Being Human: Envy vs. The Mourner
Rev. Dr. John Judson
February 25, 2018
Genesis 4:1-16; Romans 17:9-21
I want to begin with a diagnostic test this morning. What I want you to do is to write down the numbers 1 – 7. Then if you answer in the affirmative to any of the following questions, either circle or place a check mark by the number. Questions one, did you root for the Philadelphia Eagles in this year’s Super Bowl? Question two, did you root for the New England Patriots? Question three, did you not care at all? Question four, if you rooted for the Eagles did you do so because you wanted to see the Patriots and Tom Brady lose? Be honest now, no one will see your answers. Question five, if you rooted for the New England Patriots were you angry that the Eagles won? Question six, if you rooted for the New England Patriots do you believe that they were cheated out of a victory by the referees? OK, if you checked even one of questions four, five or six then you have confirmed case of the sin of envy. And not only that, but it may be that those of you who checked question one and not two, might have a slight case as well.
I realize that this may seem like an odd way to start off a talk about envy, but it gets to the heart of envy because envy is one of those sins that is diagnosed by its symptoms, more than clarified by a definition, and the symptoms are all there. So, what are the symptoms? They can be summed up in the letters, RPD, which stand for Resent, Prevent and Destroy. First there is resentment of the good fortune of others. Envy resents the fact that someone else might have something, or has achieved something that we have not. Thus, people resent Brady because he is successful, rich, good looking and married to one of the world’s great super models, or people resent the Eagles because they won. Second, is prevent, which is what happens when we resent. We are prevented from enjoying and sharing in the success of others. Those who don’t like Brady and Patriots cannot enjoy the quality of their game or his amazing abilities. Those who resent the Eagles can’t share in their amazing victory. Thus, they cannot share joy. Finally, there is destroy. This is where envy leads. It leads to a desire to destroy, or in this case, defeat the enemy; defeat the one we resent.
We can see RPD at work in our story from Genesis this morning. The background is that Cain and Abel are brothers. Each has been assigned a different way of providing for themselves. Cain is a farmer and Abel is a shepherd. Each decides to bring to God an offering of their produce. Abel’s is accepted and Cain’s is not. We have no idea why this is so. We have no idea how they know that one’s was accepted but the other’s was not. All we have before us is the story. Needless to say, Cain begins to become envious of Abel. Why was Abel’s accepted and his was not? Why does God think that Cain is not as good as Abel? After all Cain probably worked harder than Abel. All Abel did was following some smelly sheep around. The story tells us that his countenance fell. Here we can see the resentment building. Here we can see that Cain is prevented from being happy for his brother that God had accepted his brother’s offering. God tells Cain that, “Sin is lurking at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must master it.” The sin here is the green-eyed monster, which is slowly consuming him on the inside. Finally, this envy moves to the final step, where Cain takes Abel out into the field and kills him; the first case of domestic abuse.
If you want to see this in the real world there are two places to which I would point you. The first is to a bumper sticker I saw on a semi-regular basis in Texas. It read, my kid can beat up your honor roll student. Here is envy for those whose children had done well and whose cars sported a bumper sticker saying, I am proud of my honor roll student. The second is in cases of domestic abuse. Envy is at the heart of this epidemic and happens when one partner resents the other’s success, friends, happiness, joy and is thus prevented from celebrating those things with them and this leads to destruction through mental, verbal, emotional or physical abuse. Envy is not pretty.
Once again then, we ask, what is the antidote to this sin. The answer is to mourn, for when we mourn we are comforted. Again, this may appear to be a very strange way to look at escaping from the trap of envy, but bear with me. First, the word Jesus uses for “mourn” is a Greek word that connotes the deepest kind of mourning or grief. It was the kind of mourning one did at the death of a family member or close friend. So why, we might ask, would that sort of mourning free us from envy. The answer comes in the other way in which this word is used in scripture. It is used to describe the mourning the people of God did when they sinned. They mourned for their disobedience to God and their worship of other gods. We can also see how mourning is used in the story of Jonah. Jonah is sent to the people of Nineveh, the capital of the brutal regime of Assyria, to tell them to repent. Their response to this message was to mourn by covering themselves, and even their animals (a nice story telling touch) in sack-cloth and ashes as they mourned their sins. And when they did so, God forgave them. What mourning for our sins does is to move us out of the inward, all-consuming spiral of envy, and move us to spiraling outward to God who is ready to heal us.
