Rev. Dr. John Judson
July 30, 2017
Exodus 32:16, Ephesians 6:10-20
It was fascinating. Off in the distance, a mother cheetah was teaching her cub how to hunt. Their prey was a large group of antelope, who had become aware of their presence. Cindy and I were fortunate enough to have gone to a water-well dedication in Kenya several years ago, and since we were there we figured, why not go on safari. We saw lots of wonderful animals but one of the most fascinating was the hunting lesson we witnessed. The cheetahs would crouch low and slowly slink towards the antelope. One of the animals, a lookout perhaps, would get wind of them and bolt, followed quickly by the others. What was interesting though was that they would not just keep running, but would run just far enough to be safe, then stop. I think Cindy focused on the cheetahs as we watched this play out, but I was focused on the antelope because they reminded me of people at a sporting event doing the wave. All it took was one person to start it and everyone followed; without any instruction or organization. It was as if we, like the antelope, were not individuals but a single organism reacting to external stimuli over which we had no control.
Have any of you ever been part of something like that? Have any of you ever been carried away in a crowd to start cheering, booing or laughing; to do the wave or to…and this is where I am headed, to do something you knew was wrong because everyone else was doing it? If you have ever found yourself in that position, you are not alone. Scientists have told us that the answer to our mother’s question, “If everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you?” is not “Uhh, no, sorry mom”, but it is “Sure, why not.” I say this because study after study has proved that human brains are wired for the kind of antelope-like connection that cause us to instinctively do what others do in order to be part of the crowd. We are wired for connection to others and that connection brings comfort and a sense of safety and belonging. In the same way then, to be forced out of the crowd, to be shunned if you will brings us pain. Therefore we go along to belong.
The problem with this, as the Apostle Paul understands, is that we may live in societies or hang out with people that ask us to live in ways, and to treat others in ways, that are not consistent with the teachings of Jesus. This was so for Paul because in the Roman Empire there was a very clear hierarchy in which some people were not only taught that they were better than others, but they acted like they were. Chances are we have witnessed such behavior in those around us…or perhaps even within ourselves. We have stood by when people told jokes that demeaned various kinds of people or perhaps simply to lies about others. We wanted to belong so we went along. For Paul, this was not acceptable. As we discussed last week, Jesus’ followers were to radically reorient their relationships, meaning that they were to see every person as their equal; every person as one made in the image of God. And then treat them as such…regardless of what culture or community tells them to do. They were not to go along to belong. The issue becomes then how can Jesus’ followers break free of the unconscious connections that cause us to go along to belong? The answer for Paul was that people are to get dressed.
So, a quick poll. How many of you got dressed this morning? Good, then you have some idea of what Paul wants people to do in order to resist the temptation to go along to belong. Paul tells his friends at Ephesus that they are to get dressed in the armor of God; that essentially every morning they are to reach into their first-century spiritual closets, pull out the armor of God and put it on. It is what will protect them, it is what will protect us, from the temptation to go along to belong. I suppose if you are a Game of Thrones fan or you like knights in shining armor, Paul’s image of armor may be appealing but this morning I want to give it a new twist. I want us to see our task as getting dressed as Jesus’ superheroes, meaning we are putting on the same items of clothing Paul proposes: truth, righteousness, peace and faith, but we are simply doing it in a slightly more 21st century way.
Step one in our superhero preparation is to put on truth, in this case our Jesus suit. Just like Superman always had his red and blue outfit on under his clothes, so he could step into a phone booth and change for action…and by the way for many of you a phone booth is this thing that people had to use to make phone calls when they were away from home…we are to do the same. We are to do this because Jesus is the truth. He shows us the truth about who God wants us to be. So, step one, we are to consciously put on our Jesus suit, maybe with a big “J” on the front, to remind us that we belong to Jesus above and beyond all the other groups to which we belong.
Step two in our superhero preparation is to put on righteousness, or in this case our x-ray goggles. Now, these goggles are not the usual “I can see through buildings” goggles. They are goggles that allow us to see through the color of a person’s skin, nationality, sexual-orientation, language and see that inside they are God’s children; men, women and children bearing God’s image. This is what righteousness means. It means to live in relationship with all people without prejudice or judgment. It is to see them and love them as God does.
