Sunday, January 21, 2018

Sermon for January 21, 2018

How Far Would You Go?
1 Samuel 17

I had a sermon all ready to go today. It was a NICE sermon. You would have felt really good about it. Really inspired. I was going to ask you to think about the Goliaths in your life – you know, the immense, giant obstacles that seem unbeatable and impossible to defeat -- the huge problem that just might be your undoing. Sooner or later all of us must face the giant. Maybe it is a giant sickness that threatens life, or a giant wound that festers in a broken heart. Maybe it’s a giant wedge in a relationship that keeps you trapped in lonely silence. Maybe it’s a giant amount of work that stands between you and your dreams, or a giant injustice you have been avoiding. I was going to ask you: How do you respond? I wanted to ask whether you are planning on letting Goliath win, or are you going to take a stand? I was going to ask you how far you would go when called to take on a giant.

Goliath was the “secret weapon” of the Philistine army- a nine-foot nine inch, fearsome gargantuan who taunted the army of King Saul. There wasn’t a soldier in the camp who wanted to take on Goliath.

Goliath stood and bellowed to the ranks of Israel, “Why bother using your whole army? Am I not Philistine enough for you? And you’re all committed to Saul, aren’t you? So, pick your best fighter and pit him against me. If he gets the upper hand and kills me, the Philistines will all become your slaves. But if I get the upper hand and kill him, you’ll all become our slaves and serve us. I challenge the troops of Israel this day. Give me a man. Let us fight it out together!” When Saul and his troops heard the Philistine's challenge, they were terrified and lost all hope.

After hearing these threats, an adolescent shepherd boy named David looked around and asked, “Who is this person who is insulting the armies of God?” David wasn’t afraid of the Philistine giant.

King Saul sent for David and this is the conversation they had:
David said to Saul, “Don’t give up hope, King. I’m ready to go and fight this Philistine.” Saul replied, “You can't go and fight this Philistine. You're too young and inexperienced—and he's been at this fighting business since before you were born.” But David said to Saul, “I've been a shepherd, tending sheep for my father. Whenever a lion or bear came and took a lamb from the flock, I'd go after it, knock it down, and rescue the lamb. If it turned on me, I'd grab it by the throat, wring its neck, and kill it. Lion or bear, it made no difference—I killed it. And I'll do the same to this Philistine who is taunting the troops of the Lord, God, who delivered me from the teeth of the lion and the claws of the bear, will deliver me from this Philistine.” Saul said to David, “Go, and the Lord be with you” (1 Samuel 17:32-37).

Instead of putting on armor and a sword, David chose to dress casually, carrying only a sling in his hand, with five smooth stones that he collected from the stream. With no weapon and no armor, David was ready to win this battle for God.

Listen to what David said when he confronted Goliath:
“You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the LORD Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the LORD will hand you over to me, and I’ll strike you down. Today I will serve up the carcasses of the Philistine army to the crows and coyotes, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel. All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the LORD saves; for the battle is the LORD’s, and God will give all of you into our hands” (vs. 45-47).

David took out a stone, and slung it and it struck Goliath on the forehead and killed him. The young, weak boy defeated his Goliath.

I was going to ask you to think about the five, smooth stones God has given you to face the giants. Because no matter what we may be facing, our problems can be solved by using the tools God gives is defeat giants I was going to ask you how far you would go when called to take on a giant. … until I read the last line of the passage I’m preaching today. Do you know how far David goes to defeat Goliath? The Bible says, “David triumphed over the Philistine with only a sling and a stone, for he had no sword. Then David ran over and pulled Goliath’s sword from its sheath. David used it to kill him and cut off his head.”

And now, I can’t preach that sermon I wanted to, because the story I learned as a kid … the one about the unlikely boy who topples giants, just turned ugly. Our scripture says, “David then displayed Goliath's head in Jerusalem, brandished it before King Saul, and kept his sword in his tent as a souvenir.” Think of those ISIS videos of beheaded hostages. They use decapitation to traumatize and terrorize the enemy. And it works. It is meant to be a public spectacle for those who download replays of the horrifying act on the internet. Decapitation is also a sacrament of civil religion -- a way of making violence holy. The beloved story of David and Goliath is actually a text of terror, and now I’m not sure how to hear God’s voice in this story.

This is not the only terrifying text in Scripture. Read the Bible closely and we read stories endorse using torture against captives (2 Samuel 12:26-31), legal rape of female prisoners of war (Numbers 31:1-18; Deuteronomy 21:11-14), slavery (Deuteronomy 23:15-16, Colossians 4:1), and transferring punishment of sin from the guilty to the innocent (Gen. 3:5-6, Genesis 6:5-13; Leviticus 16:8-34). Our Christian Scriptures are not exempt. In a world where there are those who read texts of terror and commit acts of terror in their name, we need to be explicit about how we handle these passages of Scripture.

You may think I’m being over sensitive here. Why not just take the story of David and Goliath and make it a spiritual story about overcoming the odds? Well, I think that’s a dangerous approach. When take stories about violent heroes and turn them into morality tales about fighting evil, we must be careful. I read a story about a dad watching his sons, ages 7 and 6, play Rock, Paper, Scissors. The dad introduced a new element into the game -- dynamite. Dynamite is made just like the rock, only you lift your thumb to create the fuse. Dynamite utterly destroys rock, paper, and scissors. In response, the oldest boy came up with an ever more destructive weapon – God. After a few rounds of the game, he activated the omnipotent God weapon. “Rock, paper, scissors … GOD!” he yelled. Then he lifted both hands in the air and violently threw them down with the thunderous sound of hell-fire and brimstone on top of his younger brother.

God. The Destroyer.

I know it’s just a game, but I spend a lot of time trying to teach children that God isn’t like that. When we spiritualize violence, we sanction it. The stories we tell begin to justify our actions. We teach that it’s OK to obliterate our enemies with overwhelming, brutal force. For me, as we continue to face the fears of living in a nuclear era, the thought of bombing and being bombed is a horrifying and immature response. It’s up to us to find different stories, and metaphors to talk about conflict, other than battle, killing, and victory.

Is religion dangerous? Do we need to edit our Bibles and eliminate texts of terror? Let’s just get to the point. Religion is not bad. Religion is not evil. Religion is not dangerous. However, people can be bad, evil and dangerous. They can use religion to support what they want to do. Any Muslim who cites the Qur’an or Hadith to support their view that Islam should forcibly convert the world to Islam, stands in direct opposition to every scholarly tradition of Islam. The term jihad, which means “striving”, is primarily meant to mean the heart’s striving to obey God. Jihad as violent force is a secondary meaning. Most Muslim scholars say that violent jihad is confined to the defense of Islam against unjust attack.

