Sunday, May 29, 2011

More Than A Memory

A sermon based upon John 14: 15-31
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Memorial Day, May, 29, 2011

Memorial Day weekend is a time to remember those who have died in our nation’s service; those who have paid with their lives the ultimate sacrifice.   Since 1868 our nation has set aside this time to remember and not forget—those who died the Revolution; those who died in the Civil war; those who died in the World Wars I & II; those who died in the Korean and Vietnam War, those who have most recently died in Iraq or Afghanistan.      

We still live in a world where there are “wars and rumors of wars”.   In this kind of world, we in the church know that remembering is a both a sacred and secular duty.  All the way back to the time of Moses, he called upon the people to “remember, they were once slaves in Egypt” (Deut 15.5).   Also Jesus called upon his own disciples to observe the Lord’s Supper, “In remembrance of me”(Luk. 22.19).  In life, we are not to forget those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom and opportunities.

REJOICING IN DEATH?
In our biblical text, we have the church’s memory of some final words Jesus spoke before he paid the ultimate sacrifice.   Jesus tells his most intimate followers, “I will not leave you as orphans…. (vs. 18).   Then, just a few verses later, we come across some of the strangest words in the Bible where Jesus bids his disciples both “farewell” and “hello” at the same time:  “You heard me say that I’m am going away, and I am coming to you.  If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father….” (15:28). 

We can only begin to imagine how “bittersweet” these words most have felt for those first disciples.  This sacrifice and death of Jesus was something they could not fully understand at that time, but his sacrific would one day we a death they would come to honor, celebrate and even rejoice about.  Isn’t it the same way we experience the bitter death of those who die and sacrifice their lives for us and for our country?   We are sadden and horrified when they die, but later we come to realize that if they had not died, we could not have the lives we have today.   This makes their lives more than memorable and honorable to us, but it also brings us humility and a reminder of the responsibility we have for their memory.   

One feeling that soldiers often experience when they have a friend or partner died close to them, is not only the question of why were they taken, but it also the question of: Why am I left?”  Remember that dramatic picture Saving Private Ryan, when many soldiers gave their lives to bring one seemingly unimportant private home?   Many men paid the ultimate sacrifice.  Who can forget that scene at end of an aged private Ryan visiting the graves of those who died to save him, wondering “why” they were dead and why he had been left. 

Jesus wants his disciples to know why the sacrifice has been paid for them.  “I have told you this, so that when it occurs, you may believe.” (vs. 29).  He does not want his death to be wasted.  He wants them to have faith, to gain the Spirit, and he wants them to have the peace that the world cannot give.   Jesus does not want his sacrifice and his leaving to be for nothing.  He wants them not just to remember, but to come to know the “gift” of his sacrifice.

Back in 2002, the news program 60 minutes ran a report on the story of Betty Ann Waters, a working mother who sacrificed herself go Law School to free her brother who she believed was wrongly convicted on a murder charge.  Through years of selfless labor and self-sacrifice, this sister found the evidence that did free her brother through neglected DNA evidence.  When her story hit the news, all kinds of Movie producers wanted the rights to the story and recently a Movie was made, staring Hillary Swank, as Betty Ann.   The end of that movie is also powerful, as the newly freed brother sits beside his sister by the lake and thanks her for all she did to sacrifice for his freedom.   Who could imagine a greater gift than having someone who loves you enough, to forget themselves and sacrifice themselves on your behalf?   What the movie does not show, is that 6 months, after being released from prison, her brother Kenny fell off a wall, suffered a brain injury and died.   After his death, his sister Betty Ann wrote:  “It’s sad, but the good part is that Kenny died free and proven innocent. “  

What we all know; what Betty Ann knew and also what Jesus knew: there are worse things than death.  The worse thing is not the death we will die, but even worst is the death we can know while living; when we are not free; when we are not forgiven; and when we are not loved and when we don’t have a life worth living.  Those are the things that are far worse than death itself and they are all part of the spiritual reasons Jesus gave his life for us.  

MORE THAN A MEMORY
 Jesus wants us to “remember” those that sacrifice for us.  Jesus wants us to remember him.  He wants to remember that he died and why he died, but there is something else. 

In order to help his disciples “remember” Jesus is going to send them a “counselor” to keep the truth fresh in their memory.   In fact, Jesus sends the Spirit so that the truth of his death will be more than a memory.   Jesus sends his Spirit to move them beyond remembering.  Look at his words in verse 20:  “On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”   

I guess you could say this is the “spooky” business of this text.  This talk of Spirit or Holy Ghost coming into our lives has always been misunderstood.  One theologian said that the Spirit is “God’s wild side”.  What he means by that is that the Spirit is the reality of God who gets into us today, causing us to remember, keeping us from forgetting, then also calling and causing us to follow and live our own lives in light of the sacrifice that has been made in our behalf.   The Spirit is the one who comes to us now to “teach us” and ‘remind us” of the most important things that give shape to true life.

Do you remember the Christmas story by Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol? It is the story of a stingy old miser named Ebenezer Scrooge who has 3 Spirits come to him in the night, that finally convince him to be a better person and to care of the needs of those around him; especially those who work for him and their family.  It’s the Spirit of Christmas past, present and future who finally get to Scrooge, especially the Spirit of Christmas future who shows what will happen when Scrooge himself dies, and everyone is glad he is gone.   It is the realization of dying for nothing and dying as nothing that shakes him to the core and reminds him of his human responsibility to others.

Charles Dickens was right.  In the Bible too, it is the Spirit who guides us to all truth and who even teaches us the truth about ourselves; making us ask ourselves that most important question: not just what am I living for, but what am I dying for?  Does my own life extend beyond myself?  Does my life listen and respond to the Spirit that is bigger than just me?  “But the Advocate (the Spirit) will teach you everything.  He will remind you of all that I have said to you” (vs 26).   Jesus reminds his disciples that it is the “Spirit”, God’s Spirit, that will make his death, his sacrifice, and all his teachings more than a memory, but he will bring them all back and help them make use of them.

OUR SPIRTIUAL CALL TO “LOVING OBEDIENCE”
Jesus tells us that it is the work of the Spirit to remind us and bring what he said back into our minds, so that we can act upon his words and his truth in live our lives.   Notice how this whole discussion of his leaving and the Spirit’s coming begins in verse 15: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments”.   Jesus calls his disciples to “loving obedience” as the proper response to his “loving sacrifice”.  

Obedience is a difficult word in our culture that loves freedom and doesn’t want to be indebted or tied to anyone.  But the truth is that freedom is not free and we are all indebted.  Our life today has been paid for by someone else.  This is how we learn that we are not “orphans” in this world.  This is how we know our lives have value and purpose. All our lives are connected to someone’s sacrifice on our behalf.  We find the value and purpose of our own lives out of that loving sacrifice and we respond in loving obedience.   If we forget it, and if we fail to respond with our own obedience to the love shown to us, then we lose the most important part of our life.  Listen to what Jesus finally says to his own disciples about their obedience and love in verse 28: “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and WE WILL COME TO THEM AND MAKE OUR HOME WITH THEM.”  

