Hi folks! On Monday, May 2, I start a three-month sabbatical. I’m keeping a sabbatical blog so that my congregation can follow along with me. You’re welcome to hop over there to see what’s happening! The address is:
Blessings to you!
Hi folks! On Monday, May 2, I start a three-month sabbatical. I’m keeping a sabbatical blog so that my congregation can follow along with me. You’re welcome to hop over there to see what’s happening! The address is:
Blessings to you!
SCRIPTURE – Deuteronomy 5:12-15 – Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. 13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 14 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. 15 Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and theLord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.
April 24, 2016
What was the preferred method of punishment for you as a child? C’mon, don’t act like you don’t remember! When you acted up, when you got out of line, what form of justice did you face? For some it was a good ol’ fashioned spanking. I was sent to the principal’s office in first grade for acting up, and the principal gave me a spanking. Remember when that was fashionable? I braced myself as the principal prepared to smack me – she had a reputation as a real home-run hitter. She must not have eaten her Wheaties that morning because she only struck a glancing blow. I said without thinking, “Hey, that didn’t hurt at all!” I can tell you the second, third, and fourth swats hurt a lot more!
Maybe you suffered your share of groundings as a kid. A particularly effective one used against me was no dessert. Leigh still uses that from time to time. Today, one popular method of discipline has become the timeout. Leigh and I used the timeout quite effectively with our older daughter Sydney when she was little, but our younger daughter Molly didn’t quite get the concept. When we said, “If you don’t behave, you’re going to do a timeout!” she would say, “Okay!” and run to her timeout chair.
Why is the timeout as discipline so effective? Here’s the philosophy behind it. To make our children stop their destructive or unruly behavior, we take them away from the things they are doing and put them in an isolated place that forces them to slow down, be quiet, stop their activity, and reflect on how they are behaving. The goal is, of course, transformation, a change in behavior.
Now, what if I made this invitation to you? In order to help you put a halt to some of the unruliness in your life, I would like to invite you to take a break from your daily routine, to find a quiet spot in your house or neighborhood, to turn off all your electronic devices and means of communication, and simply slow down, be still, and reflect on the life God has given you to live. How does a short time away from the demands of life sound? Maybe WE need a timeout.
The Bible has a word for taking a timeout: it’s called the Sabbath. A Sabbath is simply a block of time, usually a 24-hour period, which is set aside for the purpose of rest and relationship-building with God. We tend to think of Sabbath as a thoroughly Jewish word. After all, Jews place a strong emphasis on their Sabbath or Shabbat, which lasts from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. It’s woven into the fabric of their faith. But Christians, with the help of our chaotic culture, have lost their grip on the meaning and significance of Sabbath.
Of course, the idea of Sabbath originated in the beginning of the Bible at creation, when, after six days of work, God rested to enjoy what God had made. This time of rest was so important that it made God’s Top Ten List, the Ten Commandments, which instructed the Israelites to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. One day of the week is to be set aside for rest and worship, to allow our land, our workers, and our bodies to recover from the previous six days and rejuvenate for the week ahead.
“Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy,” the Bible tells us. You realize that this commandment is placed alongside the commandment not to murder, not to steal, not to commit adultery? It’s that important. In God’s eyes, forgetting to rest is akin to murder. Remember the Sabbath. I bet it was worded that way because God knew we were going to forget. And God was right. We don’t take timeouts anymore.
A whole day not doing anything? In our world today, that sounds like crazy talk! While the Christian Sabbath day of Sunday used to be protected as sacred by Blue Laws and family traditions, our culture has encroached upon that time so egregiously that it’s unrealistic to think we’ll ever regain Sunday as a holy day on a societal level. We can place the blame wherever we want, but the fact is unless you work at Chick-Fila or Hobby Lobby, Sunday sabbaths are gone, and so is any culturally protected time to take a break from the demands of our life.
And if we’re willing to admit it, we like it that way. In a culture that measures a person’s worth by their productivity, we pride ourselves on being busy. We prove our value by how much we do, so that our exhaustion becomes a trophy and the ability to get everything done a mark of our character. The demands on us seem too great and the time we have to meet them in seems too short. How often do we say, “I wish there was more time in the day”? Of course, if there was, we would just fill it with more to do.
Which makes taking a Sabbath seem strange and impractical. There’s so much to be done! Who can afford to take a day off from being productive? Who has time to just stop and reflect? We see Sabbath-taking, not as holiness, but as laziness. We see resting as a sign of weakness, not a divine prerogative. We can’t afford to take a day off; that would just make the other six that much more chaotic.
So we ignore the Sabbath. It doesn’t fit into our understanding of our on-the-go spirituality. We love the other six days, because that’s where we can pursue spiritual progress and accomplishment. We are do-something Christians. But here’s the truth, as I see it. We’re not too busy, too important, or too needed to take a rest. We’re too scared. Too scared to relinquish that bit of control we think we have. Too scared that the world can’t go on without us, or even worse, that it can. Too scared that if we “waste” that time, we’ll never get it back.
And yet, what are the dangers of not doing a timeout? What are the consequences of not resting on regular basis? I think we’re living them every day. The United States leads the world in a number of health-related categories, most of them not good. We are more economically successful, have the fastest pace of life, and have the highest rate of heart attacks and obesity. The unreflective life has its costs.
Our society feeds into this in insidious ways. Author Wayne Muller calls it the theology of progress. This belief says that everything is getting incrementally better, which means today is not as a good a day as tomorrow. And if we can just get to tomorrow, things will be better. Until we get to tomorrow and realize things aren’t quite as good as they will be the next day. We have to keep making progress, and we can’t do that if we stop. So we don’t stop, because the good life, the finish line, the end of our work, is just one day away.
Or one purchase away. Our culture sells us happiness, but in reality it is designed to produce suffering. We see commercials that imply that if we buy this product, we’ll be happy. But the people in the commercials aren’t happy because they own the product. We see them taking a drive in their new car or smelling their clean sheets or enjoying a cup of coffee. We’re told that if we buy these products, we’ll be happy, too. But their happiness doesn’t come from owning the product. It comes from the fact they have stopped to enjoy that new car or that cup of coffee. They’re happy because they’ve stopped. And you can’t buy stopped. You simply have to stop.
