Character Matters! The Courage to Follow God's Call


Luke 19:28-40
April 13, 2014


After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

            I don’t know if you remember the film, The Last Temptation of Christ, which was based on the book of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis. When it came out in 1985, evangelical Christians flocked the theaters to protest the movie’s portrayal of Jesus. Actually, I probably never would have seen it but for the protests. They made me curious, and in seeing the film I discovered that they missed the whole point of the movie. What they mostly objected to was the last hour of the film. In it, a beautiful, childlike angel appears before Jesus as he hangs in torment upon the cross. She tells him that his suffering and death were not what the Father had intended. He still could choose to live a normal life. He comes off the cross, marries Mary Magdalene, has children, and lives a good life. It’s not till the end of his life that he realizes, after a visit from his former disciples, that a normal life wasn’t his calling or purpose. His calling was to die on the cross. It’s then that we realize the angel was really the devil in disguise. Jesus cries, realizing his mistake, and prays that he would have chosen differently. Suddenly finds himself back on the cross. It was all a dream, a temptation to choose a life different from the one he was called to live. He dies in faith because he knows he has been true to his calling. The book and the film really were all about the personal struggle with God’s call for us.

            The evangelical Christians had missed the point. They thought it was blasphemous for Jesus to choose a normal life, but he never did. He was tempted to, but in the end he chose God’s calling.

            The scene in the movie that really caught me, though, was in the beginning. Jesus is by the Sea of Galilee, and he realizes that he is called to be the messiah. But he doesn’t want to be the messiah. He knew what it would lead to. He lies on the sand, head in hand, struggling with a piercing headache—the result of his saying no to God. He struggles and struggles, and then finally concedes. He will follow. And his “yes” changes everything. Not only are the headaches gone, but his life has purpose and meaning. It becomes effortless and joyful, despite the pain.

            What I love about this film and book is that it presented a spiritual reality, which is that we all struggle with God’s call. Too often stories about following God make it seem as though God’s voice is clear, and that the choice to follow is easy. It isn’t.

            I talk a lot about following God's call because I believe that is the center of the Christian life and service. But I also realize that following God's call takes two things that are really, really hard: a willingness to struggle and courage. The struggle is that we don't necessarily know what God wants, and even if we do, it may change our lives in ways we don’t want. Courage is the willingness to go forward even if we're not sure what will take place. Let me take these one at a time.

            First there is the struggle. The fact is that everyone who seeks God's call struggles with it because God never speaks in a normal voice. God most often speaks through a combination of interior voices and exterior events. Instead of trying to describe it to you, let me share with you a struggle with God’s call that started in the pulpit of Calvin Presbyterian Church back in 1983. Calvin Church held a worship service that year celebrating the reunification of the northern and southern Presbyterian churches that had split at the time of the Civil War over the issue of slavery. The Southern church supported the confederacy and slavery. The northern church did not. In 1983 the two separate denominations: the Presbyterian Church in the United States (southern) and the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (northern).

            The Rev. Dick Anderson, the pastor of Calvin Church at the time, put together the celebration service, and asked one of our members, Steve Cramer, to help with the sermon. It was then that Steve first heard the call of God to become a pastor. While preaching he had a soft notion that he may be called, but  he dismissed it. Still, he was surprised afterwards when members of the church complemented him and said, “Have you ever thought about being a pastor?”

            Over the next few years Steve did things like preaching sermons on occasion, teach classes on the Bible, and read voraciously on biblical and theological topics. All along he kept getting a nagging sense of “you should become a pastor.” But he kept dismissing it.

            There were good reasons for him to dismiss them. He had a good job at the time, but he didn’t have a college education, and you need a college degree to get into seminary. He had started college in 1974, embarking on what would eventually become an almost thirty-year plan. He wouldn’t receive his degree from the University of Pittsburgh till 2000 after taking one course per semester for all those years.

            Also, Steve had a daughter in college, and a son on the verge of it.  His wife, Karen, had a good career as a first-grade teacher at Connoquenessing Valley Elementary School. Going to seminary would mean quitting his job, going into debt, and possibly uprooting his family. He also had one other concern: Karen was adamant:  “I will not BE a pastor’s wife!” By the way, never challenge God by saying, “I will NOT,” or “I will NEVER!” More on that later…

            Unfortunately, the sense of call wouldn’t go away. He wasn’t Jesus struggling on the beach with headaches, but he was Steve struggling with a constant nagging that wouldn’t go away. He was able to dismiss the call as long as he didn’t have a college degree, but once he got it in 2000, it became harder to dismiss. Still, he could because he had a good job that provided a good pay. Why give that up?

            Then the bottom fell out. I’ve often told people who are being pursued by God that if God is really calling then, and they keep saying “no,” God will find a way to eventually get them to say “yes” by making their present life impossible. That happened to Steve. He was selling crushed rock products used for constructing roads, buildings, and so much more. He had a large territory, and was doing well. If you remember the end of the 1990s, it was a time when politicians and people were looking to expand our basic infrastructure, and road construction was part of that. Then 9/11 happened, and all the money that had been going to roads and bridges were now going to the military. Steve was called in by his bosses and given a new job opportunity in the Harrisburg area. The only problem was that it meant moving there.

            Remember how Karen didn’t want to be a pastor’s wife. Well she was even less excited about moving to Harrisburg.  Steve had little interest, either. They had a great house in Zelienople, years of memories, two kids in college, and Karen was several years away from retirement. Why give up her job with probably little possibility of getting a teaching job in Harrisburg? Steve didn’t want to do a commuter marriage, anyway, so he told them he couldn’t do it. So they fired him. What do you do when a job with good pay suddenly gets pulled out from under you, and you have two kids in college? 
           
