GOSPEL LESSON: Luke 4:14-21
EPISTLE LESSON Acts 2:36-42
SERMON: “Becoming a Blessed Church”
Did you know that today is the Church’s “un-birthday?” Remember Alice in Wonderland? When Alice went down the rabbit hole and found herself at the Mad Hatter’s tea party, she found a rather odd group of creatures celebrating an “un-birthday.” “A very merry un-birthday to you, to you,” they sang, in the original Disney adaption. Any day that is not your birthday is your un-birthday. Today is [ ] birthday. Happy Birthday, [ ]! To the rest of us – a very merry un-birthday.
We celebrate Pentecost as the birthday of the church, the day when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples and all who heard them preach the good news about the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Acts 2:41 tells us that when Peter got done preaching, “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.” The Day of Pentecost comes 50 days after Easter, so it usually falls in May, sometimes in early June. Definitely, not in January, so today is an un-birthday for the church. A very merry un-birthday to us!
How many of you have ever attended a presbytery meeting?
Only with great reluctance did I used to ask any elders to give up a day to go to presbytery meetings. But I have to give Lake Michigan Presbytery a pat on the back for recent changes that make those meetings both interesting and informative. At the September meeting we were privileged to hear Landon Whitsitt, the author of a very interesting book called “Open Source Church.” I believe he was just completing his term as Vice Moderator of General Assembly, and his ideas are fascinating.
At the November meeting we heard Graham Standish, pastor of Calvin Presbyterian Church in Zelienople, PA, speak. He too has a book published: Becoming a Blessed Church. As I told the session Monday evening, Rev. Standish spoke for close to two hours, without a break, and never lost my attention. Double fascinating.
Don’t worry, I have no intention of speaking for two hours this morning, but I do want to share with you a bit about what Rev. Standish suggests for how churches like ours can become a blessed church.
First of all, Standish writes, “The blessed church sees itself as the Body of Christ. . . . To do so the church, and its members, must quit considering itself to be something akin to a business, an organization, or even a family. The church has attributes [italics mine] that are similar to a business, an organization, and a family, but it is unique. Nothing else in the world is like a church.” Standish then quotes Rick Warren, a leader in the church-growth movement: “The church is a body, not a business. It is an organism, not an organization. It is alive.”
Last week we heard the Apostle Paul’s words, recorded in I Corinthians: “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.” (I Corinthians 12:4-6)
Had we continued reading Paul’s letter we would have heard him add, “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body. (vv. 12, 13a)
Paul writes about the different parts of the body, and then states, “ But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. (vv.18-20)
And a little further on: “ . . . there should be no division in the body, but [that] its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” (vv. 25-27)
The blessed church must understand itself as part of the Body of Christ.
“The leaders of the Body know that Christ is the head, and so they continually and prayerfully seek Christ’s guidance,” writes Standish.
As a part of our Annual Meeting today we will be electing officers to new terms of service. Notice I didn’t say “new officers,” for each of the people who have been nominated have served before. A good thing. We benefit from having experienced leaders. Once you have elected these elders and deacons today, we will install them in their offices during worship on February 13th. And the first question we will ask them in that installation service is this:
a. Do you trust in Jesus Christ your Savior, acknowledging him Lord of all and Head of the Church, and through him believe in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit?
“Lord of all and Head of the Church” I didn’t write that. That’s Book of Order.
Skipping down to the sixth question, we will ask:
f. Will you in your own life seek to follow the Lord Jesus Christ, love your neighbors, and work for the reconciliation of the world?
A blessed church will take all of the ordination/installation questions seriously, but perhaps these two most of all.
“On a practical level,” says Standish, the meetings and matters of the blessed church are grounded in prayer as its leaders seek what God wants over what they want. Dying churches are ego driven. Blessed churches are Christ guided. Blessed churches root their ministries and mission in prayer, act confidently on what they hear, and let God take care of the results. They don’t achieve these practices perfectly by any means. Faith is always sprinkled with fear and doubt in even the most faithful leaders. Still in the end, they do their best to act in faith rather than fear.”
