A Plan for Following Jesus.
Faithful Living for Hard Times: Hold Fast to What is Good.
A sermon preached at The Kirk of Kansas City, Missouri, on July 23, 2017.
The third in a ten part sermon series on our community charge:
Go out into the world in peace;
hold on to what is good;
return no one evil for evil;
strengthen the fainthearted;
support the weak,
and help the suffering;
honor all people;
love and serve the Lord,
rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.
I grew up in Presbyterian Churches in small towns in the Midwest.
I was only six months old when we moved to Villisca, Iowa
and then only four when we moved again, this time 25 minutes north
and so the churches I grew up in were simple rural structures
brick walls and solid wood pews.
Only the Atlantic church had had air conditioning.
Many of them were built in the golden age of stained glass window design,
it seemed, and so flanking the cruciform sanctuary space
were aging walls of color—yellows and blues and reds
that blended quite nicely into the red brick walls.
I can remember sitting in those pews as a child,
fidgeting during the sermons.
doodling on the bulletin
looking into those windows
imagining the world of scripture when it was read
trying to stay awake during the anthem
learning the hymns and the rhythms of worship
trying to figure out what all this talk and focus on God was about.
It would take me a while.
In some ways I’m still trying to figure it all out.
But it was important time for me, to be sure.
Because it was there that I finally got that God loved me
Just because God did, not because I worked hard enough
or did all the right things
(and, lets be honest, no preachers kid does all the right things)
or because I was any better than anyone else
(being “chosen” doesn’t work that way)
but God loved me, just simply loved me.
And, not just that, but God loved everyone else too.
Image of God, in everyone. Every. One.
Died on the Cross, for all.
The risen one, gathering and sending, to all the world.
Still pretty amazing, when I think about it.
And I remember as well family vacations,
which started off well and good doing things I loved
trips to state parks
packing up the minivan with the fake wood paneling
for an epic drive all the way to the west coast and back again
stopping to see natural wonders of our country
the occasional tourist trap and historical five and dime store
Or trips to the beach, where I could sleep in past noon
and get sunburn on the bottom of my feet.
I know I was so very fortunate to be able to do all of this.
Occasionally those trips, particularly as I got older,
began to include visiting new cities, around the world sometimes,
seeing how other places
build their buildings and organize their communities.
Not a lot of places, we weren’t that prolific
but I remember art museums in Barcelona
and Westminster in London
and the churches
I was drawn to the churches and cathedrals:
big ones, like Notre Dame in Paris
or little side chapels.
And I remember going in there and sitting in an old pew
and imagining what it would have been like
to be a kid, four or five hundred years ago
fidgeting and yearning for God
much like I did as a child
and wondering what word God would have spoken to me.
Somehow, by God’s good grace
I am the product of all of those experiences, all of that learning.
That’s often how God works, a quirky combination of
God’s spirit whispering in our hearts
to look at that window or ponder that question
seeing God’s big beautiful world, full of different places and people
and languages and ways of seeking
a bit of wandering, a bit of seeking, a bit of doubt,
good teachers in Sunday School and warm people in my life
who wisely fielded questions
sometimes answering them, sometimes letting them linger.
That combination of experience is different for each one of us.
Its another reason that faith is different in each of us.
We don’t experience this stuff the same way,
And so we’re not going to see it all the same way today.
That’s not how human beings, or the life of faith, work.
But even so, there is something in there that IS universal.
The FOCUS of all of those experiences is this: God is Love, and Love wins over Hate.
This is what we hear in Scripture, see lived and breathed in the life of Jesus
experience in God’s salvation.
I know, from my reflection on my own life, I really am fortunate.
I know from talking with some of you,
you seem to have something similar perhaps with your history,
maybe actively growing up in a Christian community
or maybe not, but having come to wonder later in life.
Some of us have had warm, nurturing experiences, in the church
powerful preaching, maybe from this pulpit, for some of you here,
or from another,
opening us up to the generosity and grace of God.
And I know, also, that not all of us who have ventured here this morning
have had a positive history with God
or, more accurately perhaps, with people who claim to be walking with God.
Some of us have had teachers who probably should not have been teachers
or, God help all of us, preachers who probably should not have been preachers
however it is we want to characterize church-gone-wrong.
But here we are, gathered here in this very room
To hear a word, or sing a phrase, or reflect once again
On the expansive love of God.
Thanks be to God for how God is working in your own way
In your own life.
That might beg a question:
How is God alive in your life?
That might be one way to look at this sermon series, from another point of view.
We’re exploring a roadmap of sorts for how we might live a faithful life
Suggestions that might help us with the choices we face everyday
That can be inspired by what God is doing in the world
By what we learn and see and feel and understand
In our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
We’re not talking about seeing EVERY choice as being about that:
This isn’t a prayer to God to decide whether you should reach for
Good-old-fashioned sugar for your tea
Or a packet of that pink stuff instead.