Do you notice that without loving obedience, we lose our sense of love and our sense of home in this world?  Without obedience we start feeling like we are lost in our own skin and we lose the love that holds us together.   And when we choose not to remember, and when we fail to live responsibly and obediently to what we’ve been given, we not only lose the revelation of truth, the Spirit Jesus promises, but we also lose ourselves and all the possibilities of God.

There is a powerful little story of the importance of “loving obedience” about a family where the Father wins a cake at a cakewalk.   When the Dad gets home, the children want to share in a piece of the cake, as they remind him they are all one big family and should share in the good favor.  “Before I let you have a piece of cake,”  the Father says, “let me ask you whether or not you listened to your mother this week?  Did you remember  your chores?  Are you going to try to get along with each other?  Will you make your bed?”  About this time the youngest child speaks up:  “Dad, since you are the one who won it, you can keep the cake?”

When we refuse to live our lives of obedience we are telling God to keep the cake.  This is how we forfeit the joy and fullness that can be ours through our own obedience to God’s gifts.  Jesus says: “Those who love me will keep my commandments…and will be loved by the Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them” (vs. 21). The full revelation of love comes only when the sacrifices made for us become more than just a memory.  When we, through the power of the Spirit, learn to incorporate those sacrifices, treasuring them, keeping them as commandments, demands and responsibilities for our own lives, only then do we know fully know the peace that gives us courage, assurance, and the sense of being “at home” in this world.  Thus, we start by keeping the commandments of those loving sacrifices made for our lives, and then, the great surprise comes that these commandments of love we have kept and we still keep are now keeping us.  Amen.   

Sunday, May 8, 2011

An Awesome Journey


A sermons based upon Luke 24: 13-35
Charles J. Tomlin, DMin.
Sunday, May 8th, 2011
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership

“We’re all gonna get lumps.  We’re all gonna get bumbs.  Nobody can predict the future, but we do know one thing.  It ain’t going to go according to plan.”  “It’s sad”, Neil Pasrischa continues, “but things could happen or hurt you that you just can’t predict…  Your husband might leave you.  Your girlfriend might cheat on you.  Your headaches could be more serious than you thought.  Your dog could get smacked in the street.  Yes, your kids might get in trouble.  Your mom might get cancer.  Your dad might get mean.”    “There could be times when you are tossed down the well too.   There could be times, when you cry yourself asleep….   Times when you have twists in your stomach…. Times, when life shoots holes into your heart.

 In such times, you might wonder, whether or not it’s all worth it.  You may think it’s not.  BUT… Pasricha concludes… ”when bad news washes over you and when the pain sponges and soaks in, I hope you’ll know you’ve got two really big choices:
1.      Either you can swish and swirl in gloom and doom forever,….
2.      Or, you can grieve and face the future with newly sober eyes.”
“Sure, life has dealt me some blows too,” he says, “but I’m lucky because I found a way out.   I had a secret pill to swallow, a magic potion to swirl, and bubbly cauldron to sip from each time I felt down, felt black or felt blue.  And I hope you know that remedy too…”   That remedy, for Neil Pasricha, was found in June 2008, while living in a "dusty suburb" and working an office job as his marriage fell apart.  As everything turned negative around him, Pasricha developed a blog to recall brighter moments.   He wanted to focus on the positive by writing about one awesome thing every night after he came home from work.  His countdown of simple joys of everyday life eventually resulted in 25 million hits at his award-winning website and now two bestsellers, “The Book of Awesome” and the “The Book of Even More Awesome”.   

Pasricha says it was the little, unrecognized, “awesome” things, that gave him the ability of make it through hard times….   Things like, your dog coming to greet you when you come home, or when the person beside you likes the same topping on their pizza that you like on yours and you smile at each other, or when you’re so tired, you fall asleep on the couch and someone comes to put a blanket on you…. Or, something like the Wiggly Worm that got into the official Wedding Royal photograph of William and Katherine, which was given by Prince Harry to a three-year-old bridesmaid to keep her smiling during an overwhelming day.

On the Road to Emmaus, Cleopas and the other disciple (some call Simon), also had an “overwhelming” day.   They were two very sad “disciples” of Jesus, walking along the road and talking to each other about “these things that had happened.”   Nothing was going as planned.   Positive things had turned worse than negative.   Hope was dead.  This “Jesus of Nazareth”, who was “a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and before all the people” had been handed over to the leaders to be “condemned to death” and to be “crucified.”    These very bad “things that had happened” and it even worse; one his own followers had betrayed him, all the rest had deserted him, and now Cleopas, and this other disciple are now leaving too.  They are on that long walk of how bad things can get.

This is the “story line” no one wants written in their own life, but the Emmaus road of disappointment, difficulty and disillusionment is a walk we humans will have to make.   We’ve either been on this road before, or we will be on it, or maybe, God forbid, we could be walking on it right now, or we might start on it tomorrow.  

If you look back over just 5 years in history, from September 3rd, 2006 to March 11, 2011, you can get a Hurricane like Katrina in New Orleans, a Tsunami that killed thousands in Southern Asia, a terrible earthquake in a poor place like Haiti, or both an Earthquake and Tsunami in wealthy area like Japan, or the worst Tornado ever in Alabama.”   Being eternal optimists, everything still going O.K., with us, we might still find the courage to sing “Its wonderful world” with Louis Armstrong, or we could muster some simple things to encourage ourselves, but the truth is, life is not always a pretty picture.   Even after Easter, the dark moments can come.  Even after visions of angels, rumors of women, or even convincing talk of an empty tomb, we can still find ourselves on a dark and dusty road.    The kind of world we have to face, can even depress disciples who have been with Jesus, and make us feel like walking as far away as we can and leaving all hope behind. 
 
C.S. Lewis, the Oxford Scholar who became an evangelical Christian, had a number of particularly painful, dark, difficult events in his life. His mother died of cancer when he was a young boy, he was sent away to a boarding school with an abusive headmaster later declared insane, he was wounded in World War I, and his father failed to visit him in the hospital despite his pleadings.  However, clearly the most painful event was the loss of his wife Joy. They had only been married for a few years.   They were married in a civil ceremony in 1956 and later, after Joy was diagnosed with cancer, married by an Anglican priest in 1957.   Shortly after this second ceremony, a remission in Joy’s cancer occurred.  Joy was then able to progress from bed to wheelchair to almost normal walking.  The next couple years were filled with remarkable happiness.  Joy wrote in mid-1957: “Jack and I are managing to be surprisingly happy, considering the circumstances; you’d think we were a honeymoon couple in our early twenties, rather than our middle-aged selves.” C.S. Lewis commented that he experienced later in life the married bliss that most people experience in their early years. However, it didn’t last. By late 1959, the cancer returned, and Joy died July 13, 1960. Two of the last things she said were, “You have made me happy,” and “I am at peace with God.