I didn’t write that either. . That’s Standish, whose church, by the way is one of the growingest churches in the country..
As we move forward into 2013, seeking to be a blessed church, we will do better, – we will be better, – we will have better, – if we practice and grow in seeing ourselves as the Body of Christ, making decisions prayerfully as we seek to do his will.
On the night Jesus was arrested, the Gospel of John tells us before they came for him, Jesus prayed for the disciples, saying to God, “they are still in the world, and I am coming to you.” Then he asked of God, “Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one.” (John 17:11).
Understanding itself as the Body of Christ results in becoming a blessed church by actively seeking to do our best, through prayer and thoughtful reflection to be and do what God in Christ is calling us to be and do. How do we know what Christ is calling us to be and do? As Presbyterians we understand that we may not always agree about that, but a good place to start is in the gospels, studying what Jesus taught. Narrow it down? You might start in Matthew 5-7, the Sermon on the Mount, the stories he told, or the great commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your hear and with all you mind and with all your soul, and your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-40)
Now “it is possible to have union without unity,” as that great author A. Nony Mouse said. “Just tie two cats together by their tails and throw them over a clothesline.” We don’t want that kind of unity.
By contrast, think about the snowflakes that surround us. Individually they are one of nature’s most fragile things, but look what they can do when they stick together!
HEBREW BIBLE LESSON: Psalm 36:5-10
EPISTLE LESSON I Corinthians 12:1-11
SERMON: “Weird People Everywhere”
A member of the British Parliament appeared one day at the Gates of Heaven and demanded entry. "Sorry, sir," said the Admitting Angel, "but sexism is a sin, and our records show you to be a Male Chauvinist Pig. There is no room for you here."
"Humph," said the MP, "I suppose you got that nonsense from Maggie Thatcher! I see her over there, gloating at me."
"More bad news, I'm afraid," said the Angel. "That's not Mrs. Thatcher. That's God." (1)
Men prejudiced against women; women prejudiced against men. Christians prejudiced against Jews. Jews prejudiced against Christians. White folks prejudiced against black. Black folks prejudiced against white. One of the great challenges facing our society today is that of diversity. Why in the world did God create so many Weird People? According to the title of one book, MEN ARE FROM MARS AND WOMEN ARE FROM VENUS.
You'll always find exceptions to the rule, but research and experience consistently point to basic differences between the way men and women act, think, and feel. For example, men generally base their self-esteem on achievement. They are more competitive and aggressive than women. Women generally base their self-esteem on relationships. They tend to relate to other people on a more personal level. A University of Pennsylvania study conducted by brain researcher Ruben Gur demonstrated that women were better able to read emotion in facial expressions than men. And a survey conducted by GLAMOUR magazine showed that 60 percent of conversations between women are on emotional or personal topics, compared with 27 percent of similar conversations between men. (3) Men and women see the world through different eyes.
But that's just one kind of diversity. We are different in many ways. They say even the order of our birth can help determine our brand of weirdness. First-borns, middle children and youngest children tend to have certain characteristics, but then you gather a group of “baby of the family” folk and discover that they aren’t all that much alike.
Various researchers have found a tendency for first-borns to choose studies such as mathematics, engineering, physics, architecture, and chemistry, and yet in my family of origin, it is the middle child who pursued a Ph.D. in mathematics and ended up working with computer programs for a company that does scientific applications contract work with the military.
Later-born men and women make up the majority of those practicing the creative arts. One study found, for example, that writers tend to come from the ranks of later-borns. But my oldest sister is the only one of us who has a published book. (available on Amazon.com)1
So we are different by gender, birth order, skin color, ethnic heritage, life experience.
When I was a psychology major at Kalamazoo College, I became convinced that it was “nurture over nature,” when it came to how children grow up and their personalities develop. For the most part I raised my two children with as much of the same values and experiences as possible. But they are not biologically related to me or to each other, and they are as different as night and day. When Paul reconnected with his birth family about 20 years ago, we all learned the role genetics plays in personality.