            Being let go from his job plunged Steve into a struggle. What should he do? He applied for several jobs, but did he want to continue working in those fields? He had two kids in college. Did it make sense for him to also go to graduate school? On a lark he had previously applied to Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, but it was with a clear caveat: it was a vehicle to eventually getting a Ph.D. so that he could teach religious history, not to become a pastor. He was also clear: even that probably wasn’t going to happen.

            Steve told me that in the midst of it all, he had a Jonah in the belly of the fish moment as he sat in his basement, head in hands. He had struggled, like Jonah, with God’s call, and he had run from the call to be a pastor his whole adult life. He was on the verge of tears. Shaking them off, he got up, walked upstairs, and picked up the mail. There was a letter from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He opened it and it was an acceptance letter offering him a full scholarship. Wo!

            Steve talked with Karen about it, and she told him that it was fine for him to go to seminary as long as he understood that it better not lead to him becoming a pastor because, “I will not BE a pastor’s wife!” By the way, remember this one lesson: whenever you declare that you WILL NOT do something God is calling you to do, there’s a good chance you’re going to do it, whether you are Steve or Karen. More on that later…

            So Steve decided to go to seminary, but only to get a master of theology degree, not a master of divinity degree (the one that pastors get), so that he could go on from there to get a Ph.D. and teach somewhere. Steve did a great job at seminary, and finally finished all of his coursework for the degree. When it came time to turn in his master’s thesis, he walked into the administration building of the seminary. Instead of walking the paper to his professor, Dr. Allison, he took a left turn down the hall to the head of Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty, Dr. Barry Jackson. He told Barry that he felt called to get his master of divinity, and wondered if he could transfer his credits, including his master thesis, toward that degree. Barry figured it all out, and Steve was soon a master of divinity student. Karen’s reaction was supportive, but if he decided to become a pastor, she was not leaving her house or Calvin Church. The ice was melting…

            Steve eventually graduated and began to look for churches. Much to Karen’s chagrin, there weren’t many local ones. They looked at churches in places like Montana. Certainly not places where Karen could stay in her house and at Calvin Church. Steve came and talked to me about this one day, wondering how to navigate the need to find a church, yet also keep Karen happy. I mentioned to him that if he was called to be a pastor, Karen had a call, too, and it wouldn’t necessarily be as a pastor’s wife. It would be a call in her own right. In other words, God would find away to work it out so that both could end up in a place God wanted them both, and where they both felt was right.

            And then it happened. In 2008 Steve was offered a position as pastor of Crossroad Presbyterian Church on Route 910 in Gibsonia, a twenty-minute drive from his home in Zelienople. The position was only 2/3rds time, and wasn’t enough money to make moving attractive. They’d have to stay in their house. Not only that, but Karen could stay at Calvin Presbyterian Church, singing in the choir, serving on the Worship and Arts Committee, and being just as involved here as she had been. What was also great was that the congregation at Crossroads understood and were supportive of Karen.
           
            In 2008 we got to do something really fun and unique here at Calvin Church when we not only ordained Steve to be a Presbyterian pastor, but also his daughter, Eliza. She had simultaneously gone to Princeton Theological Seminary, graduated, and gotten an offer for a church in Texas. We were able to ordain both at the same time.

            A funny thing has happened since then. Steve, as all of us knew he would, has done a very good job as pastor of Crossroad. But in the meantime, Karen started getting involved at Crossroad and decided she liked the people. Slowly she felt called to become involved there. Two years ago, amidst us snickering kindly at how God works in ways we don’t want God to work, Karen decided to join Crossroad Presbyterian Church. We still have a place reserved for her here at Calvin Church for some future date, but Karen is now a pastor’s wife. Of course, not that this is really her identity, since all of us who know her know that she can’t really be defined as anyone’s wife. She is Karen. Still, it’s just fun to write those words: “she’s a pastor’s wife.” God has a way of calling us to God’s purposes, and of getting us to follow that call, even if we resist for thirty years.

            I don’t tell Steve’s story because I think everyone out there has a calling to be a pastor. Few do. I tell Steve’s story because it offers a clarity that isn’t quite as clear in other people’s calling. Basically, Steve’s story teaches a few lessons about the struggle with God’s call. One is that often God’s call starts out as a feeling we have inside of us that gets confirmed by people around us. Steve’s started as a sense, while preaching, that was confirmed by many who were listening. Also, God’s call starts as something that seems impossible, yet that keeps becoming more possible. Finally, God’s call is often a sense we have that something is right, but we only find out how right it was when we start moving down that path.

            Following God's call also requires a tremendous amount of courage because we get no guarantees. We don't get to see the outcome ahead of time. True faith is the courage to move forward when we don’t see the path ahead, and we don’t know the outcome.

            Each and every one of us has as calling, and its probably not to ordained ministry. But it is still a call to follow what God wants for our lives. The call may be big, like a career, or it can be to participate in ministry and mission. It can also be a call to how we will live our lives in a different way. Whatever it is, it requires struggle and courage. I’ve seen this same level of struggle and courage being played out in many of our members. For example, we have a number of members who either unemployed or facing employment problems, and are meeting together to get a sense of God’s call for them. They are trying to make God part of this process. There are no guarantees, but that’s what struggle and courage entail.

            In the end, here’s the message: God is calling you to something, but do you have the willingness to struggle and the courage to listen and to follow?

            Amen.

Character Matters: Self-Discipline


1 Corinthians 9:19-27
April 6, 2014

For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.
Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.