Step three in our superhero preparation is to put on peace, or in this case our force-field…which by the way is a superpower given to all of Jesus’ followers. What I mean by this is that peace is that ability to not give in when people try to force us to go along in order to belong, by shaming us, ignoring us, criticizing and even threatening us. Peace is that deep inner strength that comes from knowing that we are loved by God such that nothing can tempt us or force us to do what God does not want us to do. It acts as a forcefield that allows us to follow Christ even in the face of the pressure to go along to belong.
The fourth and final step in our superhero preparation is to put on the extra lives of faith, salvation and Spirit. For those of you who do not play video games, one of the gifts that can often be won or earned by characters is extra lives. And I know that this is slightly straying from the superhero theme, but it works…and I’m the one up here, so….so faith, salvation and Spirit deal with the reality that even superheroes fail; that we often fail. That sometimes we go along to belong in ways that hurt others before we even are aware that it is happening and we wonder if we ought to turn in our Jesus’ superhero card. Faith can be seen then as the container in which we place our extra lives. Salvation is the source of those lives with which we fill our basket of faith. And the Spirit is the power that applies those lives to our life, reminding us that in Jesus, failure is not the end; that even when we have gone along to belong, this time, God still loves us and empowers us. God gives us extra lives to try again, and again, and again.
You and I are called to be God’s superheroes, living out our lives with radically reoriented Relationships. But in order to do so we must stand against all of the forces both internal and external that push us to go along to belong. My challenge to you then is this, to ask yourselves as you are getting dressed each day, am I putting on my Jesus outfit so that I am not going along in order to belong, but that I live into the kinds of relationships God desires me to have.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
July 23, 2017
It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was a tale of two companies. I will begin with company number one. I learned about this company from a member of our church who spoke of his father’s experience. He was a tool grinder for one of the major auto companies. He worked on the shop floor with hundreds of others. They were not allowed to look up from their bench. They were not allowed to speak with the people next to them. They were given only a few, very short breaks to go to the bathroom. If they violated any of these rules they were written up and if they had too many infractions, they were fired. These rules were enforced by men living in glass boxes high above the shop floor. Company number two is a more modern company that I read about on-line. It was one run by a man who was extremely grateful for his success in life. He had worked his way up from the bottom and built an incredibly successful company, not on his own, but with a dedicated cadre of workers. He was regularly pondering how he could show that appreciation beyond good wages and benefits. Then one day it came to him. He would pay the college tuition of the children of his full-time workers. That’s right, he would pay their college tuition. Needless to say, his employees were thrilled.
I want to take a poll then about which of these two companies you would rather work for. So how many would prefer to work for company one, better or worse company? Ok, so now how many of you would prefer to work for company number two, better or worse company? Just as I thought, by an overwhelming margin we would want to work for the better company, number two . Now a second poll. How many of you believe that Jesus would prefer company number two over company number one? Right, and I would guess that we do because we believe that Jesus came to reorient the world to be a better world, rather than a worse world; to reorient the world into being a place where all human beings are valued and appreciated. But what that does this morning is put us in a bit of a quandary; a quandary that I know exists because every time I have ever taught this part of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, people have wondered why Paul seems to be making a worse world acceptable. By that I mean he appears to be approving of patriarchy, parental domination and slavery. In other words, he appears to be accepting of Roman cultural norms that demean and diminish others. So the question is, does God really want better world? The answer is, God absolutely does, and we can see why as we take a quick look at each of Paul’s relational categories.
We begin with husbands and wives. From our 21st century perspective the opening words cause us to tune out; wives, be subject to your husbands. All we can hear is men dominating women…a dominance which we see in our world extending far beyond the home. What we need to do however is keep on reading. We need to move to “husbands love your wives.” This one statement is a radical reorientation of the marriage relationship. In the Roman Empire, women were little more than servants, sold, or given to their husbands in arranged marriages. What Paul is insisting on here is that husbands give themselves sacrificially to their wives. That husbands see their wives as worthy of being served. That husbands see their wives as their equal because they are of one flesh. Husbands and wives, or as in our case, spouses are to serve one another equally because this is what Jesus did. This is part of the better world.