We are a wonderfully diverse people. Men, women, oldest child, only child, baby of the family, short people, tall people, skinny people, large people, black people, yellow people, brown people, white people. People who take pride in their descent from a particular ethnic group " Italian, Greek, Hispanic " and people who take pride in their particular area of the country " Boston, L.A., Charleston, Dallas. What a diversity of people.
The Declaration of Independence asserts, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” I won’t dispute that God’s will for every human being includes abundant life, liberty and happiness. But really? All men created equal. Then why aren’t we all NBA MVP’s like Michael Jordan? He made the big bucks precisely because of his differences from you and me.
EVEN IN THE CHURCH WE ARE DIVERSE. Especially in the church we are diverse. St. Paul talks about spiritual gifts. To one is given the utterance of wisdom, says Paul, to another the utterance of knowledge. To another is given the Spirit of faith, to another gifts of healing. To another is given the working of miracles, to another prophecy, etc. Paul seems to be saying that the same diversity we confront in the world is also found in the church.
Have you noticed that not all of us in this church have the same tastes? Some people are comforted by the old hymns. Inwardly they groan when we ask them to learn something new. Others are tired of the old hymns; they want something new as often as possible. For some, singing is the high point of the service;
others wouldn't mind if we dispensed with the music altogether.
Years ago I was fortunate to participate in a three-year program in the Presbytery of Lincoln Trails. At one of our biannual gatherings the presenter was Jay Hudson – something of an expert on the generations (another huge difference between folk!). Talking about music in worship he posed the question “How many of you get in your car and tune the radio station to something that will play organ music?” His intention was to indicate that pretty much none of us would, and yet I thought, “I would.” I love great organ music. Then he played a CD with some contemporary music – not the gentle stuff we do here! I’m talking hard rock and more. While I didn’t come away convinced that I wanted that type of music in worship, I did get it, that if my kids hate my music as much as I hate theirs – now wonder they don’t come to the traditional worship that appeals to so many of us. We all have different tastes.
We come from a wide variety of backgrounds and that affects our relationship to the church.
Did you know that men and women may hear the Gospel through two different sets of ears? Here we can be guilty of over-generalizing, but think with me for a moment. If the experts are right and men think competitively, whereas women think more in terms of relationships, what does that say about the life of the church? Might it be that men respond more positively to a word of challenge, to the setting of goals, to building a bigger and better church, while women might be more concerned with improving the life of the church we already have? Women might be more concerned about creating community than setting goals or accepting challenges. Each of us listens to the Gospel through a unique set of ears.
Some people have heard enough fire and brimstone preaching that as soon as they hear about the sheep welcomed into the kingdom and the goats being cast out, they react with indignation anger and rejection. Others hear that passage as a reminder that it’s not just about what we say (not everyone who says, “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom), but a reminder that whatever we do, good or bad, help or harm, we do to Jesus, for the Spirit lives in each of us. So, if nothing else moves us, then our love and respect for the God who created us and gives us life through his son will direct us at least “to do no harm.”
Did you know that left-brained people hear the Gospel differently from right-brained people? The way we think may be determined by which side of our brain is dominant, scientists tell us. Left brain dominant people tend to be more literal, more fact-oriented, more opinionated, more verbal, whereas right-brained people tend to be more creative, more emotional, more visual. The left-brain person wants the sermon to be doctrinally sound. He or she wants the pastor to get all the facts right. The right brained person wants to feel better when the pastor gets done talking.
Those things may not be that important to the right-brained person. The right-brained person wants the pastor to tell some good stories, insert some humor, be warm and accepting. Did you know
we have both kinds of persons in this church? Silly question.
Many of you know that one of the questions I asked PNC co-chair Dan Hula in the interview process was “Where is this church theologically and politically?” His answer: “All over the map.” When the session met with Rev. Rachel before I went on sabbatical, she asked me what my hopes and expectations were for her during those three months. My answer: “Rachel, pasturing this church is like trying to herd cats. If you can just hold these cats together until I get back, I’ll be happy.
People brought up in a rural environment look for different things in a church than do people brought up in an urban environment. People who were brought up very strictly look for different things than people who were raised permissively. Younger folks have a different agenda than do those late in years. We are an amazingly diverse group! But here is what we need to see.
