What Does It Mean to Be Presbyterian? Living out the Gospel

1 John 2:7-12
August 26, 2014

Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old one, which you have had since the beginning. This old command is the message you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him and in you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining. Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble. But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them.
I am writing to you, dear children,
 because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name.

            Recently I’ve been using a new app on my iPad and iPhone that’s supposed to help my eyesight. I’m like many people my age. I need reading glasses to read. I don’t mind wearing reading glasses so much, but what has started to bother me is the fact that increasingly I can’t read my sermons, no matter how big a font I use. The letters just get too blurry.

            It had gotten to the point where I was close to making a decision about whether or not to wear my reading glasses while preaching. I’ve never wanted to be the kind of preacher who preaches a sermon while looking over the upper edges of my reading glasses. I especially have never wanted to be like that because we had a preacher like that in the church I grew up in. He used to preach angry, critical sermons while looking over his reading glasses. It was like going to church for our weekly scolding. I’ve always associated preachers who look at a congregation over their reading glasses with old, cranky preachers. The irony is that a few years ago I asked my father how old that pastor was when he was at our church. My father said, “Maybe early 30s.” Imagine what he must have been like when he actually was cranky and old.

            So on the news one evening I heard about a new app called “Glasses Off.” The idea behind it is that by looking at a series of fuzzy shapes that we know what they would look like normally, it helps us see better. It reprograms our brains to interpret what was fuzzy into something sharper. It doesn’t change the fact that our eye muscles have become weaker. It simply changes what our brains see out of the fuzziness.

            The app has been pretty good so far. My reading glasses had been 2.50, but now I seem to only need to use 1.50 glasses. What’s been more important to me, I can both read my sermon and the hymns in the hymnal without glasses.

            Now I want to be clear. I am not suggesting anyone go out and buy the app, nor am I telling anyone that this product is good. I don’t know what the lasting effects are. It takes quite a bit of work to achieve success. Even though I’m using the app, I worry that there may be some sort of problems in the future. I’ve had a hard time finding independent voices that objectively say whether or not the app is good for us. What I do know is that I see more sharply what was once fuzzy.
            When I think about the Presbyterian tradition, I’m reminded that our tradition asks us to train our brains to get a sharper view of life. Our tradition asks us to look at the fuzziness of the world, and to see it with more clarity—a clarity that comes from God. Our theology, our practices, and our traditions all are meant to help us look at life from a sharper perspective. I’m not saying that Presbyterians do “Glasses Off,” but we do practice a sort of “Gospel On” vision. In other words, one of the biggest practices and challenges we work on as Presbyterians is trying to look at the world through Gospel lenses so that we can live Gospel lives.

            It’s a challenge to try to live according to the Gospel because it goes against so much of our nature. The Gospel calls on us to focus on God and others so that we can live according to God’s nature, which is love; while our drives and instincts lead us to live self-centered lives where the focus is on ourselves. The religious problem is that often we live out of our drives and instincts, but then manipulate them so that we can convince ourselves that they are really arising out of God’s nature. As the well-known author, Anne Lamott said, "You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do."

            We have a tremendous instinct and drive for survival, self-protection, and self-promotion, and it is very difficult to overcome that with the Gospel, but that’s what being a Christian means: 
  • It means focusing on sharing rather than survival. In other words, our survival instinct leads us to protect what’s ours, to hoard it in case we run out. But God’s way is to share what we have, even if it causes us to struggle. It leads to generosity.
  • It means acting out of kindness rather than self-protection. In other words, it doesn’t matter so much if our kindness may lead to our being hurt. What matters is that we treat others with kindness and respect.
  • It means acting out of self-denial rather than self-promotion. The Christian focus is toward denying ourselves so that we can serve others, not promoting ourselves so that others can serve us.

            When we live a Gospel life, we live life with certain words in mind:
            * Humility                   * Kindness
            * Love                         * Self-Discipline
            * Gentleness              * Uplift
            * Patience                   * Faith
            * Healing                    * Generosity

            Living with Gospel Vision and a Gospel life means changing how we are in fundamental ways. It means changing how we are in marriage and relationships. Let me share what I mean. Would you like to know the one secret to having a healthy marriage and better relationships?  John Gottman, a research psychologist with the University of Washington, has studied over 50,000 couples and their interactions with each other. He said that there is one thing that determines the health of a marriage: kindness. Most couples, when they fall apart, stop being kind to each other. Most couples whose relationship is healthy, are kind to each other. That’s the primary difference. If you want your marriage or your relationships to get better, find a way to emphasize the Gospel idea of kindness.

            Another aspect of the Gospel life is that it means changing how we are with people who have hurt us. Do we remain angry or do we become forgiving?

            Do you remember the name Darryl Stingley. You may not quite remember him, but if you are a Pittsburgher, you remember his nemesis of sorts, Jack Tatum. Jack Tatum was a defensive back for that hated football team, the Oakland Raiders. If my memory is correct, he gave the Steeler wide receiver, Lynn Swann, a concussion by slamming his head with his forearm. That was Tatum’s favorite move—to slam his forearm into a helpless receiver’s head as he was catching the ball, thus knocking out the receiver and knocking the football out of his arms.

            In the early 1980s, Tatum hit Stingley, a wide receiver for the New England Patriots, in the head with his forearm. It broke Stingley’s neck, leaving him paralyzed. For a number of years afterwards, Stingley was bitter and angry at Tatum, especially since Tatum never really apologized for his illegal hit. The fact that Tatum penned a book titled, Call Me Assassin, made it worse.

            Over time, though, Stingley realized that holding onto his anger was paralyzing his life. It was making him paralyzed in body, mind, and spirit. The only way to regain his life was to let go of his bitterness so that he would be free in mind and spirit, no matter what the condition of his body.

            Years later, when Jack Tatum had to have his leg amputated because of diabetes, Stingley tried to reach out to him. When asked about this later—why he would reach out—Stingley said, “You can't, as a human being, feel happy about something like that happening to another human being. Maybe the natural reaction is to think he got what was coming to him, but I don't accept human nature as our real nature. Human nature teaches us to hate. God teaches us to love." That is the essence of a Gospel life.

            We face a choice in each moment: will we live the Gospel of Christ, or live the gospel of the world? To be Presbyterian means making a decision to live out the Gospel in all of life.  Amen.