Let’s Talk About Suicide. Judas Iscariot, Kate Spade, and Anthony Bourdain: We are to Have Good Hope for All!, Matthew 27:3-10

Sermon:          Judas Iscariot, Kate Spade, and Anthony Bourdain: We Are to Have Good Hope for All!
Scripture:        Matthew 27.3-10
Preacher:        Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:         First Pres Fort Lauderdale
Date:                 June 17, 2018, Father’s Day

This morning, we are going to be looking at a text, which I must admit, I have never preached on before.  Turn in your Bible to Matthew 27: 3-20.  We are deviating from the lectionary text in order to look at an issue that has been in the news the past few weeks.  We are going to frame our thoughts around the title, “Judas Iscariot, Kate Spade, and Anthony Bourdain:  We Are to Have Good Hope for All” this morning, we are going to address the issue of suicide and see what scripture might have to say.

Our community in Broward County knows all too well the pain from senseless deaths.  On Valentine’s Day this year, 17 people were gunned down at a Parkland High School which has lit the fires nationally as a debate for common sense gun laws.  According to the Washington Post, 141 children, educators, and bystanders have been killed in our schools with another 287 injured.[1]  Our country is up in arms over such a statistic as well it should be!  The media and our politicians have been vocal on what some have called an epidemic.  As horrible as those numbers are, did you know that in 2017 alone, 45,000 died from suicide?[2]  Sixty-two percent or roughly 28,000 of those people died from self-inflicted gunshot wounds.[3]  The majority who harm themselves are male but the number of women in middle age is expanding quickly.[4]  To put it in perspective, the number of people who die by suicide in our country is about one third (1/3) of the total population of the city limits of Fort Lauderdale.  Where’s the press on that?  Where is the civil discourse and angst about that?  I’ll tell you where it is; its’ buried in the fact for why we don’t have many sermons on Matthew 27: 3-10 because the issue of suicide is one of those taboo topics.  As a result of the stigma placed upon those who choose self-harm and destruction, we choose not to talk about it until someone famous like Kate Spade or Anthony Bourdain do the unthinkable.  Our silence on the subject simply adds to the stigma of surrounding it.  Beloved, we can ill-afford to be silent any longer as our silence only contributes to spiritual, social and emotional misunderstandings of suicide.  Let’s look at our text in Matthew.  It’s a text we know about but often skip over:

Matthew 27.3-10

When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. He said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself. But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since they are blood money.” After conferring together, they used them to buy the potter’s field as a place to bury foreigners. For this reason that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of the one on whom a price had been set, on whom some of the people of Israel had set a price, 10 and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.”[5]

As we look at this text, I am in no way saying what Judas did was right, either in betraying Jesus or in taking his own life.  I do believe, however, Judas’ story gives those of us in the Christian community a better understanding as to why he chose the path he did.  Our text is illustrative.

Judas comes as a man saturated with guilt and shame.  His fervent hopes for who and what Jesus was to be and do were not realized.  He knows he lived as a disciple but like many in the church today, his name was on the rolls, but he didn’t really know what discipleship meant for him.  When his role as a disciple didn’t mesh with what Jesus intended, Judas quickly bailed out and arranged for Jesus’ arrest.  In the ensuing time between selling Jesus out and coming back to the religious authorities, Judas’ spirit was crushed and overwhelmed.  The horrible weight of what he had done and the pain it was causing Judas became intolerable, and Judas, with the mantle of guilt and shame tries to do something about it.  When Judas saw that his actions were going to cost Jesus His life, Judas’ despair drove him to action.  What does our text say?

The first thing our text says in verse 3 is that when Judas saw the outcomes of his selfishness, he repented.  Isn’t that what Jesus wants all people to do? Repent?  Judas in his spiritual and emotional crisis turned around 180⁰ in the other direction.  He fully embraced and acknowledged his selfishness.  The word for “repent” Matthew uses is one that describes a turning around because of deep shame and sadness; in other words, it’s a word that indicates a deep remorse for what he did.

The second reality we note is that Judas didn’t keep his remorse to himself. He goes to the Jewish religious leaders and tries to make restitution for what he did.  He tries to give back the 30 pieces of silver he sold Jesus out for in the first place.  In his state of mind, in the despairing swamp of pain in his soul, he tried to rectify the problem the only way he knew how.

Judas then does a third thing:  He publicly confesses his sin to the religious authorities and the Chief Priest.  He publicly admitted his sin against Jesus to the very ones who in Jewish law could forgive him.  He’s doing what Jesus told many others to do:  go and show yourself to the chief priests.  And it’s right here that all the wheels fall off the wagon.

Judas repents, tries to recompense for his actions, and then publicly confesses his sin to the chief priests.  He admits he has sinned by betraying innocent blood and then the ones who had the power and ability to forgive him, to release him from his burden, did what?  They smugly reply in verse 4, “What is that to us? See to it yourself!”  What does that mean, “See to it yourself”? The religious community had trusted in, the community who encouraged him to commit the sin of betrayal in the first place gives him the flippant answer, “It’s your problem; deal with it yourself.”  It’s at this point, beloved, we have in scripture an anatomy of suicide.

A broken person gives off signals they are in pain and seeks those in their community for help.  The people in the trusted community either can’t see the pain or chooses to ignore the pain in the other.  Judas the betrayer and the shattered, when ignored by the people in his community, withdraws to be all by himself.  It’s in that moment of sheer loneliness and despair that he takes his own life.  This Story that’s already full of so much pain and tragedy only becomes more mired in even greater pain and tragedy.  What can we learn from all this, beloved?

We learn that Judas’ suicide is not the unforgivable sin our culture and faith traditions have made it be.  Jesus in Mark 3: 29 tells us the only unforgivable sin is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.  Suicide is not the unpardonable sin, so brothers and sisters, we need to have good hope for all!  Suicide is the result of a mental illness whereby a person cannot physiologically or emotionally to handle the onslaught of pain and despair in their lives. When a person feels that level of loneliness and hopelessness, he or she takes things into their own hands.  As a person who struggles with PTSD and my own mental illness, I can tell you that depression is one of the most narcissistic conditions known to humanity.  When you are lost in the mire of depression, you cannot see or hear anyone other than yourself. The lonely, depressed, hopeless person is reduced to being only focused on his or her pain and despair. It’s hard to see or hear others. In their minds, no one can understand what they are experiencing; as a result, they withdraw from others and their psyche runs away from them.  Suicide is caused by a brokenness, an illness, in our human condition.  It is not an unforgivable sin but it’s a sin and lack of confidence in God nonetheless.

We also learn from our text that those who do harm themselves are in desperate need of intentional, caring community.  As a faith community and as a culture, we must stop stigmatizing mental illness. We stigmatize mental illness when we tell hopeless people, “Quit feeling sorry for yourself and just pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”

We stigmatize mental illness when our insurance systems see it solely as a behavioral issue apart from its biological and physiological consequences and treat it as a lesser medical condition such as cancer or diabetes.

