Sunday, December 21, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "Inspiring Others to Join You"

Jeremiah 40:1-6

Jeremiah received the Lord’s word after Nebuzaradan the captain of the special guard had released him from Ramah. He had been bound in chains there along with all the other detainees from Jerusalem and Judah who were being sent off to Babylon. 2 The captain of the special guard located Jeremiah and said to him, “The Lord your God declared that a great disaster would overtake this place. 3 Now the Lord has made it happen. He has done just as he warned because all of you have sinned against the Lord and haven’t obeyed him. That’s why this has happened to you. 4 But I’m setting you free from the chains on your hands. If you would like, come with me to Babylon, and I’ll take care of you. If you would rather not come with me, that’s fine too. Now, the whole land lies before you; go wherever you want. 5 If you decide to remain here, stay with Gedaliah, Ahikam’s son and Shaphan’s grandson—the Babylonian appointee in charge of the cities of Judah. Stay with him and the people he rules or go wherever you want.” Then the captain of the special guard gave him ample provisions and let him go. 6 Jeremiah went to Gedaliah, Ahikam’s son at Mizpah, and he stayed with him and the people who remained in the land. (Common English Bible)

“The Power of Half: How Dividing Something Changed Everything,” Week Four

It’s a school I’m sure you have never heard of, and a young woman whose name is almost as standard-issue as John Smith.  If you passed her on the street, you might catch a glimpse of her blond braids, but you otherwise wouldn’t know her from Eve.  And yet Lauren Hill, at the age of 19, has already accomplished more in her life than most people, precisely because she is about to die.

Diagnosed with a terminal and extremely rare form of brain cancer shortly after she signed a letter of intent to play basketball for Mount St. Joseph University in Ohio, her new team petitioned the NCAA to move up the date of their season opener after learning of her diagnosis, hoping to get her into a game before her strength deteriorated too much to prevent her from playing.  The opposing school—Hiram College—is, by the by, a Disciples of Christ school, and they immediately agreed to move their season opener up by several weeks, and brought along busloads of fans to make it a packed house for Lauren to make her college basketball debut in.

Since that season opener about six weeks ago, Lauren has managed to raise $700,000 for brain cancer research (her goal is $1,000,000 by New Year’s), she has appeared on the cover of a special NBA Live 2015 edition, and she just made it onto the Wheaties cereal box.  All because others were inspired to join her and walk alongside her in her heroic, heartbreaking, amazing, doomed struggle.

How many of you will wake up a few days from now on the morning of December 26 and think to yourselves something along the lines of, “Wow, I’m glad all that work is over with for another year?”  How many of us will get to that dangling week between Christmas and New Year’s and feel like we just OD’ed on everything pepperminty  and jingle-belly? (But if you still want your peppermint mochas after Christmas, just brew your regular coffee and squeeze a tube of toothpaste into your mug.  Ta da!  You’re welcome.)

Well, if that applies to you, then maybe we need to halve back on all of the trappings of December?  Because this *isn’t* the Christmas season, not yet—the Christmas season is 12 days long (hence the song.  No, really.) and it actually doesn’t end until several days into January of next year.  But to help us now, in the task of preparing the way for the Lord this Advent season, I’ve selected a memoir by a father-and-teenage daughter duo, Kevin and Hannah Salwen, entitled “The Power of Half,” which gets its title from their family literally liquidating and selling half of their family’s entire net worth: half of their home value (and subsequently moving into a smaller home), going from two cars to one, the whole nine yards.  And they learn a lot as they cleave away at their material lives, including exactly how much they have to begin with, and they decide to give away that half they liquidated to anti-poverty initiatives in rural Ghana in West Africa.  We’ve been working with Hannah’s own words for the past three weeks, and we wrap up this series today, on week four, the final Sunday of Advent before Christmas Day, with her words from her chapter entitled, “Inspiring Others to Join You:”

There are 6 billion people in this world, and you are one person.  It’s easy to think, “How much of a difference can I really make?”  The short answer is, a lot.  I love the quote from Marian Wright Edelman, the children’s rights advocate: “We must not, in trying to think about how we can make a big difference, ignore the small daily differences we can make which, over time, add up to big differences that we often cannot foresee”…

I don’t ever feel like I’m doing enough to solve the world’s poverty problems.  Although I know there is always more that can be done, I’m proud of the work I’m doing as an individual.  Think about the work that you’re doing and compare it to your potential.  Are you doing the right amount of work?  As my dad always tells me, “All you can do is all you can do.”

