Sunday, July 29, 2012

Spfff It Out

"Spfff It Out"
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
July 29, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Romans 12:11a-b
Matthew 5: 13-16

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
            For your eyes show us the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

We continue our study of the "Marks of a True Christian" from Paul's letter to the Romans 12. So far we've looked at " 9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor." This morning we take a look at verse 11, which says, "Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit." There are two parts, but we'll take a look at them together because they are really close in meaning. To partner with this verse I chose a familiar passage, like last week, from the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew's Gospel 5:13-16.

3 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. [1]

 Before we start, I'd like to look at the words of our verse for this morning. Two words stand out because we rarely use them in our every day speech. One is "zeal" and the other is "ardent." Zeal is a little more familiar. The dictionary says that zeal is "eagerness and ardent interest in the pursuit of something." And there is that other word, "ardent," right in there. Now in the dictionary "ardent" is "characterized by warmth of feeling typically expressed in eager zealous support or activity" [2] And there is that word zeal, in zealous. Do you see why I kept this verse together intact? They are both talking about the same idea. The dictionary gave similar synonyms for both: fervor, fiery, hot. The Greek Root word for the word translated as ardent is the verb "leo," which means to boil. Literally "leontes" which is translated in the NRSV as ardent means boiling over as if out of control.
Again here is mirror time. We hold this description of a "True Christian"  up before our face and do we see ourselves? Are we inspired, and eager, and excited, and thrilled, and energized, and animated, and on fire, or are we instead "the frozen chosen?" If you are anything like me you are a little bit skeptical of religious fervor. I don't wonder why that is, because there is a lot of fake fervor out there, or at least it seems that way because many people "caught up" in it look the same. Whether they talk really breathy, or they hold their hands up in strange ways, or their eyes look just a little bit spacey, or they have a smile that is so strong it just doesn't look real. Joel Osteen comes to mind; he seems to do all of those at one time. It seems strange to me that if they use a word like fire to describe it there would be so much uniformity because fire is something wild, and free, and original, and above all alive. Like they say just because there is smoke, doesn't mean there is real fire. We are called to be zealous and ardent though, and I want to talk this morning about how that fire can be ignited within us, how it already is, how we are created to be naturally full of such fire, but how so much around us seems to "shhh out the fire."
We've talked at length over the past couple months about the things that make being a Christian difficult, the things in this world that seem to make everything we do so very hard. What are the things that really stifle our fires. The third verse of "This Little Light of Mine" as I we sang together during the children's time is, "don't let Satan, shhhh it out, I'm going to let it shine". What are the things in this world that blow out our fire? What grinds our gears? What robs us of our enthusiasm and our fervor? What are our barriers to having an ardent spirit for service? And then how do we get past it?
A couple of years ago when I became a candidate for ministry at a Presbytery meeting, there was a big push for growth of churches. They had this expert who had grown churches all over the country come and talk. He spoke about many strategies and gave a good talk, but the one point he kept making is that all churches have a candle of the spirit, and that candle could be extinguished, and then would die. Before I got up to be examined the Presbytery was working through some business. There was a disagreement about where money was going to come from, where it was going to go, and where cuts would need to be made. You would be amazed at the stuff that people were saying. My dad and I just kept looking at each other, remembering the talk from earlier, and would make like we were blowing out a candle. Shhhhh. When I was finally brought before the Presbytery to be examined, a man asked a good question of me, a tough question, and as I was about to answer it, he was told that the question could not be asked. The procedure was not right, and it took the place positive dialogue. Shhhhhh. It happens. How many times are we so overcome with the process that the object is forever missed? This is one of those things that turns people off and drains us of our energy. These little things get to us.