Later, in a written diary of his feelings, A Grief Observed, Lewis wrote about how he dealt with his pain and grief.  It was not pretty or easy.  The path was much clouded by fear, doubt, and anger before the gradual lifting of the clouds and breaking through of the sun.   Lewis once wrote: “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid.  The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning.  I keep on swallowing.”  Lewis was afraid of going to places that they had enjoyed.  He was afraid of his thoughts about God, and he was afraid of what the future would bring.
Above all, he says, “there was a sense of distance from God,” what the sixteenth century Spanish monk John of the Cross called, “the dark night of the soul” or the sense that the “heavens were like brass” bouncing back any prayer sent heavenward.  Lewis wrote: “But go to Him when your need is desperable, when all other help is vain, and what do you find?   You find a door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double-bolting on the inside. After that, silence.   

Worse than that, there were doubts about the goodness of God. It wasn’t that Lewis was in any danger of becoming an atheist: “The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not, ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but, ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’”   In his private journal he wrote in frustration and fear:  “that we are really rats in a trap. Or worse still, rats in a laboratory...   Is God a Sadist?’”  In other words, he has all this power to change us and change the world, but he doesn’t use it!  If he doesn’t use his power as he could, why should we care to lift a finger to help him?

Maybe that’s the Emmaus Road feeling Cleopas and the other disciple had:  Since life is so full of lumps, bumps and nothing is going as planned, then why should we care?   Let’s just take the writer’s first choice: “to swish and swirl in gloom and doom forever?”   Why don’t we take that choice?   What would make us want to choose otherwise?

These fellows on the Road to Emmaus would keep on walking in despair, and we would keep on walking too, if it were not for what else happened on that Emmaus Road.    It was something that gave them the ability to process their grief and to see the world through “new, sober eyes”.    Of course, we all know that in this story an unexpected “stranger” comes along to walk with them, who turns out to be Jesus incognito.    They did not recognize him at first, but after he “walked and talked with them” and, as the text also says, after “he stayed with them”, and they “broke bread together” their “eyes were opened.”  This eye opening experience went deeper, as they admitted:  “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening Scripture to us?”   Then, these two once despondent disciples went back to Jerusalem with new, sober eyes, and “told them what had happened on the road and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”

The “eye opening” moment of this story is called not just a “religious”, but a “spiritual” experience.   It was a moment of “burning in the heart” that turned a very negative, pessimistic, “awful” journey in life, into an optimistic, positive and “awesome” journey of life.   It was not just a simple ordinary thing, like you find in a stressed-out child smiling over a “wiggly worm” but it was a deeper, transcendent, spiritual experience which transformed a dark and dismal road to nowhere into a dawning, dazzling road toward light and hope.   It was the risen Christ then, yes of course, but he was also the risen Christ alive, well and knowable today; read of in Scripture, met in the breaking of bread, and of course, still able to “burn” fire into our hearts!    

Fred Craddock tells how Jesus showed up in a dark and dismal moment.  Unable to get to a speaking engagement, Craddock was stuck in Winnipeg, Canada in the midst of an early October snow storm which paralyzed the city. Everything was shut down and his host could not even make it to Fred's hotel to pick him up for breakfast.  So, for breakfast, Fred found himself at a crowded bus depot café about two blocks from his hotel. As he entered, somebody scooted over and let him get in a booth. A big man with a greasy apron came over to the table and asked him what he wanted. Not knowing what the café served, Fred asked to see a menu.
"What'd ya want with a menu?" the man asked. "We have soup."
 "Then I'll have soup," he said. Just what he wanted--soup for breakfast. The man brought the soup and Craddock says it was an unusual looking soup. It was grey, the color of a mouse. He did not know what was in it, but he took this spoon and tasted it. Awful! "I can't eat this," he said. So he sat in that crowded café warming his hands around the bowl, railing against the world, stuck in Winnipeg.
Then, the door opened and someone yelled, "Close the door," and she did. A woman came in. She was middle-aged, had on a coat, but no covering for her head. Someone scooted over and let her in a booth. The big man with the greasy apron came over and the whole café heard this conversation:
"What'd ya want?"
            "Bring me a glass of water," she said.
The man brought the water, took out his tablet and repeated the question. "What'd ya want?"
            "Just the water."
            "Lady, you gotta order something."
 "Just the water."
The man's voice started rising: "Lady, I've got paying customers here waiting for a place, now order!"
"Just the water."
"You order something or you get out!"
"Can I stay and get warm?"
            "Order or get out."
So, she got up. The people at the table where she was seated got up, people around got up, the folks that let Fred
sit at the table got up, Fred got up, and they all started moving towards the door.
"OK," the big man with the greasy apron said, "She can stay."
And everybody sat down. He even brought her a bowl of that soup.

Fred asked the man sitting next to him, "Who is she?"
"I never saw her before," he said, "but if she ain't welcome, ain't nobody welcome."
 Then Craddock said, all you could hear was the sound of people eating that soup.
"Well, if they can eat it, I can eat it," he said. He picked up his spoon and started eating the soup. "It was good soup. I ate all of that soup. It was strange soup. I don't remember ever having it. As I left I remembered eating something that tasted like that before. That soup that day tasted like bread and wine," HoHoly Holy Communion.  (Adapted from the Book:  Craddock Stories, Chalice Press, 2001).

Life can be cruel.  Life can be dark.  People can be mean.   Things can get hard.   But when you find people showing and sharing love, being the real and the realized presence of Jesus Christ in the world, a new kind of light comes on, a different kind of burn is felt, and your eyes can refocus and everything looks different, even the worst things that can happen.   When self-less, self-giving, sharing and sacrificing love is present, “what’s the matter” can be turned into a very different matter, altogether.

Last week, I heard Roland Perdue, interim pastor at First Presbyterian, Charlotte tell an interesting story from his ministry in a church in Georgia.    There had been a tragic plane crash and one of his church families was affected.  He rushed to the home to be with the family.   Just after he got there, a young seminary student, a friend of the family, also arrived.   When the younger student minister came in, he did everything wrong.   Everything that they taught in Pastoral Care 101, he missed.  He came in a rush.  He told them “everything would turn out good!”    He even told them, that perhaps “God needed an angel in heaven”.   Then after a much too brief visit and prayer, he said he had other things to do, and then left.   As the pastor was about to apologize to the woman, she turned and commented, “Isn’t he just a wonderful?  His coming here made me feel so much better!