Next, we turn to parents and children. In the Roman Empire parents had absolute power over their children, including the power of life and death. So when Paul tells children to obey their parents, he is offering nothing new. He is simply repeating the cultural norm. But when he tells parents, fathers in this case, that they are not to provoke their children to anger, but teach them about Christ, he is calling for a radical realignment of the parent-child relationship. While the parent is not to submit, himself or herself, to the child, the parent takes on the role of loving teacher and not of domineering tyrant; of wisdom giver and not of pain-bringer. Here the mutual servant relationship is that children obey and parents teach and guide. This is part of the better world.
Finally, we have the relationship between servants and masters. At this moment, I want to offer a quick aside. People often ask me why Paul doesn’t just come right out and say that slavery is wrong. There are two reasons I will offer. First I am not sure that Paul could imagine a world in which there was no slavery. It was as much a part of his world as the air he breathed and the water he drank. Second, if he had urged the end of slavery he would have been immediately placed on a cross as would have every other Christian, because the one thing Rome feared more than anything else, was a slave uprising.
With that having been said, we return to the letter. Paul begins with his words to the slaves. They are to serve their masters as if they are serving Christ, not because their masters are Christ, but because God desires that they demonstrate submission and obedience, which I know galls us deep inside. What Paul says next though is what ought to catch our attention and stop us in our tracks. He tells the masters that they are not to threaten their slaves, which implies treat them poorly, but to understand that they serve God as equals. Let that sink in. This is a radical realignment of the relationship between slave and master, that the master is to see the slave as his equal and treat him as such. They are to be, to go back to verse 21, subject to one another. This is part of the better world.
It would be easy for us to pause and say, “Great, I do those things at my house. I love and respect my spouse. I care for and teach my children. I don’t have any slaves, so I can let that one pass.” And knowing you all as well as I do, I would agree. I believe that we do a decent job of living into these radically reoriented relationships. Which means I suppose that we could all go to lunch feeling pretty good. Yet, you all know that that is not the way this church thing works. I say that because Paul offers these radically reorganized relationships as examples of what builds the better world. They are not an exhaustive list. They are intended to help us see where we are to be headed as a community and as a world. As McLaren, author of our book, We Make the Road by Walking, points out, these are but three of the multiple relationship circles in our lives; marriage, family and employment. He then reminds us, and I believe so well, that there is one other circle that we cannot ignore.
This “…circle includes our critics, opponents, and enemies – the people who annoy us and those we annoy, the people who don’t understand us and those we don’t understand, the people who try our patience and those whose patience we try. Rather than write them off as unimportant and unwanted, we need to rediscover them as some of the most important people we know. If we ignore them, our growth in the Spirit will be stunted. If we let the Spirit guide us in what we say to their faces and behind their backs, we will become more Christ-like” (McLaren pg. 237). In other words, our work of developing radically reoriented relationships needs to keep moving out; moving out beyond what is comfortable and beyond what is customarily expected. We are to do so because radically reoriented relationships are what will change the world. They are what will give the world hope and a future. I say this because without radically reoriented relationships, we will never hear each other, serve each other, or love each other. We will become more and more divided as families, communities, nations and peoples. Only when we submit to one another as an act of Christ-like community will we be able to step beyond what is and step into what God has planned for us.
This morning then my challenge to you is this, to choose one of the above categories from the last circle, choose someone you know in that circle and work at radically reorienting your relationship with them…thereby helping to make this a better world.
Rev. Amy Morgan
July 16, 2017
Philippians 2:1-11, Matthew 23:1-12
So this is the moment where everybody gets a little nervous. The pastor’s final sermon. What will she say? Given the opportunity to say one last thing, what hidden truth or secret grudge or honest confession will be revealed?
Set your minds at ease, friends. You’ve heard all I have to say, many times over. As the wise Teacher of Ecclesiastes said, “there is nothing new under the sun.”
But that doesn’t mean I plan to bore you all today with a re-hash of past messages or a generic Hallmark card farewell. You’ve taught me better than that.
The late Rev. Dr. Hank Borchardt used to give me a grade on each of the sermons I preached here. And I’m generally one who likes grades. I like to know where I stand in others’ esteem. I like to know what I need to work on and improve. I really like to get all A’s.