            I’ve never been much of a fan of the cartoon, The Simpsons, although the few times that I’ve watched it I’ve found it to be very funny. Early on the show was heavily criticized by evangelical Christians as a bad example to others because of Bart Simpson’s brattyness and brashness, as well as his basic disrespect of authority figures. Ironically, in recent years these same Christians have praised The Simpsons for being an example of families that stay together despite their problems. Still, those issues have had no influence on whether or not I watched the show. I don’t watch it because it comes on at a time when I’ve always watched other shows.

            Back in the early 1990s my wife, Diane (who was then my girlfriend, Diane) kept talking about how funny the show was. So one time when visiting her I watched it. The show opened with a scene that was me, or at least resonated with me. It starts with a snoring Homer Simpson, asleep on his couch, with an open bag of chocolates on his lap. His mouth is lined with chocolate smudges. The screen gets all wavy as we slowly enter his dream. The landscape is different shades of chocolate brown as he reads a sign saying, “Welcome to Chocolatetown… Population 1325.” Chocolate bunnies hop by, and he joins them, giddily hopping with joy. He stops as it begins to rain chocolate drops. Catching them in his hands he shovels them into his mouth. He then dances into town, where every building, streetlamp, the pavement, and the sidewalks are made of chocolate.

            He walks over to a streetlamp, leans down, and takes a huge bite out of the pole. Then a chocolate dog happily walks over to him and jumps into his arms. Homer cuddles the dog, and then takes a huge bite out of its back. The dog squeals, jumps down, and runs away whining. Homer is in his own personal chocolate heaven, especially when he pushes his nose up against a chocolate store window, where is says, “All Chocolate 50% off.”

            I identify with Homer. If I had my wish, heaven would be made of chocolate, not gold. And I don’t mean milk chocolate. I love dark, dark chocolate. Eating-wise, dark chocolate is my only real temptation. I don’t care that much about chips and pizza and pretzels and cookies and cake. I just LOVE dark chocolate. When I’m surrounded by dark chocolate, whether in chocolates themselves, icing, ice cream, or on Edible Arrangement strawberries, it’s hard for me to stop myself. Being around chocolate is the one place where I have to have a lot of self-control.

            For all of us self-control is hard because we each have something in our lives that is hard to control. For some it’s food, whether that is temptations from salty or sweet snack, carbs or fat. For some it’s substances—cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, or even gambling. For some it’s media—cell phones, computers, emails, texts, FaceBook, Twitter, or just browsing the Internet looking for videos, articles, or anything else. For some it’s our mouths—saying things we shouldn’t, criticizing, swearing, saying the wrong thing at the wrong time to wrong person. For others it’s something else. Whatever it is, all of us have something that causes us to lose self-control. Why?

            Actually the problem is our brain committee. Let me explain. Most people don’t realize that our brains are structured in a way that actually prevents us from having one will. Our brains are structured in a way that causes internal conflict. The easiest way to explain this is to describe the brain the way some brain researchers do. While this is an oversimplification, they say that our brain has basically three levels: the reptilian brain, the mammalian brain, and the human brain. The reptilian brain is the brainstem and autonomic brain functions. It’s where our natural instincts are. That’s the part of our brain that craves food, drink, and is a slave to drives. The mammalian brain is more like an animal brain. It is the part that can be trained, but it’s also where most of our emotions lie. The human brain is the part residing mostly in the cerebral cortex and the frontal lobes. It’s where logical, rational thought comes from, as well as conscious awareness.

            What these different levels of the brain do is that they actually cause us to have different impulses all at the same time. Our rational thought conflicts with our emotional desires and our instinctual drives. The different levels and parts of the brain interact much like a brain committee. Unfortunately, it’s a committee that doesn’t always work well together. Take dieting, for example. Here’s more or less what happens. Our rational, logical brain says, “We need to go on a diet.” Other rational parts of our brain agree to the motion. The animal and reptilian members of the brain committee protest, but to no avail. Still, they wait for their chance.

            A week of good, solid dieting ensues. Then comes the following Friday—weigh-in day. You’ve spent the whole week being good, eating healthy, avoiding all the things that normally lead to a binge, and then you step on the scale. You’ve lost 4 pounds. You feel good. It’s then that the rest of the brain committee begins to speak…

            “Ohhhhhh,… you’ve done SUCH a good job. You deserve ice cream. Or maybe a muffin. I know,…  a cinnamon roll from Panera. It’s okay. You’ll eat a salad first. It will be healthy. And then the cinnamon roll will be your reward for all your hard work. You deserve it…”

            The next day, after your binge, you’re determined to get back to the diet, and the logical, rational part of the brain committee tries to retake control. But then the rest of the committee chimes in again: “Come on, you can take the day off. You’ve worked so hard. Just relax. You can always go back to the diet tomorrow… “ Soon there’s not more dieting and you’ve regained the four pounds plus an extra pound.

            Our brain committee not only keeps us from dieting, exercising, quitting, and changing, it also keeps us from growing spiritually. Growing in faith takes self-discipline. It takes spiritual practices. I’ve come to the conclusion that in many ways church is like dieting and exercising. We all know that eating a healthy diet, exercising, getting enough sleep, and other kinds of disciplines actually make us healthier. But we have a hard time doing them because our brain committee can’t agree on it. In the same way, going to church makes us healthier in every way. There’s been enough research to show this. Researchers have consistently found that just by going to church you are healthier than a person who is just like you who doesn’t.