The experienced minister held his tongue and got the message.  What gave her hope was not the words, right or wrong, but it was the “relationship” that she already had with the young student.  He was her friend and just knowing cared enough to come by, made all the difference in her world.

What the Emmaus Road always reminds us, and retells us each time we encounter the story and its truth, is that on this journey we call life, these “relationships”, friendships, companionships, which we maintain with each other along the way make the difference.  These holy, intimate, unbreakable and lasting “relationships” can redeem the darkest and most painful moments of our lives.   When they are present, and especially when “he” is present, the most important relationship of all, our relationship with the risen Christ, then, even the most overwhelming “awful” can be transformed by the awareness of those who remain present with us and restore the presence of “awesome” to our lives.   When we are the living, breathing, loving, and Christ presence to each other, no matter how dark it looks, new eyes can be open and new hope can always return.  

Before I finish, let me just add, that tragically the opposite can also happen.   You can take a good, wonderfully warm moment and then have a person who doesn’t care or who doesn’t love come in and everything can go dark, instantly.  Without a loving relationship or being lovingly present with each other, or most, without being present with God, even the best of life can suddenly go dark and cold.

In this memoir, The Pastor, Eugene Peterson, tells how he came to be a pastor.   He says it all started with his mother.    While her husband was busy working and building his butchering business in Montana, she would hold church on Sunday nights.  She would have church by telling Bible stories.    All kinds of lumberjacks and big, strong miners would come to church hear her tell stories from the Bible.   She was the greatest storyteller.    Eugene especially remembered how she told the story of Samuel choosing David to be King.   David was not chosen based on looks, but chosen because of what was in his heart.   Then she would tell all those big, burly, beat-up, and bruised up men and me too; You are David!  God chooses you because of what he sees in your heart.   

His mother kept telling those stories up until Eugene was six.  She told these stories and conducted church for those men, the only church they had, until one day, a stranger came up to her after worship, opened his Bible and read to her the text that said: “Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness.  I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent.”   Then, Peterson said, “she kept silent.”  
“I will never know, nor did she then, what took place in the lives of those lumberjacks and miners, when she was intimidated into silence.   But by that time, an artesian spring of song and story was already alive in me. “ (“The Pastor” by Eugene Peterson, Harper One, 2011, p. 33). 

Don’t let anyone or anything take the God story out of your heart.   The great story of the Bible should never be reduced to rules or regulations we think can save us.   Only a living, present, Savior can save us.   Only the living Christ can open the Scriptures to us!  Only Christ can make our hearts burn with loving fire!  Only a real relationship with Christ and with each other can open our eyes and help us see and feel the love that makes life awesome!   Especially on this Mother’s Day, we celebrate that Christ still lives through mothers and sisters or anyone who will be a loving presence to another.  This is how His-story never becomes mere history!   Amen.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Hidden With Christ

Colossians 3: 1-4
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin
Easter Sunday, April 24, 2011
Flat Rock –Zion Baptist Partnership

A woman named Mary has a four-year old daughter, named Elena.  As Easter approached she struggled to get through to four-year old Elena the meaning of Easter. It went something like this:
"Mommy, will the Easter bunny bring me purple jelly beans?"
I am sure he will bring you jelly beans, Elena. But, remember, Easter isn't about the bunny. It's about Jesus.
"But will they be purple?"
Yes, honey, I am sure there will be some purple ones in there. Honey, the important thing about Easter isn't the bunny. Easter is about how much Jesus loves you and me and the whole world.
"Mommy, HOW MANY purple jelly beans will the Easter Bunny bring me?"
Elena, I think he will probably bring plenty of purple jellybeans. Do you know how much Jesus loves you?
"Mommy..."
Yes Elena?
"Will he bring me tootsie rolls too?"
For a four-year old, Easter bunnies and purple jelly beans and tootsie rolls are way more interesting than JESUS.   They are what makes Easter fun. And fun is, for a four old, enough!
Showing up in worship on Easter is just what we do.  Even for many adults just to come to church to hear some nice “candy-coated clichés” at Easter is good enough.   But others of us will need more.  We want to know more about Easter than “bunnies and jelly beans.” 
Perhaps the reason we want to know more is because we have finally come to realize that life is not always “fun”, sweet, joyful or exciting.   Sooner or later, and probably sooner rather than later, we will all encounter the dark night of heart wrenching grief, devastating disappointment, smothering guilt, or wearisome failure.   Meeting dark side of life head on, we will come to understand we need Easter to be MORE than just bunnies and jelly beans.
When will the moment of realization come to Elena?
·         Will it be when she's bullied at school and feels like there's no one to turn to?
·         Will it be when she's betrayed by a so-called "best friend" or has her heart broken by the person around whom she's built her whole life?
·         Or perhaps one day she'll look in the mirror and admit to herself that she has been the bully or the betrayer or the heartbreaker and knowing she can never undo the damage she's done will make it hard to keep looking at that face staring back at her.
·         Maybe she'll be on a mission trip and meet people who own none of the things that make her happy, yet they possess a joy she has never known, and she will feel the darkness of an empty soul.
·         Maybe she will be waiting at the airport to greet a relative's flag-covered coffin as it arrives back in the States, and a frightening anger will blanket her soul in a dangerous kind of darkness.
·         Maybe it will be the day she's told by the doctor it's not just a cold after all.
·         Maybe she will be spoon-feeding the frail beloved mommy who once fed her and whose strong body once gave her piggyback rides, and a sense of powerlessness will overtake her.
·         Or will it be the day when her life's work ends with a memo and a deadline for cleaning out her office?

·         Or will it be in the middle of a night of family crisis when she's looking into the desperate eyes of her own child and realizes she doesn't really know him and worse yet--he doesn't want her to?
·         Maybe it will be when she encounters some insidious expression of human cruelty will astonish and paralyze her, so that she will need more than bunnies and jellybeans to gain any hope at all.

Mary Chapin Carpenter's song, “This Is Love”  has lyrics which describe life when:  It seems so black outside that you can't remember  Light ever shone on you or the ones you love in this or another lifetime.” 
And that's when we really need to know what Easter is all about.

Mary Chapin Carpenter’s song, “This is Love” describes life when:  “It seems so black outside that you can’t remember light ever shone on you or the ones you love”.  

Maybe that’s how Mary Magdalene felt that first Easter morning.   John’s gospel  (20: 11) describes how Easter began for her:  “But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb….”    When you read something like this, you’ve moved far beyond “bunnies and jelly beans.”   It was so dark outside; fear and grief hung like a dark cloud over her life, because her “light” had been extinguished on a Roman cross.   It was not only dark early that morning, but it was dark in her soul.   Where there had once been a glimmer of hope, there was only despair.  But it was also right there; while it was still dark, while the light was nowhere to be see, that even when looking into the tomb she was surprised by the “light” of Easter.

