FIRST LESSON: Joel 2:23-32
SECOND LESSON Hebrews 12:1-13
SERMON: “Drooping Arms & Weak Knees”
Have you ever felt so tired that you thought you just couldn’t put one foot in front of the other? Have you ever felt what an anonymous poet felt when he wrote,
I wish I was a little rock . . . A sittin’ on the hill
A doin’ nothin’ all day long . . . ‘Cept just a sittin’ still.
I wouldn’t eat, I wouldn’t sleep . . . I wouldn’t even wash
I’d sit and sit a thousand years. . . And rest myself, by gosh!
Some of us get very tired, and apparently that was true for the Christians to whom the Letter to the Hebrews was written. For them, and for us, Paul paints a picture. He compares the Christian life to running a race. And this is a race where the stands are filled with spectators, but not just any spectators. St. Paul calls them a “great cloud of witnesses.” They include the many faithful followers of God from Abraham and Sarah, to Moses, Samuel and David, even including Rahab who helped the Hebrew spies, and Samson. They have run the race, and now are cheering us on.
But how do we run the race of a faithful life, when like the anonymous poet, we would rather “sit and sit for a thousand years, and rest [ourselves], by gosh.”? How do we keep going when disappointment, setbacks, even failures threaten us? How do we keep from prematurely placing ourselves with the cloud of witnesses (who are, by the way, dead! – and we are not) and instead find the energy not only to complete and compete, but to win? Clearly this is not a new problem. It’s been around for at least 2,000 years. Today we call it burnout, whether it is on the job, in our family lives and relationships . . . or even in the church.
We need to recognize, first of all, that our energy, which is what enables us to lift our drooping hands and strengthen our weak knees, has something to do with our mental state. You may think that age is the determining factor in how much energy we have, but the truth is, there are lots of young couch potatoes, folks sitting back, doing little or nothing. And we all know some pretty energetic senior citizens. The difference is in their attitude. I’ll admit there are physical causes for lack of energy. With cancer #2 – now 21 years ago the primary way I knew I was seriously sick was that I had no energy. Gradually I got more and more tired. I found myself going home and having a nap for lunch - and some days it was a long lunch. And one of the ways I know I am healthy now is the abundance of energy I enjoy. But where there is no such physical illness, we could say about those who complain of no energy, that the drain begins with the brain. Our energy level is related to our attitude toward life.
In How to Stay Alive Robert Spain tells about two elderly sisters who bought a house beside a road and put up a sign that read “Antiques.” People would stop, and the sisters would serve tea and cookies, mixed with much enjoyable conversation. Later the visitors would ask to see the antiques. And the sisters would eagerly answer, “You’re lookin’ at ‘em.” These two sisters didn’t bemoan their age. They didn’t sit around and complain about their advanced years. They accepted their age, and apparently had a good time with it! Could it be that there is indeed truth to the old adage, “You’re only as old as you feel.”?
The better our attitude, the higher our level of energy. You’ve experienced it. You’ve had a tough day. You’ve been working hard and you can’t wait to stop and relax. You’re too exhausted, too worn out to do much more than pop something in the microwave and reach for the remote control. But a friend calls and invites you to do something you really enjoy. Suddenly you have a burst of energy you never thought you had. When you are doing something you enjoy, amazing energy is available. Energy is primarily mental. It is related to attitude.
And there is nothing more draining to your mental attitude and energy level than criticism. Dr. Henry Goddard researched energy levels with an instrument he developed called the ergograph. Students were instructed to run on a treadmill. As a student became tired and exhausted on the treadmill, his energy level -- as measured by the ergograph -- would gradually drop. But, if the researchers said to the student, “You’re doing great . . . keep up the good work . . . I’m proud of you,” suddenly the student’s energy would dramatically improve. That’s why we like to celebrate things in the church from graduating students to dedicating and celebrating we do musician and teacher appreciation. That’s one of the primary benefits of the annual congregational meeting -- to look at what we have accomplished and encourage those who have worked hard.