Sometimes the things are bigger though, the wind blowing out the candle seems a hurricane. This week was filled with so many to me, things that just frustrate me. One of the things that get me is the way that everything is a crisis of the moment, the way that the media and our culture raises the level of things to a point where there are only two sides, for and against, and real thought is lost in the balance. Shhhhhh.  I mean this week you couldn't eat a chicken sandwich without it being a political statement, Shhhhh, kids couldn't have a batman birthday party without being deemed insensitive, Shhhhhh, we couldn't mourn the loss of American lives without debates over firearms, Shhhhhhhh, or speculation whether the gunman was a conservative nutjob or a liberal bullied victim, Shhhhhhh. We couldn't watch the Olympic Opening ceremonies without controversy over the U.S. uniforms being made in China, Shhhhh, or whether there was enough security, Shhhhhh,  and whether saying there wasn't was a political misstep, Shhhhhh, or whether business owners deserve credit for what they create, Shhhhhh. The cynicism comes out, doesn't it. I voiced my frustration, and all I heard back was, "well it's and election year, what do you expect? That's cynicism. A snuffed out spirit is one that has grown cynical, believing that nothing matters, nothing can be done anyway, so why bother, nothing you do matters because nothing matters.  
I don't bring this up for any political reason, but rather to illustrate more of our cynicism. A former student of mine had posted some stat on his facebook page that showed how Barack Obama had kept 72% of his campaign promises, which didn't count when he compromised with Republicans. It becomes an interesting stat when that isn't taken into account. I mean why else wouldn't you keep a promise? Again, but I don't bring this up to dump on the President, but to make a point. My former student thought 72% was good, and was arguing so, and he's like 24 and supposedly idealistic and progressive. I called him out on it, saying that means he lied like 28% of the time. He said it was probably good for a president, that Bush was much worse. I'm sure he was, but is that our qualifying line? Have our standards dropped so low? Why? Cynicism, Shhhhhhhh! Oh don't worry, all politicians lie. Why? A person with an ardent spirit would demand more, and be more ourselves. Being cynical is much safe, though, than being on fire. You don't need to have an opinion. You don't need to care. You don't need to do anything because hey it doesn't matter.
Ok so we're up against all of that. How do we get through it? I've heard a term lately, referring to folks who have a religious identity. It is people of faith. There is where we must start. Faith is the cure for the common cynic because it is the opposite. A cynic, one who's light is completely out doesn't believe anything matters, sometimes they can go so far as to believe nothing really exists, but faith that things matter is a place to start. And faith can build from there. Then add to that faith, faith in a God who created all things, one God who is timeless, infinite, and omnipotent, in control of all things, and that adds something. Faith that, that God still exists providing for the world, and is involved in history, and that adds something. Then add faith that, that God loved us so much He became human, lived with us, suffered with us as us, died on the cross for us, and rose, reigning on high, and that the Spirit of God lives within us sustaining us, strengthening us, lighting the fire within us, faith in that kind of a world does something to us, or it should if realized and experienced. That has to be the place to start for Christians because in that kind of world the fire is lit for us. We are created and redeemed and we have a fire that is set within us to share.
So now how do we share it without it being ssssshhhhed out? Faith in the providence of God can help us get beyond the major squabbling in the world. We can get beyond the results and the dreamed of ends and focus instead on the means. We can love, rather than demonize, because we won't be working towards an agenda. We'll have God to work it out beyond what we are called to grasp. From here I see two important pieces in the puzzle to sustain the fire. One is call and the other is gratitude.
Call is an important piece of the puzzle because we are all very different, and we were all created for something different. We are each given unique gifts. We are each given unique strengths. We are each given unique talents. We are each given unique interests. We're all simply unique. Call is about figuring out why you are the way you are, and then applying that to the service of God in some way, your way. What is your way? One of the problems in our society that I see is that there is a great push for standardization of things: processes, paths, people, as if there were only one way of doing things, and if you don't do it that way you don't fit. Schools are set up that way. It's frustrating, as a teacher. I see so many talented kids, who aren't talented in everything get lost because they don't fit. They are a square peg and the round holed paths we have created for them are too binding. So we drug them with ritalin and other drugs to try to soften their edges rather than trying to find their skills and help them find their place, their unique place.