Again, we can see this movement in the story of Cain. God confronts Cain about his misdeed. At first Cain pretends he has no clue as to the whereabouts of his brother. When God reveals that creation itself, is crying out because of Cain’s murderous act, God pronounces his fate. Cain will be all alone. He will be vulnerable and could be killed at any moment. Cain’s response is to cry out. To mourn his fate. He mourns the reality of where his envy has led him. “Today,” he says, “You have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face.” In that moment of mourning, his deliverance comes. He has ceased to turn inward and has turned outward toward God. He seeks God’s protection. And God gives it. The one who mourns is comforted. The Greek word for comforted means to have someone come along side of you, of us. When Jesus speaks of blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted, he tells his listeners and us, that whether we mourn from the loss of someone we love, or for our sins, God will draw alongside of us. God will hold us up and restore us to full humanity.
If we want to see what this restoration looks like, we need look no further than Paul’s letter to the Romans, where Paul reminds us that we are to weep when others weep and rejoice when others rejoice. We are to mourn our sin of envy to the point where we emerge from RPD and exercise LOVE instead. When we are able to do this, we will know that we are cured.
The challenge I want to offer you this morning is this, to ask yourselves, how I am mourning my sin of envy, such that I rediscover my full humanity as one who loves rather than envys.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
February 18, 2018
Genesis 3:1-7; Matthew 5:1-3; Luke 15:11-24
She is 5’-5” tall. She weighs 115 pounds. She is seventeen years old and there she sat calm, cool and collected as she was being interviewed by Lester Holt. Chloe Kim had just won the gold medal for women’s half-pipe and was reflecting on the event. Holt asked her why, when she already had the gold medal won before her last run, did she go all out to have a better one. Her replay was that she was not there to beat anyone, she was there to do the best that she could. And then, almost as an aside, she said, “And I’m really proud of myself.” I am really proud of myself. What’s wrong with that? I ask because the first of the seven deadly sins is that of pride. Pride is referred to in negative connotations throughout the scriptures. Psalms, Proverbs and the prophets never view pride in a positive way. And yet, we teach our children to be proud of who they are; proud of their accomplishments. We encourage people to take pride in their schools, their friends and their nation. So, what’s wrong with that? The answer is nothing…nothing until pride turns to the dark side. Let me explain.
Pride, as we have noted, is not necessarily a bad thing. It comes out of our sense of an appropriate love of self. Remember, that Jesus teaches us that we are to love others as we love…ourselves. We are to see ourselves as children of God, beloved, cared for and embraced for who we are, as we are. We are to see ourselves as individuals with gifts that we are called on to use for the good of God and the good of the world around us. When we use those gifts and use them well, it makes sense that we should take some pride in a job well done. The problem comes when sin enters the picture. What sin does is take what is good and suggest that if a little of it is good, then more is better. If a little pride is good, the more pride is better. And if more pride is better, then even more pride is better than that. This is where we encroach on the dark side of pride. What happens is that this dark side pride causes us to do three things. It causes us to demean others. After all if we are as good as we think we are then others are beneath us. It causes us to destroy relationships. Again, if we are better than others then we do not need them, so we cast them aside. Finally, it causes a diminishment of our own humanity. It does so because our pride has isolated us from the life that comes from God and neighbor.