Today we live 2000 on the other side of that first Easter.   How can we connect with a story that has been told over and over again?   How do we move in to see something more than “bunnies and jelly beans?”   

Paul, writing to the Colossians, has something for us to unwrap.  It’s not a piece of candy, but there is a wonderful nugget of truth for our souls.     It’s the big “if” of Easter.   You really can’t “connect” with the truth about Easter unless the truth of Easter has connected with you.   Listen again to how Paul begins his words to the Colossians:  “So if you have been raised with Christ,…. !   Can you decipher his big “if”.  Easter means more to us “if”, or “when” we have “already” been raised with Christ.   The great, hopeful light of Easter is not just that you will go to heaven when you die.  The great truth of Easter does not have to await the coming day of Resurrection.   Resurrection happens now!   Easter is about life, but it is a “life” that “shines in the darkness”, right now!   Having life in Christ now, experiencing resurrection now, is where we all can connect!   The resurrection is about having Christ’s power for life in us now.  

Paul even tells the Colossians, and us, how we can focus on that “power of life” now, when he gives us this imperative for living:  “SEEK THOSE THINGS WHICH ARE ABOVE, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (3.1)… “SET YOUR EYES ON THINGS THAT ARE ABOVE, not on things that are on earth”(3.2). 

WHAT IS THIS “HIGHER” VISION OF LIFE, PAUL IS TALKING ABOUT?  

Think about this:  Did you know that scientists have studied the mineral and chemical composition of the human body?  That's right. The U.S. Bureau of Chemistry and Soils calculated the chemical and mineral composition of the human body, which breaks down as follows:  65%  Oxygen, 18%  Carbon 10%  Hydrogen, 3%    Nitrogen,  1.5% Calcium, 1%    Phosphorous, and less than 1 % of Potassium, Sulfur, Sodium, Chlorine, Magnesium, Iron, and Iodine.  Oh, and the trace quantities of fluorine, silicon, manganese, zinc, copper, aluminum, and arsenic are also found in the human body. 
If we took all those parts and sold them on the common market, it would be worth less than $1.  Now our skin is our most valuable physical asset; it's worth about $3.50, I'm told.  So, added all up, you're worth less than $5!   But take a moment now to place your hand on your wrist or on your lower neck on either side of your windpipe; go ahead. Let's all be quiet and still together for a moment.  What do you feel?  You FEEL YOUR PULSE. You FEEL the mystery of BIOLOGICAL LIFE beating through your $5 worth of chemicals and minerals.  

Do you understand how that works?  Do you understand how $5 worth of chemicals and minerals adds up to YOU?  Or  what about the person sitting next to you?  If you only look at things as they seem, as they only relate to the physical world around us, nothing adds up to very much.  But if you “look above”, and to the “spiritual” side of life, and if you put your focus on things, higher, nobler, and bigger than yourself, you’ll can find that life can be much, much more.   When you look “above”, even worthless elements, can become “priceless”!

EASTER IS ABOUT THE POWER AND THE VALUE OF LIFE!   Did you know that?   Listen to what Paul told the Corinthians when talking about the meaning of resurrection:  “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our message has been in vain, and your faith has been in vain….If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins….  If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Cor. 15.12-19).  Paul was really too conservative with his words.  If there is no hope for life beyond this life, there is no real hope for any meaning or purpose in life--whatsoever.    Easter is not just a message for people at church---it is for a message of life for all people.

For all people,  life in this broken world ultimately ends going nowhere and meaning nothing.   The greatest Philosophers, like Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sarte, have stated that we “human beings live in the constant dilemma of being people who look for meaning in a world where life is absurd; “meaningless.”   This is not just how life can feel, this is how the greatest human minds have described it.  Life is meaningless.  This is what the “mind” says, but surprisingly, our “hearts” won’t let us believe this, without a fight.    On the Today show last Wednesday, two women were reunited in friendship after they went their separate ways.  Suddenly, a lost card in the mail was uncovered, which was written many years ago and now it has brought them back together.   One of the ladies affirmed her belief: “Everything happens for a reason.”  “I don’t think this is an accident”.  “It was meant to be.”   That’s what we hear people saying all the time.  We all crave meaning, purpose, connection and hope.   Even in this meaningless world, where everything seems to come to an end in death, if this is “all there is”, then even the most beautiful things in life are nothing, and we are, as Paul said, “people to be pitied.”   Unless we can come to believe that life ends with life, and that life has overcome death, life remains “pitiful.”

HOW DO WE SEE BEYOND PITIFUL?   Whether we are have realized we are not “children” anymore, or whether we have faced the ‘darkness’ so black” or whether we have wondered “what’s it all about” or what’s my life worth,” Paul gives us a key to unlock hope and meaning in his very next words to the Corinthians: “BUT IN FACT, CHRIST HAS BEEN RAISED FROM THE DEAD, AND IS THE FIRST FRUITS OF THOSE WHO HAVE DIED….”  (1 Cor. 15: 20).   Here in today’s text in Colossians, Paul speaks more about  Easter, but speaks less about Easter then,  because he wants us to know the meaning of Easter now!  Paul can’t write about Easter to the Colossians, without talking about their “own” resurrection.   We too can connect with that same power of which is beyond “Bunnies and Jelly Beans,” when we connect with Christ’s power in our own lives, here and now.   When we find ourselves “seeking the things that are above” and when we “set our minds on things that are above” we find our true selves, as God would have us be.   Resurrection can’t be fully known in Christ, until it is also known in us.    Listen to how the apostle puts it in verse 3-4:  “For you have died, and YOUR LIFE IS HIDDEN WITH CHRIST IN GOD.  When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.

What Paul says here is true:  The glory of our lives can’t be “revealed “ without Christ.   Until you “have died” and been raised in him, having your life “hidden with Christ in God”, you can’t know who you are nor what life is.  No matter how rich you are, how smart you are, how talented you are, or how lucky you are, nor how old you are, your life can’t fully be “revealed in this world”.    The meaning of our lives remains “hidden” with Christ, until it is one day finally and fully “revealed.”   

I realize this might seem confusing or “strange” language which Paul uses, to say that the meaning and purpose of our all our lives is “hidden with Christ in God”, but let me explain.     You need to know that your life is more mysterious than you might realize.   Let me ask you again: “Who are you?”  You might realize you are worth more than $5 dollars worth of earthly chemicals, but what are you beyond this? 

In the Broadway musical “A Chorus Line” sixteen young dancer audition for eight places to be cast in a show.  They sing and dance their hearts out, desperate for work and for approval.  At one point, the dancers stand in a line with their resumes and portfolio photographs covering their faces, as a tenor sings these words:   “Who am I anyway?  Am I a resume?   That is a picture of a person I don’t know.”   (I Hope I Get It," from A Chorus Line, lyrics by Edward Kleban, 1975).

