TRADITIONAL SERMON PENTECOST 12
Friday morning’s paper led with this sentence under their front page story on the Olympic Games which opened on Friday night. “Even if only for two weeks, can “Faster-Higher-Stronger” overpower “deadlier, scarier and bloodier?”
And as I read further, I knew I would be changing my opening to this morning’s sermon. The article continued,
“Can the Olympic Games still offer the world momentary levity, distract from terror, shootings, poverty and other worries in globally grim times? If not, what use is the multibillion-dollar celebration of youthful endeavor and mostly niche sports? Through no fault of their own, the athletes who will march in massed, joyful ranks behind their nations’ flags in Friday night’s opening ceremony for the first Olympic Games in South America shoulder expectations beyond their own ambitions for gold, silver, bronze and personal bests. No Olympics in recent memory has opened under so many dark clouds, both within recession-battered Brazil and beyond …. Sports are, and always will be, trivial compared to such atrocities that have become depressingly thick and fast of late.”
AP Sports Write, John Leicester is right on the money. We live in a culture of fear … and plenty of events and realities stir that fear. Whether it is the Zika Virus or the more than 100 types of cancer you might contract …. Whether you recall events in Nice, France … Baghdad, Iraq … Istanbul, Turkey … Lahore, Pakistan … or Orlando, Florida … Whether you are frightened to think of Donald Trump in the White House … or Hilary Clinton … or Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson … or even Green Party Jill Stein. Whether you think there are too many guns in the world … or too few … Or too many protests … or not enough of them … Or too much personal freedom … or not enough … Whatever it is that is your particular brand of fear … whatever it is that might keep you awake at night … or change the choices you make on an everyday basis … … it would be hard to argue against the premise that we live in a culture of fear. In some ways, we are panophobics – we fear everything … or it seems like it on some days.
Into this culture, Jesus speaks these words to us, “Do not be afraid, little flock.” I guess that covers it, right? (LEAVES PULPIT FOR A FEW SECONDS ) …. (RETURNS TO PULPIT) Oh, all right …. maybe it isn’t quite that simple. By the way … if this little pause made you a little anxious, you may have “sedatephobia,” the fear of silence. So …. what do we do? … if it is too simplistic to think that just because Jesus tells us not to fear, we just won’t be afraid of anything … then what do we do?
In our Gospel Lesson from Luke, Jesus suggests to us, that in the face of fear, we are offered two possibilities … one that we are called to do … and one that God enacts for us. What God challenges us to do, is to live the life of a steward … sell possessions … give alms … gather heavenly blessings that cannot be stolen, and which will never wear out. I beat you up pretty well last week in our quarterly stewardship sermon, so I won’t elaborate much more on this one, besides this comment. If you recognize that you are a steward of and not the owner of your material blessings … along with the fact that you are a creature and not the Creator, whereby you live in this world under the grace of God … Yes, if you recognize those two things, then you can dare to believe that God will always provide for you and always protect you in the ways that can never be taken away from you. Proper stewardship of your blessings leads to a proper perspective on life … a perspective that reminds us that we are not here to stay, but are here for a period of time, to embrace the joy of managing God’s world, one believer at a time.
That recognition, leads to the second action Jesus offers to ease our fears … God’s action in this case is the promise of another kingdom beyond this world. Please understand, that this should not be a simplistic pie-in-the-sky “there is a better place awaiting me” statement, which we often hear, and which at times we occasionally voice ourselves. It should be a core belief that ironically, invests us even more deeply into this broken and complex world in which we live. Jesus’ words about dying, are not solely about the final death of our physical bodies … but are much more about the death of all that is false in our lives. Most of us spend our lives developing our inner strength and independence. We start as children, growing up …. we do it financially, intellectually, and relationally, sometimes even when we are enmeshed in deeply covenantal unions with others. Some would even make the claim that their greatest achievement is to be accountable to no one but their own self. But Jesus reminds us that if we do not learn the art of letting go of our obsession with our own identity, that we will miss out on the peace … the contentment … and the liberation of a life lived into a far greater identity … namely, a life connected to the God who created us. Consider this … those we think of as martyrs in the history of the Christian Church, are not given that title simply because they died for the faith Jesus taught them. They are considered martyrs, because of their very understanding of what life is, recognized that in the unending journey of being a child of God, our physical demise is but a moment in which we pause along that journey.
