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Sunday, June 25, 2017

“Aren't You of More Value Than These…?”

Matthew 6: 25-34,  Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin
3rd Sunday After Pentecost, June 25, 2017,    (Series:  Questions Jesus Asked  #2)

My Grandfather’s farm was right beside the Statesville Airport.   So, you are right to guess that I came to love airplanes.   I used to spend every first quarter I got on a new wooden or plastic airplane that I could go outside and fly.  One of my favorite Christmas toys, as a child, was my own roll-out airport, with airplanes.  I loved to build model airplanes too. 

When I was about 8 or 9,  I took my new, small, blue plastic, rubber band, slingshot powered plane into the back yard to see how high I could make it go.  As I mastered how to launch it, I learned to let the wind take farther and farther, until finally it got so high, I didn’t see where it landed.  I searched and searched the yard and nearby field.  I’d lost toys before, but this was the very first day.  I couldn’t believe I lost it.  I thought I saw where it must have landed, but it was nowhere to be found.   So, I took up flying kites and lost a few of those too.

All of us have lost something valuable in our lives, but the hardest, most valuable treasure we ever loose are those we love.   And sometimes it’s hard for me to look in my own house today and see my Father’s eyeglasses, or see my mother’s picture and try to understand how these ‘things’ are still around, but they are gone.  How could “things” in life, like photos, metal, rocks, and materials, outlast the precious people we have loved more than anything else?  

Of course, we all enjoy using some of the high-tech items being developed today, but wouldn’t we much rather have some of the ‘warmth’ of days gone by, when people looked each other in the eye and talked?   Sometimes we don’t realize what we are missing, but when we do, we might also come to ask ourselves: did the creator make mistake by making materials seemingly permanent, but life and love way too fragile?  Does God really, really care?  Our lives can seem so brief, so transient, so fleeting ‘like a vapor’ as the Scripture says, which is way, way too delicate?

When we think about this second question, a question of ‘value’, we are asking ourselves one of the very important questions Jesus once asked:  Are we not of more value than those small, little things in life, like birds and the flowers?  Are we not worth more than they?

By asking us to ‘look at the birds of the air’, Jesus wants us not to ‘worry’ about our lives.  Do birds help you not to worry?  The Audubon Society estimates that 80% of certain species of birds die every winter.  Birds can get hit by cars, run into windows, have their nests blow out by storms, or even have predators waiting on their little ones, as soon as they fall out of their nest.  When you watch birds out your window, or you feed them, they seem to be scrambling for food almost every moment.  And I know that lilies be beautiful, even the perennial varieties still must hide from the harsh winters, and as Jesus himself says,  ‘the grass of the field is ‘tomorrow cast into the oven’.   Why would Jesus use these always hungry birds and delicate flowers as pictures of God’s care for us?  How can we not ‘worry’ in a world that is as precious, but also as transitory as ours? 

And, what about our world?   Of course there is so much good in it, but what about all this bad we also have to hear, see, and know about, and sometimes, experience.   Yes, most of the time the storms, troubles, murders, and terrorists are over there, but occasionally, they are also here.  I was driving right on the edge of that storm that grazed Hamptonville in May, which was also part of the same storm that was a bigger tornado in Courtney.  We saw the result of the deadly forces in those dark winds.   None of us are completely shelter from the threats, the dangers, or the deadly forces set loose in our world.  

Of course, much of what is most worrying in this world is humanly instigated, but there is even more negative, destructive power in an earthquake, a tsunami, a tornado, a flood, or in a hurricane when they suddenly appear, often with little warning.   We have not tamed all the negatives, physical or political, and this is not even to begin to mention the mental illnesses, the political divisions, the moral decline or the social unrest that seems to be brewing.  How can we not worry?

But we need to realize again, that in Jesus’ day, there was plenty to worry about too, if not more.  There were totalitarian governments, marching armies, religious oppression.  At times, if you were living in Palestine, you could occasionally find someone outside the town, hanging crucified on a tree, with the birds eating away their flesh away.   Now, that would be a ‘threatening’ world, wouldn’t it.   Still, it was exactly in that very world, by the one who was later crucified himself, that we hear him saying,  “Take no thought for your life” (KJV), (or Don’t worry, NRSV) about ‘what you shall eat or drink, or your body, what you will wear” (6:25).   The Father feeds the birds.  The lilies of the field’ outshine Solomon.  The pagans (Gentiles) worry about ‘all these things’ (6:32), but you shouldn’t.  Why shouldn’t you or I worry?  Yes, of course, we worry anyway, but Jesus says we shouldn’t.  Why?
Before we get to the ‘answer’ Jesus gives, we need to look at how many questions he keeps firing at those who would worry.  There are five of them that keep coming, one by one:  “Is not life more than food, the body more than clothing “ (25)?   “Look at the birds…are you not of more value than they” (26)?   “Can any of you, by worrying add a single hour to your life-span” (27)?  “Why do you worry about your clothing” (28)?  “If God clothes the grass of the field…will he not much more clothe you---O you of little faith” (30)?   Five questions, one after the other, and then Jesus ends with the implication of what worry means—“O you of little faith”?  

“Worry is Atheism!” said the great Methodist Missionary, E. Stanly Jones.  Once, the great reformer, Martin Luther’s, observed his wife starting to wear black in public.   It was after the reformation had set the landowners and princes free from the controls of the Roman Catholic so they could all go after their own ‘fortunes’ without established, moral constraints.  “Why are you wearing black?”, Luther asked his wife. “O, haven’t you heard,” she answered.  “God is Dead!”  When you think of someone wearing black to express grief on the outside, what do you think a soul looks like, on the inside, when it no longer believes, no longer trusts, and no longer has any elevated, special place for faith in a God who knows and cares?  

This is the obvious answer Jesus implies with all his questions:  ‘Your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things  (32).’   God knows.  God cares.  This is reason you shouldn’t worry.  This is reason you should keep faith.  This is the reason you should serve ‘wealth’ instead of God  (6:24), which is the real reason this whole conversation got started.   It all got started because people were so worried about life, they were ‘storing up treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume….’   The more they had, the more they had to keep up and worry about.   All these ‘things’ they were gaining, storing, and treasuring, was not relieving their worry, but it was making them worry more.  They were putting their ‘hearts’ in the wrong place.  They were putting their lives at more risk by ‘having’ than by ‘letting go’.  

The other day, there was a woman who had a nice car at a gas station.  A car jacker tried to steal her car, so she got on top of it and wouldn’t let go.  I know it was a ‘subaru’, but would you put your life at risk to hold on to it?  She did.  Amazingly, the thief was so shocked that he let the car go.  It was rolling out of the service station lot and into the street.  She crawled off the car and stopped it from rolling just in the nick of time.   Would you put your life on the line for a car?   Even a nice one?  Now, if she was a mother with a child in the car, that’s different.  I didn’t see a child in the car.   It was a nice car, but was it that nice?

 Jesus says we are hurting ourselves and our faith by worrying, and by focusing ‘all these things’.   What can you really do, to add a moment to your life?  What kind of life did you have, after you worried about all that stuff?  It’s kind of like a mechanic neighbor, seeing you tinkering under the hood of your own car, asking “Do you know what you are are doing?”  Of course you don’t, not like he does?  And what do we know about solving our problems by getting, having, holding on, or by worrying.  Do we know what we are doing?  Are we accomplishing anything?  Of course not, so why worry? Jesus asks. 