Most all of us know that when people put their “best face on”; whether on a resume, or for a photograph, that this is not really who they are?  But who are we?  Is your life reduced to a list of the things you accomplished, the positions you’ve obtained, the work you’ve done or can do?    Is your education, your training, your wisdom or your responsibilities all you are?   Are you only the report card your teacher gave you?  Are you the results of your latest medical examination?   Is your life merely about your height, you weight, your pulse, your blood pressure, your cholesterol numbers, your EKG, or Your PSA, your white cell count:  Does this adequately describe the person that you are?    Are you reduced to your SAT,  GRE, Miller Analogy or IQ score?  Blessed are those who have no idea, what I’m talking about at all. 

Who are you?  Are you a certain salary, your income, your stock portfolio, your real estate?  Are you your job title, your place in the company hierarchy?  Are you what you did before your retire or are you the pictures of you that your family have on the wall to decorate their home?   Are you who society tells you?  Are you working the status system to try to locate yourself as close to the top as you can come?  

When my friend Gary’s daughter, Bethany, lost all her memory to a virus that attack her brain, she had start learning all over where she was, who she was and what she was supposed to do with her life.  She depended on her family to tell her, but the truth was, that she could remember nothing much at all.  She even had to be told what the ocean was or what was her favorite food,  or who her friends were supposed to be.   She tells in her testimony, that if it wasn’t for her family being close to her, she would have spent the rest of her life, not knowing who she really was.  Even today, she has very little memory, she has lived most of her life relearning “who” she is.  

What tells you who you are---your memory?  What happens when your memory goes?   What happens when you are still alive in a body, like many people, who get lost in life, even when they have no physical memory loss at all, but they still don’t know “who” they are?   What in this life will define your life with meaning and with hope?  This is what PAUL WANTS THE COLOSSIANS TO DISCOVER.    He wants them to know:  You are only somebody---your life will only matter--- you can only find have hope in both life and death, when “YOUR LIFE IS HIDDEN WITH CHRIST IN GOD.”   

MYSTERY IS THE ONLY REAL
This “mysterious” word requires thought.  Nothing that has meaning  is instant nor automatic. 
 So much of what defines who we are and what life is, is never fully revealed before our eyes.   We only seen hints of what matters most, in the sign of the bread and the cup, in the water of baptism, in the moments of the Holy Spirit speaking to us, which like the wind, is uncontrollable by us, but goes where and when it will.   So much of life is still mysterious like the clouds and the wind and we can’t simply stop and look in a mirror and understand or know everything about ourselves.  For example, I’ve had my back with me all my life, but if I turn around you can see it better than I can.   Everything I am, or you are is not yet plain to any of us.    John writes:  “Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. (1Jo 3:2 NRS).  Paul says the same thing here, but also in another place where he writes:  “6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. (Phi 1:6 NRS).    

We do not yet see everything.  We can’t even know ourselves fully.   We are a work in progress.  God is not finished with us yet.   What God has in store for us, we are not capable of seeing fully, even with our own eyes.    We have hints, but even with the best of human knowledge, we can’t calculate all that God has in store.   Maybe the best “hint” we get of what is now “hidden” is spoken at the Presbyterian Baptism service.   As you know, Presbyterians baptized infants, and the child knows nothing about what all this means and they are either screaming or sleeping through the whole thing.  But listen to these words they say to the child, to the parents and to everyone who is listening.  They do have something good to say.   Here are the words:
“For you Christ came into the world;
for you he lived and showed God’s love;
for you he suffered the darkness of Calvary
and cried at the last, "It is accomplished";
for you he triumphed over death and rose in newness of life;
for you he ascended to reign at God’s right hand.
All this he did for you, though you do not know it yet.
And so the word of Scripture is fulfilled:
"We love because God first loved us."  
("Order for the Sacrament of Holy Baptism for a Child," Book of Common Order of the Church of Scotland, (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 1994), 89-90. The Scots borrowed this declaration from the liturgy of the French Reformed Church.)

In this world we can’t understand it all, but what we can know for sure, is not found in the facts we think we already know for sure, but hope, peace, life and light can only be found in the faith we believe.   In the words of faith: “He did all this for us, and you really can’t know it all, at least not yet, but you must keep they final truth hidden as mystery and meaning in the depth of your soul as your live is still ”hidden with Christ in God.”  

Whether we are baptized as infants, as some do it, or we are baptized as adults, which we try to do, but still most of us get baptized as children too, the truth is: none of us “know” fully what this means, but we spend our whole lives coming to understand it.   And this coming to terms with….being raised with Christ… seeking the things above….setting our mind things above, beyond the things of earth…., this how we connect with the same power that resurrected Jesus and will one day, raise up our dead bodies to new hope and new life.   Only then, raised in him, will we “fully know, as we are now fully known” by Christ.

In the film "Tender Mercies," Robert Duvall plays Mac Sledge, a down on his luck country singer who manages to climb out of a bottle long enough to find a new life for himself as husband to a young widow and step-father to her young son. All this happens, the film leads us to believe, through "tender mercies," the "tender mercies" of God.   Because that is the case, one Sunday morning Mac and his stepson are baptized in the Baptist church of the small East Texas town where they live.  On the way home, their hair still wet, they talk about what has happened to them. The boy seems pleased enough that he has been baptized but perhaps a little confused that the high drama of his baptism has had so little apparent effect on him.
                "I don’t feel any different," he says, "at least not yet.... How about you, Mac, you feel any different?"
                "No," Mac says, "I don’t feel any different. Not yet."
                "Not yet," he says and those words "not yet" tense with promise and expectation.  (As told by Patrick Wilson @ goodpreacher.com, which gave shape to this sermon).

Not yet, perhaps, but we shall, for there is a power at work within us, the power of resurrection. Resurrection didn’t just happen back there, back then, two thousand years ago in a garden.  Resurrection can burst into our lives right now, and we can discover who and whose we are.   

So, my final word to you is this:  Don’t just hide your Easter eggs, but hide your life with Christ!   In other words: God never meant for there to be only one resurrection but many resurrections, resurrections enough to bring all of God’s people alive with the kind of life Christ has and the kind of “hope” only Christ gives.   Only when "Your life is hidden with Christ in God” can you find meaning for your life.  But you can’t know all of that know;  but “if you have been raised with Christ” one day you will.”  “When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory."    That just could be the greatest Easter promise of all.   Amen.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Misunderstood Sin

A sermon based upon John 4: 27-38
By Dr. Charles J. Tomlin
April 10, 2011
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership

Have you heard about the MOVIE ENTITLED, “SUPER-SIZE ME?”  It’s a movie that shows America’s obsession with “sizing-up” fast food meals from French Fries, to Biggie Fires; from Large soft drinks, to Huge Gulp Drinks; from a single Hamburger to a Double, or Even Triple Burger, with of course the options of Cheese and Bacon.   The movie makes the point THAT IF AMERICANS CONTINUE TO MAKE POOR CHOICES in their diet, they will be one of the first countries in the western, industrialized, world to SEE LIFE EXPECTANCY DECLINE.