            Being part of a church is a discipline. Getting up on Sunday mornings and going to church is a discipline that makes you happier, but just as it happens with eating a healthy diet and exercising, there are parts of our brain committees that tell us to stay home, sleep in, hang out, chill: “You’ve had a hard week. You don’t need to go to church. Stay home and rest. It won’t hurt you. You’ll feel refreshed. You’ll feel better.” But the reality is that you won’t feel better. You won’t notice the difference, but going to church will make you better. Still, it’s a discipline.

            The church offers all sorts of opportunities to grow healthier, but that doesn’t mean we always take advantage of them. In this church, we have small groups, centering prayer groups, a labyrinth, Sunday worship, adult education classes, and all sorts of ministry and mission opportunities, all of which are disciplines that help us grow spiritually as we also help others grow spiritually.

            The reality is that this church and any church can only offer opportunities, but it’s still up to each of us to take responsibility for taking on a discipline. The key is that we have to exercise enough self-control to actually engage in a way that makes our lives better.

            Ultimately part of the teaching of Christianity is that we need to develop a series of practices that help us to sense God, hear God, and follow God. Those practices can change over time, but the important thing is setting up a discipline that helps us grow in God. I’ve done this for much of my adult life, and it’s made a difference.

            My self-discipline really started in earnest when I was in my late 20s. I began to practice what is called contemplative prayer, which we often call centering prayer here. It’s a form of prayer in which you don’t ask God for anything, or even try to hear God. Instead, you sit in silence trying to still your mind and simply be open to God. The idea is to calm our thinking so that in life we can be more open to God. I began practicing it in 1989, starting just with five minutes of silence. Over time I extended it to 10 minutes, then 20 minutes, then 30 minutes. Within the next few years I was able to sit in silent prayer for 45 minutes to an hour.
           
            I did this as a basic practice until we had twins in 1999. Because both Diane and I were sharing the feedings, and only getting about 6 hours of sleep a night, my centering time turned into sleeping time. I’d try to sit in silence, but I’d fall asleep. So my prayer discipline changed. I started walking the labyrinth regularly. I turned walking into prayer where I’d make sure I walked everyday somewhere with lots of trees and life, and I would turn that time into prayer. The lesson is that the discipline doesn’t always matter as much as that we have a discipline.

            Basically, self-discipline is a key to growing spiritually and to discovering God throughout all of life because disciplines put our lives into balance.

            We need to take responsibility for practicing spiritual disciplines that help us grow closer to God. This doesn’t mean you have to become like a monk to be a mystic, cloistered away immersed in lives of prayer. You just need to develop a set of disciplines, that teach us self-control, and that ultimately help us to serve God in all of life.

            The apostle Paul is the example of this. In our passage he said that he has become “all things to all people.” In essence, he had enough self-control and self-discipline, coming out of his life of prayer, that he could adapt himself to others. He could be a Gentile with Gentiles, a Jew with Jews, weak with the weak, and strong with the strong. He had a sense of self-control because he had a life filled with God.

            Amen.

Character Matters! Standing Up for the Weak

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Psalm 82
March 30, 2014

God has taken his place in the divine council;
   in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:
      “How long will you judge unjustly
         and show partiality to the wicked?
Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
   maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
   deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
They have neither knowledge nor understanding,
   they walk around in darkness;
      all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
I say, “You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you;
   nevertheless, you shall die like mortals,
      and fall like any prince.”
Rise up, O God, judge the earth;
   for all the nations belong to you!

            I want to start by having us focus on a snippet of the passage from above:
Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

            When you read this passage, what are your thoughts? What does it say to you about how you’re to live your life? What does it say about how you are called to treat others? This psalm is a great representation of the God of the Old Testament, although not in the way we typically think of the God of the Old Testament. When people think of the God of the Old Testament, they often think of a wrathful, angry God. We get the impression, especially from the prophets, that God is always angry at people for being sinful. What most people don’t realize is that if God is portrayed as angry in the Old Testament, it’s often an anger that arises because people didn’t pay heed to a passage like this one. The anger is over their treatment, or lack of treatment, of the weak.

            If you really pay attention to what the prophets said, whether it’s Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Amos, or any one of a dozen prophets, they often say that God is angry because no one cares about those on the margins, the weak, the helpless, the poor, and the struggling. It’s like a constant drumbeat in the Old Testament. Help the poor, forgive debts, lift up the struggling, feed the hungry, care about those on the margins.

            The prophets realized that, just like today in our country where politics is often about power and who is strong, too often the people of Israel and of Judah—the Israelites—cared more about power and strength than about the weak and the struggling. The irony today is that we often argue over whether we are a Christian nation, yet it is often the ones who advocate the most for our status as a Christian nation who seem to care the least about the poor and marginalized. The irony is also that many of them reject biological Darwinism (Evolution) yet they accept a kind of Social Darwinism based on survival of the fittest. They see God as being on the side of the noble and self-sufficient strong, and against the unfit, lazy, and shiftless poor. They believe it’s okay not to care about those on the bottom because they haven’t worked hard enough, accomplished enough, or struggled hard enough like those on the top. These people reject biological Darwinism while embracing economic Darwinism.

            A significant number of people in our culture identify with the politics of power, where what matters is being strong, tough, and in charge. It is hard to square that with Scripture because the Christian life is often just as much about weakness and caring for the weak. This isn’t just me talking. It is the Bible talking. Read and reflect on the following passages. What do they say about pursuing strength, and ignoring the weak?

            First, let’s look at what Paul has to say about pursuing strength. In the 2 Corinthians 12, he talks about a “thorn in his side” that afflicted him. He begged God to take it away from him. We don’t really know what that thorn was. Maybe it was physical affliction or epilepsy that was the result of all the floggings and beatings he received. No one really knows what it was. All we know is that he begged God to take it away, and God said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” In response, Paul says, “So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” He is telling us that the pursuit of strength makes us weak, but allowing ourselves to be weak enough for God’s grace to work in us makes us strong.