Which is why I was totally thrown when I got my son, Dean’s, first report card from school. There were no letter grades. Birmingham Public Schools had transitioned to “standards based progress reports.” In the place of A’s, B’s, and C’s, the students received numbers representing their progress toward the expected standards. In each category, a student might be “approaching expectations,” “meeting expectations,” or, my personal favorite, “exceeding expectations.”
Now, it took me a while to make heads or tails of this grading system. But eventually, I came to appreciate it. I like that it describes student progress in terms of expectation rather than achievement. This grading system rewards effort and mastery. It discourages competition for top grades and the shame associated with failing grades. The worst you can do in standards based grading is “needs improvement.” Well, who doesn’t? I can get behind a kid needing improvement more than a kid who is FAILING.
In today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew, I’m pretty sure Jesus is saying the Pharisees “need improvement.” And he gives a detailed list of the improvements he’d like to see. Practice what you preach. Serve the people, carry their burdens, do your own work. Develop some humility.
Now, Pharisee literally means “separatists,” and the group dates back to the Maccabean Revolt. They “exceeded expectation” in living counter-culturally, practicing the faith in every aspect of daily life.
Jesus even compliments their teaching, their doctrine, and encourages people to do as they say. But there’s that common corollary: don’t do as they do.
The Pharisees will accept nothing less than straight A’s, but they don’t offer any tutoring or homework help. They shame and blame; they say one thing and do another; they make demands of their followers that they themselves shirk; and they exalt themselves wherever they go and make everyone else feel like failures.
And on the one hand, I can see their logic. They felt the best way to uphold standards was to raise them, even if they could not be met by everyone. In seminary, our professors told us they were going to assign more reading than they actually thought we could do, and that they were going to hold us responsible for knowing all the material in that reading. This was frustrating, yes, but it pushed us beyond our own expectations.
But Jesus says, don’t give into the shame and blame, the competition and self-aggrandizement. As Danny Beale used to say, “Don’t be that guy.”
Instead, be humble, be teachable. There’s a different standard, a different expectation, for Jesus followers.
School may be out for the summer, but we’ve still got a lot to learn. There are no letter grades – A’s and B’s and F’s. But there is an expectation, set forth by our one teacher, Jesus the Christ. To meet this expectation, the Apostle Paul writes a beautiful curriculum for us to follow in that hymn from his letter to the church in Philippi.
“Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” Now, you all have some major decisions ahead of you. Staffing, programs, budget, vision. All these things are going to come up in the next few months. And it’s going to be difficult to get 869 people to be in full accord and of one mind about any of them.
But the expectation is that love will unify and strengthen you. I can tell you from ten years of ministry here that when you all choose to let love guide and direct your thoughts, words, and actions, there’s nothing you can’t do to the glory of God. Try to exceed expectations in loving one another, and you will find unity and harmony in your decisions.
Paul also says, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” All of us have suffered at times from the judgement culture that is so prevalent in this community. We judge those who travel too much for work and those who don’t get promotions and those who don’t work enough or don’t work at all. We judge homes that are too big and ostentations and homes that aren’t maintained to our standards. We judge parents who hover and parents who don’t. We all do it. It is just in the water here.
But the expectation for us Jesus-followers is that we will be humble and kind and compassionate and generous. We will accept and value the way others choose to live, and work, and parent, even if it doesn’t meet our standards. We will help our neighbors before they can help themselves. We will admit when we need help ourselves.
Perhaps if we judge the world around us by God’s standards instead of our own we will see how all those people and places and situations we viewed as deficient are actually exceeding expectations when it comes to the progressing toward the kingdom of heaven.
Finally, Paul says, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross.”
This is an expectation of radical equality. If one who is divine can put himself on level with humanity, who are we to say we’re better than anyone or anything in creation?
This is also an expectation of profound comfort. God chose to self-limit, to empty out, in order to stand alongside humanity, in all our suffering and distress. God in Jesus Christ took on the form of a slave – someone with no rights, no power, no identity. God stands in solidarity with the voiceless, the invisible, the marginalized, and the oppressed. And we are expected to do likewise.