Stopping is built into the rhythm of life. Everything must rest in order to produce. Everything must lie fallow in order to be fruitful. Our land, our bodies, were created with this natural cycle of rest and activity. Did you ever wonder why God raised Jesus on the third day? If God had the power to bring Jesus back from the dead, why not do it on the first day, or the second day? Muller said it’s because everything must rest. Maybe Jesus needed to rest before his resurrection. Maybe God needed to rest after watching his son crucified. Everything must rest. You can only do so much before you need to rest.
And yet, we feel like if we can just do a little more – not a little less – then we can make life better. There’s a Chinese proverb that says, “Who is it that can make the muddy water clear? But if allowed to remain still, it will gradually become clear by itself.” How many of us thrust our hands into the muddy waters of our lives, thinking that if we can just move them a little faster, the water will clear up and we will see. But there’s only one way to find that kind of clarity.
Or think of it this way. When we inhale, we don’t take in enough air to last us a week, or a day, or an hour. We take in enough breath to last us until our next breath. At some point, we must exhale. When God made this world, the first six days were this creative inhale, and the seventh day – the Sabbath – was God’s exhale. You can’t live your life only inhaling; you’ll suffocate. You have to exhale.
Starting a week from tomorrow, I’ll be exhaling for three months after six years of inhaling. My sabbatical – the word comes from “Sabbath” – will be a time of resting, of stopping, of exhaling. I’m so thankful that this church provides me this opportunity for an extended Sabbath, and I plan on honoring it and keeping it holy. After six years, the waters have gotten pretty muddy, so I’m ready to be still and let things become clear again. Part of me doesn’t want to stop; I love what I do! But it’s time.
The fact of the matter is that the Sabbath is not going to elbow its way into our lives. We have to make room for it. Maybe taking a whole day isn’t realistic. I know one family that takes a Sabbath from sports and activities for one season a year, and uses that time to be together as a family. Maybe there are Sabbath moments to be found in each day, time to turn off the TV or computer, time for rest, reflection, and worship. Whatever works for you, find time to exhale. It’s not just a nice break; it’s a commandment from God.
My prayer for you is that you find time in your lives to be still, to do nothing, to let the waters clear. I know we all have demands placed upon us by kids, jobs, and family. I’ve even had retired people tell me they’re busier now than when they had a job! This gift of life is from God, and life is not supposed to make us tired. It’s supposed to make us happy. And we’ll miss that happiness if we pass it by at 70 mph. You can’t buy stopped. You simply have to stop. Maybe it’s time to take a time-out.
SCRIPTURE – John 20:19-31 – When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
April 3, 2016
How do you follow a week like last Sunday? It’s hard to top the message, “He is risen!” Do you remember seven days ago? The sanctuary was filled with lilies and tulips, the music was outstanding, everyone was dressed in their Sunday best. But now, the last notes of the Hallelujah Chorus have faded and the only thing left in the Easter baskets are a few strands of plastic grass. About the only saving grace of the post-Easter depression is that Reese’s eggs are all 50% off. Praise Jesus!
Last week it was easy to shout “He is risen!” and truly believe in God’s resurrection power. But now a week has gone by, a week filled with harsh reminders that life still goes on, regardless of what last Sunday was like. There are still bills to be paid and losses to deal with and things to get done. Life has changed since last Sunday. And it’s changed for the disciples, as well. We aren’t reading about rolled away stones and empty tombs and dazzling angels. No, today it’s locked doors and disturbing doubts and fearful disciples, who’ve slipped back into their Good Friday paranoia.
In the midst of that paralyzing fear, Jesus comes to them through locked doors and offers them what they need most at this hour — peace. Jesus also has some follow-up instructions for them: “As the father has sent me, so I send you.” He breathes into them the Holy Spirit, anointing them to do God’s work of forgiveness. So there we have it! The disciples’ fear is wiped away by the risen Lord and replaced with peace and assurance and a sending forth to be the church and spread God’s love and forgiveness and everybody lives happily ever after. Cue the credits and the theme music. A nice, tidy ending to our story.
Except for Thomas. While the other disciples were getting their marching orders, Thomas was AWOL. We aren’t sure where he was, why he wasn’t with the others. We all deal with grief in different ways. Maybe he was praying, maybe he was getting drunk, maybe he just needed to be alone. Whatever the reason, Thomas wasn’t there.
When the disciples came to him with their glorious news, al filled with excitement and stumbling to get their words out, Thomas refused to believe. There are a lot of things in life we’ll believe without seeing, but for Thomas, a resurrected savior is not one of those things. “Show me,” he says and thus earns the unfortunate nickname Doubting Thomas, as if the struggle to believe was a bad thing.
But the Bible has in it a rich history of doubters, and Thomas is just taking his place alongside other folks whose faith grew through doubt. Doubting Abraham laughed in disbelief when God told him his 90-year-old wife Sarah was going to give birth. Doubting Moses told God several times that he had the wrong guy when God tapped him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. And Doubting Peter asked Jesus to let him walk across the Sea of Galilee, but got a nose full of sea water when he started to doubt. Abraham doubted. Moses doubted. Peter and the rest of the disciples doubted. So if you have doubts about God, you’re in good company, and we can add Thomas to that list. If those people doubted, and they made it into the the Bible, then having doubts can’t be all wrong, can it?
Do you ever have doubts? I do. I sometimes doubt the extent of God’s power, or I doubt the breadth of God’s love, or I doubt the reach of God’s forgiveness. Is God powerful enough to silence a tornado? Is God’s love big enough to include those who actively practice racism? Can God forgive even a child molester? At times, my only answer is, “I don’t know.” I know I shouldn’t, but like Thomas, I have my doubts.
Clarence Darrow once wrote, “Just think of the tragedy of teaching children not to doubt.” I don’t believe in a doubtless faith. To have a doubtless faith you either have to be perfect, which none of us are, or so narrow-minded that there’s no room for questions, which none of us are, either. We have faith, we want to believe, but sometimes, like Thomas, we need something more than words or books and second-hand testimony; we need to experience Christ for ourselves. Doubt is not a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of a strong, vibrant faith, a searching and active faith. Frederick Beuchner once said, “Doubt is the ants in the pants of faith. It keeps us awake and moving.”