SINCE GOD MADE US ALL THIS WAY, A CERTAIN AMOUNT OF DIVERSITY HAS TO BE GOOD. What a dreary and dull world this would be if we all looked the same, talked the same, had the same perspective on life. If God had not wanted us to be diverse, God would have stopped with Adam. Adam could have been God's friend and God could have made Adam eternal. But it's evident that God wanted richness in His world. God wanted a multitude of persons and God wanted every person who came into the world to have his or her own unique place. Think of it, if that was God's purpose, then there would have to be an enormous amount of diversity so that each of us could be a unique and precious individual.
What St. Paul is urging these diverse members of the church at Corinth to do is to respect one another's differences and to understand that each of us has a place in God's family. And I believe that is God's message to us. I am not exactly like you, but I am a unique and precious person in the eyes of God. And so are you, and so is everyone in this room, and so is everyone in this world.
We’re about to inaugurate President Obama for a second term. Some of you think Obama is the best president since FDR, or maybe since Lincoln. Others of you weren’t all that crazy about FDR and as far as you are concerned Obama is the anti-Christ. Whichever side of that conversation you take, what we all need to remember is that God chose to make us male and female, right-brained and left, short and tall, oldest child and youngest, rural and urban, liberal and conservative, brown and white and black and yellow, speaking different languages and coming from different backgrounds. This was God's plan for reasons only God can know. And, if it is God's plan, it must be good. It must be beautiful. We can only live and work and have our being in God’s plan.
That is what God wants from each of us. To love God as God loves us and to love one another. We are a diverse people. That is the way God created us. Let's honor that diversity and pledge to respect one another as members of the family of God.
HEBREW BIBLE LESSON: Isaiah 43:1-7
GOSPEL LESSON Mark 1:4-11
SERMON: “In the Line of Fire”
I saw the movie Lincoln yesterday. I can see why it got some 12 Oscar nominations. Most of us grow up learning that George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were the two best presidents this country ever had. It’s a pretty high standard for anyone to try to match. But I gained new respect for our 16th president as the film showed the challenges he faced to end the American Civil War, preserve the Union and end the institution of slavery. Of course the movie ending is no surprise to anyone who has studied the smallest amount of U.S. history. Although he was beloved by many, Lincoln also had his enemies and was assassinated just a few months into his second term. If you haven’t seen it yet – hurry! It’s worth seeing on the big screen.
There are preachers who will tell you that if you will just turn your life over to God, all will be well, your problems will be solved and some will even tell you that you’ll become more prosperous than you ever imagined. It would be nice if that were true. It would be so much easier to get people to follow the Lord if we could promise that all their problems would disappear. The trouble with what is called “prosperity preaching” is that it just isn’t true. Good people and bad people face challenges in life, sometimes challenges that seem overwhelming.
But this is what the Lord says— . . .“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. 2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you
Clint Eastwood has always been one of my favorite actors, and “In the Line of Fire” is possibly the best movie he made in the 90’s. I chose that movie title for my message today, because we all feel from time to time that we are in the line of fire. In the movie Eastwood plays an aging Secret Service agent who is haunted by his failure to protect President Kennedy from being assassinated, and who is now serving on the team protecting the current president. A clever psychopath taunts him with messages and clues, and we’re off on a thriller, anxious to see if Eastwood’s character will be able to redeem himself.
Secret Service Agents certainly are “in the line of fire,” charged with serving as bodyguards for high government officials. Lots of other careers and vocations also place a person at risk. Last year the Labor Department reported that more than 4,600 people lost their lives on the job. Most dangerous jobs include (descending order, rated by % of workers with fatal work injuries):
taxi drivers and chauffeurs
Electric power line installers and repairers
Drivers/sales workers and truck drivers
Farmers, ranchers and other agricultural workers
Structural iron and steelworkers
Trash and recyclable collectors
Aircraft pilots and flight engineers
Logging workers –
#1 Commercial fishers and fishing related workers
Lots of people put their lives on the line every day in their jobs. I was surprised that police and firefighters didn’t make the list. If you’re curious about injury rates just google ‘most dangerous jobs.’