One way to see how this works is to go to Jesus’ story about the Prodigal. What’s at the heart of this story is pride. It’s the story about a man with two sons, both of whom are overflowing with dark-side-pride. This morning however, we will focus only on the younger son. The younger son’s dark-side-pride and its results can be seen in three events. First, the younger son believes that he deserves his inheritance even though his father is still alive and well. This dark-side-pride leads him to demean his father, by treating him as if he were already dead, his older brother by demanding his inheritance first, and his God, by not honoring his father and mother. Second, we can see the dark-side-pride in that almost immediately after he is given his inheritance, he chooses to leave home and go to a distant country. By doing so he destroys the only relationships that give his life a sense of groundedness; groundedness in faith and family. Finally, after he has squandered his inheritance he finds himself living not with human beings, but with pigs whose food he longed to eat. Jesus’ audience would have understood that the younger son, was now an animal and not a human being. This is what dark-side-pride does. It leaves us empty and alone.
What then is the antidote? How then do we avoid the dangers of dark-side-pride? The answer is to be poor in Spirit. Even as I say those words, there is something about them that is a bit unpleasant. It is unpleasant because, in our American Christian culture, we are not supposed to be spiritually impoverished. We are supposed to be spiritual giants. Rather than being poor in Spirit we are to feel sorry for those who are poor in spirit…oops a bit of dark-side-pride there. The thought then of pursuing spiritual poverty is anathema to our American sensibilities. What we need to realize though is that being poor in spirit is not something we pursue, it is something that we are. Let me say that again. Being poor in spirit is not something that we pursue. It is something that we are. And only when we embrace that spiritual poverty can we truly find our way to the Kingdom of Heaven. For you see, we are all poor in spirit. What this means is that we all have some place inside where we are less than fully human. There is some place inside where we are broken; where we are hurting. Someplace where our lives are not what they need to be; Where we are in need of love, grace and redemption. The gift of admitting we are poor in spirit allows us to reconnect with God and neighbor, thereby bringing us back into the fullness of being human.
Once again, to see this, let’s return to our prodigal son. We pick up the story where the prodigal son comes, as Jesus puts it, to himself and realizes that even his father’s servants eat better than he does. In other words, he realizes his own poverty of spirit. He realizes that he is not capable of living on his own. He realizes that he needs life-giving relationships. On his way home he practices his speech, where he apologizes for his past pride and offers himself up to be less than he was; to be a servant rather than a son. What happens next, not only could he not have predicted it, but neither could Jesus’ listeners. The father, seeing the son coming, runs to him and embraces him and basically ignores the son’s apology. He ignores it because it is not necessary. The son came to himself, acknowledge his poverty of spirit and through that reconnected himself with the Father; the act which makes him whole again.
The temptation to dark-side-pride is all around us. It is part of the human condition beginning in the garden and continuing to today. It is there regardless of our race, gender, sexual orientation, income level or nationality. It crosses all boundaries. Yet its victory is not inevitable. It is not because we have been given the antidote in this first beatitude; blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. The challenge for us then is to embrace our inner spiritual poverty and recognize our ultimate dependence on God rather than on self.
My challenge to you then is this, to ask yourselves, how am I embracing my own spiritual poverty such that I can stay lovingly connected to God, neighbor and the Kingdom of Heaven.
Being God’s People: Telling
Rev. Dr. John Judson
February 11, 2018
My friend almost lost it. It was years ago when I was in the Peace Corps and one of my housemates and I were traversing Manila in a jeepney. A jeepney is a jeep-looking vehicle with an extended covered bed with benches on each side of the bed. People pay a fare and hop on and off as the jeepney runs its set route. We were on the Jeepney, packed in with a about a dozen people, with two Filipinas sitting next to my right-hand side. I could hear them discussing the hair on my arms. Then the Filipina closest to me, reached over and began feeling the hair on my arm, all the while giving a commentary to her friend. Then her friend reached over and did the same thing. Then they continued their conversation. My friend was stunned. He gasped, in a whispered voice, “How could you let them touch you like that?” My response was, “They have a very small sense of personal space.” So how many of you would have been a bit uncomfortable with what the woman sitting next to me did? I would assume this includes the majority of you and that makes sense because we Americans have a large sense of personal space.