Any Jewish leadeer who calls for the conquest of Palestine forgets that the command to take care of foreigners who live in the Holy Land far outweighs any texts conquest and security. I do not hear the voice of God when Jewish leaders quote scripture to justify Palestinian oppression.

I also refuse to listen for God’s voice from Christian leaders who uses Scripture to justify mistreatment of the LGBTQ community, or who uses the Bible to justify the subjugation of women. I refuse to listen for God’s voice when preachers use the Bible to baptize their bigotry. When I look at the human violence of the cross, I’m inspired to stand for freedom and to come alongside victims of oppression. But we remember times when the cross has been twisted into a swastika -- a weapon. The icon of redemption can become an instrument of terror in the hands of bad theology. It’s why I don’t want us spiritualizing violence. Bad theology is not just dangerous. Bad theology can kill.

Of course, we have violent texts that are used by those who are filled with rage and hatred. By selectively choosing certain texts that support their aims, evil people choose hatred and intolerance over debate and dialogue. Religion does not cause intolerance. I think it’s quite the opposite. Intolerance uses religion to give alleged “moral support” to hatred.

We need to learn the warning signs that religion has become evil and evil has become religious. Here are some warning signs:

  • Fanatical claims of absolute truth. This includes: Blind obedience to totalitarian, charismatic, and authoritarian leaders or their views that undermines moral integrity, personal freedom, individual responsibility, and intellectual inquiry.
  • Identifying and rationalizing “end times” scenarios in the name of religion.
  • Any and all forms of dehumanization, including demonizing those who differ from you, construing your neighbor as an Other, and claiming that God is on your side alone.

Sacred terror is almost always complex and bound up with other causes. But at the end of the day, we must admit that there is far too much violence in the world that is justified with a specifically religious rationale. We should commit ourselves to do whatever we can to stop it.

From where I am looking today – religious-sanctioned violence is the giant we must defeat. Most people prefer a sword and spear and javelin to words. Today, we declare that we resist giants not with the sword, but with the five smooth stones:
non-violent resistance,
peaceable protest,
speaking truth to power,
diplomacy, and
restorative justice.

How far will you go? How far will you go to hold each other accountable? How far will you go when our own religions dehumanize and marginalize others? How far will you go, in the name of religion, certain groups are targeted for exclusion? How far will you go when the governments suppress religious activity through harassment or detention? How far will you to go dialogue and explore our differences, respectfully and courageously? How far will you go to pray -- pray that we will be people of peace -- pray and work for a loving, compassionate, just and generous world in which religion brings out the best of who we are, not the worst?

We come together at places like CCC to deepen our spiritual lives and to increase our understanding and our compassion. This work forms us. It helps us to be healthier and more whole people. And it equips and inspires us to do the daily work of building a better world.

Sources:
http://www.patheos.com/blogs/teachingnonviolentatonement/2014/08/rock-paper-scissors-god-children-and-a-nonviolent-reading-of-the-bible/
https://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20060619JJ.shtml
http://religionnews.com/2017/08/28/twisting-the-cross-the-deadly-theology-of-white-supremacy/

Is Religion Dangerous by Keith Ward

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Sermon for January 14, 2018

Justice Without Corruption

Then Samuel addressed all Israel: “I have done as you asked and given you a king. Your king is now your leader. I stand here before you—an old, gray-haired man—and my sons serve you. I have served as your leader from the time I was a boy to this very day. Now testify against me in the presence of the Lord and before his anointed one. Whose ox or donkey have I stolen? Have I ever cheated any of you? Have I ever oppressed you? Have I ever taken a bribe and perverted justice? Tell me and I will make right whatever I have done wrong.”

“No,” they replied, “you have never cheated or oppressed us, and you have never taken even a single bribe.”

“The Lord and his anointed one are my witnesses today,” Samuel declared, “that my hands are clean.”

“Yes, he is a witness,” they replied.

“It was the Lord who appointed Moses and Aaron,” Samuel continued. “He brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt. Now stand here quietly before the Lord as I remind you of all the great things the Lord has done for you and your ancestors.
1 Samuel 12:1-7

They want a king. The people of Israel – they want a king, so they can be like the other nations. In the beginning chapters of the book of 1 Samuel, the leader of the people of Israel is a judge named Samuel. He’s not a monarch. Samuel is known a charismatic and wise leader who hears from God clearly and can communicate God’s will to this loose confederation of cranky tribes known as Israel. The people don’t want Samuel’s sons to take over, now that that Samuel is getting old. The elders of Israel think Samuel sons are corrupt. The do not want the sons of prophets to lead. They want a king.

It’s not just about being like the other guys. At one point, the people cry, “We want our king to go out before us and fight our battles.” In other words, “We have enemies who want to destroy us. They have attacked us before. We are afraid and we need a tough national security strategy. We want a king. We want a military. We want them to protect us.”

God does not want Israel to appoint a king. Even though God expresses feeling rejected by the choice, God does not stand in the way. The people need to understand the consequences of their choices. God will not force them to trust. It’s remarkable, really. God finds them a king – a man named Saul. In our first readings, Samuel anoints Saul with oil as a recognition of his new title. Israel will have a King. And then, as Samuel give up his position, Samuel gives a blistering sermon that reminds the people what a king will do to them. He says, “You want a King who will fight your battles for you? King’s don’t do that. King’s take. They take your resources to enrich themselves. Kings take your children and order them to fight. Kings take your resources and force you to make weapons with your farm equipment. Are you ready to pay the price? Consider what you are asking. Kings take, take and take. God asks. With God we always have a choice. Kings demand allegiance. God requests our faith. Kings enforce laws. God enfolds us with love.”

In the reading from 1 Samuel 12, Samuel, in his old age, defends his term as the last Judge of Israel. He asks, “Have I ever cheated any of you? Have I ever oppressed you? Have I ever taken a bribe and perverted justice? Tell me and I will make right whatever I have done wrong.” The people confess he has been upright and good. Samuel is the kind of leader I want to be and the kind of leader I want to follow. Samuel has clarity about his God-given life purpose and goals. He does not become confused or lost in the swirling emotions of others. Samuel can connect to the hearts of other people by respecting them, engaging with them in healthy debate, loving them, honoring their strengths and bolstering their weaknesses. Instead of making people adhere to rules and policies, he values relationships. Instead of trying to control behavior of others, Samuel is led by an inner sense of what God is saying and encourages others to hear God for themselves as well.

Samuel knows that if the diverse and disunified tribes of Israel want to have peace, they need to make security decisions based on something other than fear. If they want to be taken seriously by their enemies, then their foreign policy must represent the aims of God, which have the best interests of all the people in mind. Foreign policy is not just tied into military affairs, it is directly connected to economics. Will Israel succeed if it a society where a small number of extraordinarily powerful and wealthy special interests exert enormous influence over the survival of the people?