I think all of us, when faced with the story of the resurrection, respond at some level with disbelief. How can you not? What we’re talking – coming back from the dead – is physically impossible. And yet I think we are so familiar with this story that we run the risk of taking it for granted. I heard a comedian once joke about how we do this in our daily lives. He said, “I heard a lady complaining the other day about how her plane sat on the runway for 40 minutes before takeoff. I wanted to say to her, ‘And then what did you do? Did you sit in a chair and FLY through the AIR?’” The comedian said, “Everybody on every plane should constantly be going, ‘Oh my gosh! Wow! We’re flying!’”
I think our world has made us jaded to the miracles around us like technology and flight. We’ve come to expect to have the internet in our pockets without a second thought. And when it comes to resurrection, we’ve heard the story so many times that we’re prone to hear it without realizing the magnitude of what has happened. To understand Thomas’ doubts, you have to put yourself in his sandals. If someone came up to you and said, “The guy we watched die on cross three days ago is walking through walls and bringing us words of peace,” how can you respond with anything but, “I don’t believe it?”
But how many of us heard the story of Easter last week and left the sanctuary going, “Resurrection? I don’t believe it!” A man rose from the dead. He was dead. Now he’s alive. Every one of us, everybody who professes belief in Christ, should constantly be going, “Oh my gosh! Wow! Resurrection!”
In a sense, that’s what Thomas does. After expressing his doubt, he’s not shunned or ridiculed. He’s not told he just needs to have more faith. Jesus takes his doubt seriously and answers Thomas. He comes to him and says,” See my hands? See my side? See what I did for you? Touch and believe.” And Thomas responds with the greatest statement of faith in the whole Bible: “My lord and my God!”
Despite his doubts, or maybe because of them, Thomas did find a deeper, richer faith. Do you know when, though? It wasn’t on Easter Sunday, or the next day, or the next day. It was eight days after Easter. That would be tomorrow. That’s pretty significant. Can you think of a less inspirational day to come to faith than a Monday? It’s easy to believe on Easter, when the place is packed and the choir is rocking and the joy is overflowing. On Easter, it’s easy to cry out, “My Lord and my God!”
But have you ever tried doing it eight days after Easter? On a Monday, of all days? When the lilies are gone, when the Easter hats are packed away, when all the discount Reese’s eggs have been eaten. Can we still make the same confession tomorrow that we made last Sunday? A doubtless faith can’t do that. I believe only a faith that has asked the tough questions and persevered in the search for answers can proclaim Jesus as messiah eight days after Easter. I bet those were a long eight days for Thomas, waiting, wondering, doubting.
But I believe Jesus built the church around folks like Thomas. There’s a reason our mission statement says that we “invite questions about how faith and life intersect.” People who ask questions are the cornerstone of the church, people who hear the Good News and scratch their head and say, “Risen? No, I can’t believe it.” Christ’s church is meant to be made up of people with ants in their pants, whose faith is kept awake and moving by their questions and the search for answers.
And I believe Jesus answers us. Just as Thomas was given the invitation to touch and feel, we are given the invitation to taste and see. Each time we come to communion, we are reminded that the risen Christ is among us, bringing peace, offering forgiveness, sharing the Holy Spirit. Communion is our opportunity to ask our questions, name our fears, hear words of assurance like “This is my body, broken for you,” and then to respond faithfully. When you taste the bread, when you drink the cup, Christ says to you, “I am here.” And we are compelled to respond, “Oh my gosh! Wow! Resurrection!”
There’s one more quote from Frederick Beuchner worth sharing. He said, “An agnostic is someone who is not sure whether there is a God. That is some of us all of the time, and all of us some of the time.” If he’s right, and my experience tells me he is, at some point in our lives, we all doubt. Look at this world we live in. How can we not at times have doubt? If Thomas, who was there, still doubted, how can we, even the most faithful among us, not doubt when faced with the reality of life?
I hope you have doubts. I hope you have persistent questions about God. I hope you never are faced with the awesomeness of God’s work and say without passion, “Yep, I believe it.” I hope you keep asking questions and voicing concerns and expressing doubts, because the story of Thomas shows us that when we are willing to voice our doubts, Jesus shows up. And when Jesus shows up – through a particularly moving hymn, or a well-timed hug, or a simple cup and loaf – we are moved to respond with Thomas, “My Lord and my God!” Even in the midst of your Monday doubts, never forget that Sunday is coming, and it will be Easter all over again. Oh my gosh! Wow! Resurrection!
SCRIPTURE – Mark 15:33-39 – 33 When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 34 At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 35 When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” 36 And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” 37 Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. 38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 39 Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”
Do Not Be Afraid sermon series
#5 – Fear of the Other
Rev. Kory Wilcoxson
Were you there when they crucified my Lord? That’s the question the song asks us as we approach Holy Week and the events leading up to Jesus’ death. I wonder what it would have been like to be there. Can you imagine the sights – the streaks of blood on Jesus’ face, the splintering wood of the cross beam? Can you imagine the sounds – the pounding of the hammer on the nails, the wailing of the women? Can you imagine the raw emotions – anger, grief, shock. Could we have understood the magnitude of what was happening? For the eyewitnesses of the crucifixion, it must have been a heart-wrenching, devastating experience.
Well, except for one guy. For the centurion, it wasn’t the death of the Messiah; it was just another day of punishing criminals and dealing with traitors to the Roman Empire. It wasn’t a Good Friday. It wasn’t a bad Friday. It was just Friday. This crucifixion didn’t bother him in the least; it was simply the execution of three more bad guys. Hanging Jesus probably affected him as much as hanging a picture in his living room. Jesus was no one of importance; he was a Jew, a criminal, not worthy of a second look, certainly not worthy of the fuss being made over him. And yet, Mark tells us, “When he saw how Jesus died…”
Today we conclude our Lenten sermon series called, “Do Not Be Afraid.” We’ve been looking at some of the fears we deal with in our lives – the fear of what other people think, the fear of failure – and spending time with some of the people around Jesus who overcame those fears in order to be closer to him. Their courage allowed them to grow in faith as they walked with Jesus to his death and beyond, and can serve as an example for us as we face our own fears.
Today, our character is the centurion at the foot of the cross. He isn’t dealing so much with an outright fear as he is with a general feeling of disdain or dismissal. He doesn’t fail to understand Jesus because he’s afraid of him; he misses Jesus because he doesn’t even see him. To the centurion, Jesus isn’t a person; he’s a task, something to check off the to-do list. And yet, when he saw how Jesus died…
The centurion was a ranking officer in the Roman army, in command of a group of 100 men. He would have been a career soldier, well-paid and well-regarded within the Roman Empire. He had probably fought in many battles, seen many men die, most likely killed a bunch by his own hand. So this day was no different. This wasn’t murder; this was work, and not particularly desirable work at that. He didn’t care about Jesus. Maybe didn’t even know who he was. What did he know? This man was a Jew. This man was a criminal. This man was going to die. That’s all that mattered. Jesus the person didn’t matter.