I.   GLUTTONY: WHAT EXACTLY ARE WE TALKING ABOUT?  

This is NOT A POPULAR SIN to talk about.  When was the last time you heard a pastor preach a sin on Gluttony?  The Alabama State Baptist paper recently found ONLY ONE PASTOR IN THE WHOLE STATE OF ALABAMA who had preached on this subject.

Perhaps one of the reasons we don’t talk about Gluttony is because it is SUCH A MISUNDERSTOOD SIN.  While we may think of it as the sin that shows up on our WAIST LINE; IT MAY OR MAY NOT.  While we prosperous American DO NEED TO CONSIDER WHAT IS A HEALTHY DIET as part of our Christian walk; the sin of gluttony is more about WHAT IS HAPPENING IN OUR HEART than to our waistline. 

In order to help us put Gluttony into a broader context, consider A COUPLE OF BIBLICAL TEXTS that point to the kinds of problems humans can have with their physical appetites.   Remember HOW ADAM AND EVE’S SIN IN THE GARDEN INVOLVED EATING.  But it really WASN’T ABOUT EATING TOO MUCH, was it?  Who ever thought that Adam and Eve wanted the forbidden fruit because they just wanted to eat?    It was just about eating, but it was about GIVING INTO WHAT THEIR DESIRES WITHOUT CONSIDERING THE LIMITS and boundaries God placed upon humanity.

We learn a lot about what is involved in the sin of Gluttony in the original sin.  Like Adam and Eve’s own sin, Gluttony is a SIN AGAINST GOD, not just our waistline.  It is a sin about letting our desires and APPETITES GET OUT OF CONTROL.  It is about giving in to temptation and living on LESSER LEVEL OF LIFE, and just like the original sin SEPARATES HUMANS FROM a healthy, stable and growing RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD; gluttony too, can separate us from having a deepening and growing relationship with the divine.  WHEN WE GET STUCK ON FEEDING OUR STOMACHS, we can forget that might not just be our body, but our SOUL THAT IS HAVING THE HUNGER pains.  

We often think that this is the SIN THAT VISIBLY SHOWS UP ONLY IN THE BODY of the person who’s over-eating.  IF WE ARE SKINNY or underweight, then we also might mistakenly THINK we have NEVER BEEN GLUTTONOUS.  Here we must take care with our assumptions.  Being overweight may have to more to do with METABOLISM, MEDICAL OR GENETIC ISSUES, not gluttony.  INCREASING OBESITY RATES, especially in children, is a major problem that needs to be addressed at church as well as by the world, but overindulgence or POOR EATING HABITS IS NOT NECESSARILY GLUTTONY. 

          Surprisingly, YOU CAN BE A GLUTTON AND EAT TOO LITTLE, just as much as you can be a glutton and eat too much.   Do you REMEMBER KAREN CARPENTER?  She was a female singer with one of the most beautiful MONEY VOICES in human history.  Yet, Karen Carpenter had some serious problems with food and her self image.  She became OBSESSED WITH HER WEIGHT and eventually developed anorexia nervosa.  She was not overweight, but she thought she was.  She continued to lose weight and eat so little that her heart no longer had enough nourishment and it stopped.

You might not think that Karen Carpenter was a glutton.  She was not A PERSON WHO ATE TOO MUCH, but she still had a PROBLEM WITH HER APPETITE and she was a person struggling with her sense of self and identity.  She was so CAUGHT UP IN SUCCESS that she became OBSESSED WITH LOSING WEIGHT and her idea of what it meant to be a healthy person became warped by the Hollywood images around her.  Karen Carpenter did not over eat, but she was a GLUTTON OF A DIFFERENT SORT.  You’ve heard the phrase, “he or she is a glutton for punishment”, which means a person must LIKE PAIN in a crazy, ABNORMAL, ADDICTIVE AND UNHEALTHY kind of way.  Karen Carpenter was a “glutton” for being skinny as she allowed the world TO WARP HER SENSE of what it meant to be LOVED, ACCEPTED and healthy.     
   
II.  THE SIN AGAINST YOUR BEST SELF.  

Let’s take this thought a little further.  Gluttony can be AN OBSESSION WITH ANYTHING THAT DOES HARM to our humanity and TAKES US AWAY FROM OUR BEST SELF and our high calling and purpose.  This definition reminds us that Gluttony is A DIFFERENT KIND OF SIN, say than pride, anger, greed or lust.  With all the other seven deadly sins, someone else gets hurt immediately.  But the sin of gluttony is PRIMARILY A SIN AGAINST YOURSELF.  This is why the church has most often categorized gluttony as A “WARM SIN; with is to differentiate from the colder, more aggressive sins anger, greed, pride and envy which are more aggressive and cold-hearted.

But while Gluttony might be considered a “warm-hearted” sin, the Bible doesn’t see much warmth in it.  Let me take you to couple of places in the Bible where the word “Gluttony” or at least the idea of gluttony appears.
the appearance of “gluttony” in the New Testament is most interesting.  Gluttony is one of the sins Jesus was accused of.  Of course, we know that Jesus was not a glutton, but he was accused of it because he liked to eat with sinners.  He never turned down a chance to go to a dinner party when sinners were there.

The accusation against Jesus reminds us again, that Gluttony is not simply about food.  Jesus was not considered a glutton because of how much he ate, but he was considered a glutton because of who he ate with.  The Pharisees saw Jesus as both a “drunkard and a glutton” because he ate with sinners; with people who where not consider clean by the religious establishment.  This reminds us that Gluttony has not just a bad food choice, but is also about our moral choices in life; about whether or not we are living the best life we can live.  The Pharisees thought Jesus was not living the best life, because he ate with sinners.  While they were wrong about Jesus, not understanding what Jesus was doing, they were right about the nature of gluttony.  Gluttony is mostly about the kind of person we are and about what we choose to do with our lives. 

Let’s look at another text that speaks of Gluttony.  As I mentioned before, Gluttony often shows up in a list of sins other sins, which includes drunkenness and sloth, or laziness.   The wise man in Proverbs says: “For the drunkard and the glutton shall come to poverty: and drowsiness shall clothe a man with rags.” (Proverbs 23:31).   We all know what it means to be an alcoholic?  An alcoholic is much more than just a person who drinks too much?   An alcoholic is a person who abuses alcohol.  What the alcoholic does is become dependent upon a drug, either as a wrong way to gain pleasure in life or as wrong way to deal with the pains and problems of life.   The alcoholic does the same wrong thing a glutton does.  Both the glutton and the drunkard forget their and limits and become dependant upon that which hurts them more than it helps.