Well, as I said, Israel gets its King – the man named Saul.  Saul represents what could have been but was not. Saul has some good points. He starts out as a dedicated and thoughtful king who defends Israel from its enemies. But as his fame increased, so did his delusion of grandeur. In the end, Saul refuses to obey God because he’s afraid of public opinion – worried about the consequences to his reputation when God asks him to go to war.

Saul’s style of leadership was so different from Samuel’s. Saul wanted people to like him. On top of that, Saul was an insecure and jealous king, to the point of paranoia. He saw traitors everywhere. Many of you know about David, of David and Goliath fame. David will eventually become King. Before his coronation, David was Saul’s aid, confidante, and son-in-law. Saul slandered David, assumed the worst of motives, and eventually made him a blood-enemy. No matter how many times David reconciled with him, Saul’s insecurity and paranoia gnawed at him. Saul became obsessed not by the true enemies of the people of Israel, but by spending his energy on palace intrigue and aggressive revenge, instead of governing and defending the people.

When I think about the times we live in, and the decisions we make when we feel afraid and insecure, I think the dominant expression – the main way we express our fear – is through aggression. In times of crisis, we turn to hostility as the only alternative for dealing with conflict. Consider some of the language we use around problem solving. We attack the problem, tackle the issue, take a stab at it, wrestle it to the ground, and get on top of it. If colleagues argue with us, we complain that they shot down our idea, took pot shots, used us for target practice, or killed us. Facing opposition, we back down, retreat, or regroup. Because aggression is so ingrained in us as a response, we can easily experience it as a positive attribute. Parents and cheerleaders scream from the sidelines of school sports events, “Be aggressive!" Supervisors reward managers for aggressive timelines and plans. Dictionaries define “aggressive” as hostile action, but also positively as assertive, bold, and enterprising. These combative descriptions of relationships and problem-solving point to a startling conclusion: We experience challenges as war zones, we view competing ideas as enemies, and we use problems as weapons to blame and defeat opposition forces

If we want peace, then we need to lead from a different emotional response than fear through aggression. I think we need mercy. Showing mercy can become a way to disengage from the current culture of aggression with a new way of being. We have all done things we regret. Aggressive things. Violent things. We have all had times when we wish we could go back in time and do something over again. The truth is, we all want mercy. But mercy is not given just so we can feel better. Mercy is not pity. God offers mercy as a way for us to restore our relationships. God offers mercy so that we can extend mercy to others.

We must find the means to work and live together with non-aggressive strategies if we are to resolve the serious problems that afflict us. As we become more aware of how the habits of aggression affect our actions, we realize behaviors that support violence; programs that have outlived their usefulness; and policies that don’t work as intended – it’s time for them to be replaced. We can dismantle our outdated, violent ways, we can establish habits of mercy.

Do you remember what Jesus said about mercy? Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy (Matthew 5:7) Jesus did not say, “Blessed are those who are shown mercy, for they will be merciful.” In other words, Jesus does not say you get mercy and then you give it. Mercy is the primary intentional act. You are blessed for being a person who commits compassion. You get mercy once you give mercy. We must lessen our aggressiveness and increase our compassion, just as our God so often does with us. We give mercy. Then we receive mercy.

One of my majors in College was English. I ended up taking many classes with the Chair of the English Department. Dr. Peters was a large, pompous man who regularly intimidated students. He impressed fear into everyone. His authority came from his title, his position, and his ability to scare his students half to death. In a literature course on the age of classicism, Dr. Peters would bellow out, “Braddock, what, according to Alexander Pope, is the requirement for being a British magistrate?” He would scowl at me as I sat in stunned silence. “Well, Braddock, what’s your answer?” I would finally stammer out a made-up answer. “I think Pope says if a man wants to be a magistrate, he has to have a wife who sells Tupperware.” Dr. Peters would shake his head and look at me in disgust before moving on to the next victim.

I was also a teaching assistant for another English professor, Dr. Paul. One afternoon he handed me a stack of papers to grade. As I went though the pile of freshmen English journals, I was disgusted by how poor the work was. Each passing paper was worse than the one before it, and the marks I gave reflected my loathing for their pasty writing. I delivered the graded papers back to the Dr. Paul, shaking my head in repugnance. The next day I went to his office, and he had a stack of papers for me to look through. They were actually the journals I had corrected the day before. Dr. Paul had gone through and changed all of the grades to higher marks. When I asked him about it, all he did was quote an OT prophet: “Matt, in wrath, remember mercy.” That lesson has stayed with me. There is no doubt in my mind why Dr. Paul had a very devoted band of students on campus. Dr. Peter’s authority was fed by the fear of his students. Dr. Paul’s authority was rooted in mercy.

The same should be true with people of faith. If we want to claim the authority to confront unjust systems and oppressive ideologies, if we seek to replace paranoid and fear-driving creeds with inclusivity and love, then our behavior must be established by mercy. This weekend, as we commemorate the life and message of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we have become ever more aware of the challenges we face as a people to bear witness to God’s mercy and justice in the world. A society that fails in mercy will soon find that it is unable to fight for better working conditions, for the rights of workers, for immigrants, or for the poor. Such a society will find that what is considered fair, what is consider a right, or what is considered an act of mercy will be determined by the small number of powerful and wealthy special interests. It is time for faith communities to reject this ends-justifies-the-means approaches to leadership. We have a role in deconstructing the culture of aggression, and we do it by showing our communities what it looks like to give mercy before receiving mercy.

Saul suffered from moral madness, and that the power he wielded as king of Israel made his paranoia unspeakably frightening. Saul demonstrated no inclination to listen to reason. His suspicious accusations of betrayal and conspiracy grew in range and intensity. His delusions of grandeur swelled with each passing event. And Saul distanced himself from God. Israel could not sustain a materialistic leader who distanced himself from his faith tradition and ignored the belief that God’s world is not soiled but sacred … All of creation is not soiled but sacred … Nations are not soiled. Nations are sacred … People are not soiled. People are sacred.

Saul’s destructive lunacy eventually threw Israel into a civil war. Israel’s enemies, sensing the instability caused by Saul’s weakness, seized the opportunity to invade. Saul died in battle, and his death finally rid Israel of its crazy king – the king they wanted in the first place. Saul nearly destroyed the nation. Like all kings who go morally mad, Saul arrogantly believed himself to be the center of gravity when he was actually the epicenter of disaster.

It’s a good thing Samuel stuck around for a while after turning over Israel’s leadership to Saul. Saul needed a prophet to call him out, to remind him that he was not God, and to urge him either to repent or step down before he brought disaster upon the nation. Someone had to be resist the king’s madness.