I have very vivid memories growing up of the racist attitudes of some of my extended family. At family gatherings there would always be a number of racist jokes being told, and the N-word was used frequently. I remember a great-aunt telling about the Klan rally she had recently attended. I didn’t know any better, so I listened to her story and repeated those jokes to my friends. I just assumed that if my family thought this way about black people, it must be true.
Then I met Demetrius. Demetrius lived in the apartments near my grandparents, which my family called by a racist name. I just assumed anyone who lived there fit the negative portrait my family had drawn for me about black people. I don’t remember how Demetrius and I met, but I do remember two things: (1) he was the first black person I’d ever spoken with, and (2) he was nothing like what my family said about black people. Demetrius and I became great friends, meeting after school each day to play Wiffle ball on a vacant lot in the apartments. After we became friends, I stopped repeating those jokes. To paraphrase an author I read recently, Demetrius interrupted by assumptions about black people.
Vijay Singh was the first Indian person I ever knew. He was one of my professors in college. He was extremely intelligent and very funny. Leigh and I took him to his first horse race at Churchill Downs. We had epic arguments over games of Scattegories that still cause Leigh to roll her eyes at me. I didn’t know any Indian people before Vijay, but I had assumptions based on what other people had told me about their clothes and their food and their religion. Vijay interrupted those assumptions.
Greg was a fellow student with me during college at IU Southeast. We had several classes together and worked on student activities. Greg was a lot of fun to be around and had a passion for serving others. He ended up working in the Career Center at IUS, helping students find their first job out of college. He was also the first openly gay person I ever knew. Believe me, I had drawn a lot of conclusions about what gay people were like, but Greg didn’t fit any of them. He interrupted the assumptions I had made about homosexuals.
The centurion had dealt with a lot of Jews in his day. Because he was stationed in Jerusalem, he probably had the assignment of keeping the Jews in check so that they didn’t cause too much of a ruckus for the local Roman rulers. He had probably whipped them, locked them in jail, and even crucified them. He had heard their taunts, watched them spit on him, felt their hatred. Oh yeah, he knew what the Jews were like. And yet, when he saw how Jesus died…
What did he see? He had probably been with Jesus all day, so he would have seen him beaten, mocked, disrobed, weighed down with a crown of thorns. And yet, Jesus didn’t retaliate. The centurion watched Jesus make his way through the streets of Jerusalem to Golgotha, heard the pounding the nails through flesh and bone, saw the blood and sweat on Jesus’ face. But he also heard Jesus say, “Forgive them, Father, for they don’t know what they are doing.” He prays for his killers? He heard him bring together his mother and the disciple John, making sure they looked out for each other. He looked into Jesus’ face when Jesus said, “It is finished,” and let out a loud cry. When he saw how Jesus died…
I believe Jesus interrupted the assumptions the Centurion had about the Jews. For the first time in his life, the centurion wasn’t dealing with a faceless group of people; he was dealing with Jesus. And when he saw him for who he was, not for what others said about him, he saw something there that led him to say, “Truly this man was God’s son!” one of the greatest statements of faith in the Bible. From that moment forward, his understanding of Jesus and of the Jews in general was changed. They were no longer the Other; they were human beings.
In our world today, we are encouraged to see those who are not like us as Others. If they don’t look like us, if they don’t believe like us, if they don’t live where we do, then they are the Other. And we’re told that the Other should be feared, because the Other wants to do us harm, because we are the Other to them. And if we can get them before they get us, then there will be no more Other to fear.
Who is an Other to you? For many folks, it’s Syrian refugees or Mexican immigrants. Maybe your Other is a Muslim or a Hindu. For some people, the Other is a Republican; for others, it’s a Democrat. Could your Other be a young African-American male in a hoodie? Could it be an out-of-touch senior citizen? A troubled child in your classroom or a neighbor who speaks a different language? Maybe it’s a homeless person you see in downtown Lexington. Can we admit that we all have an Other in our lives that causes us discomfort, even fear?
We’re told we should fear our Other because they want to hurt us, to do us harm, to take over our country. We’re conditioned to cross the street to avoid them, to not waste time helping them. But I don’t think that’s the real source of our fear. I think our real fear is that if we decide to actually engage our Other, we’ll learn they’re a lot like us. I believe our real fear is that we’re afraid to have our assumptions interrupted. Because if they are, then we have two choices: (1) ignore what we learn and continue living in fear, or (2) change our assumptions.
And there are consequences to changing our assumptions. For the centurion, who had pledged his allegiance to serving Rome, the only son of God was the emperor. For him to call Jesus a son of God was treason, punishable by the same death he was used to doling out to others. We don’t know what happens to him after the crucifixion. Does he renounce his allegiance to Caesar and follow Jesus? Or does he ignore what he experienced at the foot of the cross and continue his service to Rome? You know, the second choice is easier. It’s safer to continuing living out his prejudices. He stands to lose so much by changing his perspective.
What do we stand to lose? If are willing to come face-to-face with our Other, to see them as a human being, to hear their stories and how they overlap with ours, to discover those commonalities and connections, then we have a choice. Either we change our perspective on them, stop demonizing them, stop fearing them. Or we hold onto our prejudices, because that’s easier. If we do that, we wouldn’t lose our friends. We won’t alienate our family. We won’t have to admit we were wrong about them all along.
Christian singer Chris Rice sings about this dilemma in his song, “Face of Christ.” He sings, “After sixteen years in a cold, gray prison yard, somehow his heart is soft, but keeping simple faith is hard. He lays his Bible open on the table next to me, and as I hear his humble prayer, I feel his longing to be free. How did I find myself in a better place? I can’t look down on the frown on the other guy’s face. Cause when I stoop down low and look him square in the eye, I get a funny feeling, I just might be dealing with the face of Christ.”