We’re not talking about which shoes to wear from your closet
Or which team to root for this afternoon
(hint, the answer is the Royals, we all know that).
Some things really are indifferent. Trivial.
But we might be surprised how many of our choices, every day,
Really can be inspired by the fact that we KNOW,
Deep in our bones, that we are loved
That we are God’s, beautifully made
Given skills that can be put to GOOD use
Granted understanding that can set us free
To do GOOD things
Just because that’s what people who love God,
Who are loved by God, do.
Who have God alive in their life.
So we are asking how is God alive in our lives.
And we are looking at the Charge we use every week
As a collection of values that can be put to good use
As we seek out ways to make choices, big and small, that matter.
These are not easy questions,
We have come to learn
In a world that doesn’t always value the things God values
A world that doesn’t make peace a priority
That threatens those who bear God’s welcome and God’s concern for
The hungry and the poor and the outcast.
But there ARE ways we can seek to make God alive in our life.
And today’s suggestion is to hold on to what is good.
You probably heard it, along with a few other echoes of our charge,
In the reading from the letter Paul wrote to the little church in Thessaloniki.
Thessaloniki is a Greek port city in the Aegean sea,
About 300 Kilometers north of Athens.
It was an important commercial center
On a trade route, the intersection of a major Roman road
And a vibrant shipping hub.
According to Acts, Paul was only there about three weeks,
Comparatively short for him, as he journeyed through Asia Minor and Greece.
He’d stay for months in Philippi, or Corinth.
But when you read this letter, you can tell that, even for the short time he was there
he grew fond of the people in Thessaloniki.
Like many of Paul’s letters, this one was written in response to a specific appeal
And for a particular purpose.
Paul is trying to comfort people in their loss.
Parents, siblings, grandparents, spouses, in the normal course of life,
Have passed away
And these first followers of Jesus are wanting to know from Paul
Whether the promises that God loves THEM are true
Whether these promises last beyond our mortal life
And if so, how can they be sure of it.
Paul writes them to assure them that it is so,
That all who have fallen asleep in the Lord,
that’s the comfortable way he used to talk about it
that all who have fallen asleep in the Lord will be with God
that day and every day.
Love is more powerful than death.
And that we can encourage one another, give each other hope
Know that this is true.
And then Paul offers some quite beautiful teaching
Words that, more than from any other single place in the New Testament
Gives us the language for our charge:
Admonish the idlers
Encourage the fainthearted
Help the weak
Be patient with all of them.
See that none of you repays evil for evil
But always seek to do good to one another
And to all.
Pray without ceasing
Give thanks in all circumstances
For this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
Do not quench the Spirit.
Do not despise the words of the prophets, but test everything
Hold fast to what is good and abstain from every form of evil.
Paul is giving his people a way to make God alive in their lives
Through encouraging the fainthearted
Seeking to do good to one another
Giving thanks for God through all things.
Particularly powerful words to a people who are going about their lives
Mourning loved ones lost
Trying to earn enough to eat and survive in a bustling city
Learning what it is to see the Kingdom of God all around them
The possibility of caring for others
For living Godly lives
When so many people around them aren’t set on doing so.
Today’s encouragement is to hold on to what is good.
Or sometimes the phrase is translated: “hold fast” to what is good.
Keep a good, firm grip on it.
Don’t let it go.
See it, recognize it, champion it, choose it.
Now, there are problems that are obvious when we begin to try to put this
What is the good, and how do we know what it is?
That can often be complicated.
Often we disagree on what is the good thing to do,
Or we honestly do not know:
Is it the choice that brings the most happiness to the most people
Or is it the one that brings healing to one person
When ten, or a hundred, or a thousand have to deal with
Some inconvenience in order for the healing to happen.
Life is often messy.
Choices can bring with them side effects and unintended consequences.
Its enough to make people just tune out and turn off
And want it all to go away, thank you very much.
I think God knows that.
So God tells us to hold fast to the good, the best we can.
We do that by paying attention to the other parts of the charge,
And we’ll get into that in the coming weeks
Returning no one evil for evil, strengthening the fainthearted,
supporting the week, helping the suffering
—all specific ways of seeing what is good.
But for today, it is enough to commit to holding on to the good things that we see
Trying the best we can to seek out the good option, the right option.
This is a very particular kind of courage, that Paul is suggesting.
The courage to stay engaged.
The courage to not give up, but to keep at it
For the sake of God’s love in the world. Hold fast, friends. Hold fast.
And so I think about how it was that I found God, and how God found me.
And I think about the stories that move me to not lose heart
when I read about gun manufacturers who are imprinting
scripture verses on their weapons
or about people who cite their faith
as a rationale to persecute others.