In our age of warring aggression, with the fear we have of a nation marching toward madness, may the prophets arise. God give us prophets who show us how to resist. God give us prophets who teach us how to lead. God give us prophets who lead through mercy instead of aggression. God give us prophets who help mend the fabric of our society by weaving a seamless garment of mercy and compassion. God give us prophets who denounce the powers that oppress. God give us prophets who they bring us back to the heart of compassion.

Sources:
https://medium.com/@cainseth/trump-king-saul-for-a-new-generation-6fd58f9051c7
http://floydandsally.com/blog/2012/03/31/samuel-style-leadership-versus-the-saul-style-of-autocratic-leadership
https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/the-madness-of-kings-the-need-for-prophets-and-trump_us_58a59a35e4b0fa149f9ac213
https://rethinkingnationalsecurity.com/tag/peacemaking/

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Sermon for January 7, 2018

Samuel the Listener


People often ask me how I got into ministry. How did I know? The question usually comes from new encounters at dinner parties. When guests find out I’m a minister, they start trying to figure it out – at least those who don’t avoid me. Being a minister is a familiar but uncommon occupation, after all. You’d think I’d have a pat answer by now, but the question still makes me stumble. How did I know? Well . . . I just knew. I’ve known since I was 12 years old. Picture a serious, 12-year old boy who hears the voice of God and begins asking for the complete 18 volume set of John Calvin’s Commentaries on the Bible for Christmas so that he can get an early start on his clerical studies; a boy staying up late and reading theology by flashlight long after his parents have told him to turn out the lights and go to sleep; a boy so caught up in the bliss of biblical studies, he cannot focus on world geography and mathematics. Got the picture? Well, that wasn’t me. I was a loud-mouthed, 12-year-old who teased others relentlessly, watched Three’s Company and the Love Boat faithfully, listened to Toto sing Africa endlessly, and did not have much interest in reading anything but Spiderman comics. I was an average kid and an average student living in an average American household. That’s the kid God called into ministry. As I grew, I tried on different ideas for occupations. By my college years, I talked myself into training to be a High School English teacher. But I could not shake the call to be a pastor.

I was ordained to ministry 20 years ago in 1997. It was a big worship service, concluding with me kneeling in front of the sanctuary as 15 or so ministers gathered around me. They were liberal and conservative; Black, White and Asian; male and female; younger and older. The ministers touched my head and shoulders, and prayed, and conferred the time-honored tradition of ordained ministry through the laying on of hands. Since then, I have enjoyed privileges and challenges that many others do not – I have baptized and confirmed my children. I’ve been at bedsides as people take their final breaths. I have presided over funerals that have broken the heart of the community. I have more crazy wedding stories than I should. I get to listen to people’s greatest joys and fears. Being a minister comes with a lot of enjoyment and a lot of heartache. It comes with the territory of partnering with people as we learn to become more compassionate, just, and peaceful. For me, it all began that first time I sensed God saying, “Whom should I send as a messenger to this people?” – the first time I said, “Yes, God, I am here … Speak, for your servant is listening.”?

Do you remember the first time you sensed God calling you?  Because you are a minister too! In the United Church of Christ, we believe God calls each one of us to build a more compassionate, just, and peaceful world. It doesn’t take a seminary degree or an ordination service. Everyone gets to build God’s world. Sometimes that process seems very clear and understandable. Sometimes it seems almost impossible to understand what God wants from us. But make no mistake, in some way or another, God calls each of us. Are you listening?

“Here I am.” In Hebrew it’s just one word: Hineni. We hear it a few times in the Bible. Like in the book of Genesis when God gets the attention of someone by calling out his name: “Abraham.” And Abraham says, “Hineni. I’m here. I’m ready.” There’s no surprise, no hesitation. God speaks, and Abraham responds as if the two of them were just sitting side by side, each fully present to the other. We hear the same phrase in the book Exodus. Remember the story of God speaking to Moses from a burning bush? God calls out, “Moses, Moses.” And Moses says “Hineni. I’m here. I’m ready.” Imagine what it must be like to be so at peace that when God’s calls you by name from a flaming shrub, your first response is, “Hineni. I’m here. I’m ready.”

We hear the phrase in the story of the commissioning of the Prophet Isaiah. Isaiah is probably in the Jewish temple at prayer. In a mystical moment, the Temple is filled with God’s presence, complete with a retinue of angelic creatures who flank God and sing praises. Isaiah falls apart. He knows he is not holy or wholesome enough to see God in all of God’s glory and live to tell about it. One of the angelic creatures takes a hot coal off the Temple’s incense altar and touches it to Isaiah’s lips as a kind of cleansing ritual. Then God speaks. “Whom should I send as a messenger to this people? Who will go for us?” Isaiah has an instant response. Hineni. “Here I am. Send me.”

Hineni. Each time this word is used, it is a pivotal moment. It’s as if God says. “Listen! Pay attention! Something pivotal is about to happen! Something is about to change, but only if you can open yourself up.” If we are here in the moment, if we are open and receptive, then we can begin to see the hand of the Eternal all about us. “Hineni. Yes. God, I am here. Speak for your servant is listening.” Our response opens us to the power of a sacred, imminent encounter with a new reality.

Hineni. We heard it in our readings today from 1 Samuel. Israel relied on prophets to hear and interpret God’s will for the people. But hearing from God was rare in the generations after Moses died, when judges led Israel. Visions were infrequent. Silence is a form of divine judgment, but God finally breaks the silence by calling out to a boy – an apprentice to the Temple priest who sleeps by the Ark of the Covenant, that famous gilded box that holds the law of Moses.

According to the religious hierarchies of the day, the High Priest and his sons are the ones who should hear God speak. They are the authorities. They are the ultimate insiders by birth and by vocation. Instead, God chooses Samuel. A child. A boy on the periphery. One who is not bound by the political interests of his elders. A child who can hear an unfamiliar voice with an uncomfortable message that will overturn the political and religious traditions knows best. “Hear I am. Speak, for your servant is listening.”

To say, “Here I am,” is one of the most important things we can say to God. It’s also one of the most important things we can say to each other. I think we are losing the ability to be present and receptive to others. It’s getting worse in our society because of our electronic distractions—our smart phones, our tablets, our laptops, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, other social media. We can be so plugged in that we are tuning out. Fear of missing out, paradoxically, makes us miss out on what is going on right in front of us. It’s hard for me to admit, but I’ve noticed it in myself. Just one more e-mail and I’ll listen. Let me answer this text while we talk. I even find it hard to watch television without having some other device by my side. You know what I’m not doing as much? I’m not playing games with my kids to taking out my guitar and singing. I’m not talking to my wife about how our days went as much as I need to be. It is not what I hope for and expect from myself. I’m not as hineni as I need to be – not as fully present and receptive to others. I can’t be alone in this. Too many of us are telling ourselves we are multi-tasking, when the fact of the matter is, we are distracted, not paying enough attention to anything. We are becoming less present for others; less hineni.