By contrast, if the researchers said, “You’re lazy . . . quit dragging your feet . . what’s wrong with you . . .” talking discouragingly and critically, the energy curve would go down. I used to have a sign in my office that said, “Don’t be a SNIOP - Zig Ziglar’s term meaning don’t be a person who is “Subject to the Negative Influence of Other People.” If you are going to lift up your drooping arms, you can’t let the negativity of others drag you down! And there’s a lot of negativity out there in the world!
The author of Hebrews tells us that we are not alone in the race of life. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. They are cheering us on, “you’re doing great . . . keep up the good work . . . we’re proud of you.” How thrilling and encouraging to know that as we go about the work of the church here in Plainfield Township, that Moses, and Abraham and Sarah, David and Deborah, Peter and Paul are cheering us on. And let’s stop here for a moment and think of those who have sat in these seats over the years, those who worshiped God in this sanctuary. Think of people who taught Sunday school in past years, who sang in the choir, who served on session, who ministered as deacons, worked as custodians, treasurers and pastors. As the end of my time with you approaches and I reflect on my ministry with you, I will never forget people like Jess, who always had an encouraging word. There are some of you sitting here this morning, you know who you are, people who have given the thumbs up after a worship service, or called to lift spirits after an especially difficult session meeting. Some of you are amazing at telling the choir director and the singers as well as other musicians how much you enjoy their efforts. Take a moment to remember even back. Where did your faith heroes and heroines sit? How did their lives and service witness to their faith. What would they say to us now about how we are running the race? This is our own cheering section, a unique cloud of witnesses urging us on.
Energy is largely mental, lifted up by those who cheer us on, and energy is also related to how we feel about ourselves. One of the deadliest drainers of energy is low self-esteem.
Let me share with you Jack Canfield’s story about a man named Roger Crawford whom Canfield had met on the speaking circuit. Roger was born with a rare disease, the result of which is that he has only one finger on his right hand and a finger and a thumb on his left hand. On his left foot he had one toe and the knee was locked and it was deformed. When he was about four or five years old, they amputated his leg from the knee down and so he has a prosthesis (a false leg). Roger was a guy who could focus on what was missing -- and be a victim of low self-esteem, or focus on what he had.
When he was a little kid he used to always hid his hands in his pockets, because he was ashamed of his hands, but his parents would always say, “Roger, take your hands out of your pockets, put a smile on your face and go out there and do something. Nobody can do everything, but everybody can do something. Find out what your something is and go do it.” A pretty good speech to encourage and raise the esteem of any child!
Well, Robert wanted to play football, so he went out and the coach said, “Come on kid, give me a break. You’ve got a wooden leg here and no fingers. You can’t hold the ball.” Roger said, “I want to try out anyway.” So the coach let him try out. And Roger made the team -- became a first string defensive end. His great goal in life was to intercept a pass and run for a touchdown.
One day he was going in on the play. The quarterback went to throw
the ball. It was tipped up in the air, and Roger leaped for it and caught it in his arms -- he couldn’t have caught it with his fingers. He hugged it to his chest and started to run toward the goal line.
He got about six yards from the goal line and this guy grabbed his false leg. And Roger pulled and this guy pulled, and Roger pulled and this guy pulled, and Roger’s leg came off and Roger hopped on one leg the final six yards and got his touchdown!
Roger was able to do that because he focused on what he had and, thanks to his parents, despite his handicaps, he had a strong healthy sense of self-esteem. Energy is related to mental attitude, to how we feel about ourselves and finally, our energy level is related to our sense of purpose. Remember Roger had a goal -- something he really wanted to accomplish. If we are working for something we really believe in, then we find the energy to accomplish our objectives.
What is the goal -- the purpose of this congregation? Is our purpose to worship God or to feel good about ourselves? Is our purpose to survive or to spread the gospel? Is our purpose to take care of our own or to reach out to a needy community and world around us? Perhaps it is all of these things. Why do growing churches articulate a “purpose statement”? Because when we have a purpose in life, or in the life of the church, we discover a wellspring of strength and direction and courage. As you move ahead you will focus on what the purpose of this church is?