We stigmatize mental illness when we trivially call people “nut jobs” or “whackos”.

We stigmatize mental illness when we see it as something to be ashamed of and hidden and never talked about in our families or churches.

As a faith community, we are on notice not to repeat the sin of the chief priests and blow people off who show signs of emotional brokenness and leave them alone to figure it out on their own.  Our silence on this matter and pretending it does not exist is no longer an option.  So, Church, what are we to do?

Let’s be alert to those in our communities and circles of influence.  Do those we know all of a sudden seem grossly overwhelmed by life’s circumstances?  Do they forget details for the easy-to-remember items? Are they tired all the time and complain of not enough rest? Is there a change in their eating habits? Well, then talk with them about it.

Are there people you know who seem to have uncharacteristically withdrawn into themselves at work, home or at school? These are the people who are usually in the middle of a crowd working the room but now they are sitting off by themselves along the wall. These are the students or employees who typically are first to chime in on new projects and ideas but lately, they have become more silent, maybe even sullen. Then talk with them about your observations.  Check in with them and see how they’re doing.

Have you spent time with someone and the words they use to describe their life and situation seem so dark and heavy they are unable to see any light or hope?  Are they using a lot of first-person pronouns like “I” or “me” in their conversations?  Are their discussions loaded with superlatives like “should” or
“must.”[6]  Then lovingly look them in the eyes and quietly ask, “You seem pretty overwhelmed right now; have you thought of hurting yourself?”  If they hesitate or say ‘yes,’ then assure them you will walk with them until they are feeling whole again as you help them find clinical help and guidance.

Church, we have to be looking out for and listening to each other.  Ultimately, what a suicidal person chooses to do or not is totally up to them and is their responsibility; if a person is going to go and do a selfish act of self-harm, then there is nothing you can do about it.  Yet, you and I are the embodiment of patient, grace-full love to other sheep like us who are broken and weighed down.  Let’s pledge to be more attentive to the bleating sheep whose cries are cries of pain and let them know all hear them.  We may not be able to “fix” their pain, but at least we can embody Jesus as they go through it.  If you or someone you know is talking, thinking or fantasizing about self-harm, please let me know.  For you see, because we have a friend like Jesus, we are to have good hope for all.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Pres Fort Lauderdale
401 SE 15th Avenue
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33301
Wrisley@outlook.com
Wrisley.org

© 2018 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church of Fort Lauderdale, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission.   All rights reserved.

[1] John Woodrow Cox, Steven Rich, Allyson Chiu, John Muyskens and Monica Ulmanu, More than 215,000 students have experienced gun violence at school since Columbine, The Washington Post, May 25, 2018.  Accessed on 6/14/2018 at https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2018/local/school-shootings-database/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.71568092eaf0.

[2] Ritu Prasad, Why US Suicide Rate is on the Rise, BBC News, June 8, 2018.  Accessed 6/14/18 at

[3] Ibid.

[4] Rhitu Chatterjee, US Suicide Rates are Rising Faster Among Women than Men, NPR, June 14, 2018. Accessed on 6/14/18 at  https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/06/14/619338703/u-s-suicides-rates-are-rising-faster-among-women-than-men

[5] The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[6] Elizabeth Bernstein, The Words That Can Signal if You’re Depressed, The Wall Street Journal, June 11, 2018.  Accessed on 6/14/18 at https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-words-that-can-signal-youre-depressed-1528724000.

The Message: How to Stay Focused on the Source #2: It’s What We Do – Developing a Rule for Faith and Life, 1 Corinthians 9:24-27

Sermon:          How to Stay Focused on the Source No. 2:
                           It’s What We Do. Developing a Rule for Faith and Life
Scripture:        1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Preacher:        Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:         First Pres Fort Lauderdale
Date:                 February 4, 2018, Communion Sunday

Our scripture this morning is from Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church.  Turn to 1 Corinthians 9:24-27.  Listen to the Word of God!

1 Corinthians 9.24-27 

24Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. 25Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. 26So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; 27but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.

Today we are picking up in the second message in a series on how we are to stay focused on the Source of our Faith, Jesus Christ. Last week, we noted ten stones of basic Christian knowledge each of us are to lay to build a strong foundation for our faith. At the very minimum, we heard that we each need to know something of the Bible, the nature of God, the human condition, Jesus, Salvation, the Holy Spirit, the Church, Christian vocation, the spiritual world, and the Future. This foundation creates for you and me our understanding of orthodoxy, or better yet, our good beliefs. The problem with orthodoxy is even the Devil understood what sound beliefs were.  It’s one thing to know the right thing; it’s entirely different to actually do it and live it out.

This morning, we are going to look at what we build upon that foundation, that orthodoxy we know, and these are the ten basic expressions of living our faith out in daily lives. These ten basic Christian practices are tangible ways you and I can enflesh our faith and make it real. These practices are designed to take us out of our heads with what we know and throw us into the world, so we express what we know through what we do!  Good orthodoxy generates active orthopraxy; in other words, our good doctrine generates active practice in our daily life.

The Winter Olympic Games are about to begin in Korea this week and there was an article on the Norwegian ski team’s training regimen. After hours of lifting weights, skiing, and training, they finish their day with refreshing ice baths! It’s not exactly how I would want to finish my day on the slopes; but the athletes realize that in order to be competitive and stand a chance against others, they have to take charge of their body and make it yield to their purposes. In order to live out their physical prowess, they have to become disciplined and intentional with what they do with and to their bodies. It’s not enough to know how to ski well; unless they practice what they know the skiers will never be any better than anyone else.

This is what the Apostle Paul is getting at in our message today. Yes, he knows Jesus. Yes, he has faith. Yes, has the Spirit. He has the pedigree of being a Hebrew of Hebrews. He has the knowledge and critical understanding of the Jewish Law and Torah. Yet, Paul realizes that unless he trains how to apply his knowledge of Jesus, his faith, and all of his vast theological head knowledge, he is no better off than before. Paul knows that he knows that he knows that good orthodoxy, good thinking leads to orthopraxy, good practice.

Paul realizes that good, sound orthodox knowledge about God is nigh worthless if that knowledge is not enfleshed and put into practice.  Again, I go back to Jesus’ temptations after his baptism.  The Devil knew all the right answers and could quote the Bible as good as any Southern Baptist from Georgia; the problem was he did not practice what he preached!

Paul is reminding the Corinthians that in order to live the Christian life, they need to hit the spiritual gymnasium. It’s not enough to know that God is love; it requires us to figure out how to express that Godly love to the most ungodly people around us.  That takes practice.

A market report showed that last year, Americans spent over $52 billion dollars on sports equipment and gym memberships.[1] I don’t knock anyone who has done that as I wish all the sports I competed in did not ruin my hips so I could go to the gym; I simply mention it to ask how much are we Christ-Followers investing in going to our spiritual gymnasiums?  Is it comparable? Have we become spiritual consumers that practice our faith when it’s convenient and works well with the Little League schedule?  Do our spiritual disciplines and practices compare to the time we are spending at LA Fitness?