Are you excessively worried about anything?   I just turned 60 this year.  I’m fast approaching retirement.  You’ve got to have X amount of money in the bank.   I’ve lived all my life on a pastor’s salary.  I’ve done some planning and some saving.  But I’ve probably haven’t done enough.   When I was in Greensboro I had a man in my church who was from North Iredell.  I don’t’ remember seeing him in church much.  His wife was sick and had to be placed in the nursing home.  I went to visit him and he said, “I’ve saved all this money.  I had quite a comfortable nest egg, I thought.  Now, I’m spending it all away is just a couple of years.  Pastor, do you know how much it costs.  I’d been better off not having any money at all.  Now, the nursing home is going to get just about all I’ve got left.   He was worried.  We all could worry about that or something else, couldn’t we?   What we have acquired, could be destroyed in a storm.  Who we love might have to go into a nursing home.  We could get very sick and have astronomical bills to keep us alive.   What do we have to worry about?  Jesus said, “Don’t worry!”  But we worry about a lot of things anyway, don’t we?

The only real solution to all this worry is not a rebuke, but a choice.  “Seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you….” (33).  In other words, if you get busy doing the right things, you won’t worry as much about the bad.   If you keep your focus on the things that matter most, and what you should value most--those you love and the God who loves and cares for you--- these things will take care of themselves.

Of course we have to plan, of course we have to work,  and of course we have to invest and to follow some good financial and spiritual advise, but when it comes to ‘worry’ we also have a very important choice to make.   When I have visited a couple of financial planners in my life,  the number one question I bring to them is how can I earn or make a little money with my money?  They always seem to avoid my question, with another question they put to me first” ‘What do you want to accomplish?” “What are you going to do with that money when you earn it?   I find it interesting that even a “Financial Planner” thinks less about money than he or she thinks about ‘what you value’ or ‘what you want’?  

Jesus was not a financial planner; he was a spiritual realist.  He knew that any and everything in this life is ‘alive today’ and gone tomorrow.   So, why worry?  You can’t change the future or the reality we all face in life for death.   What we can do is focus on the most important things now.  It is much better to be making the right choices in the time you’ve got now.   You can’t serve God and money.  You can’t add an hour to your life by worrying?   The birds and followers are beautiful, but temporary too.   They get on with their living and dying, without worrying?  Perhaps we humans are the only ones capable of worry, but we are also capable of something else: We can make choices.   We can decide what we are going to do with our lives.  We can lessen our loads and make better choices.   We can plan for the worst and hope for the best.   We can do some good things today, and worry less about the bad that might happen tomorrow.  And most important of all, ‘we can seek God’s kingdom’, a kingdom that is coming that belongs to the future only God can bring.

What’s more?  We can also choose to trust God and his goodness, even in a bad world.   Or, we can make the other choice; we can no to hope, no to God, no to good, and wait for everything to get worst.  Like Martin Luther’s wife, we can listen to the ‘nay-sayers’ and start wearing black, because we have lost hope.  But Jesus asks this question about value, because deciding what matters in the ‘short’ life we have is a ‘decision’ that is up to you and to me.   The other day,  I saw on TV news a story about a child that was born with a disease that would not allow the child to have protein.  They were on TV because the child needed a kidney because they did not realize she had this problem until proteins ruined her system.   Now they need a kidney for her so she could have a higher quality of life.   The parents were optimistic and positive.   They were loving to their child, and their child was happy, completely unaware of the dangerous illness and condition she was in and would have to live with most her life.   I take my hat off to those parents who ‘choose’ to value their child, and life; and also to value love and being positive.   They know what we all should know:  When we decide what we value, or what matters most, we create the world we live in.   We decide how we will see it, face it or deal with it, whether it is bad or good.   When Jesus was on the cross, he too cried “My God why?”.   We all come to such dark moment.  But we have a choide.  We don’t have to stay there, stuck on a dark Friday afternoon, but we can keep moving ahead, waiting and believing that Sunday’s coming!  

Don’t you know that you are of more value than these?”  Jesus asks us.  Don’t you know that the Father knows and cares for you?   We need to be amazed, not by the bad things that happen, but by the good we know, and the love we share, because of God’s love for us.   If God cares about birds, flowers, and exactly what you need, even before you ask,  Don’t worry!   Don’t worry about tomorrow, but live, love, and trust God today!   Seek the Kingdom and God will be there with you and for you, no matter what!    Amen.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

“What Are You Looking For?”

A Sermon based upon John 1: 29-42,  Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
2nd Sunday After Pentecost, June 18, 2017,    (Series:  Questions Jesus Asked  #1)

We’ve all heard of the popular bumper which says, “Jesus is the answer?”  Some think of Jesus as the number one answer man.   But interestingly, when you check it out, Jesus answered very few questions.  

It has been calculated that Jesus asked around 183 questions in the gospels.  Jesus only answered 3 of them.   On the other hand, Jesus asked 307 questions, meaning that Jesus was 40 times more likely to ask a question than to answer one.   You remember some of those questions, don’t you?  “Who do you say that I am?”   “Do you not understand what I’m saying?”  “When the Son of Man returns will he find any faith left on the earth?”  “Could you not stay awake?”  “Do you love me?”  It seems that Jesus preferred to ask thought provoking,  and some very hard questions rather than give easy answers.   Jesus’ style of teaching is exactly opposite of most conservative TV preachers or even most liberalizing “Dear Abby” answer sermons.  Jesus is simply too much of a Jewish prophet to satisfy either status quo with simple platitudes’  (Richard Rohr).

During these weeks of summer, we are going to consider some of the most important questions Jesus asked.  By the time we finish, I hope you will discover what many have, that there is a lot more wisdom found in asking the right questions than having the right answers.

Our question today is quite a question, isn’t it?  On the one hand it’s a fairly common question:  “What (or who) are you looking for?”  It’s one of the few questions Jesus asked several times. He asked it here, when some wanted to be his disciples.  He asked it when they came to arrest him  (John 18.7).  He also asked to a woman who came to the tomb (John 20.15).   This sounds like such a simple question, especially if you are asking this to someone searching a matching sock, their misplaced car keys, or their favorite ink pen.  That’s one thing, but if you ask this kind of question to someone who is following you around everywhere you go, either to be with you, or to get rid of you, now that’s a whole different kind of question isn’t it?  What do you wantWhat do you want from meWho or what are you looking for?

The first time Jesus asked this question, he was beginning his ministry as an traveling, itinerate rabbi.   To learn from any rabbi, would-be disciples needed to make an official request.  It was kind of like choosing the kind of college you wanted to go to and the teacher you wanted.  But Jesus didn’t work this way.   In the gospel, Jesus chooses his disciples.   People had to follow him around waiting for him to ask them.   It was kind of like waiting on the acceptance letter from a university without ever sending in an application.  Jesus was the kind of Rabbi who was asking all the questions, not giving all the answers.

In today’s text, John the Baptist bears witness to Jesus as ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’.   John saw something different about Jesus: ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him’ (John 1:29,32).  The day after John makes these dramatic declarations about Jesus, a couple of John’s own disciples were standing close by and recognized it as code language the coming of a true Messiah.  So, they start following Jesus around everywhere he went.   They knew they couldn’t ask to be his disciple, but they could follow him around.  So, when Jesus realizes that they are following him everywhere he goes, he turns and asks:  “What are you looking for?”  “What is it that you want from me?” 

This may be the most important question for true discipleship, then or now.  We can never be very good followers of Jesus if we already have all the answers.   Every generation has to learn to ask the right questions and seek answers.  Every generation has to recognize how, who, and what they really need all over again.  No true believer ever stops asking, seeking, knocking, believing, or ever arrivals with all the answers.  When the right question is God, we will never have all our questions answered until we see God face to face.

When Adam and Eve committed the original sin in the Garden (Gen 3), part of the temptation of the Serpent was to tell them if they would eat the forbidden fruit, they would be like God.  In other words, when they got what they wanted, they wouldn’t need God, have any more questions or need anybody except themselves.  That is still the great lie for both young or old.  You how that goes:  When I get my driver’s license and my car; When I marry that guy or girl,  when I get that job or promotion, or when I make X amount of money, have X amount in the bank, or get this or that, then I’ll be ‘happy, contented, or fulfilled’.    That’s how many think, or have thought, but it never turns out that way.   Have you ever noticed that most folks who ‘must’ have something, or someone, or work only to obtain and get what they want,  never seem to have enough and are seldom satisfied with what they have?

