Sunday, August 28, 2011

Follow Me...

Thanks today for the generous prayers and suggestions of my Twitter friends, and for the writings of Rev. Linda Pepe, and Kathryn Matthews Huey. This sermon started out as a re-hash of an older one, but went in a different direction completely...

Exodus 3:1-15
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
Then the LORD said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt”; But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”
But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’:
This is my name forever,
and this my title for all generations.”

Romans 12:9-21
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

I don't know if it started back in 2000 with Bruce Wilkinson's book on the Prayer of Jabez, but I think it's been going on a whole lot longer; this idea that our relationship with God in Jesus Christ should be a vehicle to personal wealth and comfort. It's a real multi-billion dollar industry, books and videos and seminars by celebrities and television preachers and megachurch pastors, all about how to be happy and successful using this or that prayer or this or that set of principles taken, ostensibly, from Scripture. Some of the titles I found on Amazon include: “Find Happiness, How to fill the void in your life, by Looking, Feeling, and Living better;” “How My Magic Refrigerator Sent Me To Paris Free. 7 Rules To Make Dreams Come True;” and “Spiritual Liberation - Fulfilling Your Soul's Potential.”

Now, there's a place for devotional reading, and some of the titles I saw were for books that really addressed problems like divorce and addiction. And lest we simply shake our heads in disgust or laugh at the rest, it's an indication that we Christians, like every other human being in modern American society, are largely influenced by the standards of that society. We are judged not so much on the content of our character as on our position in the corporation.
We are judged not so much on the breadth of our compassion as on the beauty of our appearance. We are judged not so much on the strength of our generosity as on the value of our possessions.

We are assaulted, like everyone else in our society, with advertising and media messages encouraging us to get the newest, the best, the upgrade, to supersize and go first-class, to get smaller phones and bigger TVs, faster computers and nicer cars, this season's fashions and this week's gadget. We are told that the economy depends on us replacing things that aren't worn out, upgrading things that are fine as they are, and owning things that have no practical use.

So it's really no wonder that this mad rush for wealth and popularity and acceptance would find its way into, and be celebrated by, Christian pop culture. But I wonder how Jesus would look on a book about happiness through being prettier or about magic refrigerators and free trips overseas. How would Jesus view this idea that He exists to make our lives easier?

I think he would say, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

But what does that mean? Does “taking up your cross” simply mean doing things differently, thinking about things differently? Is it “taking up our cross” when we strive to pay less attention to what our co-workers think of us and more time working to feed the hungry? Are we “taking up our cross” by working to pay less attention to the price of gasoline and more attention to the nearly twenty-five percent of children on Alabama who live in poverty? Do we attain “taking up our cross” by paying more attention to the plight of the orphans and widows and homeless?

That kind of thing is easy to talk about, and I've done it. But if that were the gist of it, changing our own way of thinking, altering our own way of acting, then, honestly, someone could write a book called “Forty Days to Self-Denial, “ a publishing company could produce a series called “Cross-Carrying for the Soul,” “... for Teens,” “... for Dads,” “... for Busy Moms,” …everybody would read it, a megachurch or two would get started on those principles, and we could all be satisfied that we had done precisely enough to earn God’s favor, we’d have our ticket to Heaven punched, and we could retire.

And in the end, what would have changed?

All of these things, all of these attitude changes and actions, though some of them seem outwardly-focused, are in fact centered on the self: what will it take to ensure my security, to make me better, to get me to heaven?

When you think of it, that was very much what was happening with Peter when he rebuked Jesus. “This must never happen to you” meant either, “no worries, me and the boys will protect you,” or “This must never happen to me! If you’re the Messiah, then you’re the one who is supposed to violently overthrow the oppressive Roman regime, set up your eternal throne in Jerusalem, reign for eternity starting now. I have all my hopes and plans riding on you being who I have decided to make you, and you can’t let me down!”

It’s a natural tendency, isn’t it, to be inwardly focused? It seems to be how we are wired. And these days, who can blame us? You don’t have to spend very much time surfing cable news channels or reading a newspaper or website to begin to get scared. The economy is dragging, we might be on the brink of a double-dip recession, the jobless rate is not getting any better, the middle class has disappeared, whichever government you want to think of – city, county, state, or Federal – is running out of money, not to mention the worldwide economies that are on the brink of collapse, some folks claim we’re being overrun by illegal aliens, and on and on and on. The natural tendency, perhaps the logical conclusion, is to circle the wagons, protect what we still have, build walls of protection, close ourselves in from whatever it is that is to come…

But the Good News always pulls us toward an outward focus. First, of course, our Gospel reading reminds us that the meaning of life – the purpose of our very existence – is found not in self-improvement or, indeed, self-preservation, but in Jesus Christ.

And as a people united in faith in Jesus Christ, our outward focus speaks to the needs of one another, the world as a whole – even those we may consider our enemies. Paul makes this clear in our Epistle reading today: “let love be genuine” “Contribute to the needs of the saints,” “Live in harmony, live peaceably with all” and “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.”

Imagine, laying aside not only our fear of lack – the terror that if we share in our possessions with friends and with strangers, we ourselves will not have enough – but our right to seek vengeance for wrongs?

Everything would change!

Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

You see, when Paul speaks about heaping “burning coals on [our enemies’] heads,” though it sounds violent, like God taking vengeance on our behalf in the end, he may well be referring to a traditional symbol of repentance. The commitment to act in love and hospitality, with a single mind among one another and with mercy and peace even to those who are against us, can indeed drive out hate. It may well be that personification of grace – unmerited favor – which drives those who might be considered enemies into fellowship, into relationship with the living God!

No wonder G.K. Chesterton said, “The Christian faith has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult, and left untried.”

Some may even dare to say, “it has been found impossible.”

And if we were alone in this, stumbling around in the dark with our self-help books and motivational videos and nothing else, there would be no hope at all. It would be impossible. It’s too hard to let go of ourselves, it’s too much for us to figure out what it means to lose our lives in order to find them, too much to expect that we would love our enemies, ridiculous to think we could live peaceably with one another.

If we were alone.

But we are never alone! Hear the Word of the Lord, from the fourteenth chapter of John, the twenty-sixth verse: “But the Comforter, even the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said unto you.”

Taking up our cross is thus not a fatalistic view of life, where we toil under our burden in daily hope that we are doing it right. Rather, the Cross becomes a bridge between God and humankind – between God and us – between God and you – so there would be no more separation; nothing keeping us fearful of falling short, terrified of judgment, or worried about being condemned by God. Jesus took up the cross so that we could at last begin to see ourselves as valued and loved and cherished by God… to begin to see ourselves the way God sees us! If, in taking up our cross we indeed follow Christ, we follow that path which leads to, and leads through, the Resurrection!

Thus the cross, an ancient symbol of torturous death becomes, in Christ, a joyous symbol of new life. In losing our life we find it, in dying to ourselves we are born anew. And through the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, we walk the path of Christ day by day.

Thanks be to God.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, John.
    Another Sunday morning filled with prayerful thought. If we really believed that WE were buried in baptism and raised In Christ, perhaps the way of the cross would be understood as leading us to full freedom. What need does a dead me have of things, fame, or revenge? What things do we joined by the Spirit in the living body of Christ possibly lack?
    Now to continue contemplating how much these thoughts are lived not just said! peace