Centuries ago, the ancient church fathers and mothers developed the notion of a spiritual rule for faith and life.  Essentially, a spiritual rule for faith and life would be like a training schedule a trainer would give you when you went to work out in the gym.  Instead of telling you to run this far, do this many sets of weights, and stretch these muscles, a spiritual rule for faith and life is a way for a Christ-Follower to outline what spiritual goals they want to accomplish.  It outlines their plan to stay spiritually fit and applying the knowledge they have acquired.

My rule for faith and life, for example, means that six out of seven mornings a week, I commit to prayerfully reading the scripture with the lectionary and having prayer for one hour before I leave the house.  I worship in community at least once a week. I give back the financial blessings I’ve been given so that others will be blessed as well.  My goal is to read 40 books a year to stretch my theological muscles. I share what Jesus has done and is doing in my life with others I meet at restaurants or in other social gatherings. I attempt to get away alone three times a year for a few days to really focus on my relationship with God in prayer.  These are some of the items I strive for in my spiritual rule for faith and life.  What is on your training schedule for your rule of faith and life?

What we know impacts what we do. Orthodoxy leads to orthopraxy. Over the course of our time together, we are going to intentionally learn about and practice ten basic Christian practices that will serve as your spiritual gym membership routine. What are those ten practices?

  1. Worship in community and alone
  2. Christ-Followership imitating Jesus
  3. Prayer
  4. Bible Study
  5. Advancing our faith and the Kingdom through personal Retreat
  6. Caring for others in Biblical Community
  7. Trusteeship of Our Spiritual Gifts
  8. Active Christian Service and Mission
  9. Winsomely sharing our faith
  10. Trusteeship of Our Finances and Possessions

Beloved, what is your spiritual rule for faith and life?  How are you putting what you know about God in Christ to work in faithful Christian practice? Which of the ten basic spiritual practices are you willing to put on your daily regimen to help you live out your life of Christ with your neighbor?

The late Greek Orthodox staretz[2] or holy man, Porphyrios once said, “When people are empty of Christ, a thousand and one other things come and fill them up: jealousies, hatreds, boredoms, melancholy, resentment, a worldly outlook, worldly pleasures. Try to fill your soul with Christ so it’s not empty.”

Friends, our spiritual practices and rules for faith and life are not meant to be shallow acts of works righteousness; they are instead a way to fill ourselves up with Christ and exercise what we know about God. Our practices help us learn how to better express God and His purposes to those around us.  As a pastor reminded us at presbytery yesterday, there can be no growth, no change without a little pain.  Spiritual practices and rule for faith and life are not easy to keep; they are not meant to be.  They are designed to help us grow deeper, grow stronger.

Today we experience a practice Jesus himself practiced. It’s a totally self-emptying for the benefit of others through the Lord’s Supper.  In this meal, he is broken and given to you and me so that we might become fuller of the love, grace, and peace of Jesus Christ. As it cost him to practice his faith, so too does it cost us.  What’s your rule for faith and life?

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Pres Fort Lauderdale
401 SE 15th Avenue
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33301
Wrisley@outlook.com
Wrisley.org

© 2018 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church of Fort Lauderdale, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission.   All rights reserved.

[1] $100 billion — that’s how much Americans spent on sports over the past 12 months, Published: Sept 12, 2017, 4:25 p.m. ET, by Steven Kutz, Market Watch. Posted on https://www.marketwatch.com/story/heres-how-much-americans-spend-on-sports-in-one-chart-2017-09-11 and accessed on 2/4/18.

[2] Also written as ‘starets,’ please see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Starets.

Christmas was different this year

Christmas was different this year.

This Christmas was void of any trappings from the cultural myth of Christmas this year.  There were no lights strung or stockings hung with care.  The ornaments we have been collecting throughout our now adult daughters’ lives were not unwrapped from last year and the Christmas boxes remained in the garage. There was one small candle a friend from Fort Lauderdale sent; it was a silent sentinel on the television stand.

A Facebook post I placed on my page this year garnered only three responses once it was put up.  It depicts a contemporary version of Mary and Joseph on their way to Bethlehem whereupon “Jose’ and Maria” are standing out in the rain in front of a closed 7-11 using a pay phone. Maria is sitting side-saddle on a muted pink horse that requires quarters to be deposited in it before it will ‘give her a ride.’  Behind them is the neon sign from Dave’s City Motel.  The look on their faces is desperate. Entitled, “Jose’ y Maria” and sketched by Everett Patterson, it serves as a dramatic foil to the cultural myths and Western projections on what Christmas is all about in our own time; we easily forget, for example, that Joseph and Mary were really “people of color” who were refugees following the decrees of an oppressive political ruler. I personally loved this portrayal of the Holy Family because it is so raw and real.  Yet, people on Facebook did not appreciate either its rawness nor realness; give us instead a happy, sterile understanding of Christmas because Jesus is the reason for the season, right? Well…

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We tend to have lost our way and have bought into the cultural trappings of Christmas.  But what if we were to pause a moment during these 12 Days of Christmas and truly ponder what the original Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were like.  Unlike our westernized, consumer-tinged view of these special days, the first Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were not all glorious and festive as we like to think they were.

We forget that a young girl who could’ve won your high school Sophomore class’s homecoming winner was nine-months pregnant on a seventy-mile donkey ride from up north and was about to burst. Water breaking and screaming in labor is not usually in our sterile Christmas memories. Aside from a shepherd or two, there were no farm hands hanging outside the manger’s windows like Dorothy’s friends in Kansas when she wakes up from Oz. A small fire is more likely than strung lights and lanterns which is probably just as well; it’s horrible enough to be relegated to deliver your baby in a dirty manger but to see the manure piles and molting animals as well would be too much for the Holy Couple to bear. Contrary to our Christmas pageants, the misnomered Three Kings do not even show up until two years later.  But we like the Christmas dramas we portray today!  They are pretty and adorable.  They are clean and marketed. And it’s high time we pause to remember this is not what it was like for this teenaged girl and the young man whose fiancee’ was about to gush forth new life.  We tend to forget about the pains and trauma of birth.  We somehow neglect to remember that Mary’s birth in that stall was just as a bloody mess as anyone’s would be today. But it’s Christmas.  We’re supposed to be happy.  We’re supposed to be all giddy and joyful. We are to look our best and enjoy our presents and holiday food and drink.

This Christmas was different than former years.  I left my current position as a pastor of a church on December 3 in order to gear up for a new call and placement in south Florida after the first of the year.  When a pastor leaves his or her church, they really have to leave it and break ties in hard and painful ways.  A good pastor knows the church she just left is not her church but is God’s.  A caring pastor knows that he cannot preach one Sunday and then sit in the pews of the same church next week as though nothing has happened.  When a pastor and their family leaves a church, there needs to be a clean break. The breaks are not easy nor are they comfortable but necessary they are. The break was made. Hoping to use this downtime as a way for me and my bride to take a breath and look towards making our move, Reality intervened.