The reason ‘money’ or ‘wealth’ or obtaining stuff doesn’t buy happiness, was answered by a great Christian way back when Christians were just starting to come into world respect in the 5th century AD.  The great Augustine said in his own Confessions (Book 1):  “You have made us for yourself, O Lord.  Our hearts are restless, until they (finally) find their rest in you.”  

There is a great story from Hawaiian pastor, Wayne Cordeiro  about “a rabbi living in a Russian city a century ago.  Disappointed by his lack of direction and life purpose, he wandered in the chilly evening. With his hands thrust deep in his pockets, he aimlessly walked through the empty streets, questioning his faith in God, the Scriptures and his calling to ministry. The only thing colder than the Russian winter air was the chill within his soul. He felt so enshrouded by his own despair that he mistakenly wandered into a Russian military compound off limits to civilians. The bark of a Russian soldier shattered the silence of the evening chill. “Who are you? And what are you doing here?” “Excuse me?” replied the rabbi. “I said, ‘Who are you and what are you doing here?’” After a brief moment, the rabbi, in a gracious tone so as not to provoke the soldier, said, “How much do you get paid every day?” “What does that have to do with you?” the soldier retorted. With the delight of someone making a new discovery, the rabbi said, “I will pay you the equal sum if you will ask me those same two questions every day: ‘Who are you?’ and ‘What are you doing here?’”  (Wayne Corderio, Doing Church as a Team,  p. 32-33).

Of course, the Russian soldiers were not asking an ‘open ended’ question.  They were asking a very specific, closed-ended one.  In the same way, many of us go after ‘closed-ended’ answers, like money, fame, success or stuff, when in reality, what we need is something much less material, and much more spiritual and open ended, perhaps even unanswerable in this life.   I’m convinced that most human desires don’t start bad, but get misguided.   We all have ‘desires’ and most of those wrong-headed desires go back to having missed asking, reflecting upon and trying to deal with the most important questions we should have been asking all along; Why am I here?  What is life about?  What does love mean?  What should I do with my life?   When we try to ask and answer these kinds of big, life-long, even unanswerable questions, each and every day, as this Russian Rabbi needed, it is much more difficult to become misguided, empty, and going after things that get us lost and never satisfy.

But how do we get back from Z to A?   How do we, when we’ve lost our way, gone after wrong things, or now find ourselves alone, empty and unfullfilled, as Bill Murry once described,  “Lost in the Cosmos?”  And how do we get our life back on track when we end up in such an unwanted place?    If the unexpected comes, the letdown, if cancer comes, or if heartache comes, or if great loss, disappointment, or a growing emptiness starts keeping us awake at night, and we realize that we’ve lost our way, or that a sense of peace, joy or hope has left us; if we realize we’ve taken the wrong road, how do we find our way back home, when we are much farther away than we’d like to admit?

There is another little joke that is more real than funny. It is about a drunk fellow who is spotted by a police officer.  The drunken man is intently searching the ground near a lamppost and the officer asks the question: what are you looking for?   The fellow replies that he is looking for his car keys.   The officer helps for a few minutes without success, then asks whether the man is certain that he dropped the keys near the lamppost.  “No,” is the reply, “I lost the keys somewhere across the street.” “Why are you looking here?” asks the surprised and irritated officer. “The light is much better here,” the intoxicated man responds.

Interestingly, this story is often use to illustrate something called ‘The Streetlight Effect’ to help in the training Police Detectives.   The Streetlight Effect is an ‘observational bias’ that occurs when people are searching for something, but settle for looking where it is easiest instead of where it is hard to look.   When we want and need answers, even we are not police detectives, we can settle for quick answers, not taking time, making effort, or walking in or through the most difficult places where it can be too dark to look.   In the same way,  out of our need for finding a solutions for our greatest longings and human needs, we too often settle for ‘things’ (going for the instant light) instead of doing the hard work of dealing with the spiritual darkness or difficulty we are in.   Most of us don’t really want, or have time to go, start, or stay here, so we settle for less, much less, but we end up starving our souls.

Even we Christians can do this.  I recall someone who, when I extended a public invitation after the message, continued to come down the aisle several times.   This person responded time after time.  They seldom had time to talk.  They seldom said much of anything.  When they finally did make an appointment to talk, they didn’t  tell me much.   It was obvious that they were struggling with something that went way back, perhaps into childhood.  They were dealing with a lot deep stuff, but they didn’t ever get to ‘heart’ of things.  Maybe they didn’t know how.   That’s one of the reasons, I’m not as big on ‘public invitations’ like I used to be.   Too often going ‘public’ or ‘through the motions’ of resolving something quickly,  keeps us away from dealing with the hard questions, for which there are no easy answers.   Even answer that are found in faith, if they are too easy, can be misleading too.

What I like about this story and the disciples being asked, “What (or who) are you looking for (In Greek it could be either)  is that they don’t respond by spelling out what or who they are looking for.  Maybe they don’t know, exactly.  Maybe they’ve been disappointed with wrong answers before.   What I find interesting is that even when they are standing right there, with Jesus in front of them whom John has named ‘the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’, they don’t immediately rush to conclusions, decisions or answers.   No, they respond to Jesus’ question with another question.  It shows that they are seeking something real, not some fly-by-night, instant, quick, or shallow answer.   Instead of a quick answer, they asked Jesus a question, showing him great respect, along with caution and wisdom:  “Rabbi, Where are you staying?”   This must have pleased Jesus greatly and he then issues this great invitation:  “Come and See!”   We read that they ‘came’ and ‘saw’ and ‘remained with him that day.  It was about four o’clock in the afternoon.’  They all got lost in conversation.  Wouldn’t you love to know what they were all talking about?   Or, maybe, just maybe, the reason we don’t know ‘what’ they were talking about, doesn’t matter as much as ‘who’ they were with.   The answer was not a ‘what’, but it was it was a ‘who’

Now, we can look closely at where this question of longing, ends up?   One of the two, who heard John speaking and ‘came’ and followed to see ‘where’ Jesus lived, was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother.  It was after that long, long conversation, that Andrew went to find his brother, saying, “We have found the Messiah!”  

Perhaps what is most important for us here, is that these first disciples started where we all must be, not at one point, but for all our lives, if we want to find hope, meaning, purpose, and fulfillment in our lives, whether we are at the beginning of life’s journey, in the middle, or at the end.   If you really want to start looking for what any of us can lose, which can make us spiritually hungry, emotionally needy, or materialistically poor, even if you have all the money in the world, you need to look where you need to look, not just where you want to look.  

Where You need to take it slower, not rush into things, but simply move a little closer, answer Christ’s invitation to ‘come and see’ where he lives, and not keeping asking him to come where you are?   They ‘journey’ to Jesus’ house might have been the best part.   Perhaps they got so ‘lost’ their conversation,  that they found what they were seeking, not in having or getting an ‘answer’ but in just being with him.   Pastor Eugene Petersen calls it:  “The Long Obedience in the Same Direction”.   Isn’t this exactly where this whole story ends up.  The point wasn’t that Jesus answered all their questions, but that Jesus really ‘knew’ ‘loved’ and cared about them.   “Where, or how did you get to know me?”   (1:48), Nathaniel asks.   Or as the Woman at the Well says, just a couple of pages later, “Come meet someone who told me everything I’ve ever done!  Can he be the Messiah?” (John 4: 29). 

Do you see what was happening?   Their discipleship in Jesus wasn’t about getting all life’s answers, it was about Jesus knowing, loving, and choosing to be with them, and they deciding to be with him.   Could this not be the Answer we are all looking for?   U2, the Rock Group, who are Christians, but prefer they can reach more people by not using that title, have a hit song,  “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m looking For.”   They are right, we never will find ‘what’ we are looking for, because of ‘who’ we need to be with.