And finally, this is an expectation of obedience and self-sacrifice. We all like to imagine Jesus is the Great Therapist, helping us work through our problems and function better in the world. Or a Fairy Godfather, granting our wishes for health, wealth and happiness. But let’s not forget that the One we follow leads us to a cross. Sure, there’s resurrection on the other side. But first there’s a cross. And we’re expected to follow him there.
Jesus told his followers they have one teacher: the Messiah, Jesus. Well, we are the Body of Christ here in Birmingham, MI, and I am grateful that you have taught me so much and so well. I’m grateful to Hank, and many others in this congregation, who gave me feedback, even grades, that have helped me to learn and grow over the last ten years.
But I have not been in ministry alone here. We have been in ministry together all this time. I am, to a certain degree, the pastor you have helped mold and equip me to be. And so I want to take this final opportunity to offer a report card, a standards based progress report, on our ten years of ministry together.
I’ll begin by saying that, in every way, this call has exceeded my expectations.
First of all, the challenges of this call have exceeded my expectations. This has been so much harder than I ever could have imagined. It started out rough in an interim period with a sanctuary renovation and economic recession thrown in for fun. I’ve grieved the loss of people we loved. I’ve gotten frustrated and angry and possibly threw a Bible across the room once. I’ve stayed up all night playing laser tag, which sounds like fun until you hit a wall at four a.m. and one kid is punching people and another one is puking.
But the hardest thing I’ve ever done in ministry is this. I could not have imagined how difficult it would be to leave this place. Yes, the challenges of this call have exceeded my expectations.
But the blessings of this call have also exceeded my expectations. Through those challenging situations, I have learned and grown so much. I’ve grieved because I’ve loved you all. I’ve gotten frustrated and angry because we have wrestled about things that really matter.
You’ve celebrated all my accomplishments and shown grace in the face of all my faults. We have innovated and experimented and created marvelous things together.
You have encouraged me to be not only the best pastor I can be, but also the best mother and wife and friend. We’ve swapped parenting advice, mulled over difficult life decisions, and just had fun being together.
There are simply not enough words, and there is not enough time, to express all the ways the blessings of this call have exceeded my expectations.
Yes, you have exceeded my expectations – and now I encourage you to go and exceed your own. Love more deeply and daringly than you can imagine. Serve more joyfully and authentically than you think possible. Pour yourselves out until you think you’ve hit empty, and then keep going until you are completely drained and all that is left is a glorious emptiness, a space filled with God.
You are Everybody’s church. And I am grateful that you have been my church. Thank you. To God be all glory forever. Amen.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
July 9, 2017
Proverbs 8:1-11, Ephesians 4:1-16
I woke up in pain. I was probably in my early double digit years, when in the middle of the night I awakened in pains all through my legs. It was intense and unlike anything I had ever felt before, as if everything else was cramping up. I must have cried out because my mother came into the room. When I described it to her, her only response was to smile and say, “You are about to hit a growth spurt.” Though I wanted to be taller than I was then, I wasn’t sure that the pain was worth it. But at least I learned that growing pains were natural.
What’s interesting about growing pains is that they are not limited to us human beings. We share them with most of the systems around us. Businesses have growing pains. When they begin to expand from a small mom and pop shop to something larger, there are the growing pains of having to learn new management skills, finding capital, keeping financial records on a computer and not in a shoe-box. Cities have growing pains. The great mage-cities of the world, such as Manila, Lagos and Mexico City among them, experience growing pains, when they suddenly find themselves unable to deal with the influx of millions of people which strains their water system, their electrical grids and their roadways. Families experience growing pains when a child is born, then a second and perhaps a third and fourth. Each one brings new and different challenges. Christians and churches experience growing pains as well.
I know that this may sound a bit odd that we as Jesus’ followers and as a community of Christ experience growing pains. After all, we may wonder, isn’t being a Jesus follower believing certain things and a church about getting together to learn about those things what we are supposed to believe? In a sense, that is true so let me explain: first the growing part. The Apostle Paul points out, being a Jesus follower is about “…growing up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part if working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” In other words, the image that Paul uses is that you and I have a goal that we are trying to reach, and that is to live fully into the image of God in which we were created; to become, in other words, like Christ.