Bob Kaylor, Senior writer for Homiletics writes about another dangerous job, but fortunately one not too many people are engaged in: tightrope walkers. I am so glad I wasn’t born into the
Wallenda family! Three steps up a ladder is plenty for me.
To travel from the United States to Canada, most people take a road. Some cross a bridge. Nik Wallenda walked a tightrope. Over Niagara Falls.
Last June, the 33-year-old daredevil walked a cable dripping with spray from the falls as 100,000 people watched his stunt from the ground. The crossing was broadcast by ABC on live television, so millions more were able to listen to the prayers he said into a microphone as he made his way across. I wouldn’t even want to watch that -- I cannot fathom what it would be like to walk on a tightrope stretched over Niagara Falls. And yet I chuckle each time I am reminded that the number one phobia isn’t heights – it’s public speaking.
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you,” says God through the prophet Isaiah, “and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.” (Isaiah 43:2) Wallenda didn’t exactly pass through the Falls; he walked above them, praying constantly. Obviously if he had gone through the waters the force of the Falls would have knocked him off the tightrope. Still, even above the Falls -- a very scary feat.
I’m pretty sure none of us here are tightrope walkers. If any of you are Secret Service agents, that remains a secret – at least from me. I don’t see any former presidents here today. Not too many of you are engaged in any of those top ten hazardous jobs, but we all have our scary moments, times when life requires us to go through “dangerous waters.”
All of us face times when obstacles seem insurmountable. Passing physics class; getting dumped by the person with whom you anticipated spending the rest of your life; surviving cancer or some other life-threatening illness; raising teenagers; being fired, changing careers; experiencing the death of a spouse – or a child. The list goes on. When these things happen we wonder how we are ever going to get through it.
Some people don’t; they turn and walk, if not run away. Drop the class; avoid getting emotionally involved in a relationship; ignore the warning signs of illness and stay away from the doctor; or just settle down into denial.
But now, this is what the Lord says— he who created you, Jacob, he who formed you, Israel:
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,( you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.
You don’t have to be a Secret Service agent, a wartime president or a tightrope walker to face really scary stuff in life. Everyone does. Sometimes we bring those scary times upon ourselves through unwise choices we make. Sometimes seemingly overwhelming troubles come our way because of the choices of others. And sometimes frightening stuff just happens. Even the Lord Jesus Christ, after his baptism by John in the Jordan faced trials and
temptations in the wilderness.
"Does God protect us?" is the question Scott Bader-Saye asked in a Christian Century article (July 10, 2007). Bader-Saye tells the story of a friend named Steve, who was dying of cancer. Steve received a well-intentioned but hurtful letter from a woman who suggested that, if he just had more faith, God might yet heal him. "Far from providing comfort," Bader-Saye writes, "the letter struck Steve like a hot iron of judgment." With the help of his twin brother -- for he was by then too weak to take pen in hand himself -- Steve drafted a reply that read, in part:
I share your faith in the almighty power of God to heal and sustain us. There may be times, though, when God's greatest miracle is not the miracle of physical healing, but the miracle of giving us strength in the face of suffering ....
As I read the Bible, God's promise is to remove all our suffering in the next life, though not necessarily in this one. In this world, we will sometimes weep, suffer and die. But in the New Jerusalem, "God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain, for the former things are passed away" Revelation 2:14).
I sincerely hope that if my cancer continues to grow, no one will see it as a failure of my faith in God, but that perhaps people can see me as faithful even if I die while I am still young. I do not claim to understand God's will, but I do know that I am in God's hands, whether in life or in death.
This message through the prophet Isaiah to the Hebrews in exile
suggests a proclamation of the gospel to us in exile today.
Although our exile is not geographical or, generally, physical, for many it is spiritual and it is relational. Sometimes we feel very alone in our life journey, especially when trouble strikes.
The Table spread before us, as we recall and re-tell what God did on the cross, reminds us that we are not alone.