For the children in the room this morning, I want you to think of personal space as an invisible force-field that we adult place around ourselves. We have this force-field and we don’t want people getting too close to us, or to put it another way, up in our face. We see someone up in our face as being rude and domineering. There is a great story of an American business man visiting a nation in the far east where their force fields are almost nonexistent and the closer the host moved toward him, the further he moved away until he almost fell off a balcony. We have large senses of personal space; large force fields. What is interesting is that our force fields operate not only in physical space but in emotional space. They surround our inner life keeping it safe from inquiries from the outside. Someone asks, “How are you.” Our force fields are activated and we say, “Just fine”, even when we feel our life is not good at all. Someone else asks about our faith, the force field goes up and we say something like, “My faith is really personal.” We protect our faith and religious beliefs, working hard to keep others out of them.
This is one reason that we like Jesus so much in this morning’s story. He has begun his ministry and is out healing and teaching. He comes upon a man who had leprosy. The man begs to be healed and believes that Jesus can do it. Jesus, feeling compassion for the man, reaches out and touches him and the man is healed (As an aside, Jesus never had a large sense of personal space. His force-field was always down for those in need.). At that point Jesus tells the man to go see the priest in order to receive a clean religious bill of health and then, and this is what we love, not to tell anyone what Jesus had done. Thank goodness, we say to ourselves. We can keep our inner faith-force fields up and running so that we don’t have to tell anyone else about what God has done for us. We don’t have to get up on anyone’s business and make them uncomfortable. At the same time, we feel some relief and are also made just a bit nervous when Mark tells us that the man doesn’t listen to Jesus but goes off and begins to tell everyone he meets about the amazing thing that Jesus had done for him. At least, we think, we listen to Jesus.
Well I hate to break it to you this morning, but we are supposed to be like the man cleansed from leprosy. We are supposed to go out and tell. We are not sure why Jesus told the man not to tell. Maybe Jesus didn’t want to become known solely as the miracle worker from Nazareth. Maybe he didn’t want the crowds to become so large that he would be unable to teach effectively. We are not sure, but if we let the story itself speak to us, we see that Mark offers the healed man as an example of how we are to respond to the wonderful things that God does for us. At this moment I think I can hear your faith-force field generators cranking up. They are whirring out the messages of, “I will never be one of those people who goes up to strangers and asks, ‘Are you saved?’” Nor will I be one who passes out religious tracts on street corners, or who walks around saying things like, “Praise Jesus. Can I tell you about him?” We don’t want to be one of those people who “tells.” Except that is what we are supposed to be. To be God’s people means to be a people who tell. Who tell others about what God has done for us in Jesus.
Before your faith-force fields become concrete barriers, let me explain what I don’t mean when I say we are to tell. I don’t mean that we are to tell people what they should or must believe. I don’t mean that we are to stand on street corners and preach, like the guy who stands in front of the Alamo in San Antonio, telling passersby that they are lost if they don’t believe in Jesus. I don’t mean button holing people at work or on the playground to convince them to believe in Jesus. These things are not what the man did. The man simply told people about how good God had been to him through the healing work of Jesus. The man simply told his story to those who needed to hear it. This is what it means to tell. It means to drop our faith-force fields long enough to share our story of what Jesus has done for us with those who drop their faith-force fields as they search for comfort, meaning and purpose. Telling can be as simple as listening to and praying with someone. It can be as simple as inviting someone to church where they can hear how God transforms lives. It can be as simple as sharing a time when your life was changed because of your faith. It can be all of these and more.
My challenge to you this morning is this, to ask yourselves, how open am I to telling others what God has done for me in Jesus Christ, that they might find the same can be true for them?