‘Who’ is the real hunger, isn’t it?  You go into the kitchen, head directly to the refrigerator, open the door, and peer in. You are vaguely hungry, but you cannot tell exactly what you are hungry for. You survey the options. Cheese? No, that’s not it. Cold pizza? No, definitely not. Leftover chicken salad? That’s not quite it. You go so far as to take a bite of strawberry yogurt but put it back on the shelf.  The refrigerator is full enough, and your stomach is empty enough, but nothing seems exactly right.  The cold air emerges and brings with it a remembered voice: “Don’t leave the refrigerator door open.”  It is not ‘what’ you are looking for, but ‘who’ you miss?  Anything but ‘who’ just doesn’t seem to satisfy.   

Martin Copenhaver tells about a television news report I saw too, but had forgotten until he wrote about it.  It tells the story of a group of men who spent years in the pursuit of a particular stash of treasure they knew was buried off the coast of Florida. One day they uncovered it; and it was everything they had hoped and imagined it would be— golden coins and priceless antique jewelry. Success at last. Of course, there was great jubilation at the discovery, but there was also a hint of something else. The report ended with a picture of one of the discoverers, looking at nothing in particular with an almost wistful expression. And while that picture was on the screen, the reporter closed by asking this question and letting it dangle in the air: “What do you do when you have found what you were looking for?”  There are two great tragedies in life, Oscar Wilde mentioned:  “Losing Your Heart’s Desire or Finding it!”  (Copenhaver, Martin B.. Jesus Is the Question: The 307 Questions Jesus Asked and the 3 He Answered (Kindle Locations 361-366). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition, 2016).

What we really long for,  Martin Copenhaver says,  “It is have the broken and scattered pieces of our lives brought together in ways that we are unable to do.   This is why our greatest longing in life is not about ‘what’, but ‘who’.  It is a yearning for God who is our only sure ‘dwelling place throughout all generations’ (Psal. 90:1).   “As a deer longs for flowing streams,”  that same Psalmist says, “so my soul longs for you, O God” (Psalm 42: 1).   Whether it was when Jesus was just starting his ministry, or after Easter was all over, the question worth repeating over and over, was not about ‘what’, but it was about ‘who’.   There is a hole in our hearts that nothing else, no career, no amount of money, or no other relationship, but only God can fit and fill.   “Who are you looking for?  Are you willing to ‘come and see’?   Amen.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

“The Great Omission!”

A Sermon Based Upon Matthew 28: 16-20
Preached by Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
June 11th, 2017, Trinity Sunday, Year A

Perhaps you’ve heard about the small town that had four churches, a Presbyterian, a Methodist, a Catholic, and a Baptist church.  Since the town was full of trees, all four churches had serious squirrel problems.   Following its own denominational traditions, each church developed its own approach to solving its own squirrel problem.   The Presbyterians decided that squirrels were ‘predestined’ to cause problems, so they would have to learn to live with them.   The Methodist decided they would deal with the squirrels like John Wesley, and they humanely, lovingly, but firmly, took action to trap them and take them to a park outside of town.   But within 3 days, all the squirrels came back.   The Catholics decided that they would serve the squirrels communion so they would leave.  Finally, the Baptists found the best solution.   The simply voted the squirrels in as members.   Now, they only see the squirrels at Christmas and Easter. 

We all know that ‘church’ does not mean what it once did in our society.   Today people are filled with mistrust and are much more committed to themselves and much less committed to their communities or their institutions---including church.   And even among those non-traditional, non-denominational, and atypical churches that are growing, there are lots of differences about what works and what doesn’t.   Today’s growing churches are high on celebration, excitement and self-help, but seem to be much less serious about building community or commitment.  

So, in light of all that has changed, and is still changing, what is it that church is supposed to mean, or is supposed to be?    Well, if we go back to the gospel, it can be determined that Jesus had three priorities or requirements for his followers:  (1) To Love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, (2) to love our neighbors as ourselves, and finally (3) ‘to make disciples’ of people from all the nations.   This third priority was so important,  that for the first time, Jesus invokes the name of God as Trinity; commissioning his disciples to ‘baptize…in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit’ (Matt. 28: 19).    

By naming God as Father, Son, and Spirit, Jesus underlined the vital importance the church’s mission in the world.  Thus, it was not named the Great Suggestion, but it is named the Great Commission---that is, the call of the church to come together to fulfill its mission.   What is the church’s primary mission?   The church supposed to be a people who come together to exist for people who are not yet inside it.   In other words, if a church wants to be a Great Commission Church, local or global, the church was never intended to be a ‘club’ for insiders and it was never intended to be a place where Christians only come to have Christian fellowship or to only have their own spiritual needs met.  Of course, the church should be that too, but a church cannot just be that, or it ceases to be the church Jesus called into being.  

Let’s make this clearer.  For the Church to be the church, the church must love God and love neighbor, but the church must also ‘go’ to ‘make disciples’, that is, make ‘Jesus followers’ out of people who are not of our type, not of our tribe, not of our nation, and not of our own group.   Notice that Jesus did not say, just before he ascended to the Father, for the disciples to all go home to get some and to make themselves comfortable, spending all their time and energy working out the details of community, faith or belief.  Also, Jesus did not say make yourself a place so you can ‘sing your favorite songs’, hear some good sermons, and ‘try to do something good once in a while’.  No, Jesus was very specific.  The mission of his church, which is its Great Commission (commission =  it’s mission as a people who come together) is to ‘go’, to ‘teach’ and show other people how and what it means to become faithful followers of Jesus Christ. 

Unfortunately,  this Great Commission has become the “Great Omission” in the last 30 or 40 years.   There is a lot of talk about it, but most churches, especially mainline churches, are in numerical decline, struggling to grow, and even fearful of closing church doors for good.  The main churches, who have all been primary fixtures in our American life,  Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist and Catholic too, are not, for the most part replenishing themselves with a new generation of disciples.   Besides, even our own children are showing less interests in the church, and most of our grandchildren hardly care at all about church.

So, what has happened?   Can we figure it out?  Can we name the big problem that has led to the decline most traditional churches?   Is it the changes going on in our society?   Some. Maybe.  Is it the dominance of technology over human relationships?   Maybe. Is it social change, a political revolution, or could it be a growing spiritual problem rising up in the western world, that has traded it faith in God for a mess of secular pottage?    Why is the church not the powerhouse in our world like the church seemed to be in the early days of Christianity?  Have you read the book of Acts lately?   It tells of how it once was; people coming together in one accord to follow the Apostles teaching, a sermon being preached and 3,000 people are saved, and it also tells story after story of strangers becoming Christians, as folks are healed, miracles take place, and all kinds of social, religious, and geographical barriers being overcome.   Why can’t church be that kind of ‘interesting’ today?

I find it most interesting that when you consider what was happening then, when Jesus gave this commission and also what happened afterward, it could not be explained by mere humanly-inspired activity.    Look around at what is happening among the disciples just before the Great Commission is given.   We read how that the disciples saw the risen Lord, they worshiped, but still, ‘some doubted’ (Mt. 28:17).   Do you see?  The Christian community still had doubters, even as it was being born.  Another thing we see, especially in the book of Acts, is that the church had all kinds of ‘dreamers’ or ‘gazers’ (Acts 1:11); that is people who spent time ‘gazing into heaven’ always focusing on ‘when’ or ‘how’ Jesus would return.   And even though, most of the disciples themselves were doers of the word, and not hearers only, or gazers and thinkers, still, they went out into the world to be witnesses with great opposition, great resistance, and with constant threats being made against their lives (Acts 4:1ff).   Some of them, like Stephen, even early on, lost their lives for the sake of the gospel (Acts 7:59) as there was often, ‘great persecution’ that was against the church.  