It happens all the time and it's not just kids. It's churches, too. How many things do we do in church because it's the church way to do things? How many talents do you have that don't quite seem to fit? We have sign-ups for certain jobs: nursery, fellowship, lay-readers, greeters, ushers, places in the choir or the bell choir, fledgling programs for our children, waiting in the wings, what do you have that we haven't thought of yet? What can you bring that isn't on a sign-up sheet. Bring it we need it. Figure out what you are called to do, and do it. You'll find that if you are working within your call, the fire, the eagerness, the ardor of your spirit will be burning out of control.
Instead we do what is expected of us, the safe, the path that has already been paved, the row that has already been plowed. Sure it's safer, but it is an extinguished fire waiting to happen. Life is one of those things that is so precious. It's got to be lived, and the way to find life is to live the life you were meant for.
A friend of mine, Jerry King, has begun a mural in the nursery. I can't wait for you all to see it, but the theme we came  up with was that God has created us each for something, and that something will be different. He wrote the caption, "When God meant you, he meant something, not nothing, not everything, but something." It will depict characters from the Bible, and you will notice that no two characters are doing the same thing. But you got to wonder, how many people after Moses went looking for God in a burning bush, how many people hung out on the beach at the Red Sea, waiting for it to part again, the first time it rained after Noah and the family got off the boat, how many folks were building arks, like people have bomb shelters today, what did the guy that Darius threw in the Lion's den after Daniel think? How many people missed out on Jesus because they were looking for another Earthly king like David? How many people are waiting in Bethlehem for Jesus to come again? How many people are waiting in buildings with pews, and steeples, and pulpits, stained glass, organs, choirs expecting the Spirit to enliven them because of those trappings of church? Shhhhhh, unless the church is the people. People burning with the fire of created purpose, called to specific service it is an extinguished flame.
Right now Renee Bloom is in Haiti. She is experiencing things we cannot even imagine. Hard work, poverty, disease, orphans, despair, danger, pain. She'll experience all of that. But in a few weeks she will come talk to us and tell us about it all, and I want you to look at the Spirit, the ardor, the zeal that will be boiling over within her because she was called, and is fulfilling that call, and will continue to be called when she gets back. One thing about being called by an infinite God, is that calls continually happen. "When God meant you he meant something, not nothing, not everything, but something." Find your something.
And then the last as I said is gratitude. Be thankful. Be thankful for the gifts and talents and call that you have, rather than constantly looking at others with longing. Jerry is painting the mural and I'm in awe of his talent, I know I don't have that talent, I'm thankful for his talent, this church is being blessed with his talent. Renee is doing her mission trip, it's great. Maybe your mission is not so far from home. Maybe it is your job and career, maybe it's raising your kids, maybe it is smiling at the person you pass as you enter the Food Lion, maybe it's Feed My Sheep, maybe it's not. Maybe it's teaching Sunday School, maybe it's giving a kid a hug or a smile, maybe it's sending a card, maybe it's creating your own program that is you, maybe it's huge, maybe it's small, maybe it's international, global, maybe its within  your own family. All shapes and sizes, all are important, all can fill you with the fire if you are thankful for the existence you have been given.
I'm not sure if this is the only way to keep a fire going. I know that God can do all things, and that means all is possible. But faith, call, and gratitude, can sure open lives up to becoming Spirit led. That holy breath, that fire can fill us, and will sustain us, holding our light out for all the world to see, a great beacon of light, a candle of hope, that can transform a cynical world of darkness, for darkness flees from the light, having no power whatsoever. Thanks be to God, Amen.  

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Mt 5:13-16). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]Merriam-Webster, I. (2003). Merriam-Webster's collegiate dictionary. Includes index. (Eleventh ed.). Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, Inc.