Being God’s People: Healing
Rev. Dr. John Judson
February 4, 2018
1 Samuel 6:1-3; Mark 1:29-39
“So, when do we get to do the Jesus stuff?” he asked. “What do you mean?”, the usher asked. “I mean, when do we get to do all of that healing and miracle stuff that Jesus did?” “Oh,” replied the usher, “We don’t. All we have to do is to believe that it happened a long time ago.” This was the conversation that John Wimber had with an usher after his second Sunday in church. Wimber had grown up in a home that had no religious roots. As far back as anyone could remember, no one in his family had ever attended church. As a talented musician, and a founder of the Righteous Brothers, his life had not been lived, as he puts it, quite in the manner that Jesus would have liked. But a friend of his began telling him about Jesus, and so Wimber and his wife, desperate to turn their marriage around began reading scripture. He loved the Jesus he met there. Jesus the healer. Jesus the miracle worker. And so, on that second Sunday, he wanted to know when people were going to quit singing boring music and do the Jesus stuff.
So, when do we get to do the Jesus stuff? So, when do we get to do the healing that we read about this morning? The question may be one that makes us both nervous and hopeful. It makes us nervous because we have seen too many television faith healers, who were in it only for the money. I remember one of those “healers” who told people that if they sent him money, a faith pledge, he would heal them. In fact, he said, that he spent so much time laying on and praying over people’s letters that asked for healing, that he got blood poisoning. What was happening however was that he was having his staff open the letters, take out the money and then throw away the prayer requests. It makes us hopeful because we believe that God is still out there…or in here. We believe because we trust that our prayers are heard and that God has compassion on God’s children. We believe that God can, will, and do amazing things. And so we return to Wimber’s question, when do we get to do the Jesus stuff? When do we get to heal? The answer, simply put, is that we get to do it every Sunday.
We do it every Sunday when we pray together. We do it when we fill out the prayer slips and let the staff pray over them. We do it when we stop in the hallway and pray for those whose names are on the prayer boards. I realize that this might not seem like doing the Jesus stuff, yet it is, because prayer was at the heart of all that Jesus did. Though he often healed without prayer there were times when he prayed before healing and when he taught his followers that certain healing could only come through prayer. Let me be clear in this moment. Prayer is not a magical incantation that makes God heal. It does not force God to act in the ways we desire. We know this because most of us here have had someone we loved and cared about, whose only healing came not in this world, but when they took their last breath. At the same time, over the course of my time as a pastor, so many people have said to me, “I would not be here without prayers”, or “I could feel the prayers at work when I was being treated.” Those words offer us hope that our healing work of prayer is truly Jesus work. Either way, we are called to do the Jesus stuff of prayer, trusting that God hears and answers in God’s way and God’s time.
We do the Jesus stuff every Sunday when we gather as community and share our lives together. I’m not sure if you notice but we live in a hurting and broken world, in which many of us come here with fears and failures, with regrets and recriminations, with loneliness and loss. The gift of this community is that what we do here brings healing. We are healed from our past by confession and forgiveness. We are healed of our loneliness by the friendships and welcome we experience. We are healed of our fears when we find hope and courage in the word of God proclaimed. We are comforted in our loss by those who surround us. We are healed and filled when we come to this table, the table of the communion of the saints, when we are fed and nourished by Christ who is its host. We are healed from feeling inadequate when we are welcomed here not because of what we do or what we have, but because we simply are. The worship we do here, the community we build here, the mission we do from here, is all healing work. It is all Jesus’ stuff.
So, what happened to John Wimber? He went on to plant a church called the Vineyard Church in which doing the Jesus’ stuff was not only something in the past, but happens in the present. That church went on to plant many other Vineyard churches where people find healing and wholeness. I think Wimber would like our church because in this place we too do the Jesus’ stuff. In this place we are a healing community. Through Christ we work to heal one another, our city, our nation and our world.
Here then is my challenge for you this morning. As you come to the table I challenge you to ask yourselves this question, “How am I being part of Jesus’ healing work in the this place and in the world? How am I doing Jesus stuff right now.”