It’s one of the biggest existential crises that most pastors—and churches, and Christians—face in our vocation, believe me: how can little old me, with my lovely little parish, tackle the soul-sized problems of poverty and sin and injustice in this world?  I mean, you look around at how much hurt is caused to people—how much hurt we cause ourselves—and you feel like all you have to build something new for folks is some scotch tape and bailing wire.

Well, my grandpa is fond of saying that you only need two things in life: a roll of duct tape and a can of WD-40.  If it moves and it shouldn’t, use the duct tape.  If it doesn’t move and it should, use the WD-40.  And man, could we use a case of WD-40 for the world to move it in new ways.

But we have to settle ourselves for achieving our missional vision and goals one person at a time.  And that’s why we have fast-forwarded so many chapters in Jeremiah to the beginning of chapter 40: Jeremiah has been prophesying on a global, massive, God-sized scale, but here, it is the heart and soul of one person who is affected by him: Nebuzaradan, the captain of the guard who liberates Jeremiah from his present bondage.

As such, Jeremiah’s chains being lifted was a physical experience for him, but it is a spiritual experience for us.  We did not come here today chained together, marched in as captives, and made to sit to listen to some pointy-headed smartass of a pastor (who?) jabber on and on…although maybe it feels that way now, this far into the message!  No, we came here, whether by hook or by crook, ultimately of our own volition.  We are here today worshiping God because we want to be.

And that should be enough to empower us to inspire others to join us.  Nobody seeks out imprisonment, what we long for instead is freedom.  Jeremiah receives his from the captain of the guard, but the captain of the guard has, through Jeremiah’s revealing of the Lord, received his own spiritual freedom.  In this way, we are meant to empathize with Nebuzaradan.

Perhaps, though, we are meant to empathize with him in another way, though perhaps we may not wish to think it: this captain of the guard has tremendous power, likely the power of life or death, over Jeremiah whilst the prophet is in shackles.  Do we dare acknowledge that we might hold similarly tremendous and terrible power over others in our lives?  And that we might need to surrender part of our own power in order to inspire others to be a part of what it is we are doing here?

Think again about Lauren Hill, this young basketball player.  She has achieved everything that she has done in just a few short months because she has been forced by a disease to give up the power of life itself.  She has had to surrender tomorrow, but that surrender has caused massive ripples in the present.  It caused untold numbers of people to follow her, to join her, in her final days of life.

What in your life is keeping you from having the impact you know you could potentially be having on the world?  What ultimately chains you, binds you, and holds you down from inspiring others?

Now…how can you surrender it to God?

It’s Christmas, right?  The season of giving and all that.  Well…how can you give—give up—that which you no longer need, that which you could do without, that which may well in fact be hindering the tremendous difference you are capable of making over the many days of your life?

It’s not quite a Christmas gift as we have come to think of it.  Consider it a Christmas addition by subtraction instead.  Because that is what this whole “The Power of Half” story was all about, in the end.  Dividing a household’s entire net worth in half gained this family of four so very, very much.  It gained the world so very, very much.  And it changed, for me, anyways, how I have come to view the radicalness of generosity.

As this sermon was being put to bed, news came out over the weekend of the two New York Police Department officers murdered on the streets in a murder-suicide, with the violently unstable gunman dying of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in a nearby subway station.  I—and America as a whole—have talked a lot this Advent about violence as it relates to the police, and it is no different when police officers are the victims rather than perpetrators: it still represents the worst of all selfish acts, the act of taking from one person what belongs to them—their life—and the act of taking from God that which should belong solely to God—the giving and the taking of life.  It was…and is…a horrible, bloody example of just how difficult radical generosity is for us to exhibit, even during a season of the year that is ostensibly all about generosity.

But I said “difficult.”  Not “impossible.”  Because, as Jesus says in Mark’s Gospel, all things are still possible for one who believes.  And for one who did believe in the Gospels, it was more than possible.  It was fully, completely, utterly, tangibly, and amazingly attainable.

The tax collector Zaccheus, upon encountering Jesus, says that he will repent of his fraudulent ways and, in addition to paying restitution four times over to his victims, he will also give away half his income to the poor.  And Jesus replies to this news, “Surely, salvation has come to this household!”

And so Jesus inspired another—and, over time, countless others to join Him in the way towards His kingdom.

The power of half is a profoundly Biblical concept.  And it is one that, in Jesus’ own words, offers an avenue towards salvation.

And that is what Christmas is, in the end: the birth of our way, of the way, towards salvation.  The birth of Jesus Christ.

Are you ready to surrender all in order to make the greatest difference possible in His name?

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
December 21, 2014

No comments:

Post a Comment