A short story illustrates why God chose to come to us in Jesus of Nazareth:
A man was taking a walk through a pasture. He came upon an anthill and amused himself by watching the ants as they busily scurried in and out. Then he happened to move into a position which cast his shadow over the anthill. Immediately all activity ceased. The ants disappeared into their home. When he stepped back so that his shadow was not over the anthill, the ants resumed their activities.
Intrigued by the ants' reaction to shadow and light, he proceeded to conduct a little experiment. He repeated his movements and noticed that each time his shadow crossed the anthill, all activity stopped. Evidently they were afraid of the sudden darkness. He wondered how he could prove to the ants that he meant them no harm. He decided finally that the only way he could do this successfully would be to become an ant himself. Then he could communicate with the ants; he could convince them that he wanted to be their friend.
The spiritual and relational exile that we find around and within us so much today could be compared to a darkness - in which we fear harm or, worse, meaninglessness. God cut through that darkness in his Son - by becoming human and communicating with us. He went further than the man in the story, though; He died to give us a relationship which would be meaningful and which would eradicate our alienation and loneliness.
As, in a few moments, we come to the Table, let us be reminded today that Christ is alive! God's promise not to abandon those whom he chooses, suggests that in the night of our own exile, when we are in the line of fire, we can be confident that God will bring daylight again!
After Jesus’ 40 days with the wild animals in the wilderness, being tempted by Satan, the angels came and attended to him.
If you are in the shadows today, know that God will bring the light again. Whenever challenges seem overwhelming, hear the Lord’s words:
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. 2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned;
Thanks be to God, and let all God’s people say: Amen
HEBREW BIBLE LESSON: Isaiah 60:1-6 (p. 1155)
GOSPEL LESSON Matthew 2:1-12 (p. 1497)
SERMON: “A Matter of Perseverance”
I might have considered today’s message as one more in the series on the “Characters of Christmas as we consider the Magi – or wise men – who brought gifts of great value as they visited the Baby Jesus. But it’s a new year and we are ready to work on new things. Nearly every nativity scene includes the three wise men as a part of the manger scene, gathering around the Holy Family along with the shepherds and angels, the sheep and the donkeys. But scholars are clear that their visit came considerably later, by perhaps as much as two years. When they did arrive, tradition and scripture tell us they knelt down, worshiped him and offered their gifts.
Having traveled a great distance, they finished what they came to do, and then, distrustful of Herod, they left without giving Herod the information he wanted about where the Christ Child could be found.
They finished what they came to do. This is a time for fresh starts and new beginnings, but some of us have unfinished projects that need to be completed before we are really ready to move on.
Anyone here have an unfinished project or two? I certainly do. I started to knit an afghan for my friend Pat, I’ve lost track of how many years ago. Maybe this will be the year . . . And there are other things.
If you also have unfinished projects, we are in good company. Bob Kaylor, Senior Minister of Park City United Methodist Church in Utah writes about Leonardo da Vinci and the fact that “in 1480, da Vinci was commissioned to paint an 8-by-9-foot work for the main altar of the San Donato a Scopeto monastery. He started his "Adoration of the Magi" and was well along with it, but then skipped town, went to Milan and never finished it. . .
“He was 29 at the time, and he worked on it for quite a while, getting the piece to its brown ink and yellow ocher groundwork stage. But then he moved to Milan and left it behind, never to work on it again. Eventually the assignment was given to another artist who provided the requested painting to the monastery in 1496. Da Vinci's unfinished work still exists and is on display in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Though uncompleted, it is recognized in the art world as one of his most important works.”
An unfinished work by da Vinci – considered to be of great value in spite of the fact that it was not completed. I could wish that my afghan might also be considered of great value, but sadly, only about 80 of the 154 required squares are done, and it will need to be crocheted together and then crocheted around the outside edge. Obviously I don’t have da Vinci’s reputation or status as an artist, and those knitted squares are of little value.
It’s not that we don’t intend to finish the projects we start, but something happens, we get distracted, we are required to do something else. There were several things I wanted to get done in December, but a leak under my kitchen sink led to a visit from the plumber, which led his checking out the furnace, water heater and water softener in the basement, which led to his informing me that the tank for my well needed to be replaced and that the filter on the well was likely clogged, which ultimately led to a huge project on the well itself. Time, energy, money, people who need our help or attention can all prevent us from finishing some of the things we start or plan to do.
