Sunday, September 23, 2012

Happy for You

Happy for You
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
September 23, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Romans 12:15a
Luke 15: 22-32
Genesis 4: 1-5 

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.

As we step further through the Marks of a Christian according to Paul's letter to the Romans, we get this week a challenge that seems so simple, and so natural, such an easy part of being a Christian, and what is really an essential part of being a human, at least on the surface, but when I started to think about it, when I started to study it, looking for positive examples of this simple act in our world around us and as exemplified through characters in the Biblical narrative, I found them hard to spot. We seek to do this very thing each week when we celebrate the joys part of our joys and concerns for prayer, but perhaps it is harder than I thought, when we are out in our lives outside of these walls. The simple phrase is this, simply, "Rejoice with those who rejoice!" It certainly seems simple enough, but in practice it proves much more difficult than it would at first seem. But before we begin, let's take a look back at the journey we are on. The Marks of a True Christian, Paul's letter to the Romans, 12:9-
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. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, 

And since I had trouble finding a good positive example of this, I went with the negative, which was a much easier choice. The Old Testament is full of folks who choose not to Rejoice with those who Rejoice, but rather envy those who rejoice, so I chose the first of such examples for the Old Testament Lesson, Cain. And for the New Testament I chose the elder brother character from the Prodigal Son parable. Luke 15: 22-32:

22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’ ”[1]  

It seems so simple, but why does it prove to be so hard? Why is it that when others have triumphed, and are rejoicing that we have trouble rejoicing with them? Why does Cain look to himself and his own misfortune rather than rejoicing with Abel? Why do Joseph's brothers become overcome with jealousy and envy toward him, so much so that they cannot speak shalom to him? It happens to so many, to Moses' brother Aaron as well. When our brothers and sisters get ahead, we feel like we are being left behind and instead of rejoicing with them at their fortune we instead become overwhelmed and overly concerned with our own perceived misfortune. It's all around us in our surface first, stuff oriented, win at all cost world we have built on envy. I'm completely disgusted by the politics in this election of both sides year, who use envy as a means to get ahead and further their agenda. Talk about the worst of humanity, but why is it that way?
Let's first look at Cain and Abel. The first aspect of the beginning of this story that gets to people, one of the first questions people ask is, why didn't God like Cain's offering? What was wrong with it? It doesn't seem fair. I mean there is Cain out there busting his butt, working hard, and for no given reason the offering he gives is "not up to par." Why? I'm not sure, but I've always thought that this question is missing the point. A different question comes to my mind, and that is, why does Cain give an offering to begin with? What does he hope to get out of it? What is his purpose? Because he must have had a purpose, he must have had a desired response from God, the response he didn't get. . . the positive one. Seriously though, there is no mandate for offering at this point. God has not asked it of him as far as we can see. God didn't ever require an offering from Adam and Eve either, just to not eat of the fruit. Who put Cain up to it? Was it Adam and Eve again, trying to earn their way back into God's good grace? Did they think they could again walk with God in the cool of the day if they, you know, sweetened the pot a little for God, brought him some of the fruits of their labor? But who was it that hid from God? Who was it that chose to hide, avoid and redirect the blame? It wasn't God. Is this now the peace offering? A new attempt to get back in God's good graces? Could the result be any more of a major backfire though. . . humanity spirals further and further down the sin abyss with the first murder, and I wonder is it because Cain's offering was refused, or because Abel's wasn't, and was accepted? Is it ok for us to lose as long as no one else really wins? Could Cain have rejoiced with Abel? Can we?
Joseph's brother's don't really seem to have a problem with each other until Joseph comes along and his father seems to favor him. The list is long. This topic of watching someone else win, and trying to be "graceful" always makes me think of award shows like the Oscars, where the camera shows all the nominees while the announcement is being made. Their faces just seem to freeze and the big forced smile comes across their perfectly botoxed face. Sometimes the smile looks real, and there is true rejoicing for the winner, but not always. Often you can see that disappointment squeaking through. Cain's mark seems to be present in us all.
What is the true cause for envy? We get glimpses of it in these stories, especially in the prodigal son because the brother speaks. I guess you could say Cain speaks too, and Joseph's brothers, through their actions, but here we have words put to the frustration. These words have always struck me. He says, "Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet. . ." Doesn't get it. . . Just like Cain didn't get it. . . Just like we often miss it. We don't earn God's love. There is nothing we can do, nothing we can offer, no secret bribe God is waiting for, no secret words to say, no special combination. Here is this brother, working for his father, as a slave, he says. . . why? Who forged the chains? Who shut the lock? Did he do it for a blessing? Did he do it for the fatted calf? Since when? When did his frustration begin? It seems not until his brother was blessed, for doing "nothing" or even worse for "devouring your property with prostitutes." The problem seems that we are blind to our own blessings, and misguided in our motivation. We are not thankful for what we have, if we ever feel the impulses that Cain and this elder brother experience. We are not thankful and are working for the wrong reasons, sowing resentment, and reaping bitterness.
I came across the sermon to the birds from St. Francis and was struck by a couple thoughts after reading it. Let's take a look at that now:

My little bird sisters, you owe much to God your Creator, and you must always and everywhere praise him, because he has given you a double and triple covering, and your colorful and pretty clothing, and your food is ready without  your working for it, and your singing was taught to you by the Creator, and your numbers that have been multiplied by the blessing of God--and because he preserved your species in Noah's ark so that your race should not disappear from the earth.
And you are also indebted to him for the realm of the air which he assigned to you. Moreover, you neither sow nor reap, yet God nourishes you, and he gives you the rivers and springs to drink from. He gives you high mountains and hills, rocks, and crags as refuges, and lofty trees in which to make your nests. And although you do not know how to spin or sew, God gives you and your little ones the clothing which you need. So the Creator loves you very much since he gives you so many good things. Therefore, my little bird sisters, be careful not to be ungrateful, but strive always to praise God. 

It made me wonder, are we envious of the birds. What do they do? They never sow nor reap. They get to fly. They don't pay taxes. And as St. Francis points out, they have much to be thankful for. Do we envy them? That is the thought that was going through my head. Do we envy the birds? If not why not? What is the difference then between them and our brothers and sisters whom we do envy? Think about it when you hear Jesus say, "look to the birds of the air" why are we comforted, rather than jealous? The answer seems to be in the next phrase, "Are you not of more value then they?"
As Hamlet says, "Aye there's the rub." Envy is the fruit of low self worth because you are doubting where you stand, doubting how you measure up with your neighbors, you know the Jones's everybody's trying to keep up with, and doubting where you stand in the cosmic marathon race, and you think others are moving ahead of you, unfairly, as if you've earned your position.
What makes us more valuable than the birds? Ever stop to ponder that? Especially because Jesus' words seem to take that idea as a given. What makes us more valuable than the birds? What makes us valuable to begin with? Is it because we slave? Is it because of the choices that we make? Is it because we go to church every Sunday? Is it because we are Americans? Is it because we have a good job? Is it because we have a strong perfect family? Is it because we are financially stable? Is it because we bring our offerings to God, looking for favors, looking for a leg up? Is it because of anything that this world seeks to measure us by. Nope.
Our value is based on the fact that we were made in the image of God, and is confirmed by the amazing gift of grace shown us through the love sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and so are the brothers and sisters that we have all around us. All of them, the celebrities we see on our television screens, the star athletes, the politicians, and those struggling for work, those fighting the disease of addiction, those cast aside by the world, and every other regular person caught somewhere in the world of in between. We are all blessed beyond any sense of our deserving. We are all way in the plus column, well in the black, or is it the red, I always get them confused. So that being said, there is much in this world for which we should rejoice. Amidst all the pain and the turmoil, the stress, the concern for the future, when people get glimmers of joy we should cherish them. We should share in them because like Jesus tries to point out with the birds of the air analogy, it should remind us of how good God is, how much he has given, and how much he continues to give.
Have you ever heard that "Farther Along" song? Do you know it? How misguided is it?  

Tempted and tried we're often made to wonder
Why it should be thus all the day long
While there are others living about us
Never molested though in the wrong  

That song seems to be a Cain carol, an anthem of the elder brother, a hymn to self righteous envy, a cry for misunderstood justice, a musical plea to the world that is so unfair, should I do one more, a melodic walk into the pit of bitterness, looking to the future for blessings, blind to those wonders of the present. You may figure it all out farther along, but rejoice now because God is Good, grace is amazing, for if the Lord would count iniquity, who could stand who could stand, boast not in anything else but in the Lord Jesus Christ, and if someone else gets a little joy along the way, celebrate with them, not because of what you do not have, but because it is another beautiful piece of evidence that God's steadfast love endures, that providence is real, and that there may just be hope for all of us sons of Cain, after all.


[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 15:22-32). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.