No, the early days of the church were not ideal, the disciples were not perfect, and the world was most always against them, and eventually most of their first leaders, including Paul (Acts 21:27ff), Peter, James, Thomas, and all the others lost their lives.   This is how it really was.   The church was a group of people who followed Jesus and should not have succeeded to ‘go into the whole world’.   They should not have overcome and should not have been able to take their message to the world, besides being the greatest religious movement the world has ever known, lasting almost 2,000 years.   How did such an ordinary, even less than ordinary, very unsophisticated, untrained, and unpolished group of disciples (Acts 4:13ff) end up starting a movement, founding such a long lasting institution, or establishing an enduring organization like this? 

Also, how did they do it under such great opposition, and we don’t seem to be able to keep it going, and hold it together even in a free, wealthy, and relatively safe society like our own?   What is not happening now that did happen then?  Can we definitively say what our problem is?

Perhaps the most important part of the answer to why the church isn’t today, what it once was, and has been, found in something the late preacher and devotional writer, AW Tozer in the early 1900’s.   He made the interesting comment that “If the Holy Spirit had been withdrawn from the early New Testament Church then,  95% of what they were doing would have stopped.”   Can’t you see this in the book of Acts?   The Holy Spirit is behind everything.  In fact,  when you read it, you will see that the book of Acts is not really about the Acts of the Apostles, but the Acts of the Holy Spirit.   The story in Acts begins with the Spirit being ‘poured out’ and person after person (Acts 10:45), not just being baptized with water, but being ‘baptized with the Holy Spirit’ (Acts 11:16).  One of my favorite chapters in Acts, is Acts 8, where we read the ‘Spirit said to Philip, go near...this chariot’ (Acts 8: 29) and then, just after that ‘the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away’ (Acts 8:39). Then, only a couple chapters later Peter says, ‘The Spirit told me to go…’ (Acts 11:12) and not long afterward we read how it was ‘through the Spirit, Paul was told not to go to Jerusalem...’ (Acts 21:4).   All this means AW Tozer was right:  If the Holy Spirit had not been invited, obeyed and then followed,  95% the what church accomplished would not have happened.  

But isn’t the opposite happening today.   Isn’t it true today, that in the church, 95% of what the church is doing today does not require us to obey the Holy Spirit?   We don’t need the Holy Spirit to preach our sermons, to sing our songs, to lead our choirs, to conduct our meetings, to do our children’s or youth works, to have our fellowships,  raise our money, or to go on our mission trips, do we?   Could it be that the Great Omission is not simply the failure to obey, that is to not to ‘go’ or ‘to make’ disciples, but might our coming demise be more rightly linked to having little desire to be ‘led’, ‘directed’ or ‘controlled’ by the Holy Spirit?   Going in the Name of God the Father and God the Son, while getting to have our personal tastes or display our wonderful talents is fine,   but asking for, invoking, and actually listening to and allowing for the work of the Holy Spirit?   Who needs that in the church today?  Would we rather die than have the discomfort or deal with the disruption of having to obey the Spirit?

Could the failure to have the desire to listen to, follow, or obey the Spirit, be our Great Omission?   Who needs the Holy Spirit anyway?   Can’t we have our Christianity, our beliefs,  our opinions, and our churches without the Spirit?   Besides, what does the church of today really need the Holy Spirit for?   

Well, let’s think about that.   In our text today, Jesus does not just say, “Go, make the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”, but just before that, Jesus said something even more empowering and also more challenging.   First of all, before he said ‘go’, he said:  “All power (or authority) is given to me in heaven and in earth….” (Matt. 28: 18).   Now, what kind of ‘power’ is this?  What could this mean for the life and the future of this church?

I find it interesting, very interesting, that most of the newer translations have moved away from older King James translation of Jesus having ‘power’ to Jesus having ‘authority.’    These translations are meant to help us get clearer about what this word for power specifically means.   In fact, the Greeks had, and still have, 4 words that could be translated power.  You already know the other two words, even if you don’t know Greek, because they carry over into our English,  dynamis, (Dynamite), and energeia (energy).   One of those Greek words for power, which you don’t know about, is right here in Matthew 28:18.  Here Jesus uses the word exousia, which is not dynamis---an explosive power, and not energeia---- an energy that causes something, and not isxus---the health or strength to work.   But the word Jesus uses here is the only Greek word for power that can means to have the ‘authority’,  the right, or the freedom to choose to do what you want to do.  Here, in the Great Commission is given when Jesus has earned the right and been given the authority by God to give a great mission to the disciples and to the church.   But the GREAT OMISSION is when we don’t give Jesus the same authority and right to command our lives or to commission us.   Specifically, we give Jesus the authority and right to ‘command’ and to ‘commission’ when we are willing to OBEY EVERYTHING he commands us.  This exactly what it means to be ‘led’ by, to be ‘filled with’ or to ‘receive’ or listen to the Spirit.   Because God is Father, Son and Spirit, there is no difference in obeying the Spirit of Jesus than obeying the Holy Spirit.  But still, what does this means, in the most practical terms which can have the most practical results---results that give the church both power it needs to thrive and to carry out its mission?

Well, since, obeying Jesus and listening to the Spirit is the same, let’s think again about what really happened at the church’s birth, the day we call Pentecost.    Before the Church could obey Jesus, it had to receive the power of the Spirit.  But how did this happen?    

If you turn to Acts 2:1, you see that first it says they were ‘all’ there ‘in one place’ (Acts 2ff. 1.  Now, that’s the first step of listening to the Spirit and really obeying Jesus, isn’t it?---all of them actually showed up together ‘in one place’.   Woody Allen, the writer and actor, once said that 80 percent of life is just, showing up.”   In the same vein, Thomas Edison said that success is 90 percent perspiration and only 10 percent inspiration.  The brilliant Einstein was quoted as saying that Genius is only 1 % talent, and 99 percent hard work.   The point of all these sayings is they help point us right back to what was actually going on among the early Christians when the Spirit, the power, and the mighty deeds came.   The church did not forget to do nor omit doing, the most simple, most basic, and sometimes the most difficult thing:  ‘they all showed up in one place.

What troubles me the most about church today, even some of them that are growing quite well, is that many of the Christians, the members, even some of the most committed ones, are part-time Christians.   Not long ago, I asked about some members of one of the churches, who had become quite delinquent.  They are very good people, and they have sweet children.   I asked the deacon,  “Where are so, and so?”  “I haven’t seen them in church lately.”  “Do you have any idea, why they don’t come to church much anymore?”   Well, the deacon guessed,  “I figure they must be burning the candle at both ends….”  He’s probably right.  With both parents working, and with young children, it’s hard to find them at church, in Sunday School, or at Bible Study?  But isn’t it amazing that are still able to go to school?   Isn’t it amazing that they still manage to take in a vacation or go on this trip, or find themselves in Disneyland?   I’m not asking anybody to Boycott Disney, but I’ve never even entertained the idea once, that Mickey Mouse could keep my children off drugs, or give them values that would last a lifetime!

And we wonder why things don’t happen?  Why society is getting dangerous?   People are losing empathy and compassion?  We wonder why our children are spoiled, don’t come to see us, or probably won’t care about us when we get old?   Why did society get so easily moved to the ‘wrong place’?  Could it not be that if forgot to be in the ‘right place’ and to be in the ‘one place’ that should matter most of all?

Second, the text also says they ‘were all with one accord.’   This doesn’t simply mean they were getting along with each other, maybe they were,  but it certainly means they were all united about and unified by the very same thing.   We read in the previous chapter, that ‘they’ (the first disciples, up to 500 of them) ‘all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication (1:14).   This means they were all praying the same kinds of prayers and asking God for the same kind of thing.   In other words, the first disciples and members of the church did not come together to get what they wanted, nor did they all come talk about their friends, family or their differing needs, no, the first disciples and Christians all were praying ‘to receive power’ through the “Holy Spirit” so they could be ‘witnessess… ’ in their own Jerusalem, their own Judea, and in their own… ‘parts of the earth’ (Acts 1:8).  