Before we just give up, and start on new projects for this new year, we might do well to consider some of those unfinished projects and whether or not they deserve our time, attention and resources.
Maybe I’m the only one here this morning with unfinished projects for which I no longer have the enthusiasm with which I began. But probably not, because there is something we all need to continue working on -- growing our discipleship and maturing in faith. We forget sometimes that the Christian life is not simply a matter of initial repentance, baptism and commitment, but also a matter of life-long perseverance. And discipleship and growth in faith require perseverance because it is so easy to lose those initial feelings of gratitude and joy that come when we first believe. I’m reminded of the last verse we usually sing of that great old hymn, “Amazing Grace.”
“When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun,
There’s no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we first begun.”
Singing God’s praise isn’t just about literally singing. We sing God’s praise when we build God’s kingdom. The work of ministry never ends. The life of faith continues. The needs for Christian fellowship, prayer and study are never done, but our commitment and energy tend to drop off. Kaylor suggests that one prayer for ongoing discipleship might be, "Help me, O God, while my enthusiasm is leaking away and my energy is failing and problems are multiplying, to continue to do your will."
In his book about keeping one's commitment to Christ throughout life, Steve Farrar, addressing men specifically, suggests four practices to help them finish the race of life strong and faithfully. They are:
Stay in ... the Scriptures. Meditate regularly on what the Bible says.
Stay close ... to a trusted Christian friend, for accountability purposes.
Stay away ... from other women. That is, keep appropriate distance from members of the opposite sex, other than one's spouse, of course. (And that goes for women as well as men.)
Stay alert ... to the tactics of the enemy. Beware the lies Satan sells.1
Tanzanian John Steven Akhwari competed in the 1968 Olympics in the marathon. Here is his story in the words of the Wikipedia entry:
“While competing in the marathon in Mexico City, Akhwari cramped up due to the high altitude of the city. He had not trained at such an altitude back in his country. At the 19 kilometer point during the 42 km race, there was jockeying for position between some runners and he was hit. He fell badly, wounding his knee and dislocated that joint plus his shoulder hit hard against the pavement. He however continued running, finishing last among the 57 competitors who completed the race (75 had started). The winner of the marathon, Mamo Wolde of Ethiopia, finished in 2:20:26. Akhwari finished in 3:25:27, when there were only a few thousand people left in the stadium, and the sun had set. A television crew was sent out from the medal ceremony when word was received
that there was one more runner about to finish.
“As he finally crossed the finish line a cheer came from the small crowd. When interviewed later and asked why he continued running, he said, ‘My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start the race; they sent me 5,000 miles to finish the race."2
We're at the start of a new year. As we stand here at the beginning of a new year, it's a good time to think about the faith-projects before us as a congregation and as individuals. How do we know that the projects before us have value to God? One sign of God is that we are led to work that we did not intend to do. Another sign of God is that we are trusted to seek God's help to bring the task to completion. Believe this: When God calls us to a task, God gives us his help to finish it.
- What's the project (or projects) you are struggling with?
- What's the next step in that project? (I hope you all know the instructions for eating an elephant. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.)
- What's keeping you from taking that step, or implementing the step? Do you need help from others? or from God?
- What has God called you to do that suddenly seems to fall apart? Be assured that when God gives you an important project to do for the Kingdom, there will be difficulties, interruptions and obstacles.
- What nay saying comments need to be ignored? And what advice truly needs to be heeded?
- What hindrances are really indicators that you are on the right track?
- What last-stage problems are reminders to call afresh on God for help?
- In the coming year, how can you build accountability into your life to encourage faithful discipleship?
1Steve Farrar. Finishing Strong: Finding the Power to Go the Distance (Sisters, Ore.: Multnomah Books, 1995), 51-63.
2—contributed to Homiletics by Vincent J. Dominique, U.S. Army Chaplain, Fort Jackson.