            In John 15:12-13, Jesus says, This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” In other words, we be strong enough in love to be willing to be sacrificed as one of the weak.

            Paul also says, in 1 Thessalonians 5, “And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.” He teaches a message much like the prophets: lift up the weak, and be patient with them when they fail to do what we think they should do.

            Finally, as Paul teaches in Romans 15, “We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor.” This is just a smattering of what the New Testament says about caring for the weak. There is a clear message: stand up for the weak. Don’t make them grovel, but help them rise up.

            When I think of helping the weak, one of the people who jumps mostly clearly to mind is Raoul Wallenberg. Do you recognize the name? Probably not. You are more likely to remember the name of someone more famous today who did things similar to Wallenberg, and about whom a popular movie was made: Oscar Schindler (Schindler’s List).

            Schindler was an amazing man. He saved over 1200 Jews from extermination in the nearby Kraków-Płaszów Concentration Camp in Czechoslovakia by employing Jews in his factories to prevent their slaughter. He was truly an amazing man, but Raoul Wallenberg made an even bigger impact on saving Jews at the end of World War II. He is credited with saving perhaps more than 100,000 Jews in Hungary from being sent to the concentration camps.

            Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat to Nazi occupied Hungary. He was recruited for the sole purpose of saving Jews. He was an architect by training, not a diplomat, but he was fearless and resourceful. He had no problem walking into situations where Jews were being rounded up, and finding ways to confuse and confound the Nazis.
           
            Tom Veres, who was originally a Hungarian Jew in World War II, saw first hand how Wallenberg operated. For most of the time the Nazis occupied Hungary, Veres had been exempted from the laws against Jews because of his father’s and his work photographing the members of the Hapsburg dynasty, the ruling family of Hungary. They had been the official photographers for the court, and for many in Budapest’s high society, and so were exempted and lived out the war mostly persecution-free. But that all changed on October 12, 1944.

            The Arrow Cross, the name for the Nazi Party of Hungary, managed to gain control of the government in Budapest, the capital of Hungary. Until that point, they had been gaining power in the countryside, but now the Nazis were in full control of the nation’s government. All exemptions were cancelled. It was estimated that by then up to 430,000 Jews throughout the Hungarian countryside had been rounded up and deported to concentration camps. They planned on doing the same in Budapest.

            On October 17, knowing that his life was in danger, Veres went to the Swedish embassy, seeking help from a friend, Per Anger, who worked at the embassy. Fighting through the crowds, he found Anger told him that he needed his help. Leaning out of the doorway, Anger yelled to another man, “Raoul, I have someone here who can help you.” The two were introduced, and Wallenberg said to Veres, “Good. You’ll be my photographer. You’ll document the work we are doing. You’ll report directly to me.”

            Veres was given a schultzpass, or passport, saying that he was a Swedish diplomat. Veres began doing work on creating schultzpasses for any Jews that applied. One day in late November, Wallenberg’s secretary gave Veres a message from Wallenberg, “Meet me at Jozsefvarosi Station. Bring you camera.” Veres had no idea what was going on.
           
            When he got there, he saw German troops and Arrow Cross gendarmes loading Jews into cattle cars to ship to concentration camps. Knowing that if he were caught with a camera he would be loaded onto a cattle car, schultzpass or not. Veres quickly cut a hole in his scarf for his camera lens to poke out of while his hidden camera took pictures. Speaking in broken Hungarian, with the best Swedish accent he could muster, he told the Nazis that he was a Swedish diplomat there to meet with Wallenberg. They let him go. Finding Wallenbeg, he was told to take as many pictures are possible. It was then that he saw Wallenberg going to work to save Jews.

            Wallenberg yelled out to the Jews standing in line: “All of my people get in line here! All you need to do is show me your schultzpass!” They stared at him dumbfounded. Looking at one man he said, “You, yes, I have your name here. Where is your paper?” The man stared blankly and began fishing things out of his pocket. He pulled out a scrap of letter that was nothing like a schultpass. Wallenberg looked at it, wrote the man’s name in a ledger, and said, “Fine. Next!” He motioned for the man to stand over at another part of the platform.

            Soon others caught on. They walked up to him and showed him eyeglasses, deportation notices, handkerchiefs, and each time Wallenberg wrote their name in the ledger, motioned for them to move over to the group of now Swedish citizens. He pulled hundreds out of line. When the Nazis started to lose patience with him, he then shouted out to his group of newly minted Swedish citizens, “Now back to Budapest, all of you!” The suspicious soldiers moved as if to round them back up, but Wallenberg began to lecture the on the health conditions of the trains, the station, and anything else to distract them from the line of Jews walking back to Budapest. Then he and Veres jumped into a car and left.

            The next day Wallenberg and Veres returned to the station and did the exact same thing. Veres took pictures, Wallenberg conscripted new Swedish citizens. Veres also saw his chance to save even more. With the Nazis concentrating on the disruption caused by Wallenberg, Veres snuck around to the other side of a cattle car, and opened the doors to free the Jews. They all jumped out and went to stand in line in front of Wallenberg. When the Nazis realized what was happening, they motioned to capture Veres. Wallenberg jumped into his car and directed his driver to quickly move the car to where Veres was. Opening the door, Wallenberg shouted, “Tom! Jump!” They barely escaped.