The second part is the painful part. The reason that this growth is painful is that once upon a time, each of us, perhaps in our early teen years, or even before, locked onto a particular view of faith, the universe and everything. Those views become an integral part of who we are. In essence, they become as much a part of us, as our heart or lungs, as a leg or an arm. And when we are forced to acknowledge that growing in Christ requires us to change them, it is as painful as losing a physical part of ourselves; sort of like amputating a part of our identity. The struggle then is to be open enough to change and growth that we are willing to endure the pain that comes with the process. Fortunately for us, the Apostle Paul offers us, in verses two and three, a five-step program for growth…that hopefully will carry us through the pain.
Step one is humility, meaning that willingness to live with the notion that we could be wrong. This virtue is extraordinarily difficult because it demands a constant willingness to expose our own fallibility. While that may not sound like such a big deal considering that we offer a prayer of confession every week, it can be seen as dangerous in a world that demands certainty; in a world in which we are supposed to have all of the answers. I once had a minister friend tell me that I could never admit to my congregation that I did not have all of the answers because then they would doubt me and then doubt what I was teaching...and you get the point. But if we are to grow, we need to admit that we don’t know everything about who God is and what God wants of us. We should, therefore, live with a deep humility that allows us to change.
Step two is gentleness, meaning that in our humility, when we are confronted by those who disagree with us, that we do not react by attacking them, but open ourselves to new insights. This virtue is hard because it opens us to being “attacked.” When I say attacked, notice I use air-quotes because we often view someone challenging our deeply held views of God, the universe and everything as an attack on our very selves; on our tightly held sense of identity. Our response then is to be defensive, or to attack back. But when we do we shut ourselves off to the possibility that they may know something about faith that we do not; that they may have an insight from God that we need to hear. We should live with gentleness if we are to grow.
Step three is patience, meaning we are willing to listen to those same voices, the voices of those who disagree with us, for an extended period of time. This takes the concept of gentleness and multiplies it. It is one thing to have a onetime conversation with someone who holds a different view than our own, but it is an entirely different thing to be engaged in a long-term relationship with someone who holds views that are entirely different than our own. As human beings we naturally gravitate toward those who see the world as we do. We seek out the companionship of those who reinforce our views of God, the universe and everything. And we have little patience for those who see the world differently. Patience calls us to long term engagement…even if we hold to our views, because it might be that it is the other who needs to learn from us. We should live with patience if we are to grow.
Step four is bearing with one another in love. This extends humility, gentleness and patience, by calling us to live sacrificially for those whose views are different from our own. If we are to grow into the very stature of Christ, then what we are called to do is to love those whose views and attitudes are very different from our own. We are to see them through the eyes of Jesus Christ and even when we do not agree with them we are to offer ourselves in sacrificial ways in order to nurture them as followers of Christ. Loving in this way can be extremely painful because it may never be appreciated or reciprocated, because the other views us as being in the wrong. Yet by stepping out in love, we begin to grow. So, we should live with love if we are to grow.
Step five is making every effort to maintain the unity in the bond of the Spirit. Not only are we to be humble, gentle, patient and loving, we are to hang in there as a single community. This is something that Christians have often found difficult to do. Just as we want to hang with likeminded people in our everyday lives, we want to do so in our Sunday lives as well. We want to be sure that everyone around us believes, acts and lives like we do. There is great pressure then for people to either conform, or to leave. Unfortunately, when this happens, growth ends, because there is no one to challenge us to see faith, the universe and everything differently. So, we should live in unity if we are to grow.
If we want to see what growth looks like, all we have to do is to look back to this July 4th. On the 4th, NPR tweeted out the Declaration of Independence. Many people did not recognize the Declaration and assumed that NPR was calling for revolution against our current administration. When they were informed about the actual content of the tweet, there were two responses. The first, and most common, was to blame NPR and still accuse of it of liberal bias. The second came in this tweet from D.G. Davies. “I took NPR out of context and had a stupid moment. Never underestimate one’s capacity to learn. Sometimes it’s painful. But it’s valuable above pride.”
This is our task as Jesus’ followers, to be open to change even when it is painful, in order that we might grow into the full stature of Christ. My challenge to you then is this, to ask yourself, how am I insuring that I am open to the change the Spirit might bring, that I might be more and more mature in Christ?