There are all kinds of addictions in our times.  Some have even labeled us “a nation of  addicts.”   In our society with so much to come between us and God, we can get addicted to so many things; to drugs, tobacco, to sex, to money, to power, to fast food, and a host of other unhealthy “things” which we allow to possess us.   You can even be a glutton by becoming addicted to good things like exercise, sports, clothing, work and even religion.  Even good things can hurt us if we become possessed by them.  

The core problem with any kind of addictive behavior is not so much the evil or goodness of the substance being abused, as much as it is the question of why you are abusing it.  When you become addicted, negative things happen to you that hurt you; that lessen you and keep you from being the person you can be.  Perhaps the most tragic element in the sin of gluttony is that while we might give in to what we thing we need, at the same time we need it, and it give us what we want, it is also taking life from us.  This sin of gluttony, may just be the sin that does more to steal the joy of life than any other.   When we get addicted, we spend most of our time doing one thing, when there are others things in life that also need our attention.


III.  FILLING UP YOUR HEART SO YOU DON’T FEEL EMPTY?

As we understand that gluttony is a mostly a warm, non-aggressive sin, that keeps us from being at our best self, don’t think for one moment that gluttony is never destructive toward others.  In fact, one of the most powerfully negative images of a human being in all the Bible is the image of a Rich Man, who was so much a glutton, so obsessed with feeding his own needs, wants and pleasures, that he neglected the basic needs of another person---his own neighbor, who was starving to death right under his nose.

You do remember that powerful biblical story in Luke 16 where a rich man is pictured as one who “fairs sumptuously” every day, while the poor man, who sits right outside his gate, is needy, hurting and hungry.   What is important for us to see in this story is not just the contrast between rich and poor, but the contrast that is taking place within the rich man’s own life.  He is not just a rich man, but he is a man who stays rich at everyone else’s expense.  He is a person so obsessed with meeting his own needs and taking care of himself, that he neglects the needs of a hurting person who is right in front of him.  This is what made the rich man a glutton.  It was not the amount of food, but the kind of person he became when he only had time to take care of himself and had no time for others.

I’ll never forget something Dr. Fred Craddock said, after he had returned to Atlanta having visited a very poor country.  He was driving down the Interstate outside of Atlanta and saw a sign which said, “All You Can Eat”, $6.95.   Craddock said after being in a country where people were starving, even entertaining the idea in your own mind that you would want to “eat all you want”, when others had nothing, was the worse sin imaginable.  I felt the same way, when I was traveling with my family and my parents several years ago, and we wanted to find a seafood restaurant near Williamsburg, VA.  We entered into a restaurant, like I had never known or seen.  For a cost of $24 per person, you could eat your hearts delight from a tremendously large and tempting seafood buffet.  Since, we were strangers in town and did not know our way around town, I paid for all of us too eat.  But the whole time we were all eating, I felt like something was wrong.  It was not wrong because we all ate too much.  What was wrong was that we had so much too eat and couldn’t eat our money’s worth, even if we wanted too.  That’s the same kind of thing that happens when we become addicted to food or anything else.  We eat, we partake, but don’t feel like we’re had enough.  We can’t be satisfied.   

Throughout Scripture, there is a danger and a warning about giving into the “desires of the flesh”, the “lesser self”, or the “lower person.”  The Bible understands that we humans have physical needs, hungers and we have physical bodies that need care and nourishment.  And the Bible also tells us that we should care for our bodies, which are temples, temples of the Holy Spirit.  When we allow things, possessions, and even good things like food, to control us, and when we don’t maintaining spiritual control over them, too the extent that we only take care of our needs and we overlook the needs of others around us, then we are in dangerous, destructive territory.

So, finally, how do we refocus and maintain control over our physical appetites; which get out of balance in our lives.   If gluttony is more than how much we eat, but why we eat, how we eat, and who we are when we eat; and if gluttony is a that hurts us because we become obsessed with lesser things in life---things that can possess and lead to destructive obsessions which cause us to neglect our own health and to neglect the needs of others?  If this is what gluttony is, then how can we overcome the negative obsessions that do sometimes overcome us and set our lives off balance?

We need to look only at two more Scriptures.  Matthew 4 shows our Lord being tempted by the devil as we all are tempted.  While Jesus is preparing himself for his life mission and trying to prove he had spiritual control of his physical body---we see that the devil comes to him with temptation of food.  “Turn these stones into Bread”.  The Devil tempts Jesus, not to eat too much, but to stop and eat when he had something more important to do.  If Jesus had given into the devil in that moment; if he had turned those stones into bread, setting down to eat a good meal; if he had made food and his physical appetite the priority when there were so many other spiritual priorities pressing him at the moment, he would have given into gluttony.

          Jesus did not give into his stomach, because he had a very full heart.  He told the devil: “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (4:4).  This is the same kind of thing we see taking place in our text from John 4.  When the disciples are trying to get Jesus to stop and eat, he tells them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.” (4: 32)  Then he tells them: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.” (4:34).

Of course, there in normally nothing wrong with meeting your physical needs; except when this is all you live for.  If there is nothing more than living, eating, drinking, and satisfying yourself, then what is the point to life?   Life has to be more than about feeding our appetites.  Life is also about God.  Life is about Love.  Life is about disciplining yourself and not taking shortcuts around what is most important.  Life is sometimes about enjoying yourself, but it is also about denying yourself.  As Jesus shows us, life is about having priorities which are much more than feeding our stomachs or our physical appetites.  A life that is aimed only at pleasure, only as satisfying yourself, only at looking after your own needs, is a life rob of the greatest joy and is a life that.  You can’t fill your heart , no matter how much you fill you stomach.

Jesus shows us only way out of our human addictions, when he turned to the devil and said: “Man shall not live by bread alone.  Only when we realize that life is bigger than our own needs; that life has reasons we can’t know only through physical pleasures; and until we accept that life has an ultimate purpose that will only be realized through pain, not avoiding it, and until we can focus on God’s purposes that are bigger than our own pleasures, you can likely get trapped by gluttony and other addictions.

When we can finally say that we all need a higher power to help overcome our physical weaknesses and addictions.   Having a full heart is the only way the sin gluttony is overcome.  When we commit ourselves to God’s purpose, it is then that the lesser and lower appetites have less control us.  They don’t control for the same reason they didn’t control Jesus when he told his disciples, “that he had meat to eat that the world did not yet know of.”   When we feed our greater spiritual hungers; our hunger for love, our hunger for community; our hunger for truth; our hunger for grace; and most of all our hunger for God.; when we fill these greater hungers, we will be so full that the all our other hunger pains will lessen and we can eat to live, not just live to eat.  Amen.