            Using this method, Wallenberg risked his life to save thousands upon thousands of Jews. Eventually the Arrow Cross got wise to it, and in January sent a contingent to the Ulloi Street offices of the Swedish legate. Knowing that the Russians would take over Budapest any day now, and in a hurry to kill as many Jews as possible, they lined all the workers. They knew that most were Jews, and so they demanded that they walk to the river where they would be shot. Wallenberg had been contacted, and suddenly, as all were about to walk out the door, the Budapest police rushed in with machine guns raised. Wallenberg said to the Arrow Cross men, “What are you doing? These are Swedes! You have made a very serious mistake. Let them go!” The captain let them go.

            Within a few days the Russians had taken over the city. On January 17, 1945, Wallenberg, hoping to help in the reconstruction of Hungary, went with a Soviet escort to Debrecen to meet with the newly established provincial government. Before they got there, he was taken into custody by the NKVD (the precursor to the KGB), and was never seen again. There have been rumors that Wallenberg may have lived for another 15 years in a Siberian gulag. Prisoners reported having been incarcerated with him. The Soviets kept no records about this, and no one really knows. Whatever happened, it was a tragic end to a great man who did extraordinary thing for those who were weak.

     Wallenberg lived out our psalm. He gave justice to the weak and the orphan. He maintained the right of the lowly and the destitute. He rescued the weak and the needy. He delivered them from the hand of the wicked.

            We don’t have to wait for a holocaust to help the weak. There are people all around us who struggle everyday. If you are a kid in school, it means is helping and befriending the child who is picked on or teased. At work it means caring for the person who is criticized or dismissed. In society it means caring about and for the mentally ill, the poor, the incompetent, the struggling. How you help comes from who you’ll make time for, who you’ll contribute to, who you’ll vote for, who you’ll pay attention to.

            One side note: caring for others doesn’t mean letting go of all of our boundaries. When caring for the weak we still have to remember that we have lives to live. So it means helping them, but also still taking care of ourselves.

            The point of all of this is that as Christians we aren’t called to focus only on the strong, and to figure out how to be strong. We’re called to pay attention to and to care for the weak… to
Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
  
    maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. 

Rescue the weak and the needy;
   
   deliver them from the hand of the wicked.’

            Amen.

Christian Teachings We Rarely Hear: Surrender, Romans 12:1-8, The Rev. Connie Frierson



Romans 12:1-8   The New Life in Christ
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
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         Let’s start with our bible passage this morning. Our scripture talks about being a living sacrifice that true worship is to make yourself and myself into a living sacrifice.   Oh no, a living sacrifice didn’t have much to do with my plans this morning. As my eyes peeped open at the alarm clock, I did not bounce out of bed, yelling good, good time to sacrifice. That is not how I pictured worship this morning.  I was thinking along the lines of a cup of coffee, a nice breakfast, a few peaceful prayers, a little learning sermon, pleasant music and then lunch.  Sacrifice didn’t have much to do with my plans.  But this passage on sacrifice reflects our next rarely taught Christian lesson, surrender. This lesson goes by several names. Whether you call this lesson surrender or sacrifice or submission or abandonment of self, surrender is at the core of living a Christian life.
         Surrender of the self is what Jesus calls us to do.  There is this passage from Matthew 16:24-5 “Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”  Jesus is describing a spiritual practice of surrender.  Jesus calls it denying oneself.  But in this surrender instead of losing your life you find it.  This is a paradox.  A paradox is two statements that seem to be contradictory or even impossible or mutually exclusive.  But in actuality is profound truth.  Here is the paradox.  You have to be a living sacrifice. According to our scripture if you can be a living sacrifice you can be not conformed to world but be transformed. According to Jesus, You have to lose your life to find it. This is surrender that lead to life.
         Surrender is just too hard a concept.  So I wonder if we can simplify. Is there one image that could help us this morning?  I am hoping this is it, A Snow Angel. If you have ever made a snow angel raise your hand.  If you are over 50 especially, raise your hand. It doesn’t matter if you have done this yesterday or 50 years ago, you know how it works.  The snow has been a little skimpy lately but if you get a good deep snow and you fall backwards and fan your arms and legs, there you have it ‘A Snow Angel.’ That instant when you tip over backwards that is surrender. This big hard concept is a simple as this.  
         But the problem is we make it hard. We don’t like surrender. Quite frankly surrender has never been much encouraged.  What do you think of when you think of surrender?  If you surrender, you are a loser. You have raised the white flag. You have given up. You are defeated.  We don’t value any of that.  We are a “never say die” culture.  Our hero’s don’t surrender. They go down fighting. How odd Jesus did exactly the opposite of our hero culture.  Jesus emptied himself of power and went to the cross.  Jesus practiced complete surrender to God so that through him God could overcome death. God wants the same for us.  God wants us to surrender to God so we can overcome, overcome our faults, our limitations and ourselves and even to overcome death.
         Perhaps if we just answer two questions we can get back to the simplicity of that snow angel. 1) Who we surrendering to and 2) what are we surrendering? First of all you need to think of whom we are surrendering to. Does God want us to give up and give in to an enemy? No. The surrender is not to a stranger or an enemy but to a father, a creator, a mother hen, and a sacrificing savior. Your surrender isn’t to a stranger but to someone who knows the hairs on your head, someone who knows you better than yourself.  This surrender is not to an enemy who will humiliate and ridicule and perhaps massacre you but to the God who made you, works to guide and teach you and ultimately whom you will return to.  So in this way surrender isn’t a crazy radical act.  It is the nature turning of a child to a parent. Or it is as easy as tipping back into deep soft snow.
         The next question is what are we surrendering?  We surrender our life, our control of our life to God.  Well let’s just turn that one over in thought.  What do we control in life?  Can anyone make you taller by sheer will?  Can you prevent cancer?  Can you prevent your loved ones from dying?  Can you control what people think of you?  Seems to me that there is a whole bushel worth of things I think I can control but that I really can’t.  Perhaps I could surrender this silly belief that I am in control. It seems the most important thing to surrender is the illusion that I am god, that I know what is best, that I am always right, that my wishes and dreams are reality. This process of surrender might free me of a lot of anxiety. 
         I will give you an example.   In NYC there was a mother named Becky.  Becky had a child with Downs’s syndrome.  When her little one was little she would work and help with care plans and it seemed to be working.  But in time her little boy got older. He needed to go to a new school with new schedules and new teachers and new faces. And Becky would be bolt awake at 4:00 am worrying about all this.
In her devotionals she wrote, “We feel tension because we care. So much. We carry tension because we fear we’re not enough.” The basic truth is that while she could do lots there would always be something that she could not do.   There are always things we cannot do.  When we face this we need to practice surrender. We do the things that we are called to work on and leave the results to God. Surrender leads to God dependence, which leads us to peace. This surrender is what Paul was getting at when he wrote, “Do not be anxious about anything, 
but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 
And the peace of God, 
which transcends all understanding,
will guard your hearts 
and your minds in Christ Jesus” 
Philippians 4: 6, 7
         We need to surrender not just the illusion of control but also our very selves.  We give God the big and the little things of our life.  As an example there was a Seinfeld episode that illustrates this.  George Costanzia is a rotten guy.  He is selfish and pretentious. His life is a mess.  So in this episode, George acknowledges that all his basic instincts are wrong. So he decides to live his life doing the compete opposite of what he would ordinarily do.
So instead of ordering a ham on rye sandwich, he orders a tuna fish on whole wheat. Instead of lying to a woman and telling her he is an architect, he admits he is unemployed and living with his parents. Instead of pocketing some money he found he returns it to the owner.  His life totally changes around.  We are like that too. Instead of asking what we want, we ask what God wants. We think we are doing this practice of surrender for God right.  Wrong.  We are actually doing the surrender for us.  Our passage from Romans 12 has been paraphrased in the message like this. “So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering.”
         We have an illustration of this ordinary walking around life right in this service.  The second hymn was “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me” I loved that Hymn. The hymn is a fantastic combination of ragtime, speak easy and gospel. That is about my favorite combination. But that hymn represents what is the basic orientation of our life.  Jesus, come follow me.  Do what I am doing. Follow me around my life and make it whole and safe and good.  Maybe this ordinary walking around life can be redirected in a foundational way. Before I start walking, I offer God the steps. Before I slip my feet in slippers, I offer God my feet. Before my mind makes elaborate plans for today, I let God renew my mind. All that has the simple abandon of an angel in deep snow. We will close with the hymn “I Surrender All.”
                 