Rev. Dr. John Judson
July 2, 2017
This past week I started scanning slides that Cindy and I had come across when we moved her mother to Florida this past May. There were several boxes of them and I was enjoying pictures of my bride when she was a child. As I went through them though there was one that brought back some memories for me. It was Cindy on a teeter-totter. The memories for me were of going to the park close to my grandmother to swim in the pool and play … often on the teeter-totter. Looking back, all I can say is that the teeter-totter had to be one of the world’s greatest low-tech ways to keep children busy. “John, take your brother and go play on the teeter-totter.” “Sure mom” Then up-down, up-down, up-down. Times were simpler. As I grew a bit older the up-down lost its allure, until I reached a certain age. Then the teeter-totter took on a new and challenging role. That was to stand in the middle, with one foot on either side of the pivot point and see if I could balance the totter; to see if I could keep both sides in the air at the same time.
As I look back, that has become one of the ways in which I look at life...as trying to find the balance. And I know that I am not alone in this. Throughout my ministry people have queried me about how to find the balance. How to find the balance between work and family. How to find the balance between spending time with friends and with family. How to find the balance between being at church and being at other events. How to find the balance between golf…oh, actually no one has ever asked me how to find the balance between golf and anything else. But the one place where people have strived to find balance is between loving self and loving neighbor. In other words, how do I know that I am spending the right amount of my time, talent and treasure on neighbor while spending the right amount of time, talent and treasure on self. It would have been nice when Jesus, told people that the second greatest commandment was to love neighbor as self (the first being to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength), if he had laid down some clear metrics, or given us an easy to follow formula. But he didn’t. The gift this morning then, of this passage from Ecclesiastes is that we are offered an image, that I think might help us find that balance.
We will start with loving self, perhaps because this one comes a bit more naturally. Though Christianity has always been accused of being a faith in which we are supposed to not love, or care for self, this is not the heart of our faith. Ecclesiastes reminds us that there is nothing better than for someone to eat and drink and find enjoyment in their work. The Gospel of John reminds us that we are loved by and beloved of God, so if God loves us, we should love ourselves. The problem comes when that love of self, shifts the balance too far. So how do we keep that from happening. Again, Ecclesiastes offers us an image. When we are finding the balance, the writer says, God will offer us joy. In other words, when we find deep and wonderful joy, in how we use our time, talent and treasure for ourselves, then we acting appropriately. The flip side, is that when we have gone too far, we end up, as the writer puts it, gathering and heaping. Can you see the image? Gathering is a sort of greedy, I want it all for myself, and heaping is spending more time, talent and treasure on ourselves than we can possibly enjoy. Gathering and heaping are signs of self-centeredness and selfishness. They tell us that we are out of balance.
We now turn to loving neighbor. Loving neighbor, is at the heart of the scriptures from Genesis to Revelation. It can be as simple as not stealing from our neighbors, to as James puts it, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food”, we do not simply say to them, I will pray for you, have a nice day. We supply their bodily needs. Loving neighbor, in other words means taking concrete actions to try to alleviate the suffering and need of those around us. The simple, but perhaps not overly helpful way in which we could talk about loving neighbor would be to recall Jesus’ words to the rich man, that he is to sell everything and follow Jesus. Meaning, that loving neighbor requires us to divest ourselves of everything and live as itinerant disciples…yet, remember, we are called to balance love of self and love of neighbor. To simply sell all would be to strike an imbalance; it would be gathering and heaping up, our time, talent and treasure for others, rather than for self, thus creating an imbalanced life. It is saying that you, as a beloved child of God, are not worthy of God’s love and gifts. Again then, perhaps the way to find that balance is to find the joy in loving neighbor. In other words, when we find a deep joy in meeting the physical, emotional and relational needs of others, then we are finding balance. We are keeping the self-end of the totter in balance.
One last thought about finding balance. The balance point on which we stand, is the love and grace of God; the love of God for the world and the grace of God offered to us. The balance point is the communion table because this table reminds us of how much we are loved, and how much we are to love others. This table reminds us that Jesus offered his life to make us whole and calls upon us to do the same for others. The challenge I want to offer you this morning is this, to ask yourselves, “How is my balance? How am I to find balance in my life, such that I love both self and neighbor in ways that bring me joy?”