Perhaps here, we can see why it is so hard for churches today to be unified or to gain power and authority to do what we are commanded to do.   We who come to church, often come to church wanting different things, but not necessarily wanting the same thing.   We want to see people.   We want to be together.   We don’t want to be alone.   We want to be seen.  We want to make a good impression.   We want to keep our heads on straight or we want to do what makes us feel good, or what we’ve always done.   So, what is the right reason to come to church, or to be the church?

This reminds me of the old story about a hermit who was meditating by a river when a young man interrupted him. "Master, I wish to become your disciple," said the man. "Why?" replied the hermit. The young man thought for a moment. "Because I want to find God."
            The master jumped up, grabbed him by the scruff of his neck, dragged him into the river, and plunged his head under water. After holding him there for a minute, with him kicking and struggling to free himself, the master finally pulled him up out of the river. The young man coughed up water and gasped to get his breath. When he eventually quieted down, the master spoke. "Tell me, what did you want most of all when you were under water."
          "Air!" answered the man.
           "Very well," said the master. "Go home and come back to me when you want God as much as you just wanted air."

Since fewer people come to church to have their lives changed, challenged, or commanded to do anything—or to really encounter God’s will that could be different from our own, sometimes I think it would be better to stop church for a while, and to tell everyone to come back when ‘we want God as much as we want air’.   Would it work?   Well, I guess we’re all afraid to try it, because we’re afraid that people would get so used to not coming, that when we got out of the habit, we wouldn’t come back.   But that might also prove something else:  It might prove that we come much more ‘out of habit’ rather than to seek, find, and draw closer to God and knowing his commanding, demanding, life-changing and life-challenging, will for our lives.

A few years ago, Will Willimon, a Methodist Bishop wrote: "To many people outside the church, the Church is like a football huddle. You know that something important is being said there, but you can't understand a word of it, and all you can see is their rear ends.”   How is it that the early church was able to cross all kinds of language, geographic, and cultural barriers to get the word out, but we have such a great communication problem?   The answer could be revealed through a humorous but painfully true cartoon that appeared in "Leadership Journal" some time ago:   The church secretary is holding the phone, hollering to the pastor in the adjoining room. She says, "A man from Ripley's Believe It or Not wants a picture of someone on fire for the Lord. Do we have one?"

A picture of “Someone on fire for the Lord”, do we have one?   Can you imagine one?   Would you know it if you saw it?   Do you want to see it?  Long to see someone like them?   Is there anyone in the church’s past that you admired as someone who was ‘on fire for the Lord’?  Is there anyone in the church’s present who you look up to, as ‘on fire for the Lord’?   Can you imagine anyone in this church’s future as becoming a person who is ‘on fire for the Lord?’

Now, I know this can be ‘spooky’ for some of you to think about.  We really like having everything under control, not having any kind of ‘strange’ explaining to do to our friends, our family or our neighbors.   But one of the things that made the church attractive to the world, was that it wasn’t like the rest of the world.   The church was filled with people that were a little different, often called weird, and always odd, and odd in a bad world was good.  It was good because even with the weirdness, oddness, and strangeness, came the wonderful reality that these people, without pretention, really were people who ‘were on fire for the Lord!’
Hawaiian Pastor Wayne Cordeiro tells about a bakery he knew about. It was located in a bad part of town. The bakery was small, rundown, and nondescript.  Yet, at 5am every morning, the aroma of delicious bread emanated from that bakery. People would line up around the block to get their hands on that bread.  Isn’t this a great picture a church ‘on fire for God’.   Being ‘on fire for God’ is not about appearances or gimmicks; it is simply about wanting and offering the bread of life. People are so spiritually hungry that all we have to do is offer the bread of life with passion and authenticity, and they will come to taste it.  But there is one catch.  We must be real.   People can easily smell the difference between fresh-baked bread, fresh out of the oven, and outdated, stale, dry old bread.
A pastor friend of mine is retired, but is currently the Interim pastor in a large church in Hickory.   Every Sunday he preaches on Radio and Television, just like he did for over 30 years when he was a pastor in Tennessee, years ago.   A couple of Sunday’s ago, I happened to turn on the TV and listen to what he was preaching on.   The title of his message was “Between the Bridge and the Steeple”.   He opened his message telling about a young woman who went down to the river out in the middle of the bridge and was contemplating taking her life.  As she stood up on bridge railing, she glanced down at the swirling water and then upward toward the horizon.  On the horizon, her eye caught a spire, a church steeple pointing up into the heavens.   After seeing the steeple, she decided to climb down and proceeded to walk into town and to find the church with the tall steeple.  After finding the church office, she asked to urgently see the pastor, who fortunately just happened to be there.   After sitting down in the chair in his study, she looked him straight in the eye with this haunting question:  “Is there anything in under this steeple that should keep me from jumping off that bridge and into that river?”  
Does the sweet smell of Christ emanate from our lives and this church? Are we sharing our witness? Are we letting our light shine?  I don’t know whether you can smell the bread or see what’s supposed to be under the steeple, but I will tell you that the reason we are supposed to ‘all’ be in ‘one place’ and be ‘in one accord’ is so that we can be empowered and gain the authority to ‘be witnesses’ for Christ as the ‘body of Jesus’ in the world.   This may be a world that believes much less, it needs Jesus as much now, as it ever has before.  

If we really have the ‘hope’ of Jesus within us, we must testify and tell people our truth---even to try to make Jesus followers of them.   We are to do this  because we are led by the Spirit, and under the authority of Jesus, not because we come to church to get what we want or do as we please.   Now, this may scare some of you, but listen closely:  By the grace of God, you are able to share your witness.  You don't do it on your own power.  This is why Jesus said, it’s my ‘authority’ and added "I am with you always, even unto the end of the age." Jesus is always with us, helping us and empowering us to share the good news. I know he is. As a pastor, I have heard many great sermons from the church, but I’ve never heard any greater sermon than those I’ve seen lived by the people who practice what they believe.

We live in a day of increasing addictions.    I heard about a woman who had a friend who was an addict.  The addiction was destroying everything that woman loved. Most people would have said, "Well, we need to pray the she gets the help he needs." But that is not what this woman did.  She wrote her friend a letter telling her that she was going to lose everything including her life unless she went into treatment and received the help she needed. And then she wrote in that letter that the only one who could make her whole is Jesus Christ.
Now, where did she get the power and courage to write a letter like that? Jesus said, "Go and make disciples ….I will be with you always."

A young man was still living at home.  He was rather quiet and kept to himself. One day his coworker found him in the restroom crying.  The coworker asked him if he could help. The young man confided in him. He told him that his girlfriend was pregnant, and he had just revealed this to his parents the night before. They are very strict and religious. They screamed at him and said that he had embarrassed them and shamed the family and told him that he should never set foot in their house again.

What did his coworker do? He reached out, put his arm around him and said, "I am sorry that happened to you. I am sure this is difficult for your parents, and I am certain this is difficult for you.  But I am a Christian, and I believe that God loves you, and God’s love will help you through the most difficult situations."  Now how was that coworker able to say something like that? Jesus said, "Go and make disciples….. and remember, I am with you always."

Not long ago, I was visiting in the Hospital and the patient said to me,  “I know I’m not going to live much longer.”  The nurse was in the room, at the time, and you could tell that she had not heard such direct talk much, even in the hospital.  She did a double-take and looked at me with a troubled look.   After the nurse left the room, I told the patient that I understood that she was going through a difficult time.   I agreed with her that it might not be long, but that she, nor I, nor the doctors, ever know something like this for sure.   Then I told her what we could be sure of is that no matter how bad we feel, or what difficult problem we are going through, we can be sure that God’s love and presence is here with us.   It may be late in our lives, and it may be dark, but to God, it is always just before dawn, because his love as promising as an eternal morning.  Go and make disciples….. and remember, I am with you always."