Amen.


St. Patrick’s Prayer: Discovering Christ Within, The Rev. Connie Frierson


John 14: 15-27
15 ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. 17This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
18 ‘I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 20On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.’ 22Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, ‘Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?’ 23Jesus answered him, ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.
25 ‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. 27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. 28You heard me say to you, “I am going away, and I am coming to you.”
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         This morning is the first week in a new sermon series. Graham and I are about to preach for four weeks taking Saint Patrick’s Prayer as our focus. So I started my research. I asked my friend Peter, who was raised a good Irish Catholic, to tell me everything a good catholic would know about Saint Patrick. Peter was baptized Peter Paul Donovan so you would think that he would be a wealth of knowledge.  But the only thing he could remember was that St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland.  That was the sum of his knowledge on the subject! Faith and beggorah!  Our feeble protestant knowledge is just such a wee poor thing as well. 
         So the first thing is to remedy our ignorance and get a sense of who St Patrick was and why would this prayer be attributed to him.  St. Patrick was born in the early 5th century and was raised in Roman England probably in the west near the coast.  His father was a deacon; his mother was fairly well connected, so it sounds like young Patrick was lucky. The early middle ages didn’t have a middle class but if they did Patrick would have been comfortably in that class. But a great misfortune befell young Patrick. At the age of about 16, Irish pirates kidnapped him.  The blackguards scooped him up and sold him into slavery to a druid high priest in Ireland.  And there he stayed as a slave for six years.  His job was as a shepherd and though Patrick had never been particularly religious before his enslavement, he experienced God in prayer on those hillsides. One night he had a dream that he should go home. He feared a beating if he was caught but he escaped and persuaded a ship to take him away.  The ship crashed on the coast and Patrick and his shipmates walked and starved. But Patrick prayed for God’s help and shortly after they came upon a herd of wild hogs. So they had dinner and Patrick’s stock when up in the eyes of his fellow castaways. St. Patrick ended up walking over 200 miles to get home. And he came home a changed young man.  Now in his early 20’s he studied to be a priest.  As he grew more mature he had another dream in which the children of Ireland were calling to him to go there as a missionary. And Patrick went using the shamrock of Ireland to illustrate the trinity and converting kings and regular folk.  St Patrick never forgot his experience as a slave and a captive.  He was one of the first church figures to speak out against slavery. That is what we know of St. Patrick.
         Now let’s turn to the prayer. The St. Patrick prayer is also called St. Patrick’s Breastplate. This prayer that has Christ before and behind and above and below and within has made Christians through the ages think of Christ’s protection. The form of the prayer really is similar to Druid incantations that were known at the time. How typical of St. Patrick to use a form that would have been so familiar to his Irish converts to reuse and repurpose that form for Christ.  At it’s most basic we can think of this prayer as calling on Christ to be all around us, as Christ protecting us, hence the name St. Patrick’s Breastplate. But St. Patrick would have thought of this prayer as more than protection.  He would have thought of it, as the way God is – not describing what we are asking God to do, but what God is already doing. And that understanding is quite different from a simple prayer to God to surround us and keep us safe.  Christ is within as near as the words on our lips and the beat of our heart.  This morning we will be looking at that particular aspect of the prayer, Christ within.
         But this idea of Christ within is really not as common in Christian thinking as you might assume.  Maybe it is not so foreign at Calvin as Quakers and mystics have influenced us.  But in the larger church, we might think more often in terms of ‘We are in Christ’ and not so much ‘Christ is in us’.  The bible uses both term. Both terms are true.  But so often the church has just focused on getting all of us to be in Christ.  As though Christ is a baptismal pool and if we can just get everybody to dip in a finger then we are in Christ.  The emphasis is on US joining in Christ. The focus is on US coming into the baptismal pool, the saving light or even the church. Like we get to join the Jesus Club but then we can just be lapsed members.  Perhaps our emphasis on our own sin makes the thought of Christ within so unlikely.
         In another way we think of our church, meaning all of us, as ‘the body of Christ’ but that is the collective whole of us. We often remember ‘that where one or more are gathered in Christ’s name then Christ is there.’  Does that then mean that if you are by yourself that Christ isn’t there, that you are just flat out of luck? An understanding of Christ within means that alone or in a crowd, with believers or without, Christ is there with you. We often feel ourselves too undeserving for Christ within.  So we rely on the church, the gathering of lots of believers to be the body of Christ. Scripture tells us that we are the Body of Christ.  But that does not mean that we as private, flawed individuals are not also able to invite a life with the Christ within.
         Another the habit of protestant faith that sets the idea of Christ Within on the back burner is that we get very focused on the externals.  We believe that Christ died for our sins. This is focusing on the historical actions of Jesus to step in on the cross for us. We hear that Christ is a substitute for us before the father.  This is a very external and even legalistic understanding of Christ. All that Christ did is important but it is external to us.  It sets what Christ did as outside of us.
         Jesus was plainer and more personal. In John 14:20 Jesus says he will send a comforter and helper to be with us.  In John 17 Jesus goes on and on about him (Jesus) being in you (the disciples and all who believe) just as the Father is in Jesus. Jesus turns this ‘I am in you and you are in me and the father is in me and I am in him’ phrase over and over.  The words tumble about and mix I and you and Jesus and the Father so that WITHIN is the main point Jesus is making.  Paul writes just as plainly, “Don’t you know that Christ is in you? (2 Cor.13; 5)
         This is also the thoughts and devotional writing of many of the most revered and respected saints of the church. Here are some examples;