Every single day we face the choice of fearing the Other or moving past our fears. We have the opportunity to look into the face of our Other, to enter into a conversation that might interrupt our assumptions and change our perspectives. Who could you invite to coffee? Who might you stop on the street to talk with? What group of people have you made judgments about without really knowing anyone in that group? “Yeah, there just another one of those people.” I wonder what would happen if we took the time to get to know someone we’ve been told to fear. Instead of crucifying them in the media, on Facebook, in our own minds, I wonder what would happen if we heard their stories, walked their journeys, looked them square in the eye? This week is an opportunity for you to change your perspective on someone, to move from fear to understanding, to talk with them instead of about them. What will happen if you look them in the eye?. Who knows who you might see in them.
SCRIPTURE – Luke 7:36-50 – 36 One of the Pharisees asked Jesus[j] to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37 And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38 She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” 40 Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “speak.”41 “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii,[k]and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus[l] said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” 48 Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Do Not Be Afraid sermon series
#3 – Fear of What Others Think
Feb. 28, 2016
Our former house sat on a corner lot, and every spring we tended to get a lot of dandelions in our yard, way more than our neighbors. It’s like we were running dandelion interference for the rest of the neighborhood. And I noticed that a neighbor across the street who also had a corner lot never had as many dandelions as us. I saw him outside one time and was tempted to go over and ask him what he did to his yard to keep the weeds out, but I didn’t, because doing so would reveal that I didn’t know how to take care of my own lawn, which is a seriously violation of the Man Code, as stated in the book of First Testosterone 12:14. I didn’t want my neighbor or anyone else to know that I didn’t know something, even though they could figure that out just by looking at the dandelion convention in my front yard.
Now, I know I don’t know everything. And I’m sure my neighbor knew I don’t know everything. And I know that you all know I don’t know everything. Even my daughters are finding that out. But there’s something in us that is hesitant to admit the undeniable fact that we are all human. So we mow our lawns and wash our cars and put on nice clothes to cover up the imperfection and hurt and pain of what’s on the inside, because if we’re really honest with ourselves, we care what other people think about us.
For our Lenten sermon series, we’re looking at the fears that keep us from God, things like fear of failure and fear of the future. We’re also learning about people in the Bible who overcame their fears to be closer to Jesus. Today’s story is a great example of someone who overcame a serious fear in order literally to be closer to Jesus. Her fear is the fear of what others think, and if we’re willing to admit it, it’s our fear, too.
So let’s set the scene. Jesus is invited to dinner at the house of Simon the Pharisee. Right away, we know something is up. Jesus didn’t usually hob-nob with Pharisees, so the fact that he’s been invited to dinner smells suspiciously like a trap. Sure enough, when Jesus arrives, Simon neglects to offer him the basic hospitality customary of the times: a kiss of greeting; water to wash his dusty feet; and perfume to Febreeze away the raunchy body odor that was typical in the time of no showers or deodorant. Simon’s lack of hospitality is the modern-day equivalent of making Jesus wash his own dishes. From the very moment Jesus arrives, Simon lets Jesus know exactly what he thinks of him.
Why the snub from Simon? He was probably testing Jesus to see if Jesus would get riled up and make a scene, discrediting himself in front of the crowd. But Jesus doesn’t take the bait. Instead, he moves to the table for dinner. In those days, it was customary for guests to recline at the table with one arm propped underneath them and their feet pointed away from the table. If you’re wondering why, see my previous comment about body odor. While they are eating, we have the strange appearance of this woman. Houses back then often had courtyards that were accessible to the public. Because Simon had such a famous guest for dinner, it’s probable that people would have congregated on the outskirts of the courtyard to get a glimpse of Jesus. So when Luke tells us the woman approaches Jesus, she didn’t break in through a bathroom window; she was part of the crowd that was there.
We don’t know a whole lot about the woman, but we do know that she is seriously out of place in a Pharisee’s house. Luke tells us she is a sinner, but other translations are more blunt, calling her a harlot or a prostitute. She most likely had a reputation, so those who had gathered would know exactly who she was. Because of her profession, she would be considered unclean, just like the woman in last week’s story. Her line of work would have made her an outcast, and everyone she met could see the dandelions in her yard, and she knew it.
Which makes her actions all the more courageous. A female sinner approaching a male rabbi would have been the height of disrespect and an egregious social taboo. But she does it anyway, offering the hospitality that Simon intentionally neglected, kissing Jesus’ feet, washing them with her tears, pouring expensive oil on them. She’s used to other people looking down on her, thinking less of her, but in this moment, none of that matters. All that matters for her is being closer to Jesus.
While this is going on, Luke gives us a glimpse into Simon’s thinking, telling us that Simon thought to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him – that she is a sinner.” You hear the judgment in that statement? You can almost hear the hiss in his voice. “A sinner.”
You get the irony here, right? Simon, who just minutes ago broke the social law by not offering hospitality to his esteemed guest, is now chastising Jesus for spending time with this woman, who broke the law. Simon is devaluing Jesus for being in the presence of a sinner, meaning this woman, when Simon has actively sinned while Jesus was right there! But rather than owning that, he uses the presence of this woman as a prop to keep up his own appearances.
That’s a temptation we all face, because in our world today, no one wants to be seen as vulnerable, as not having it all together. We easily fall into the trap of envy, like I did with my neighbor’s dandelion-free lawn. Now, I didn’t know this guy. He might secretly chew with his mouth open or forward chain letter emails. I’m sure if I went digging through is garbage I’d find at least one or two recyclables that he had thrown in the trash. But all I saw, when looking at his lawn, was the stark reminder than I’m not perfect enough. Nobody wants to be thought of as weak. Frail. Feeble. Flawed. Imperfect. I mean, if people really knew the truth about us, what would they think? Rather than owning who we are, dandelions and all, we often work hard to appear whole.
I believe Simon is caught on that hamster wheel, and it causes him to be distanced from Jesus. Rather than admit his need for grace and forgiveness, he withholds hospitality from Jesus and receives a rebuke. This woman, on the other hand, comes to Jesus just as she is, offers him her worship, and receives grace, forgiveness, and peace. And that happens because she doesn’t let what other people think stand in her way. If she did, she would never have shown up at Simon’s house in the first place. But she does, and her courage leads to a life-changing encounter with Jesus.
Why do we give so much power to what other people think? Because we all want to be liked. We all want to be accepted, to feel like we belong. If someone thinks badly of us, then we are more likely to think badly of ourselves. One of the greatest powers we possess as human beings is the power to assign value. We do it all the time to each other. With just a glance or an eye roll, we can tell someone what we think they are worth.