So how about it? What can you say "yes" to? Can you say Yes to God? To others? To yourself? When have you be able to answer God's call with "Hineni. Here am I. I am ready. Speak, God, for your servant is listening”?


Listen closely, because God calls us by name. Listen, because it may be a still small voice. It may be a soft, steady heartbeat in the turmoil of daily events. It is there. When you hear it, know that you are experiencing a moment of grace. It may be God commissioning you to be part of our commitment to justice, freedom and love. God knows you. God knows us. God calls us. Our response? Well, that’s our chance to be hineni – fully present to God and one another. Here we are. Speak to us. We are listening.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Sermon for December 24, 2017 | Advent 4

It’s not the burden that weighs us down …


“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” ~ Matthew 11:28-30

There is an old legend about three men and their sacks. Each man had two sacks, one tied in front of his neck and the other tied on his back. When the first man was asked what was in his sacks, he said, "In the sack on my back are all the good things friends and family have done. That way they're hidden from view. In the front sack are all the bad things that have happened to me. Every now and then I stop, open the front sack, take the things out, examine them, and think about them." Because he stopped so much to concentrate on all the bad stuff, he really didn't make much progress in life.

The second man was asked about his sacks. He replied, "In the front sack are all the good things I've done. I like to see them, so quite often I take them out to show them off to people. The sack in the back? I keep all my mistakes in there and carry them all the time. Sure they're heavy. They slow me down, but you know, for some reason I can't put them down."

When the third man was asked about his sacks, he said, "The sack in front is great. I keep all the positive thoughts I have about people, all the blessings I've experienced, all the great things other people have done for me. The weight isn't a problem. The sack is like sails of a ship. It keeps me going forward. The sack on my back is empty. There's nothing in it. I cut a big hole in its bottom. I put all the bad things that I can think about myself or hear about others in there. They go in one end and out the other, so I'm not carrying around any extra weight at all."

What are you carrying in your sacks?

My grandfather used to say, “It’s not the load that weighs you down, but the way you carry it.” That phrase always reminds me of Jesus’ offer to carry our burdens.

It’s easy to feel weighed down during the holidays. Of all the times of the year, this one seems to magnify our emotional burdens by its repeated calls to rejoice! Be happy! Be merry. Those around us seem to enter the season’s festivities wholeheartedly, while some of us wonder why we cannot. While families gather, many feel alone, separated by distance, or estrangement, or loss. We might begin to feel as if our burdens unique. We might be tempted to think we must bear those burdens alone. As we think about sacks that weigh us down, let’s imagine the burdens that different characters in the Christmas story carried. The ways they carried their loads may not be so different from our own.

The first to appear in the Christmas story are the priest Zacharias and his wife, Elizabeth. Elizabeth was old, and far past the age of childbearing. She lived at life’s edges, marginalized by being a priest’s wife but nobody’s mother. She had no place when neighbors congregated and chatted while indulgently watching children play, or when mothers complained about a child’s behavior. Before her stretched an old age unsupported by husband or children. Both faced a life of dwindling possibilities, all bleak. Both wondered what sin might have caused them not to have children, and whether the sin lay with self or spouse. Both faced the infirmities that age brings. Both faced a crisis of faith. Then they get news that Elizabeth is pregnant. Her son will be named John. We call him John the Baptist. We know him to be a reclusive desert preacher, the cousin of Jesus and the enemy of Herod’s court. I tried to imagine his parent’s burden. Here is a miracle baby, born to elderly parents, who lives in caves and eats locusts and honey for his meals. Have you ever seen your children turning down a reckless path, and worried yourself sick? Have you ever seen a child not live up to the potential and aspirations you dreamed about? Imagine the disappointment. Perhaps, in their advanced age, Elizabeth and Zacharias died before they had to watch their son John get arrested and murdered by Herod.

The second couple we meet is much younger. Joseph and Mary were part-way through the traditional year-long engagement prior to marriage. Mary might have been no more than a child herself, forced to grow up very quickly with a surprise announcement from an angel; she was going to give birth to God’s son. Mary faced the burden of being an unwed, pregnant, teenage mother in a small-town. She carried the burden of not being able tell her story. A virgin carrying God’s child? Who would believe her. She would be shunned. She might even be killed. Mary did not even tell Joseph right away. Imagine rehearsing exactly what to should say when faced with the necessity of revealing a virgin pregnancy. Months later, Mary faced the physical burden of carrying a child, and journeying to Bethlehem very shortly before delivery. Mary accepts her circumstances with grace, but I wonder if she ever felt like life was unfair.  She had a harsh wake-up call to reality when she should have been filled with the dreams and idealism of youth.

Joseph had burdens as well. A good man facing an impossible choice, Joseph is caught in a dilemma. Does he stay faithful to a woman who looks like she has been cheating on him, or follow religious law and call of the wedding? He is torn between his family duty to Mary and his religious duty to the law. Does he ignore the law and show mercy, or follow the law and lose his fiancĂ©e? Joseph decides to let her go quietly, not make a big deal over this pregnancy, so she doesn’t have to face the punishments for pregnant unmarried women.

Imagine the burdens of parenting Jesus. Imagine as the child grows, Joseph tells Jesus stories about the Romans. We can almost hear him muttering about the way the Romans treat the Israelites — the heavy taxes, the hillsides crowded with crosses, the arrogance of Rome’s unlimited power. Imagine Mary planting in Jesus a passion for justice. Imagine his parents sharing their longing for peace with their child. These are the burdens and responsibilities of raising the next generation.

How about those shepherds? The first ones to hear this message are sheep herders, a marginalized peasant class who experienced the oppression and exploitation of the Empire. Once the angels appeared, they faced the burden of choice: should they leave their sheep and seek the Child? Should they the listen to the angels and risk irresponsibility for a great reward. Should they ignore the angels? Instead of following a summons to Bethlehem, should they follow the worn yet predictable routine of their lives?

We can’t have a Christmas scene without the Magi, even though they were not technically there at the manger, despite what all our nativity scenes depict. In an era when travel was more chancy and time-consuming, they faced a considerable investment of time in their journey, time away from families and their usual pursuits on a quest that would eventually take at least four years. They were burdened with the journey’s cost, with carrying enough money to supply their needs over time. They were alo burdened with finding, carrying, and safeguarding the perfect gift — a gift fit for royalty.