One of the strongest women I have known became ill.  We have spent three and half decades together besting the odds of life and her health.  We first met in our junior year of college.  I asked her twin sister out for a date a few months prior to her arrival and was shot down.  “But I have a twin sister you might like!” my now sister-in-law said.  I married a twin.

While sister Kathy was away at college, Kelly stayed back in Atlanta undertaking a dual vocation of going to college while also spending full-time fighting for her life.  Late in her senior year in high school, she developed a cough the doctors thought was related to post-nasal drip or mono.  The problem is, it never went away.  An x-ray showed a fist-sized, inoperable tumor in her chest that was closing up the bronchial passage; further tests indicated she had full blown non-Hodgkins Lymphoma.  After she fought the illness for two years at Emory Hospital with thousands of rads of chest radiation and chemotherapy protocol that would be considered inhumane today, she left to join her sister at college whereupon we soon met and fell in love.

Kelly was different from other girls I had gone out with before. She cried at the sight of beautiful sunsets and treated each day by gloating over it like a woman admiring a rose for the first time. Waves of young hopefulness lifted us to marriage but to be honest, I never thought we would be married that long. Throughout the rest of college and into our early years as a couple, she often developed lumps in her neck or other parts of her body that we would have to go through weeks of testing and waiting to see if the lumps were benign. She had minor surgeries here and there to pull hyperactive lymph nodes out and by Grace, they always came back from the lab “negative.”  At least until she was 35.

The call came one morning at home. She answered the phone and the longer the conversation went on, the more somber her tone became.  She hung the phone back up on the wall, looked at me and said, “I’ve got breast cancer.” My fears were becoming realized.  The cause?  Radiation to her chest 18 years earlier.  Her job was to overcome cancer again and she did.  Following a double mastectomy and brutal reconstructive surgery and several months of healing, Kelly returned to her healthy self.  This whole incident taught us something, though: Even cures for healing have consequences. What helped to save her before was mounting to rise up and try to kill her when she was not looking.  For the next ten years life went on with all of its family ups and downs but we began to notice Kelly was getting fatigued more easily.  Back to the doctor she went, and this time, we learned the radiation from 28 years earlier that caused the breast cancer also has caused heart damage: Her aortal valve was closing up.  So, at the young age of 45, the strongest woman I have ever known had open heart surgery and got a new cow valve that had a shelf-life of 12 to 15 years.

In case you ever wanted to know, a cow valve lasted about 11 years in Kelly.  So, for the last year, we have been slowly monitoring her health as the valve she replaced years ago was closing up again.  The atrophying cow valve mooed loudly just a week after I gave my last sermon at the church.  The ties had been broken. Kelly’s heart began to become more broken, too; she went into congestive heart failure.

Christmas was different this year. We did not have a church community we could throw ourselves in as we were in between calls. The power of fellowship from a community of faith cannot be understated; one of the glaring differences this year was the lack of community we could lean into and draw strength from.  It is not that our old church meant to neglect us; they simply did not know as the necessary cut in ties was made.  Our new church family four hours away was, well, four hours away. They were eager to be present for us but the distance was a factor. The spiritual strength of the tangible, gathered community was absent this year and its absence was a huge presence in our lives.

Christmas was different this year as well because I wondered if Kelly was going to get through this.  Even the medical community went on hiatus over the holidays and it was hard to get medical advice and assistance.  She was not sleeping well.  She coughed and hacked and got to the point she could not catch her breath.  Her energy was nil and her chest raced at any amount of exertion.  Shopping for gifts and merrymaking was the furthest thing in our minds; I was wondering whether to check in on her if she slept past 8:30 to see if she was still breathing. This Christmas the issues of life and mortality took center stage. There was no tree. There were no presents exchanged.  For the first time in over 35 years, I was not in church or leading the Christmas Eve service.  Yes, Christmas was different this year. There were no lights or glitter but a simple daily step-by-step through Advent wondering if there really was Christmas hope.

The absence of all the traditional trappings of Christmas this Advent and Christmas made Christmas different this year.  It forced me to think about what it means to wait for the Child to be born or if my wife was going to live another day. It forced me to reflect during Advent on what it was like to live in a darkened Christmas like Mary and Joseph when all they could cling to were some promises from an angel and the whisperings of the Holy Spirit that the little child born among the dung and straw would rewire and reboot the Cosmic System.

Christmas was different this year because I learned that Advent and Christmas are not about lights, glitz, parties and booze and gift exchanges. It is not about spending money or buying obligatory gifts for people you really would rather not to recognize but feel socially obligated to do so.  Christmas is about the rawness of life and all of life’s challenges.  It’s about the scream of the anguish of a mother giving birth and an anxious baby crying as it catches his breath for the very first time. Christmas is not about God coming in a parade but about coming and dwelling among very ordinary people like Joseph and Mary in a small barn. The spectacular power of Christmas is that God chose to live among us in a rather unspectacular way in a world where life is tenuous, health is precarious, and having a roof over your head is a gift indeed.  It makes me wonder if Charles Dickens messed up the ending of his infamous, A Christmas Carol; as it is, the ending is too neatly tied up and satisfying.  Perhaps it might have a more powerful impact if the redeemed Ebenezer Scrooge had to be the Christ to Bob Cratchit and his family while they come to grips with where God was in the midst of the darkest moments of humanity’s frailness on Christmas morning at the death of Tiny Tim. Then perhaps, we might truly understand and comprehend the profundity of gift giving on Christmas day.

The only Christmas decoration we had up this year was a little candle placed on the TV console a friend from Fort Lauderdale sent us.  The little candle’s Light was all that we needed. Christmas was different this year and I am glad; I got back to its gritty roots once more and saw the penetrating Light in a world of doubt, hopelessness and darkness.

Copyright 2017 by Patrick H. Wrisley

Wading Across the (New) River, Joshua 1.1-9

Sermon:        Wading Across the (New) River Together
Scripture:     Joshua 1.1-9
Preacher:     Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:      First Presbyterian Church of Fort Lauderdale
Date:              November 19, 2017

I just graduated high school when the love of my life broke up with me. I must have moped around for a good while because many of my good friends just shook their head at me and said, “Wrisley, get over it! Just go and ask someone out for crying out loud!”

So, I did.

She was a pretty girl. A blind date someone set me up on.  I go to her house and knock on the door and the potentially new Mrs. Wrisley opened it up and began snickering at me as I handed her a flower in a vase. Now I can say for all guys out there, this is not the greeting one wants to have on a blind date! I looked at her quizzically and said, “What are you laughing at!?”  She composed herself and said, “Oh I’m sorry; you’re just so, so short; I thought you’d be taller!”  I put on a fake smile and looked at her 6’ 2” foot-tall frame and thought to myself, “Just shoot me now.”