I’m sure this woman received plenty of eye rolls, but it doesn’t stop her on her mission. I think we need to reconsider the power people have over us to assign value to us, because it keeps us from being real, from being willing to admit that we have places in our lives that are broken. I’m not saying we should go around the room and start naming our sins, but I do believe that our fear of what other people think about us keeps us from being authentic with each other, and subsequently authentic with God. Our culture finds no value in broken things, but God finds redemptive value in them, if we are willing to approach Jesus in our brokenness.
Simon made the mistake of trying to be so pious that he didn’t need Jesus. But I believe we are better served, not by trying to be someone better than we are, but by being authentic in who we really are with God and with others. We work so hard to craft a stainless steel Teflon persona, when all God asks is that we be ourselves, opening ourselves up to relationships with others at a deep, human level, and being willing to share our doubt, our discouragement, and our dandelions.
Too often, we try to put roadblocks for ourselves or others in front of Jesus. We believe we have to achieve certain prerequisites – be clean enough or respectable enough or religious enough – before we can come to God. Some people believe it is possible to sin too much, wander too far, or mess up too big to come to God, that our lives have to be free of dandelions before we can approach God. But I believe the opposite is true. God loves us not in spite of who we are, but because of it. Jesus wasn’t born in a sterile hospital room or a lavish palace, but in the brokenness of poverty, in a manger. God is drawn to people who invite God into their brokenness.
Perfect lawns don’t mean perfect people. Clean houses don’t mean clean lives. Big homes don’t mean close family relationships. Cross necklaces and Christian bumper stickers don’t mean a faithful, Christ-like life. Simon was no less of a sinner than the woman. The Bible doesn’t distinguish between big and little sins. It simply says in Romans that all have fallen short of the glory of God, and all of us need to approach Jesus, so that he can speak a word of forgiveness and grace and peace.
There will always be people who don’t like you. And there will always be parts of yourself you don’t like. But there will also always be a place for you at the table next to Jesus. Doesn’t matter what you’ve done. Doesn’t matter who you’ve hurt. Doesn’t matter how far you’ve run away. If we are willing to come as we are, Jesus will meet us there. It’s hard to be vulnerable, to show God the dandelions that have taken root in our hearts, to admit to the brokenness we feel inside. But when we let go of the power people have over us and live into the fact that we are a beloved child of God, we can truly hear and claim the words Jesus speaks: “Your faith has made you whole. Go in peace.”
This is the second sermon in our Lenten series titled, “Do Not Be Afraid.” We’re looking at people whom Jesus encountered on his way to the cross, and the ways those people overcame their fears to be with Jesus.
SCRIPTURE – Luke 8:43-48 – Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years; and though she had spent all she had on physicians,[l] no one could cure her. 44 She came up behind him and touched the fringe of his clothes, and immediately her hemorrhage stopped. 45 Then Jesus asked, “Who touched me?” When all denied it, Peter[m] said, “Master, the crowds surround you and press in on you.” 46 But Jesus said, “Someone touched me; for I noticed that power had gone out from me.” 47 When the woman saw that she could not remain hidden, she came trembling; and falling down before him, she declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed.48 He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”
Do Not Be Afraid Sermon Series
#2 – Fear of the Future
Feb. 21, 2016
Do you remember when you thought you would live forever? When we were younger, we didn’t care about the future, because we assumed it was infinite. We could look at the horizon and see no end to our lives. But now we know differently. If you breathe, and you’re not Jesus, you have a 100% chance of dying. Do you remember the moment when you realized you weren’t immortal?
I do, very clearly. My great-grandma Wathen passed away in 1977. I loved her, but I didn’t really know her. I wasn’t close to her, so her death didn’t impact me. I remember playing with my cousin Dougie during the visitation. We were chasing each other, playing tag around the casket, making noise, being six-year-olds, until my uncle told us to cool our jets. We didn’t know why we were there. I mean, we knew Grandma Wathen died, but that didn’t have anything to do with us.
At the gravesite, I stood with my grandma Bonnie, a sweet, gentle woman who was always smiling. As we were walking back to the car, Bonnie was crying, so I asked her what was wrong, because my still-developing brain didn’t make the connection. She said softly, “She’s the kind of person I thought would live forever.” And I remember thinking, “Wait! You mean the people you really love don’t live forever?” I was dumbstruck. My six-year-old logic started connecting the dots. That meant someday Bonnie would die. And PawPaw would die. And Nana. And Mom and Dad. And then a few years later my cousin Dougie was hit by a car and killed, and then I realized the most sobering truth of all. Someday I was going to die.
That’s the moment when the future changed for me. It was no longer 100% unlimited possibilities. I now realized that, at some point, that light on the horizon goes out, and I started to be afraid of what the future held. For our Lenten sermon series, we’re talking about the fears that hold us back, that keep us from being the people God has called us to be. Today, we’re talking about our fear of the future and how it impacts our faith.
Dougie’s death was momentarily traumatic for me, but after some time, the shock wore off, my memories of Dougie faded, and I went back to believing the only people who died were really, really old people, like people in their 40s and stuff. I was blessed to have all of my grandparents until I was 26 years old, so I never had to face death again while growing up. The future once again became limitless and I once again became immortal.
Why is it that kids have no fear of what might happen to them? They can do the stupidest things without a second thought about the consequences. The rock group Weezer has a song in which they recount all the idiotic things they did as kids, like playing with their father’s samurai swords. The song is called, “Everybody Get Dangerous.” And when we’re young, we do! We bungee jump and put chemicals in our body and take overnight road trips and do all kinds of things that our adult selves look at and say, “My God, what were you thinking? You could have killed us!”
But then we get older. Ah, the curse of living, right? Things start to happen, stuff starts to break down, and we have this morbid epiphany that the horizon line is inching closer toward us. I remember when I was 30 years old, lying in a hospital bed and having a doctor tell me that my MRI showed “abnormalities in my brain,” to which my wife Leigh probably thought, “Duh! You needed an MRI to figure that out? You should have just asked me!” A few days later the doctor told me I had MS, and I remember wondering with great fear, “What now?”
The woman in our story today has been asking that question for 12 years. We don’t know much about her, not even her name, although I love the fact that early Christian traditions gave her the name Bernice. We know that Bernice has been bleeding for 12 years straight, probably as the result of a uterine or menstrual affliction. We’re told she’s seen doctors, who probably used leeches or tried bloodletting, but to no avail. The bleeding won’t stop. No one can help her. What now?
