that there is no way we are going to be worry-free.  The apostle Paul once said that he was “harassed at every turn — conflicts on the outside, fears within.” (2 Corinthians 7:5)  Sounds like worry to me.  And he admitted that he worried about “all the churches.” (2 Corinthians 11:28)  St. Makarios of Egypt, a 4th century monastic, was brutally realistic about it: “I am convinced that not even the apostles, although filled with the Holy Spirit, were therefore completely free from anxiety . . . Contrary to the stupid view expressed by some, the advent of grace does not mean the immediate deliverance from anxiety.”

OK, everyday worries are always going to be around.  We will always have concerns over any number of things.  But Jesus’ familiar words strike a chord deep within us:
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear... Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? …

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.  But if God so clothes the grass of the field… will he not much more clothe you…

Therefore do not worry... But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

It is beautiful language, to be sure, but it is a lot more than that.  Jesus is speaking of a different way of living, a way of living that we long for.  We are not meant to live surrounded by worry and anxiety; we are meant to live with the certainty of God’s care and provision.

Do we give ourselves over to worry, or do we trust in God’s love and faithfulness, even in the hard times?  Do we become paralyzed by anxiety, or do we put our cares and concerns in the perspective of God’s goodness and grace?  At the root of it all, are we “worried about our lives,” as Jesus puts it, or are we able to trust in God’s providence?

Now, as I considered this passage this past week, I have to admit I was not in a very good frame of mind.  You might be surprised to hear that this passage of scripture just made me mad. 

Here’s the deal: Jesus casts the birds as examples for us.  As our moral exemplars, if you will, just living their lives, going about their business, unconcerned about where their next meal is coming from.  The birds have the right attitude, says Jesus.  Just trust in me, trust in God, and quit worrying.

I had always read this scripture and thought of the birds as God’s sweet, beautiful, trusting creatures.  You might think of cute little birds flying around with Bambi in a Disney movie.  You might think of the bluebird of happiness.    You might think of colorful finches or that beautiful red cardinal in the backyard against a backdrop of snow.

In the last couple of weeks, that is not what has come to mind for me when I have thought of birds.  I don’t know if you have noticed, but birds have been taking over the church yard this winter, and it isn’t pretty.  Let’s just say that I have had to take my car to the car wash a couple of times on account of the birds.  But the parking lot in back is nothing compared to the front of the church.

Has anybody been out in the front yard lately?  The sidewalk under the big oak tree is just disgusting.  I have never seen a sidewalk so thoroughly covered by bird droppings.  It is everywhere.  What we needed was a power washer, but it is hard to do that when it is 5 degrees outside.  So I was actually happy for the snow this week, just so that the bird dukie would get covered up.  My hope, my prayer, was that somehow with the snow, the snow blower would clean up the bird droppings on the sidewalk along with the snow – and to a large extent, it did.  Thank God for the snow.

So, I am not happy with birds right now, and I read this scripture where Jesus offers the birds to us as an example.  I’ll be honest: I didn’t want to hear it.  But upon further review, maybe it reads even better when you are mad at the birds.  It is one thing to think that God provides for those cute, frolicking, beautiful birds out there.  But apparently, God also provides for those punk birds out there, those thoughtless, destructive, disgusting jerks. 

Which means that God’s care and provision is not something we earn, it is not dependent on how good we are.  If God cares for the birds of the air – and even for the angry birds of the oak tree – then how much more does God care for us?

Now, you might read this passage of scripture and think that it really doesn’t have that much to offer to us.  We have all kinds of worries, but most of us are not worried about what we are going to eat or what we are going to wear.  These are not our concerns.  I mean, we might have a hard time deciding where to go out to eat, or we might worry about having an unhealthy diet, but we don’t worry about having food to eat.  We might worry about making the right wardrobe choices, but we don’t worry about having clothes to wear.  These are not our big concerns.

Well, in Jesus’ day, these were the big worries.  These were the top concerns.  Most of the population lived at a bare subsistence level.  Having clothes to wear and food to eat could be a struggle.  What Jesus is addressing here is our deepest concerns.

Jesus says, “God gave us life, so surely we can trust God for the smaller things.  God cares for the birds and plants and flowers, so surely God cares for us that much more.  Our worrying does no one any good – it does not change things.  Don’t fret about the past or obsess about the future over which you have no control.  God knows your needs and God cares for you.  Learn to trust in God.  Learn to live in the present moment.”

Now we do need to understand what Jesus is not saying.  He is not simply saying “Don’t worry, be happy.”  He isn’t asking us to gloss over the pain in life.  And while the birds or the flowers might serve as object lessons, he is not saying we are to actually be like the birds.  We are not asked to quit working.  He spoke to those who sowed and reaped and toiled and spun, and he didn’t ask his followers to stop doing those things.

And it is not that Jesus is anti-planning.  Bill Malone died this past week.  The funeral will be tomorrow.  We knew and loved Bill as a longtime member and a wonderful, thoughtful, funny, encouraging guy.  Way back while Bill was still a student, he was the first City Planning Director for the City of Ames.  Bill was all about planning.  Well, Jesus is not against planning.  Jesus also told the parable of the wise bridesmaids who planned ahead.  In the middle of an Iowa winter, it is a good idea to have some forethought about what we wear.  What Jesus is asking his followers to understand is that their lives are not based on the things we have or the plans we make, important as they may be, but our lives are built on the bedrock of God’s providential care.  What we are to stay away from is the fearful worrying that can just sap the life from us.

And in any event, all of our worrying does no one any good.  Jesus says, “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?”  Worry is misplaced energy.  It is unproductive.  It can be debilitating.  We can become paralyzed with worry and fear.  Most of the things we worry about are things over which we have absolutely no control.  If we could do something, we would do it and then we wouldn’t have to worry about it.  But we worry about:

  • decisions someone else has to make
  • an action someone else might take
  • medical conditions we cannot control
  • future problems that may or may not come our way
  • whether it will rain or snow and mess up our plans
All of our worrying does not change things.  It does no good, and our worrying can do us harm.  Worrying takes our time, it takes our energy, it keeps us from thankfulness, it robs us of joy.  John Powell said that worry is “a mild form of atheism.”  And Jesus himself said it was “the Gentiles,” or unbelievers, who go around worrying.

Don’t worry, says Jesus, but focus on loving God and loving others, focus on following Jesus, and these other things will take care of themselves.

Julian of Norwich was a 14th century English mystic.  Of all people, she had reason to worry.  She lived during the Black Death that killed 75 million people in medieval Europe.  (And you thought you had it bad.)  Many people interpreted the plague as divine punishment, but not Julian.  She believed that God loved every person and that God would redeem every tear.

In her book of visions called Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love, the first book published in the English language written by a woman, Julian wrote one of the best-known sentences in all of Christian history that is also the perfect antidote to worry.
          
Julian concluded that she was wrong to worry about the sins and sorrows of life.  Jesus told her that these trials and tribulations were simply a part of our human story.  And she said that in God’s love and providence, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

And it will.  Seek first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.  “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”  Amen.