Then there’s King Herod, sitting in his castle, making sure government runs. His job is to ensure that life runs smoothly for the Empire. The Roman empire was about peace through war, division, and oppression. Unfortunately, Herod is also paranoid and maniacal. Into his world come three magi who turn it all upside down with the news that a new King has been born. There goes order. The world was already filled with religious fanatics and people who look to saviors to solve their problems. When confronted with the strange and unsettling possibility of revolt, Herod strike back with murder.

Then there’s the Innkeeper, the owner of the motel who opens the door to see a bedraggled man, a pregnant wife, and no place to house them. I sometimes wonder if the innkeeper gave Mary and Joseph room in the cattle barn because he was compassionate or greedy. Both are burdens in their own way. He either pitied the young travelers and did what he could to provide them shelter, or he rented out a barn to make a few extra bucks from a desperate couple.

There is one more who carries a burden. The donkey. A literal beast of burden who, at the birth of Jesus, probably just stands around and chews on hay. The Christmas donkey did his work. The donkey delivered Jesus, so Jesus could be delivered. The donkey didn’t gallop or giddy-up. The donkey did what donkeys do. Plodded. The donkey steadily stepped in the direction of the journey. And, upon arrival, the donkey stepped to the side. It demanded no recognition, expected no compensation. It did the job and let Jesus have all the attention. The donkey isn’t even mentioned in the Bible. But, as we insist here at CCC, there is a place in God’s story for everyone, even for the one who plods along, expecting no applause, bearing up under the weight of the long haul, and bearing the load the Christ who will carry us all.

What burdens do you carry today? What load is weighing you down? What are you carrying in your sacks? How could you carry them differently? You don’t need to carry around heavy burdens of doubt, or self-contempt-or inadequacy. Jesus says drop them and take the burden of love upon your shoulders instead.

We are not meant to carry our loads alone. We are not meant to walk alone, to dance alone, to mourn alone.  We don’t walk this journey alone. Christ walks with us, often in the appearance of a friend, a neighbor, a fellow church member, the one who offers to stay with us, listen to us, pray with us, hold us, bring us a cup of cold water.  I like to imagine that right now Jesus looks at you and me, and sees our pain. He knows the weight of our family problems. He knows what it’s like when we feel no good. Jesus understands loneliness and feeling like nobody really cares about or understands. He experienced it all himself. And through that Jesus says, “Just leave it behind for a while. All your striving to find love and acceptance is just a distraction. They are detours which lead you farther away from God’s love.” Jesus says, “I’ll carry all those burdens and distractions for you. That’s how much I love you.”


Sources:
http://www.preachingtoday.com/illustrations/2000/september/12628.html
12-2001 Christmas: The Burdened Season S. Ray Granade Ouachita Baptist University

https://maxlucado.com/lets-donkeys-christmas/

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Sermon for December 10, 2017 | Advent 2

Rest and Resistance

Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village. Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over impure spirits. These were his instructions: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra shirt. Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” They went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.
Mark 6:3-13

Today is Human Rights Day – the day the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Declaration proclaims the inalienable rights which everyone is inherently entitled to as a human being, regardless of race, color, religion, sex, language, political opinion, national origin, or status. It establishes the equal dignity and worth of every person. We could all use a reminder of Eleanor Roosevelt’s words, as she helped draft the Declaration in 1948. Asking where human rights began, she said, “In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world …Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”

Well, for those of us who call the Washington D.C. area home, there has been a lot of concerned citizen action lately. If active political resistance is your thing, then this was a busy week for you. You could have attended a large public action at the Supreme Court, Congress, or the White House every day this past week. I’m especially grateful to the members of our church who attended the DACA rally on Wednesday.

At this moment in our national life when the political landscape appears to crumble into authoritarianism, citizens are called to action more than ever. When hard-fought civil rights are on the line – rights we hoped were set in cement – we get angry. We resist. We march, we protest, we demonstrate, we call our representatives, and we raise our voices in solidarity with those whose power is diminished. This is what democracy looks like!

I am all for acts of public action against those who seek to solidify their authority by obstructing the human rights of others. We must speak truth to power. I must confess something, though. I’m tired out. It all feels like too much … too much violence, too much fear; too much of wars and slums and dying; too much of greed and the sounds of people devouring each other and the earth; too much of cruelty and selfishness and indifference. It’s just too much; too, bruising, battered much.

What do we do when we can’t find the energy to go to another public meeting, or when we begin to feel like contacting representatives is useless? What do we do when we fear our activism will have negative consequences, when our safety is at risk, or when we are invited to civil disobedience and don’t want to be arrested? What do we do when there are so many rallies, demonstrations, and actions to choose from, we just want to take a nap or go shopping instead?

When we see the full magnitude of the problems of the world, that’s when our decisions have critical significance. Not everybody has the luxury of giving up.  An ethicist and Black feminist named Sharon Welch says that caving in to cynicism and despair in the face of unsolvable problems is a temptation specific to the middle class. She says, “The despair of the affluent, the middle class, has a particular tone: it is a despair cushioned by privilege and grounded in privilege. It is easier to give up on long-term social change when one is comfortable in the present – when it is possible to have challenging work, excellent health care and housing, and access to the fine arts. When the good life is present or within reach, it is tempting to despair of its ever being in reach for others and resort to merely enjoying it for oneself and one's family... Becoming so easily discouraged is the privilege of those accustomed to too much power, accustomed to having needs met without negotiation and work, accustomed to having a political and economic system that responds to their needs"

When I feel discouraged, I’m tempted to watch from the sidelines and let someone else do the work. Feeling discouraged in the face of despair is a privilege. Discouragement is a privilege for those who, like me, have a political system that responds to our needs. We in the mainstream, White, middle class were taught that if we work hard enough, if we can persevere through the tough times and stand up for ourselves, life will get better.

Others have life experiences that tell a different story. Many of us know the name Zora Neal Hurston, author of Their Eyes Were Watching God. At a young age, Zora was passed from relative to relative and had to make her own way in the world, in a lifelong battle against what has been called the triple oppression of black women: economic, racial, and gender. She became one of the most prominent black women writers of the Harlem Literary Renaissance between the World Wars. Throughout her career, Zora’s male literary colleagues devalued her work. White publishers unjustly accused her of molesting a young boy. Her life and career went into free fall. She moved back to Florida where she eked out a living as a maid, library clerk, substitute teacher, and freelance writer. Poor, discouraged, and weary of rejection letters, she wrote to her agent, “Just inching along like a stepped-on worm from day to day. Borrowing a little here and there … The humiliation is getting too much for my self-respect, speaking from inside my soul. I have tried to keep it to myself and just wait. To look and look at the magnificent sweep of the Everglade, birds included, and keep a smile on my face …” The story of Zora Neale Hurston is not a “see you at the top!” story of how persistence brings success. In 1959, Hurston suffered a severe stroke and entered a County Welfare Home, where she died three months later, on January 28, 1960.