In Bernice’s time, this bleeding was no small thing. The Jewish purity laws were clear about the uncleanliness of blood, especially blood related to the female cycle. Women had to go through detailed purification rituals each month in order to be considered clean enough to enter back into society. For Bernice, she was never able to go through those rituals, because the bleeding didn’t stop. For 12 years she’s been considered unclean. For 12 years she’s been wondering, “What now?”
During this time, she has not only suffered physically, which is bad enough. The unclean in society where ostracized, isolated, forced outside of society. Anyone who touched a bleeding woman would themselves be considered unclean, so no one would come near her. Society dictated that she had to be alone, no hugs, no companion, no lover. She was reminded daily that she is broken. She suffered socially and psychologically. And she feared that things would always be this way. Things weren’t going to get any better. With dread, she wondered what the future held.
Let’s put Bernice on hold for a second, because I want to show you the beauty of scripture. Did you catch the line from Lamentations that Trish read for us? The author is offering courage to those who have to wait on the Lord, those, like Bernice, who are in difficult circumstances. He writes, “It is good for one to bear the yoke in youth, to sit alone in silence when the Lord has imposed it, to put one’s mouth to the dust (there may yet be hope).” Hear that? Even when our mouths are put to the dust, when we’re so weighted down we’re sprawled out on the street, when we’re so low we’re sucking gravel, there may yet be hope.
I believe it is that line that drives Bernice to her audacious act of courage. She breaks several purity laws as she pushes her way through the crowd, ritually contaminating everyone she touches, and reaches out to touch Jesus’ garment. Why? Why would she take such a risk? What would drive her to such a desperate act? In spite of her fear of the future, she knows in Jesus Christ, there may yet be hope.
I said last week that courage is not the absence of fear, but it is acting in the face of fear, not letting fear overcome us. In that case, I believe the opposite of fear is hope. Fear of the future fills our heads with all the bad things that might happen. Hope, on the other hand, sees the future through the lens of faith, releasing us from the grip of fear.
Once Jesus identifies Bernice, she steps forward, falls down at Jesus’ feet and, as Luke says, “she declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him.” Could you imagine the courage it took to do that? And Jesus says to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.” Now realize, she had been cured of her bleeding at the moment she touched Jesus. She felt it and he felt it. But it’s only after she steps up and testifies that Jesus tells her that her faith has made her well. Other translations say that her faith saved her or made her whole.
That’s an important distinction to make here, lest we think that if we just have enough faith, Jesus will cure us. Bernice had the benefit of a physical cure, but that doesn’t always happen, no matter how faithful you are. I pray every day for a cure, but my MS hasn’t gone anywhere. And we know that Bernice, God love her, is still going to die. If her bleeding doesn’t get her, something else eventually will. There’s a difference between being cured and being made well or made whole. This woman also receives healing from her psychological and social wounds; she is restored. We can experience the same healing through Jesus, whether or not we are cured of our afflictions. Our relationships can be restored, our faith can be restored, our courage can be restored. No matter the situation, there may yet be hope.
So how do we make that move from “What now” to “There may yet be hope”? It’s so difficult because I believe we are hard-wired to default to worst-case scenarios when something goes wrong. We have been conditioned to fear the worst, even if 99% of the time those fears never materialize. How many of us have had a bad headache and thought for at least a second, “Maybe it’s a tumor.” It’s not a tumor! Or seen a firetruck going the opposite way and thought, “Did I leave the stove on? Are they going to my house?” We default to worst-case scenarios without even thinking about it when something goes wrong. What now?
I believe the answer lies in Jesus’ last words to Bernice: “Go in peace.” The peace Jesus mentions here is the Jewish concept of “shalom,” which is more than the absence of conflict. It means tranquility, harmony, fullness, wholeness. It means a sense of feeling complete in God’s eyes. I believe we are called to move forward into the future with the shalom of God in our hearts as a reminder that wherever our journey takes us – the hospital room, the nursing home, the funeral parlor – that God is already there, offering us wholeness, offering us restoration. Jesus Christ knows what it’s like to suffer, to be in pain, to be rejected, even to fear the future. So wherever we are going, he’s already there, offering us healing and hope and shalom.
What now? I don’t know. I don’t know what it means for my MS, or for your affliction, or for our future. I know one thing: we’re not going to stop getting bad news. We’re not going to stop having headaches or getting middle-of-the-night phone calls. That’s the cruel reality of life. But that reality doesn’t mean we have to live in fear of the future. Because we know that whatever happens, good or bad, we can find wholeness and shalom through our faith – no matter how imperfect it is – in Jesus Christ, who is with us, who is ALWAYS with us. When we reach out, when we are willing to admit our vulnerability and fear, when we open ourselves to receiving God’s shalom in the midst of our fear, Jesus looks at us and says, “Your faith has made you whole; go in peace.” What now? There may yet be hope.
This week, we are starting our sermon series called “Do Not Be Afraid,” in which we look at people around Jesus who overcame their fears in order to be faithful. Today, we start with the disciple Peter, who has moments of great faith and great doubt, sometimes in the same boat ride!
SCRIPTURE – Matthew 14:22-33 – Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land,[d] for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind,[e] he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
Do Not Be Afraid Sermon Series
#1 – Peter and the Fear of Failure
Feb. 14, 2016
What are you afraid of? You probably know if you have acrophobia, you have a fear of heights, and if you have agorophobia, you have a fear of crowds. But did you know that some people have coulrophobia, which means you’re afraid of clowns? Other people suffer from ophalophobia, the fear of belly buttons. Are you scared of not having cell phone coverage? You have nobarphobia. People with anitadaephobia? They are constantly in fear of being watched by a duck. And there are even people who deal with hippopoto-monstro-sesqui-pedalio-phobia, which is the fear of long words. I’d tell you what I’m afraid of, but then I guarantee the choir would put one of them in the pulpit next week. So choir, I’m afraid of $100 bills!
What are you afraid of? We all have some kind of phobia, because we’re all afraid of something. There’s no such thing as being fearless. In the Bible, God gives a lot of different commands, but do you know the one God gives the most? It’s not a command about how you treat someone else. It has nothing to do with what you eat or how you behave. No, the most common command in scripture is, “Do not be afraid.”