I take her to a nice dinner and a movie at this large mall in Atlanta called Phipps Plaza. As we were about to go down the escalator she paused and said, “Let me go first and you go behind me; you will look taller.”  Fake smile again. Going down I thought to myself, “Wonder if anyone would notice if I just pushed her just a little bit?”  Don’t worry.  I didn’t. I didn’t know much about the dating scene at the time but one thing I did know: She was NOT going to be the future Mrs. Wrisley!

So here we are – you and me. This date has been arranged and we’ve agreed to meet. The door has opened up and now we are staring facing one another. I look at you and see you’re a beautiful expression of the Bride of Christ and you may be looking at me going, “He’s so, so short! I thought he’d be taller!”  I hope not. The last time I heard that, the date did not go so well.

New beginnings can be awkward at first. Will we like each other?  Will we speak the needed love languages to one another? We may ponder, “Can I trust this person to stand beside me through thick and thin?”  All of these are natural questions for us to have of one another. Well, this morning’s scripture Story is one that paints a picture of a new leader taking the reins of a community and this new leader follows in the shadow of someone who had some mighty large shoes to fill!

Turn in your Bible to Joshua 1.1-9.  Our Story is picking up immediately after the great leader, Moses, has died.  Moses.  The Moses. The “I’m going to get in the face of Pharaoh Moses.”  The parting of the Red Sea Moses.  The beholding the Holy One in the burning bush Moses.  The Moses who led this loosely knit band of Hebrews through the desert for forty years and has brought the people to what is today’s Jordan on the eastern side of the Jordan river just north of today’s Dead Sea. Now God immediately taps Joshua on the shoulder and says, “Ok son, you’re it.”

“Me?” we can hear Joshua mutter. And God’s answer is “Yup, you.”  Our scripture this morning is God’s answer to Joshua’s questions of “You want me to do what, God?”  Hear the Word of the Lord!

Joshua 1.1-9

1After the death of Moses the servant of the Lord, the Lord spoke to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ assistant, saying, 2“My servant Moses is dead. Now proceed to cross the Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the Israelites. 3Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you, as I promised to Moses.4From the wilderness and the Lebanon as far as the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites, to the Great Sea in the west shall be your territory. 5No one shall be able to stand against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you. 6Be strong and courageous; for you shall put this people in possession of the land that I swore to their ancestors to give them.7Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to act in accordance with all the law that my servant Moses commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, so that you may be successful wherever you go. 8This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth; you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it. For then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall be successful. 9I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”[1]

Did you notice what God does and does not tell Joshua?

God does not tell Joshua to go on retreat and think about it.  God does not tell Joshua to form a committee and talk about it. God does not tell Joshua to rehash the last forty years of history – all the good and all the bad and tragedy they’ve gone through in the past. God tells Joshua and the people pretty much the same thing Jesus tells the disciples in Matthew 28 at the Great Commission.  The first word out of Jesus’ mouth is, “Go!”  It seems that God’s strategy is pretty basic and consistent throughout history. God tells the leaders and the people to get up and go. So, let’s briefly look at what God is telling Joshua and Hebrews. He gives them two commands and a promise.

The first command he gives Joshua, as well as the people, is to go forth but be strong and courageous!  God says this in rapid-fire staccato fashion three times in three verses. For Joshua, he must be wondering if he will be able to pull it off. He wonders, “Will I have the moxie and giftedness to provide for this community as Moses did? Will God provide mighty wonders and signs through me as he did with Moses?  Will God make good on his promises to the people through little old me?  And God replies, “be strong and courageous for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go!”

Yet, the community of Hebrews had their own issues going on, too! They were wondering, “Can Joshua pull it off like Moses did?”  They are also wondering, “Will God perform signs and wonders through this guy Joshua like Moses did when we got into dire straits in the wilderness?”  They wonder if God will accompany them as they march west into the Land of Canaan or will they have to venture on their own. And God replies, “be strong and courageous for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go!”

Let’s face it:  there are haunting realities in the past of this community of faith that have been difficult for you, the members of First Pres. The numbers if the church pews here have, like the Hebrews going through the desert, have been thinned over the years. The remnant who are left wonder if this short, stocky guy can pull it off! As your possible new pastoral leader, I shake in my boots with regards to that history as well, your expectations, and the opportunities before this church; I know that I will have to earn my trust from you and to prove my commitment the cause and God’s Missio Dei, God’s mission, through this place. Each of us come with our own hopes, fears, and dreams. But here we are today.  God telling me, God asking you, to walk with one another and together wade into the river crossing to the other side. And what does God say to you and me? “Be strong and courageous for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go!”

Yet, there is another command God gives Joshua and the people. God says, “Act in accordance with the Law…Do not turn from it to the right or to the left…and meditate on day and night.”  This command is not a command demanding that we drop everything and return to some form of spiritual or theological fundamentalism; God’s command is one that is reminding Joshua and his community to be laser-focused on the one necessary thing: The way of life grounded and grown in the soil of God as opposed to the soil of culture or personal self-interest.  You see, God knows all too well how the people felt that they knew better than God with how to relate with one another and to the world.  They heard Moses talk about the Ten Suggestions as opposed to the Ten Commandments and by confusing what they heard, they made a pluperfect mess of things.  Even Aaron, who was a good enough guy as far as it goes, felt the need to give into the pressure of the people and let them make a golden calf while Moses was taking a long time up on the mountain with the Lord.  The Law of God is not to be some lugubrious weight to carry in order to be loved by God; the Law is meant to be the way for the people and her leadership to keep laser-focused on God’s love relationship with them.

I love how verse 8 says, “You shall meditate on it day and night.”  With all the new popularity of meditation these days, we think it to mean to enter into a Zennish form of no mind or Buddhist Nirvana. The Hebrew word for meditation is the same word that is used to describe a lion standing guard over her prey while making guttural roaring noises.  For us, the connotation of meditation is that we are to stand guard over the laws and ways of God and do all we can to keep them safe.  It means reading them.  It means studying them.  It means ruminating over them like a cow chews her cud over and over and over again.  For Christ-Followers, that ultimate commandment is to love the Lord our God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. And where do we go to become bathed in that message?  The scriptures! My prayer is that we will become a congregation of who falls in love with Scripture all over again so that we will learn how to be the hands and feet of Christ in this broken and hurting world! It’s a call our early Reformers cried out in the 16th Century; the cried, “Ad fontes!” – Return to the Source, the spring of life found in the Scriptures!

The first command God gives Joshua and the people is this: Be strong and courageous; no fear for I am with you wherever you go!  The second command God give Joshua and the people:  Keep focused on my Scriptures and let them become a part of who you are!  And it’s at this point we come to the promise in our Story.