Joseph P. Klock wrote in “The Purpose of Life” about a group of refugees who were about to flee a war zone by hiking over some of the most rugged terrain in their country. As they were about to leave, they were approached by a frail, old man and a sickly mother, carrying an infant. The leaders of the group agreed to take these rather frail refugees along with the understanding that the men would take turns carrying the baby, but that the mother and the old man would have to make it on their own.
Several days into the journey the old man fell to the ground, saying he was too exhausted to continue. He pleaded to be left behind to die. Facing the harsh reality of the situation, the leaders of the group reluctantly decided to do just that. Suddenly the young mother placed her baby in the old man’s arms, and told him that it was his turn to carry the child. Then she walked away with the group of men. It was several minutes before she allowed herself to look back, but, when she did, she saw the old man stumbling along the trail with the child in his arms. Energized by his new sense of purpose, he was enabled to get up and get moving again. Without that purpose, he would surely have died.
So, says the Word of God, lift your drooping arms. You are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses -- cheering you, the sons and daughters of God on, to live the life of faith, to share the good news about Jesus Christ in word and deed!
Lift your drooping arms and strengthen your weak knees, and make a straight path for your feet. There is a fountain of energy available to you and to me. Grab that positive attitude, nurture a new feeling of self- and church-worth, and use your God-given sense of purpose for the people of God!
FIRST LESSON: Romans 14:1-12
SECOND LESSON Matthew 18:15-20
SERMON: “Gyroscopic Grace”
Those of you who have smart phones – have you ever noticed that when you’re looking at your pictures, no matter which way you twist or turn it, it reorients itself so that the picture is right side up. It can do that because it has a built-in electronic gyroscope. The name gyroscope comesfrom Greek, γῦρος gûros, "circle" and σκοπέω skopéō, "to look". There are mechanical gyroscopes, fibre optic gyroscopes, and the very sensitive quantum gyroscope which theoretically can detect even minute changes in the rotational rate of the earth.
So how is this relevant to worship today? In our gospel reading Jesus is directing his followers to keep our relationships right-side up. That’s not easy, because we don’t have built-in gyroscopes to make it both automatic and easy. But hang in here with me and you’ll see that God has the way to keep our relationship with him right-side up. Getting it right with other people, however, is a different story.
Many years ago, Colonel Jeff O’Leary served as part of the UN peacekeeping forces in the Sinai Peninsula region. While there, he encountered a number of Bedouin people, a nomadic people who travel this desert region. One afternoon, Colonel O’Leary had tea with a group of Bedouin men. He couldn’t help but notice that his host kept staring at a man who was tending his camels. The host pointed out the man and hissed at Colonel O’Leary, “Do you see that man? He is a camel thief.” Colonel O’Leary wanted to know why his host would hire a camel thief to tend his camels, so he began asking questions. It turned out that in his host’s eyes this man was a camel thief because he came from a family of camel thieves. But why were they a family of camel thieves?
Because one of their ancestors had once stolen some camels from this man’s family. How long ago, O’Leary asked. Eight hundred years ago, the Bedouin host replied. For eight hundred years, the hosts’ family and this man’s family had hated each other, because one man had stolen the other man’s camels. For eight hundred years, the host’s family had passed down the story of the camel thief. Forgiveness was not an option for them. In the Bedouin host’s mind, the crime was just as horrible as if it had occurred yesterday, and this man was just as much a thief as his ancestor who had actually stolen the camel.
I found that story incredibly sad, both for the generations that were branded as thieves and for the generations who held hatred and contempt in their hearts.
Jesus instructed his disciples that if someone hurts you, go and tell him—work it out between the two of you. If he listens, you’ve made a friend. If he won’t listen, take one or two others along so that the presence of witnesses will keep things honest, and try again. If he still won’t listen, tell the church. If he won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love.
I’ve been reading Anne Graham Lotz’ book Wounded by God’s People. One would think that if anyone should be immune from attacks in a church, it would be the daughter of Billy Graham. But she endured hurtful things in the church on several occasions. God’s people are the very ones who are supposed to show us God’s love and grace. Among other things she reminds us that often people who wound others have themselves been wounded. It may help to understand that when they strike, it’s not always about their victims. It’s frequently that they lash out because they are in pain. She also tells us that when we are wounded, we have a choice as to how we will respond. We can either become wounders ourselves, or we can use what happened to become healers.