African-American thinkers and writers offer a sharp critique of those of us who think hard work and perseverance lead to positive social change. The mainstream, middle class mindset does not work for them. Over centuries, African Americans have resisted multiple oppressions that stifle human life. Sharon Welch calls us to a different mindset. She calls it an “ethic of risk.” Learning from the African American experience in this country, we must all keep caring and keep resisting, even though there are no guarantees of success. To stop resisting, even when it seems like nothing is getting better; even when it may, in fact, be getting worse; even success seems unimaginable; to stop resisting is to die.

Novelist Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, remembered how her mother used to say, “Make a way out of no way.” Teaching Zora Neale Hurston's novel Their Eyes Were Watching God in a literature course in the early 1970s, she learned that Zora was buried in an unmarked grave in the Garden of Heavenly Rest, a segregated cemetery in Fort Pierce, Florida. Outraged at this insult, Alice Walker headed south, determined to find Zora's grave. Making her way through waist-high weeds, she located the grave and placed a marker inscribed with the words: “Zora Neale Hurston, A Genius of the South, Novelist, Folklorist, Anthropologist, 1901-1960.” Thanks to the grace and grit of Alice Walker and others, Zora Neale Hurston is now the most widely taught Black woman writer in the canon of American literature. She met the triple oppression of Black women with a threesome of resisting qualities shared by Black women throughout their history of suppression: invisible dignity, quiet grace, and un-shouted courage.

If only we could all sustain those qualities. If only we all had the strength to remain take the heat enough to continually love, and continually resist.

A resistor is a device designed to limit the flow of electricity in a circuit. When electricity meets a resistor, the resistor takes the heat and disperses it through the surrounding air. Resistors are designed to operate under specific voltages. Under a normal voltage load, the resistor feels cool to warm by touch. However, resistors can get worn out. When overloaded with voltage exceeding its power rating, the resistor will become hot to touch. At this point, the resistor is unable to resist the flow of current and it breaks down.

Could the same be true in our spiritual activism. What happens when the voltage around us becomes to much, when we can no longer take the heat, when we lose our cool, when further resistance means risk burning up and breaking down?

Or, to use another metaphor, If I want to get stronger and transform my body, I can go to the gym and lift heavy weights like a crazy man. But heavy weight under tension for a long time puts too much strain on my body. Too much resistance risks the opposite of my goal. In my quest for transformation, I can hurt myself. Sometimes, I need to step back and lift some lighter weights for a brief time. Growth comes in rest.

Here is where we need to be careful. Rest can lead to inertia. I know that in my own life, if I rest to long, I don’t want to get back into the resistance. We no longer have that privilege. Our world needs us to be like those first followers of Jesus who went two-by-two into towns and villages, proclaiming Good News, healing the sick, loving the outcasts, and confronting the evil. When forcing peace felt like a waste of time and energy, they learned when to shake the dust from our feet and move on.

We resist, we rest, we prepare to face the heat again, and we get back to work. We will get tired. We will grow weary. We will face our pains and fears. Before we burn out, we retreat, we pray and listen for the Spirit’s summons. We evaluate our strategies. We take time to sing, laugh, and heal. Then we act again. This is the rhythm of spiritual activism. Resistance and rest, resistance and rest, resistance and rest, following the tempo of God’s heartbeat.

All is not hopeless. Do not give into despair. Do not give up. Do not give in. New life begins today. O God, give us power to lift the people. O God, give us power because we need it. Justice will be done, evil will be beaten, and God will set all things right through our prayers and through our actions. When people are discouraged we pray, God, give us power to the lift the people.

When those who have been victimized can’t fathom the horror of life, God, give us power to the lift the people.

When those who have been treated like garbage can only respond with apathy and resignation, God, give us power to the lift the people.

When victims of oppression take the blame for oppression and lose their trust in humanity, God, give us power to the lift the people.

For those yearning some peace in a fallen world, God, give us power to the lift the people.

For those who think that justice means injuring those who injure us, that error can be corrected by error, that evil can be vanquished by evil, God, give us power to the lift the people.

For those who believe God still has something wonderful to do in our lives and in our world, God, give us power to the lift the people.

God give us more power to tear down the walls that keep us from one another, God, move humanity with humanity for the protection of good. Thrust back the evil of violence and set virtue on her seat again (Bhagavad Gita). God give us power to lift the people.

Sources:
·        No Justice, No Peace--a sermon given by Tara Stephenson at the UUCLV on September 29, 2013
·        http://www.un.org/en/events/humanrightsday/
·        Robert Neal Henenway, Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography, 116. Quoted at http://www.patheos.com/progressive-christian/hand-plow-alyce-mckenzie-06-24-2013#CAE34ikEthGhlxPW.99
·        (Sharon Welch, A Feminist Ethic of Risk, 15).
·        http://www.patheos.com/progressive-christian/hand-plow-alyce-mckenzie-06-24-2013#CAE34ikEthGhlxPW.99

·        https://sciencing.com/happens-resistor-burns-up-8556222.html

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Sermon for November 19, 2017

Perseverance and Plateaus

Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised. James 1:12
When I was younger, I used to go camping. Whenever we were ready to leave our campsite, we were always told, “Remember to leave the campsite better than when you found it.” It’s a good metaphor for life. If my life is a campsite, how do I want to leave it? To answer that, I must be aware of what my campsite looked like when I took over? What does your campsite look like? Many campsites are left with the legacy of alcoholism and addiction; disconnected and neglectful parents; and families filled with blame shifting, volatile arguments, and confrontation with no conflict resolution skills. We inherit buried burdens from the generations before us who could not deal with the harm that had been done to them. In other words, those who came before us lived in trashed campsites, and they left us with trashed campsites. Emotional and spiritual refuse reveals itself in feelings of unworthiness, self-condemnation, shame, despair, anxiety, and addictive behaviors, intense pain, loneliness and fear.

What are we going to do with our trashed campsites?

One choice is to continue to live in the trash, add to it, and dump even more disorder for the next camper. Imagine a campsite that’s been left by previous generations of campers who have not taken the responsibility of picking up their garbage. The following generations of campers then have the burden of picking up not only the trash they generate themselves, but of cleaning up piles of rubbish that were left for them as well. What a tremendous burden. It’s difficult enough to live life dealing with your own issues. How much harder it is when your issues are multiplied with generations of unhealthy emotional and spiritual problems left piled up untouched.

Another choice is to pick up the trash. My garbage, whether I choose to acknowledge it or not, affects others. It will become their legacy too if I don’t do something about it.