Why does God say that so often? Because there’s so much of which we are afraid! And yet, the Bible gives us example after example of people who overcome their fears in order to be faithful to God. For our Lenten sermon series, we’re going to be looking at some of the folks who walked with Jesus on the way to the cross. Each of these people faced significant fears and overcame them with the help of God. What can we learn from them about how we are to deal with our own phobias?
We start with Peter, probably the most famous disciple and one of Jesus’ closest confidantes. I absolutely love Peter because he is a living demonstration of how hard this faith thing is. Throughout the gospels, Peter has moments of exemplary faith, followed in a few verses by some of the most bone-headed moves in all of scripture. I figure if Peter followed Jesus for three years and still couldn’t get it right, there’s hope for all of us.
Our story today is a great example of Peter’s wishy-washy ways. The disciples are out in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, during the fourth watch of the night. That means the disciples had been rowing and bailing for up to nine hours, and had yet to make it across the sea. Why? Because, Matthew tells us, the wind was against them. As a former Chicago resident, I understand the metaphorical force of that statement. Have you ever had that feeling, like the wind was against you? You work and work and work and get nowhere, you take one step forward and are blown two steps back.
So the disciples are battling the wind and the storm and the sea. Jesus comes to them, walking on the water, saying to them, “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.” And Peter, in one of the greatest demonstrations of faith, asks to come to Jesus on the water. Some commentators scold Peter for putting Jesus to the test, but I don’t see it that way. Peter wanted to be where Jesus was. He wanted to be with his Savior. So Peter steps out onto the water and begins to walk toward Jesus.
Now let’s stop a second to take in what just happened. Peter is a normal, flawed human being like you and me. He’s not Harry Houdini or David Blaine. He has no special powers of levitation or buoyance. And yet, he steps out of a boat in the middle of a nasty squall and starts walking on the water toward Jesus.
But then, faster than a stiff breeze, he looks down at the churning waves, he feels the wind against him, and he starts to sink. He cries out to Jesus for help, so Jesus reaches down and pulls Peter up, saying, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” I love how the Bible translation the Message renders Jesus’ words: “Faint-heart, what go into you?”
What got into him? Was it the realization that he was risking his life by stepping out of the boat? Was it the sudden awareness of the severity of the storm? Was it that he was awakened to the fact he was doing something that he thought he couldn’t do? What got into him? I bet it was the same thing that gets into us when we step out of the boat and realize we are vulnerable to the risks and dangers around us. Why did we leave the security of the boat? What if we don’t have what it takes? What if the wind is against us? What gets into us? Fear of failing.
In America today, failure is considered an unpardonable sin. No one likes to be thought of us as a failure because of the stigma that goes along with it. Missing the game-winning shot, losing a big case, dropping out of college, not having a spouse and 2.3 kids – all examples of failure in our culture. Somehow our failure becomes a comment on our character, our competence, our value as a human being. No one likes to be thought of us a failure.
Newsflash! We’re all failures. Every single one of us. We’ve all tried something and failed. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that! I want you to turn to your neighbor and say, “I’m a failure!” Now, with a big smile your face, say to that person, “You’re a failure, too!” There, doesn’t that feel better, to name our fallibility, to admit we’re human. It’s OK to be a failure.
We have to remember that failure is not an event, but a judgment about that event. Something is only a failure if we label it as such. You probably know Edison’s quote about his attempts to invent the lightbulb: “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that did not work.” Rather than being a negative, I believe failure is a positive, because it helps us know what to do differently next time. Failure is an essential part of the creative process. I was recently reading through some of the very first sermons I ever preached. Ugh. Painful. I can’t believe my church in Chicago sat through them. After my very last sermon to them, several people clapped. I think it’s because they were glad to see me leave!
So failure is not a bad thing, but fear of failure is paralyzing. It’s insidious. It’s a force that can keep us from being the people God has called us to be. What if I start reading the Bible but don’t understand it? What if I try to pray every day but can’t keep up the routine? What if I serve at church but don’t do well? What if I join the choir but miss a few notes? Sometimes it’s easier just to stay in the boat, isn’t it? Would that have been easier for Peter? Sure. If he’d stayed in the boat, he would have never risked drowning. But he also would have never walked on water.
So where do we find the courage to overcome our fear of failing? We have to find it somewhere, because our only other option is quitting. And let’s be really honest here: It’s ALWAYS easier to quit. Quitting will always be the easier option. The greatest temptation we face when our plans fail is to surrender, to give up hope, and climb back into the boat.
But if we do that, we just may miss the call Jesus is extending to us to join him on the water. Courage is not the absence of fear; courage assumes fear is present, but that it isn’t in control. Courage means keeping our eyes on Jesus in the presence of failure. It means taking the risk to leave the comfort and security of our boats to walk toward Jesus in our lives.
Guess what? We’ll still fail. Right? We’re never going to succeed at everything. And when we do fail, then we try again. Failure is not the end of the world. You won’t die from it. Instead of letting it define you, you redefine it. The story goes that after an unsuccessful attempt to climb Mt. Everest, Sir Edmund Hilary stood at the base, shook his fist, and said, “I’ll defeat you yet! You’re as big as you’re going to get, but I’m still growing.” Every time he tried to climb it, he failed. And every time he failed, he learned, he grew, and he tried again. And one day, he didn’t fail.
I know, I know. Our Mt. Everests are pretty tall. And the boat is so warm and comfortable and familiar. But you can’t walk on water if you never get out of the boat. Failure is not failing to reach your dreams. It’s not having a dream. Failure is not missing your goal. It’s not having a goal. If at first you don’t succeed, big deal! It’s usually the second, third, or fourth time you actually get it right. In my case, I’m still trying to get it right. Remember, everybody fails. But everybody can grow, as well.
I believe God is calling each of us to get out of our boats and walk toward Jesus. And, believe me, that call can be scary. You might fail. If you are being called to do something you think you can’t do, and if doing it would make someone else’s life better or help strengthen your faith, then there’s a good chance that call is from God. There’s the boat. There’s Jesus. So then, what are you gonna do? Are you going to let your fear of failing keep you from stepping out? When you face a challenge, are you going to lean into it our run away from it? This is your life. You can’t step out of it. You can only live it or not live it. So make that difficult call. Start that challenging project. Take that new class. Try that new hobby. Say “yes” to that new calling. What’s the worst thing that can happen? You might fail. Or, you might not. What are you afraid of?