Note with me verse three. The way it is written should cause us pause because this verse is clearly the promise God has waiting for the called community and for First Pres Fort Lauderdale.  It reads, “Every place the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you, as I promised Moses.”  Hear that again:  Every place the sole of your foot will tread upon (that’s future tense), I have already given you as I promised Moses (that’s past tense).  Can you hear what God is promising?  He’s telling Joshua and the misfit Hebrews to wade across the river to the other side and claim all God has had waiting for them!  The deal is to be strong and courageous and keep focused on God’s ways and plans!  If we do that, it will be like finding a ruby under every rock in a North Carolina mountain stream! All we have to do is go and start flipping over some rocks!

Beloved, I humbly come before you today. I’m definitely no Moses and not a Joshua either.  I’m just a short stocky guy who rides a Hog who loves Jesus and is passionate about telling others about him.  Why are Kelly and I here today with you?  Because like you, we are standing on the banks of the Jordan, or in this case, the New River, and we look across wondering what God has waiting for us over there.  It will require us to step out together in faith. It will require us to trust one another and display courage and strength.  It will require us to focus on the ways and character of God through the scriptures as opposed to the cacophony of the surrounding culture.  Kelly and I are here today saying we are willing to make the sacrifice to get wet and wade across the river you.  Now it’s up to you.  Personally, I hope we will cross that river together and claim the promises of ministry that God already has waiting for us.  And all of God’s people say, Amen.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
pwrisley@drew.edu
Wrisley.org

© 2017 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church of Fort Lauderdale, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission. All rights reserved.

[1] The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Commitment Sunday: Hilarious Giving!, 2 Corinthians 9:6-15

Sermon:          Giving Hilariously         
Scripture:       2 Corinthians 9.6-15
Preacher:        Dr. Patrick H. Wrisley
Location:         First Presbyterian Church
Occasion:        Commitment Sunday
Date:                 November 12, 2017

2 Corinthians 9.6-15

                   6The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. 7Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. 9As it is written, “He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.” 10He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. 11You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; 12for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God. 13Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others, 14while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you. 15Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift![i]

Once upon a time, there was a Priest, a Presbyterian minister and a Rabbi who walk into a bar and they begin talking with each other.  The Rabbi posed an interesting question for their little theology-on-tap session.  He asked, “What do you think our congregants would say about each of us as they walk by our open casket at our own funeral?”

The Priest, dear Father O’Malley said, “I hope they would say I was a caring parish priest who devotedly led his people in Mass and was there to support them all the days of their life.”

The minister, Pastor Nancy said, “When my people walk by, I hope they would say she lived her faith consistently both at home and at church, that she was a good mother and wife, and that she was dedicated to preaching the Gospel with passion and intelligence.”

The Rabbi listened intently and thought over the question he and Pastor Nancy and declared, “Well!  When my people walk by me at my funeral, I want to hear them say, ‘Look!  He’s moving!’”

Let me ask you this my beloved, what is it that you want to hear folks say about you at your funeral?  Many of us have been to a funeral before and we will hear eulogies, i.e. words spoken by friends and loved ones of the deceased expressing gratitude and admiration for the one who has died.  Well, let me let you in on a little secret:  Our word for eulogy comes from the ancient root of the word generosity!  That’s right!  Eulogia means to praise or invoke a blessing.

Paul has been going on and on about the Macedonian church’s rich generosity in chapters 8 and 9 of 2 Corinthians; in fact, eulogia, generosity, is used four times in our nine verses this morning. It makes me want to ask, “What type of generosity do we want to be known by? What type of eulogy can be delivered by our giving? Are we generous or tight-fisted sowers of God’s gifts?”

Author William R. Phillippe relates the story of a plane crash in Charlotte years ago.  He writes, “When the landing gear of US Airways Flight 479 collapsed and the crew ordered an evacuation down the emergency slides, almost half the passengers reacted by grabbing for their carry-on luggage…one man grabbed two bags. Another struggled with a large bag.  A woman blocked the aisle struggling to get a garment bag out of an overhead bin.”[ii]

A woman blocked the aisle preventing an emergency evacuation of a crashed plane as she struggled to remove a garment bag from the overhead bin.  It’ll make you think twice as you sit down in your airline seat, won’t it?  But are we really that different?  Don’t we cling to our money and possessions as tightly as this woman clings tightly to her garment bag?

This is what Paul was chiding the Corinthian church about when he keeps telling them, “You reap what you sow!”  In other words, it’s easy Corinthian church to talk a big game about how you’re planning to give but it’s another thing to give to the poor in Jerusalem like you promised you would and make good on your promises. Paul is telling them that any farmer worth her or his salt is not going to spend all that time in preparing the field, clearing out the rocks and weeds, furrowing the ground, only to toss a few seeds into the ground.  Why go through all that effort only to drop a few seeds and glean a meager, thin crop?  No, a farmer tends to the field in order to plant as much seed as he or she can in order to gather the highest yield possible.

And then Paul moves his argument to another level – one which he has mentioned in chapter 8 and now again in a direct imperative:  Each person should give what he or she has decided in their heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion (vs. 7).  Yes, the Macedonian church has given proportionately higher than their big city First Church cousin in Corinth.  Yes, the Macedonians gave above what they were asked and then sacrificially gave even beyond their means.  But no, Paul wasn’t holding the Corinthian Church to the same high sacrificial level.  He was telling them to give what they could out of the means they had.

The words he uses in verse seven are revealing.  First, he tells them not to give reluctantly.  The word Paul uses here is used to describe someone who is in mourning over a loss through grief. It has the connotation of deep heaviness, sorrow, and pain. Yet, it can also mean to cause someone annoyance. I’ve known many people over the years who get very annoyed when the preacher starts talking about money and giving the two times a year we do it!  Second, Paul tells them not to give under compulsion.  In other words, it’s not like tax imposed by the government or tariff charged by a provider. The gift is not to cause distress or put the giver in hard straits. The gift is not to be given out of necessity resulting from guilt-laden “shoulds” and “ought’s.”

Sadly though, this how many in the church hear the words about giving. People get annoyed when the Preacher or church talks about money. We think all this money-talk is nothing more than about guilt-inducing “should” and “ought’s” and we have divorced it from the second part of the verse which declares, “For God loves a cheerful giver.”

Another way to translate that verse is, “For God loves a person who gives hilariously.”  The word we translate ‘cheerful’ is the same word we get our English ‘hilarious’ from.  It seems we’ve been missing the point, my beloved!

We’re not to give out of heavy guilt.

We’re not to give that will cause us distress or dire straits.

We’re not to give with guilt-induced “should” and “outght’s.”

No, we’re called to give hilariously! We’re to give cheerfully and joyfully!