Sometimes God turns my head
and shows me something and says: look, right there…
There it is….
…like when I heard about this school, in Brooklyn, New York,
a school called “Chush” that caters to learning disabled children:[i]
Maybe its because its baseball season,
and I know the importance of each and every win
that this story hits me so hard…
Some children remain in Chush for their entire school career,
while others can be mainstreamed into conventional schools.
At a Chush fundraising dinner,
the father of a Chush child delivered a speech that would never be forgotten.
After extolling the school and its dedicated staff, he cried out,
“Where is the perfection in my son Shaya?
Everything God does is done with perfection.
But my child cannot understand things as other children do.
My child cannot remember facts and figures as other children do.
Where is God’s perfection?”
The audience was shocked by the question,
pained by the father’s anguish and stilled by the piercing query.
“I believe,” the father answered,
“that when God brings a child like this into the world,
the perfection that [God] SEEKS is in the way people react to this child.”
He then told the following story about his son Shaya:
One afternoon Shaya and his father walked past a park
where some boys Shaya knew were playing baseball.
Shaya asked, “Do you think they will let me play?”
Shaya’s father knew that his son was not at all athletic
and that most boys would not want him on their team.
But Shaya’s father also understood that
if his son was chosen to play it would give him
a comfortable sense of belonging.
So Shaya’s father approached one of the boys in the field
and asked if Shaya could play.
The boy looked around for guidance from his teammates.
Getting none, he took matters into his own hands and said,
“We are losing by six runs and the game is in the eighth inning.
I guess he can be on our team
and we’ll try to put him up to bat in the ninth.”
Shaya’s father was ecstatic as Shaya smiled broadly.
He was told to put on a glove and go out to play short center field.
In the bottom of the eighth inning,
Shaya’s team scored a few runs but was still behind by three.
In the bottom of the ninth inning,
Shaya’s team scored again and now with two outs
and the bases loaded with the potential winning run on base,
Shaya was scheduled to be up.
Would the team actually let Shaya bat
and maybe give away their chance to win the game?
Shaya was given the bat.
Everyone knew that it was all but impossible
because Shaya didn’t even know how to hold the bat properly,
let alone HIT with it.
As Shaya stepped up to the plate,
the pitcher moved a few steps to lob the ball in softly
so Shaya should at least be able to make contact.
The first pitch came in and Shaya swung clumsily and missed.
One of Shaya’s team mates came up to Shaya and, together,
they held the bat and faced the pitcher waiting for the next pitch.
The pitcher again took a few steps forward to toss the ball softly toward Shaya.
As the pitch came in, Shaya and his teammate swung at the bat
and together they hit a slow ground ball to the pitcher.
The pitcher picked up the soft grounder
and could easily have thrown the ball to the first baseman.
Shaya would have been out and that would have ended the game.
Instead, the pitcher took the ball
and threw it on a high arc to right field,
far beyond reach of the first baseman.
Everyone started yelling, “Shaya, run to first. Run to first.”
Never in his life had Shaya run to first.
He scampered down the baseline wide-eyed and startled.
By the time he reached first base, the right fielder had the ball.
He could have thrown the ball to the second baseman
who would tag out Shaya, who was still running.
But the right fielder understood what the pitcher’s intentions were,
so he threw the ball high and far over the third baseman’s head.
Everyone yelled, “Run to second, run to second.”
Shaya ran towards second base as the runners ahead of him deliriously
circled the bases towards home.
As Shaya reached second base, the opposing short stop ran to him,
Spun him in the direction of third base and shouted, “Run to third.”
As Shaya rounded third, the boys from both teams ran behind him screaming,
“Shaya run home.”
Shaya ran home, stepped on home plate and all 18 boys
lifted him on their shoulders:
Shaya the hero, had just hit a “grand slam” and won the game for his team.
“That day,” said the father softly with tears now rolling down his face,
“those 18 boys reached their level of God’s perfection.”
Those boys acted the way God acts, stunning us with grace.
Isn’t it wonderful to follow that sort of God?
Isn’t it amazing to teach others that God is Love, and that Love will Win?
My Friends, when Jesus asks us: who do you say that I am,
I pray that we have the right answer, and can celebrate
that God is the Lord of Love, for all of us.
My prayer is that we can be so motivated by God’s amazing love
that we can be the sort of community God wants us to be
that we can FOCUS on that
so that anyone who comes here
won’t get DISTRACTED by things that don’t matter
but EXPERIENCE a measure of acceptance, a bit of love
a moment of grace,
the choice to hold fast to what is good.
and because of it, find themselves alive again.
What a wonderful opportunity that can be for us,
because the world needs it.
Let us hold fast to the good.
May it be so.
[i] Attributed to Rabbi Paysach Krohn. Found, among other places, at http://www.truthorfiction.com/rumors/g/godsperfection.htm