Charles Reeb, was preaching at a Methodist youth camp. The worship service went really late. He didn't get up to preach until about 11p.m.  It didn't help that he had the flu. But it was the last service of the week, and he had to finish. He doesn’t remember he said.  He was so sick. He was just trying to get through it. He thought it was the worst sermon he’d ever delivered.

After the service, a teenage girl approached him. She looked very angry. She said, "I have to find out if something is true." The pastor replied, "What's that?" She said, "You mentioned tonight that God loves me. Do you believe that? I don't believe anyone has ever loved me. My dad left me and my mother abused me, and I moved from one institution to another. I've been sexually abused, neglected, and you are telling me that God loves me?"

Pastor Reeb looked straight into her eyes, and said, "That's right. I know this for certain. God loves you. You want to know how I know?  God got up on a cross and said, 'This is how much I love you.'" She paused for a moment and tears began rolling down her cheeks. Then she said, "Well, if God loves me, then nothing else matters. If God loves me, that's all that matters."

Deep down you know there are people all around you who need the love, forgiveness, grace, power, strength and comfort of God in Jesus Christ. Give me one good reason why you wouldn't want to share it?  Give me a good reason not to obey the Great Commission and to commit the Great Omission.  You might give me all kinds of bad ones, but you can’t give me one good one.  Not even one.

I hope you always have time to speak about God to those around you.   I hope that no matter what is going on, what plans you are making, or what priorities you have, that at the top of your list, you have included your faith and you don’t forsake to assemble with your church, as some do.   Your church and faith should not be an afterthought, or seem like an additional burden put on your life, but it should be place where you focus on all the love that gives your life its purpose and its promise.   God’s love depends on you.  

Let us pray:   Dear Lord, give us new eyes to see those around us who need your love. Give us new hearts to be sensitive to those who need your love, and give us the courage to share your love and to make them your disciples.  Amen.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

“Would That All Were Prophets!”

A Sermon Based Upon Numbers 11: 16-17; 24-30
Preached by Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
May 28th, 2017, Pentecost Sunday, Year A

Two people were walking together in a hot desert. One person was carrying a rather large container of iced tea and the other was carrying a car door.  The person carrying the iced tea finally asked the other person, “Why in the world are you carrying a car door in this sweltering heat? I mean this container of iced tea makes a whole lot more sense. When I get hot, all I need to do is flip open the cap and take a few gulps of this nice cold drink and I feel better.”  The other person smiled.   “Oh that’s nothing! My idea is much better than yours. When I get hot, all I have to do is roll down the window!”(1)

Maybe it’s never involved a car door verses iced tea comparison, but we humans tend to be quite competitive.  Competition seems hard wired in us, for even very young we try to out run, out jump, out swim, out think, and out do our peers.  Maybe you remember this song from the musical Annie Get Your Gun.
          “Anything you can do I can do better. I can do anything better than you.”
          And you say… .  No, you can’t!”
“Yes, I can!”
“No, you can’t!”
“Yes, I can! Yes, I can!”
We can be so competitive with each other that we even compare scars from surgeries and accidents.   
         “Want to see my scar?” Someone once asked me while I was visiting them in the hospital.  Before I could answer they were already pulling up the sheets.  Too much information. 

Or just run up on an old friend from school you haven't seen in a while and tell them how your kids are, or worse, how your grandkids are, and you’re in for a mighty stiff competition.

Of course, some competition can be healthy too, can't it?  Think about the challenge of sports or in contests to see who is the best speller, the best mathematician, the best musician, the best dancer, or even the best bubble gum bubble blower.  Competition is not just for fun, but In many of these cases, it has a way of bringing out the best in us.

In fact, sometimes the stories or movies that endear themselves to us the most are those where the underdog comes out on top.   When they remade the movie „Karate Kid”’ after all the originals - Karate Kid 1, 2, and 3; obviously, so many sequels suggests that this story is a very popular one.  Even the coldest heart might warm up when, against all odds, the scrawny, skinny kid competes and finally rises above all the bullies to win the match!

Even our economic system is largely dependent on competition. Competition can good for businesses too.  Without it a business can become careless, complacent, dull, and unproductive.  Maybe the spirit of competition I often  valuable for us, but today's text from Numbers on this Pentecost Sunday  suggests that there is another spiritual force loose in the world that might do us even greater good, that is, if we would make ourselves available to it.

Our story from the book of Numbers begins with an age old problem.  Competition or not, Moses is struggling.  Even if you are doing God’s work, you will struggle.   Moses has been called by God to lead a band of Hebrew misfits up and out of oppressive slavery into the Promised Land.  He is working 24/7, but despite his best efforts, the complaints just keep on coming. Every morning the murmuring begins as soon as the sun comes up...there’s not enough water, there’s not enough food, we’re sick of this manna stuff, we’re sick of wandering around in circles. Somebody suggests maybe we need to take up an offering and buy you a GPS, Moses.   “We want some meat to go with all this bread God keeps sending us, too.”

Day after day, the complaints come unceasingly  until Moses finally breaks. No matter how hard he works, there is no pleasing this crowd. Moses makes an appointment to see God and upon entering God’s office, before God barely gets a word out, Moses explodes..
“I’ve had it!” He says. “Why are you doing this to me? You might recall I never really wanted this job to begin with. I was perfectly happy wandering the hillside with my sheep. Sheep are pretty dumb but at least they don’t argue. I’ve worked my fingers to the bone. I’ve spent many a sleepless night nurse-maiding these misfits through the wilderness but I just can’t take it anymore. If this is the best you can
do, then just kill me here!”

Moses appears to be all- stressed out, suffering from severe Clergy burnout. What will God do? After calming Moses down wit a pat on the shoulder, God promises to resolve the situation by enlisting the help of seventy elders to be Moses‟ Associate Pastors.  Sounds like a pretty good deal, at least  on paper, right?!  So, after coming down from his meeting with God, Moses holds a town meeting to pick seventy elders from the crowd. Moses and the seventy then gather together in a tent and wait for God’s next move, just like the disciples did in the upper room. Then, lo and behold, the Spirit surprisingly settles on those 70 Elders, like He had settled on Moses, and will do again, later on Pentecost.  These elders all begin to preach, that is to prophesy. Clearly, the Spirit dramatically transformed these elders into real leaders.

So off these Associate Pastors go to tend to their pastoral calls, their youth group retreats, their Bible Study gatherings, their social ministries, their meetings with the Property and Grounds Committee and Moses is as happy as a lark.  He never could do it alone, and, finally,  he has got some help. End of story, right?

Not so fast. Turns out there are some shady dealings going on in their little community. Turns out those chosen seventy aren’t the only ones the Spirit has landed on.
“It pains me to tell you this,” One of the Assistant Pastors tells Moses. “But Eldad and Medad think God has placed the Spirit on them too. They’re out there making fools of themselves. Clearly, you need to squash this before it gets out of hand!”

Joshua, Moses‟ chosen assistant, was there at the time and the news infuriated him.
    “Yes, yes…” Joshua declares. “This just can’t stand…these two guys were not among the chosen ones.    We just can’t have the Holy Spirit spilling out all over the place like this. This needs to be contained.  After all, Eldad and Medad don’t have the proper credentials, they weren’t in that tent with us, they didn’t spend hours learning Greek so that they can read the Gospels when they’re written. They didn’t take any courses on pastoral care and theology!”

Have you caught what’s going on here? There it is. That old competitive spirit again.
“Clearly those outsiders can’t be considered insiders like we are!” That’s the underlying complaint. Poor Moses. I can just picture him at his desk, his face cupped in his hands, his head shaking in disbelief.   For a scant moment he actually thought he would find some relief but it was not meant to be.