Think for a moment of the last time you really let it go and laughed becoming totally one in the moment. Think of the time you just were so overwhelmed with joy that you bent over grabbing your knees or held your chest and couldn’t stop laughing.  When was the last time you were overcome with such unbridled joy that your eyes welled-up with tears from a deep sense of well-being and joy?  This is what Paul is talking about.  This is the type of giver God has dreams about.  Please notice I didn’t say, “This is the type of GIFT God dreams about” but rather, “This is the type of GIVER God dreams about.”

Think about that moment you felt unbridled joy and hilarity for a moment.  In that moment, we lose thought of everything else except for the reason that caused us joy.  Our body is loose, our hands are open.  We are relaxed and receptive. We cease thinking of ourselves and simply revel in the moment of joy.  We delight in something that was said or done to or with us. What a model for giving, eh?

When we give cheerfully, hilariously, joyfully, we develop an attitude about giving we’ve never had before.  We cease giving out of guilt. We cease giving out of annoyance.  Yes, when we give cheerfully and hilariously we give with our hands open realizing all we have is God’s anyway.  We are relaxed about our giving because our faith tells us that God will not disappoint us.  We cheerfully sow our gifted seeds because we know that the fruit of the crop of faithful stewardship we’ve planted will make God have joy, delight, and laugh with hilarity as He sees how those gifts compassionately help others. God will fall over Himself laughing with joy as He feels our joyful gratitude for the faith we’ve shown in Him because we are tossing seed everywhere to bless others in His Name.  Hilarious giving isn’t so much what we do; rather, it reflects who we are at our core being and is a mirror of how much allegiance and faith we really have in God.

Beloved, when we give, we are not giving to budgets as that is not what our Lord has in mind.  Giving cheerfully, joyfully, hilariously to God is a testament to our gratitude for all God has done for us. When we give to budgets grounded in guilt and duty, we are not giving cheerfully.  When we give to the missional work of God’s church in a spirit of joy and cheerfulness, then our giving has become a lifestyle reflecting who each of us are in the center heart.

How do you know if you’re giving hilariously or not?  If you understand your Estimate of Giving cards to be “Thank You” notes to our Lord for all he has done for you, then you get it and cheerful, hilarious giving is now a part of your lifestyle.

Let’s make today a celebration of all God has done, is doing, and will yet do in and through you and through this great church!

Dr. Patrick H. Wrisley
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
724 North Woodland Boulevard
DeLand, FL 32724
Wrisley.org

© 2017 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission. All rights reserved.

[i] New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org
[ii] William R. Phillippe, A Stewardship Scrapbook (Louisville: Geneva Press, 1999), 124.  Accessed from www.homileticsonline on November 9, 2008.

The Attitude for Giving: 2 Corinthians 8:1-9

Sermon:          Today, Tomorrow, Together – The Attitude for Giving
Scripture:        2 Corinthians 8.1-9
Preacher:        Dr. Patrick H. Wrisley
Location:         First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date:                November 5, 2017

You may listen to the Sermon here.

My beloved, this morning we are going to look at one of the dirty words you can’t say in church.  Last February, we spent time looking at the first dirty word people don’t like speaking in church and that was the E-Word: Evangelism.  This morning we are going to begin a two-week look at two other dirty words for many in the Church: S and M – Stewardship and money!  Christian stewardship is a Christian practice that has brought much conversation and strife in the life of the Christian church for the last 2,000 years. People typically hate it when the proverbial pledge season arrives.  “My money is my business.”  “The church is always asking for money.”  “Why can’t we focus on the real Gospel message?”  Well, the reality is, money isn’t your business, it’s God’s business! Our finances are a deeply spiritual issue.  The fact our giving is $53,000 below budget is a spiritual issue. The church will always raise the need for funds because it’s about the Missio Dei, the mission of God, in the world.  The what and how Christ-followers relate to their money is a deeply spiritual issue as it is one of the measures of our fidelity to God.

We’re going to spend the next two weeks in the book of 2 Corinthians spending time in it to determine a biblical understanding of money and our relationship to it both personally and corporately as a Body of Christ.  Go ahead and turn to 2 Corinthians 8.1-9.

Corinth is located on an isthmus and is a strategic crossroads for both land and sea; as such, it was an active commercial center.  One could make the comparison that the Corinthian church was what we would call the large, more prosperous downtown church as compared to the small, often poorer churches in the small towns and byways like the churches in the backwater areas of Macedonia.  It was a church whose members had heard of Paul’s list of spiritual gifts as outlined in 1 Corinthians 12 and 13.  The members of the Corinthian churches seemed to be the movers and shakers of the day – gifted with the gifts of deep faith, of wise Christian rhetoricians, of intelligently gifted people whose very intellects raised them in social status in comparison to the masses.

It’s a church that knew it had resources and it openly declared it wanted to share those resources with other Christians.  Sadly though, the adage that the road to hell is paved with good intentions comes into play.  Their talk of a pledge campaign to help the poor in Jerusalem hadn’t materialized into results.  So, Paul sends Titus on a couple of trips to make sure the Corinthians are going to make good on their promises of support for the poor.  This is where we pick up in the story.

As we listen to this text I’d like for us to keep author Timothy Bagwell’s words in mind.  He says, “Jesus avoided conversations that tried to persuade by analyzing fine points of the law.  Rather, Jesus helped people picture the Kingdom of God, and he incited them to see themselves in the picture.”[1]  So my beloved, listen to the Word of the Lord and see yourself in this picture!

2 Corinthians 8.1-9

             And now brothers and sisters, we want you to know about the grace that our God has given the Macedonian churches.  Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in a rich generosity.  For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability.  Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints.  And they did not do as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God’s will.  So we urged Titus, since he had earlier made a beginning, to bring also to completion this act of grace on your part.  But just as you excel in everything – in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us – see that you also excel in this grace of giving.

            I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others.  For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes, he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.[2]

So, my friends, where do we see ourselves in this picture?  Where do we see First Presbyterian Church?  I’ve been mulling over this text and the picture that I see Paul painting in the first nine verses is the biblical attitude Christ-followers and churches are to have with respect to giving.  Let’s walk through our text and highlight three attitudes presented in the text.

The first giving attitude is found in verses 2 and 3:  We’re to give what we have and not what we don’t. Ironically, Paul uses the smaller, poorer churches as the bar to measure the generosity of the larger churches like Corinth. The Macedonian churches were small, they were steeped in gross poverty but they possessed something the big city/suburban Corinthian church didn’t have:  A joyful spirit of giving that poured forth rich generosity.   I find it interesting that their joy is directly related to their giving habits.  Though they didn’t have much but they gave from what they had.  The Macedonian churches had heard how the Corinthians had decided to make a pledge and then take up an offering for the Jerusalem poor. The Macedonians wanted to join with the Corinthians in making a gift as well to show their gratitude to God. The Macedonians were under no illusion that their gift could match what the richer, larger Corinthian church could provide but what they lacked in amount was made up from their liberality.  Their liberality with what they had produced an exuberant joy in them. It wasn’t the amount that gave them joy – they gave what they had according to their means; rather, it was their commitment and making good on that commitment that brought the Macedonians overflowing joy.