"Our Lord Jesus Christ...became what we are, so that He might bring us to be even what He Himself is." - Irenaeus c. 180 AD

"The man of God is consequently divine and is already holy. He is God-bearing and God-borne." - Clement of Alexandria c. 195 AD

"God became man so that man might become God." - Athanasius c. 325 AD

         I guess having Christ within asks a big question.  What difference does it make to have Christ within?  The reality of Christ Within makes a tremendous difference at the hardest spots of life.  For St. Patrick abducted, lonely and enslaved it made the most profound difference.  Christ within lit lonely nights on the hills, helped Patrick see the possibility of escape and ultimately led him back to Ireland, to his abusers, to work for there own healing, salvation.  Christ within speaks when there are no other voices to be heard in the darkness. 
         This same experience of the presence of Christ within has come to others down through the ages. It has come to me and Graham and many of you.  An example of this is the AP journalist Terry Anderson. On March 16 1985 the day before St. Patrick’s Day, Terry Anderson was kidnapped at gunpoint in Lebanon.  He would be the longest held hostage by the Hezbollah.  He was beaten, threatened daily with death, kept in isolation much of the time, denied medical care and used as a pawn in middle-eastern politics for seven years.
           The days passed into months, the months into years, and eventually Anderson felt so low that he had no choice but to turn everything over to God.  During his captivity, he spent a lot of time assessing his life, and realized that he was arrogant, abusive, and not the man he should be—the man that God created him to be.  In the midst of a lonely room, isolated from all others, he repented to God.  Let me share with you what he says about his own repentance.  He said, “I can’t do this, God.  I’m finished.  I surrender.  There's nothing I can do to change anything, nothing anyone can do.  And it’s just going to go on, and I can’t do it.  Help me.  There’ no reason why you should.  Don’t we always turn to you when we’re in trouble, and away from you when things are good?  I’m doing the same.  But you say you love me.  So help me.
          So far down.  My mind so tired, my spirit so sore.  And more to come, more and more.  I just can’t do it. But at the bottom, in surrender so complete there is no coherent thought, no real pain, no feeling, just exhaustion, just waiting, there is something else.  Warmth/light/softness.  Acceptance, by me, of me.  Rest.  After a while, some strength.  Enough for now.”
         This is a Christ Within experience. We are so fortunate probably none of us will be kidnapped and held hostage.  But for each of us there comes those times of darkness and isolation.  It is in those times that Christ within is the difference between life and death, hope or despair. St. Patrick found this Christ within, so did Terry Anderson and so have so many other people of faith. 
         I would like to end with a fragment of a poem called Faith that Terry Anderson wrote from his book, Den of Lions.

Sometimes I feel
 all the world’s pain.
I only say that once
 in my own need
I felt a light and warm
 and loving touch
that eased my soul
 and banished doubt
 and let me go on to the end.
It is not proof—there can be none.
Faith’s is what you find
when you’re alone and find you’re not.”

Amen