Sadly conflict happens in the church just as much as outside of the church. Comments are made at meetings and after meetings and various gatherings – in the board room and in the parking lot. The trouble with the church, is the same thing that makes for trouble in families, in the workplace, in sports and schools and business. All of these . . . well, they’re made up of people. And sometimes we get sideways with other people.
Lies get told.
Money goes missing.
Power gets protected.
Promises get broken.
Affairs take place.
Unfortunately when relationships get turned inside out and upside down, they don’t fix themselves automatically. We have to take action. I’m as guilty on this as anybody. Years of being in the church have conditioned most of us to be nice. We don’t want to stir up trouble and we don’t like to recognize that there are serious conflicts and divisions in local churches and in the regional and national church. We want everyone to just get along and not face the fact that people make mistakes; people sin. We’d rather pretend that problems don’t exist, and that eventually they will go away or work themselves out. We fear making things worse,
and we’re anxious to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings.
But Jesus is pretty clear that if someone has sinned, done something to offend the heart of God and harm his/her relationship with you, then you must go to them. Jesus teaches the church to be a community that refuses to ignore destructive behavior.
First Jesus says go by yourself. Try to talk about the issue privately. I was at a dinner party once, years ago, with several couples. I noticed during the meal that one member or the other of each couple made a comment about their spouse, a jab, a criticism, a complaint -- often couched in a bit of humor, but a criticism nonetheless. It’s a common tactic in all kinds of relationships. Perhaps we feel safer making our point. We hope the other person isn’t likely to start a fight in front of all these people. But now we have compounded whatever the problem is because we have denied the object of our complaint the opportunity to save face and deal with the trouble privately.
But if that one-on-one conversation doesn’t mend the situation, then, says the Lord, take someone or . . . two .. . with you. Maybe you need a referee or a witness. Finally, if all else fails, he says bring it to the church. This passage has frequently been cited as a pattern for church discipline, but it is much more than that. It’s about the danger of sin and of God’s amazing grace.
Jesus has just talked with them about the Shepherd who will leave the 99 to look for one that got lost. He has taught about the servant who was forgiven a huge debt and is expected to be just as generous and forgiving with the person who owes him a small sum. He has answered the question of how many times we are supposed to forgive – not seven times, but seventy times seven – so many times that we lose count.
God doesn’t tell us that sin doesn’t matter anymore. God doesn’t tell us that we are free to do whatever feels good to us. God shows us our sin, but does so with compassion. God does not whisper our faults to our neighbors, but repeatedly invites us to return. With gyroscopic grace, no matter how we twist our lives around, God brings us right-side-up. That’s why we come to the Table – to be reminded of God’s grace.
Once upon a time, two brothers who lived on adjoining farms fell into conflict. It was the first serious rift in their 40 years of working together. It began with a small misunderstanding, and grew into a major difference, and finally exploded into an exchange of bitter words followed by weeks of silence. One morning, there was a knock on John’s door. He opened it to find a man with a carpenter’s toolbox. “I’m looking for a few days’ work,” he said. “Perhaps you would have a few small jobs here and there that I could help with?
Yes,” said the older brother. “I do have a job for you. Look across the creek at that farm. That’s my younger brother! Last week, there was a meadow between us, but he took his bulldozer and dug a small river between us. Well I’m going to do him one better. See that pile of old lumber? I want you to build an 8 foot high fence between us. Then I won’t need to see his place or his face anymore.” The carpenter said, “Show me the nails and the tools, and I’ll do a good job for you.”
The older brother had to go to town, so he left for the day. At sunset, when he returned, his eyes opened wide, and his jaw dropped. There was no fence there at all. The carpenter had built a bridge that stretched from one side of the river to the other, with handrails and all! And his younger brother, was coming toward them, his hand outstretched. “You’re quite the guy,” he said, “after all I’ve said and done.” The two brothers met in the middle, and shook each other’s hand. They turned to see the carpenter leaving. “No, wait! Stay a few days. I’ve a lot of other projects for you,” said the older brother. “I’d love to,” the carpenter said, “but I have many more bridges to build.”