Finally Moses speaks.  “You just don’t get it!” He says in frustration. “This is not a competition. This is not about who’s in and who’s out, who’s right or who’s wrong. In fact, when the Spirit shows up, there’s no controlling who might be invited in.”

When the Spirit came upon that tent and lifted some of the Spirit from Moses to place it
on the seventy, the cup filled up, ran over, and seeped out under the corners of the tent right into the lives of Medad and Eldad.  When the Spirit showed up, Moses importance was not diminished, but only enhanced as the Spirit given to him was shared with the seventy.

So, what can we learn from this classic, ancient story?   What does this story have to do with the life of the church, now, this side of Pentecost?   Let me suggest two things:

In this story, Moses is at his wits end.  God had appointed him as the spiritual leader for about 2 million people, and that was more than he felt he could handle. In the first part of our chapter he poured out his soul to God in prayer: “What have I done to displease you that you put the burden of all these people on me?Why do you tell me to carry them in my arms, as a nurse carries an infant…”  I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me.

Can you relate to Moses’ prayer?  At some time or other, all of us have had jobs that are too big for us all alone.  The truth is, most all jobs are that way, even God’s work.  In other words, you can’t be a Christian all by yourself.  You can’t be a good parent, a good spouse, or be good at your job, all by yourself either.  Nothing that matters can be done all alone.   Life is not about becoming ‘long rangers’.  God needs us.  We need each other.  We all need help to keep our lives together and to do the good work. 

Have you ever prayed for help because the task seemed to be too big?  “Lord, I’m in way over my head here!”  Help Me!  Moses prayed that prayer.  And God answered Moses’ prayer by giving him some helpers.  Moses gathered seventy elders of Israel and God placed his Spirit upon those seventy men. They responded with inspired words of encouragement and help.  

So, here’s the point:  When your task, role, job or responsibility seems like too much to handle, don’t be afraid to look for some helpers. Don’t be afraid to lean on other Christians for assistance, advice, or encouragement. In fact, that’s one of the reasons why we’re here. The Bible says, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another.”   We come here to be encouraged by the good news of salvation, to be encouraged to remain faithful to our Savior, and also, to encourage one another
by word and with deeds.  God will inspire helpers, but we must allow his Spirit to rest on us.  We must answer his call, and it is never too late.

But there’s something else here too.  IN ORDER RECEIVE HELP, OR TOO GET THE JOB DONE, We ARE GOING TO HAVE TO BE FLEXIBLE AND HUMBLE with each other.   To do God’s work, we will all need to have SOME EXTRA HUMILITY when others show up to help.

And this is where Eldad and Medad come into the story. These two elders, for whatever
reasons, didn’t show up at the tabernacle for the ceremony with the rest of the seventy men. We don’t know why they stayed in the camp.  Maybe they were too fearful, too timid, or too humble to come and stand in front of God’s sacred tabernacle?  Maybe they were busy, or sick, or involved in some responsiblity?  We don’t know. What we do know is that Eldad and Medad came and when they finally came, they also were filled with the Spirit just like the rest of the seventy.  They also spoke in ways that others heard they were inspired by God.

But when news of their ‘inspiration’ and ‘calling’ reached Moses and his faithful young assistant Joshua, Joshua immediately spoke up and said, “My lord Moses, stop them!” Perhaps Joshua was being protective and wanted everyone to think of Moses as God’s one and only prophet.   Maybe he didn’t want newcomers or those with different ideas like Eldad and Medad, to come along and steal the show!

If you recall, something like this happened also in Jesus’ life. Jesus’ disciple John reported, “Teacher, we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us” (Mk. 9:38).  The disciples were proud of their PRIVILEGED STATUS as the chosen twelve. They didn’t want anyone else TAKING AWAY FROM THEIR GLORY! Only they should be allowed to do the work of sharing the powerful Word of God.

Perhaps the greatest lesson we must learn when it comes to spiritual work, is that we must learn to be ‘flexible’.   This was the great lesson I had to learn before going on the mission field.   It was the main lesson I had to tell others, before preparing them.   If you can’t be flexible, you will not be happy, you will not be helpful, and you will not help others be made whole.

When I worked in Germany, I had several very good volunteer mission teams that helped us in our work.  We needed help.  Many of them where young people, and they reached out in ways we never could.   We were in a partnership with Georgia Baptists.  The first team that came to us from the Georgia Baptist convention was tremendously successful.  We can them great reviews and they did us.  It was so exciting, that some very elite people in Georgia want to come and work with us.  They came.  But guess what.  Elite people did not get to be ‘elite’ because they were flexible.  One fellow that came, was unhappy the whole time, because we would not allow him to do what he wanted to do, even though we knew it wouldn’t work.  He was one of the children of a noted Georgia Baptist leader.  Needless to say, when he went back, the report was so bad, Georgia did not want to send us any more help.  We didn’t want it either, so we established a partnership with a specific church, and had 3 more years of wonderful experiences and mission accomplishment.  But because one person would not be flexible, and had to accomplish only their own agenda, God’s work could not be accomplished either in them or with us.

I’m am confident that God has work for all of us to do.  I’m also confident that God gives us the resources to get the job done.  BUT, we must be patient, flexible, understanding, caring and helpful to each other.   We cannot be stubborn, demanding, obnoxious, or obstinate, and get the work done.   Spiritual life and work is very fluid.  In other words, God will fill the cup no matter the shape of the cup.   But all our cups come in different shapes and sizes.   We come to God from different perspectives and we do about our work in different ways.  We can grow to become more alike, and we can learn from each other, but it takes time, effort, and most of all, it takes patients and flexibility.  For if we do not learn to be understanding, encouraging, accepting, and patient with each other, the help will stop coming, we’ll end up doing it all alone, and finally,  the ministry of God will die, because we can’t do it alone, and because we would not accommodate or accept others with different styles and viewpoints.   We must settle on a few cores things we can’t negotiate, but everything else, must be negotiated, because we are all so very different, with different gifts, callings, and perspectives.  And we must learn to allow this difference, this ‘vive la difference’ (Fr. For long life the difference), to work for us, not against us.

In my office I have framed certificates that prove that I have been called by God to do some important work for his kingdom.  Currently, it’s my call to serve as a pastor of Flat Rock and Zion Baptist Churches.  Occasionally, I look at these certificates when I need to be reminded that God wants me to be where I am.  But just because you don’t have one of those pieces of paper on your wall doesn’t mean God doesn’t also want you to be in the position in life that he has placed you. Just because you aren’t prophesying like Eldad and Medad doesn’t mean you don’t have the same Holy Spirit that they did. You are God’s child through the love of Jesus Christ, and you are an heir to the kingdom that is coming.  And God gives you opportunities to find your purpose in life by serving him in the work of this kingdom.  God has a job for you.  God needs you.  I need you.  This church needs you.   And most of all, we need each other.  There is work for all of us to do, and we must help each other do it, or it won’t get done.

In some of the churches, where I have been a pastor, they have had candle-lighting services on Christmas Eve.  You.know how it goes.  First there was the single lit candle I held as the lights were lowered in the Sanctuary - one single flame so small and inconsequential. Then the light was passed on to the others, who then passed the light on down the pews from neighbor to neighbor. One by one the candles were lit and with the passing of the flame, from one person to the next, the light only grew brighter. The flame was not diminished but strengthened and made more brilliant. Bit by bit, the darkness was forced to declare its surrender.

Oh, would that God send His Spirit to make all of God’s people prophets!  Maybe he has already.  Maybe the Spirit has been poured out, and the job that needs to be done, would get done, if only YOU would answer His call!   Amen.

(1)     This joke and the idea for this sermon, especially the first part, is based upon a sermon found on the website, ‘’.  The additional stories are from my own life and ministry.