Our First Lesson for today, frames those themes of being a steward … and of awaiting the blessing of God’s Kingdom … through the story of Abram that we heard from the Book of Genesis. Abram has been following the Lord’s guidance since the story of his call a few chapters earlier in the Book of Genesis. And through the story, God has been promising Abraham descendants as numerous as the dust of the earth. Abram has honored God … he has trusted God’s promise … and he has been a faithful steward of that promise. But in today’s lesson, he finally has to name the elephant in the room … Sarah is barren, and Abram has no children … how can God bless him with descendants in this situation? Hear again God’s opening words in our lesson: “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” God recognizes the fear in Abram, and so he offers promises of blessings and descendants and callings that will ease Abram’s fear. And what is particular image God uses to picture Abram’s blessing? – the stars in the sky. Hear God’s words again … “Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them …. So shall your descendants be.” God’s people on earth have often looked to the heavens when we seek a hope that we cannot find in the world in which we live. And the stars … those lights in heaven … have typically been a symbol and reminder that the life we are called to live cannot be limited to these few brief years we live on our planet.
That hope for the future is at the heart of today’s preaching question … “Are You Ready?” When a Christian hears this, we often think of that very time which awaits us beyond this world … a time when our sin will be purged from us … our brokenness healed within us … and our mourning turned into dancing … yes, we think of the life God promises us in the Kingdom of God. But God also asks us that same question, virtually every day of our lives on earth. Are you ready? Are you ready for the kingdom that awaits you? … but are you also ready for the kingdom in which you are living at this very moment? And can you see the intimate connection God has made between them, and how the blessing of God’s final Kingdom can transform the way we live in this earthly Kingdom? Can you … as you look to the stars in the sky for hope and inspiration … bring your gaze back down to a broken world in which that inspiration needs to be lived out?
As I thought about these lights in the sky from our Abram story today, I found myself paying special attention to a different kind of light on Friday night … the lighting of the Olympic Flame at the end of the opening ceremonies. And yesterday, I came across the story behind the man who lit the flame … Vanderlei de Lima. Here are the words of Nick Zaccardi, one of the Olympic Talk editors for NBC Universal.
Vanderlei de Lima, who the lit Olympic cauldron to ignite the first Games in South America, is not a gold medalist. Nor a legendary Brazilian champion. Many at the Maracanã wouldn’t have recognized him tonight if he handed them popcorn. But he was clearly the right man for the honor. The Olympic creed states: “The important thing in life is not the triumph, but the fight; the essential thing is not to have won, but to have fought well.” At the 2004 Athens Olympics, de Lima unpredictably led late in the marathon, after making his break at about the 13-mile mark. His personal-best time for 26.2 miles, set six years earlier, was nearly four minutes slower than that of the pre-race favorite and world-record holder, Kenyan Paul Tergat. De Lima, one of seven boys in a farming family, would not pull off the mighty upset, though. A defrocked Irish priest infamously grabbed de Lima with about four miles left, taking him into a crowd along the route for a few seconds before a 53-year-old Athens salesman hopped over a barrier to help pull the intruder off de Lima. De Lima only lost seven seconds in the incident. But his lead had already been nearly cut in half in the previous two miles, and he still had those four miles to go. This was the knell to his gold-medal hopes. Italian Stefano Baldini passed de Lima seven minutes after the defrocked priest grabbed him, with two miles left. American Meb Keflezighi followed suit shortly after. But de Lima held on for the bronze medal, memorably blowing kisses in the final stretch and breaking into an airplane motion with his arms while deliberately swerving back and forth. He showed no disdain toward what had happened 20 minutes earlier. Of all races, de Lima contested the trademark Olympic event, whose name was derived from the 490 BC story of Pheidippides, a Greek messenger who ran from the town of Marathon to Athens bearing the news of a Greek victory over Persians. Of all places, this marathon ended at Panathinaiko Stadium, site of the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896. De Lima would be honored later that night at the medal ceremony before the Closing Ceremony. In addition to his bronze, he was awarded the Pierre de Coubertin medal, named after the founder of the modern Olympics, for “exceptional demonstration of fair play and Olympic values.” That medal is exponentially rarer than a gold medal – given on average less than once per Olympics since its creation in 1964. And now de Lima is the first person to complete this triple – Olympic medal, Pierre de Coubertin medal and final torch bearer.
Vanderlei de Lima was clearly ready twelve years ago to embrace the ideals of the Olympic creed … and bring those ideals into the brokenness of his own experience … his own marathon race. Are you ready to do the same with the God-moments in your life? Amen.