About two years ago, I made a conscious decision to start sorting through my trash and leave my campsite better than how I found it. I won’t get into all the details here, although I’m willing to talk with you individually about my journey. I will say, after some health scares, I realized that I did not want to live the second half of my life like the first. I hit a low point where I felt defeated, helpless, and unhappy. I no longer wanted to feel like I was a victim to other people’s poor decisions. I felt physically unhealthy. My coping mechanisms were not good. My spiritual life felt dry. I was dissatisfied with feeling dissatisfied. So, I decided to change – and approached it with a different strategy than I had previously. I found people who could support me and give me the tools to help me achieve my goals: a physical therapist, a mental therapist, a personal trainer, and a spiritual companion. I sought guidance on my nutrition. At first, the changes hurt. The progress was slow. I had a lot of trash to sort through.

In my journey, I found that progress through life’s garbage is not a linear, upward progression. It starts slow. After practice, I made a lot of initial progress. I got excited and built momentum for change. I threw lots of old trash away and began seeing the possibilities. I enjoyed living in my tidy, new campsite.

Imagine being in a campsite you enjoy. Everything is set up perfectly, just how you want it. One day you see the tip of a garbage bag coming out of the pristine ground you’ve improved. You tug on the bag to dislodge it, and realize there’s more garbage buried underground. No problem, you can get a shovel and dig it out, fill in the hole, and go back to enjoying your experience. But, when you start digging, you realize there is more than one bag. You are living on a landfill. Now what? You worked so hard to clean up your life, and now you find there’s even more work to be done. After all the expense, all the sacrifice, all the sweat you’ve poured into this project, just when you thought you were done, you realize it was just the beginning of the process.

Maybe you thought you had built your campsite on a high vista and could enjoy the view forever. Now, you realize you are living on a plateau. It’s not the exhilarating high point. It’s not the miserable low point. What you thought was the destination is really a mid-point – the levelling-off place in the journey.

Maybe you decide to start clearing the campsite of your life, and realize there are multiple levels of trash to sift through. You are now an archaeologist, excavating the past. For some, the thought of going through multiple layers of historical emotional garbage can feel discouraging – maybe even paralyzing. For others, it may be an opportunity to uncover some valuable hidden artifacts.

Before I put this campsite metaphor to rest, let me say one more thing. As we dig into the trash others have left for us and seek to leave our campsite better than we found it, we may be building more hills to climb in the process.

Any journey of improvement is not a linear progression where one success builds upon the next. Growth is more like a series of plateaus. We can experience radical improvement up to a certain plateau. Suddenly, we feel stalled. When we’re stalled on a plateau, we’re in a state of suspended animation—or even regression—for an indefinite time. It may feel like everyone else keeps climbing higher and higher, leaving us behind. How we handle those plateaus will determine whether we remain stalled there forever. It’s emotionally trying, and we’ll want to give up.

Here is the hardest part. When the work of self-improvement get’s tough, the temptation to go back to old habits and worn-out coping strategies comes right back. That nagging voice will seemingly come from out of nowhere and say, “This is not goings fast enough. For all this hard work, you feel a little worse than when you started. You do not have the humility and patience to hang in there. Just give up.”

Or, sometimes I will be tempted to overcome my discontent by sheer force of work. Certainly, if I focus obsessively on my goal and work even harder, I will feel better. But, then I overdo it and injure myself. Pretty soon I’m messed up with injuries, hobbling around but still obsessively overworking.

For me, the hardest temptation comes when I’ve experienced radical improvement, I reach a plateau, and I get comfortable there.  I’ll talk myself into being content. That tempting voice will say, “You’ve worked so hard and come so far. You have finally arrived. Make a campsite and enjoy. Oh, and just forget about that little plastic bag sticking out of the ground over there. It’s nothing.” I will spend time clutching to and preserving what I have achieved. Life now becomes more about being afraid of losing what I’ve worked for.

Call them what you want, plateaus, temptations, trials, obstacles or opportunities … let’s realize that change by any name is difficult. Perseverance is difficult. Endurance is difficult. Yet, our New Testament scriptures consistently remind us to face trials with endurance, and to face temptation with stamina. “Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised (James 1:12). J. B. Phillips understood this as he paraphrased James 1:2-4: "When all kinds of trials crowd into your lives, my brothers (and sisters), don't resent them as intruders, but welcome them as friends! Realize that they have come to test your endurance. But let the process go on until that endurance is fully developed, and you will find you have become men (and women) of mature character."

There are three things that prevent us from experiencing truth - our desires, our fears, and our opinions. I call it the voice of the tempter. No matter where we live, what we believe, or what period we are living in, we experience the same vexing limitations of the mind and spirit. The voice of the tempter I keep talking about – that’s not some external voice of evil. The tempter lives within us – our lusts, our fears, and our sense of the way things should be. It’s the voice of the patterns of behavior that long for security. It’s the part of us that longs for a world that’s real and permanent when life feels insecure and all too short. The voice of the tempter is the expression of the turbulent longings and fears that whisper to us, and the views and opinions that confine us.

The truth I’m continually learning is, we cannot always have what we want when we want it. And … that is not a bad thing. Just imagine everything we set out to do was completed right away. We would have nothing to aim for, no goals, and no reason to wake up in the morning. If we have something big and important that we want in our lives, we will have to be patient. And we will also need to be persistent.

One thing to remember here is to enjoy the journey, if you think a certain goal will bring you happiness and you struggle to find anything to be grateful for on the way, chances are when you finally get there you will still not feel satisfied. Only when a trend is followed continuously do the results of single actions gradually accumulate in such a way that they become good fortune or misfortune.

A path through a forest, worn by centuries of use, will grow over and return to the forest when nobody walks along it any more. A path becomes permanent with perseverance, whether for good or for bad.

Celebrate every small victory on route to your big goals. Be patient and persistent and you will get there in the end! And if you don’t get where you want, you’ve still accomplished something wonderful. You will leave a path for others to follow – hopefully one that reaches an enjoyable destination. You will leave a campsite that is better than how you left it. And those who come after you will be better off. After a lifetime of emotional endurance and hard work, their campsite will be even better than how you left it. And their children, after another generation of perseverance and courage, will leave it even better. This is how we make progress, and grow in maturity, and forge peaceful, compassionate people and societies. “When trials crowd into your lives, don't resent them as intruders, but welcome them as friends! They have come to test your endurance. But let the process go on until that endurance is fully developed, and you will find you have become men (and women) of mature character."

Sermon for January 21, 2018

How Far Would You Go? 1 Samuel 17 I had a sermon all ready to go today. It was a NICE sermon. You would have felt really good about i...