My friends, let’s all of us give from what we have and not from what we don’t.  This year, Paul reminds every single one of us to come together to make a difference with what we have. It is not fair to those who are sacrificially giving to bear the entire burden of bestowing generosity to others for God when each of us has a responsibility to take part in it.  Even the widow gave a simple mite and it was counted to her as righteousness.[3]  Beloved, all of us are called to give from what we have and not from what we don’t. That’s not the Preacher talking, it’s Paul my Beloved.

The second giving attitude is found in verse 4:  A giving spirit begins with a personal enthusiastic desire to give as opposed to giving with a spirit of guilt. We read how the Macedonians, entirely on their own volition, pleaded and begged for the privilege of giving. Pleaded to give.  Begged to give.  The members of the church pleaded and begged to give.  That’s the sweetest music a pastor would love to hear!  How’s that for an attitude for Christ-Followers to have?

What would the Kingdom be like in West Volusia County and beyond if members of this congregation enthusiastically begged and pleaded, not for the chance to give but for the privilege, the privilege to give to the work of God through this congregation!  Beloved, if God saw that everyone in this church was faithfully giving what we each had no matter how little or much that is, God would see in us as a congregation an eagerness for the Kingdom and a dynamic demonstration of our faith.  If we witnessed to God in this way, God will throw open the floodgates of heaven in order that we might be blessed to be a blessing to others.

The third giving attitude we learn of is found in verse 5: The first act of giving is to give our very selves totally to the Lord. Why would Paul include this?  You would think it would be an obvious issue to folks.  “Of course, Paul, I’ve given myself to the Lord that’s why I’m giving through the Church!”  Paul replies to the Corinthians, to us, “Really? You haven’t made good on your pledge yet!”

Paul reminds the Corinthians how the Macedonian giving was a natural overflow of their commitment to the Lordship of Christ.  The first century Christian understood Lordship in ways we don’t.  We give our leaders ‘votes’ but we don’t pledge our lives to them. I don’t think any of us in this room would pledge our very lives to our President and Congress at the moment! You see, pledged lives are what the Lord requires.  When we say, Jesus is Lord, it means we hand over everything to him – our lives, our families, our jobs, our finances, our talents and spiritual gifts.  When we say, Jesus is Lord, we sign the deed of everything we own and hand it all over to him.  It’s no longer ours; we sign it back over to God.

But American Christ-Followers like the concept of Jesus as Savior more than Jesus as Lord.  We want to be saved.  We want to go to heaven.  We want to have our prayers heard and answered.  We want to be delivered from hardship.  We want all the benefits of our Divine Life Savings policy.   But we fail to remember the Lordship part.  We make Jesus’ Lordship provisional depending upon our circumstances or convenience.  We forget that our Lord doesn’t understand provisional lordship and is grossly puzzled why we do.

Paul and church leaders from time immemorial have heard statements like, “I don’t like the pastor so I’m not going to give.”  “I’ll simply give of occasional volunteer time in lieu of any money.”  “I don’t like the ministries we support so I’m not going to give.”  “I’m sick of money talk so I’m just not going to give.”

Whenever Jesus, not Paul, not me, hears these arguments, the Lord says deep in himself, “Don’t they realize they’re not holding out on my church but they’re cheating me!  They’re withholding from their Lord!”

Beloved, our heart, life, body, soul, checkbook, house, car, children, job, boat, motorcycle, jet ski, hunting gear, or cabin are turned over to Christ’s care and use when we profess him Savior and Lord.  The beauty of it is that when we realize it’s all the Lord’s, we relate to all those items differently.  We realize we’re Jesus’ stewards of the blessings we have been given from our checkbook, house, car, children, job, boat, motorcycle, jet ski, hunting gear, or cabin and invest them and in them, not for ourselves, but for our Lord.[4]

Biographer Evan Thomas notes in his biography of Robert Kennedy that Kennedy grew up living the life of a privileged child of wealth.  He rarely carried cash but relied on those in his entourage to pick up his tabs.  One day, Robert went to the Catholic Church for Mass.  When the offering plate came by, Kennedy looked at his friend who tossed in a $1.00 bill into the plate on Kennedy’s behalf.  Kennedy leaned over and whispered, “Don’t you think I’d be more generous than that?”[5]

You got to love it! What if we were to place ourselves in a similar situation like Kennedy and we asked the person next to us to place an offering into the plate on our behalf? What if we asked the person next to us to fill out our Estimate of Giving and pledge card for us? How much would he or she put in for you based on their understanding of your generosity?  Interesting question, isn’t it?

Beloved, remember: All Jesus asks is that we treat him though he was really our Lord and eagerly seek ways to invest his money that we have been entrusted with.  My prayer is that we as a church, and each of us as Christ-Followers, will gain a Macedonian spirit of giving.  And all of God’s people said – Amen!

Dr. Patrick H. Wrisley
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
724 North Woodland Boulevard
DeLand, FL 32724
wrisley.org

© 2017 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission.   All rights reserved.

[1] Timothy Bagwell, Preaching for Giving: Proclaiming Financial Stewardship With Holy Boldness (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1993), 55.

[2] Scripture is taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.  I added sisters for inclusivity.

[3] See Mark 12.41-44.

[4] There are two more attitudes of giving in our text today. The fourth attitude from verse 7 is:  Our giving is a spiritual gift that God expects us to use.  The fifth attitude is in verses 8 and 9: Giving of our financial means is a tangible expression of love expressed through the Church for the benefit of others.

[5] Evan Thomas, Robert Kennedy: His Life (Touchstone Books, 2002).  Accessed from HomileticsOnline on 11/5/08 at http://www.homileticsonline.org.

Walking into the Future Facing Backwards is a Dangerous Thing to Do!, Philippians 3:4b-14

Sermon:          Walking Into the Future Facing Backwards is a Dangerous Thing to Do!
Scripture:        Philippians 3:4b-14
Preacher:        Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:         First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date:                  October 8, 2017

You may listen to the sermon by clicking here.

There was a time in my ministry when I used to go to pastoral conferences but the same thing happened over and over again and I got tired of going.  You see, when you go a pastor’s conference you run into a bunch of other pastors which is not a bad thing, mind you, but then it begins to become all types of competition in the breakout sessions.  You introduce yourself and they do the same.  It immediately begins to devolve into some form of Freudian competition where he or she begins to brag about their church and its ministries, its size, and how impressive a pastor they are.  It got to be very old and I quit going to them.

This is what Paul is dealing with in the Philippian church, too.  There were people who were emerging as bigger, better, more theologically and doctrinally correct than Paul, or so they claimed.  They began to call into Paul’s credentials and credibility and Paul, and I can see his head and closing his eyes with a sigh, has to produce his resume and curriculum vitae. This leads to our text this morning.  Turn in your Bible to Philippians 3 beginning with the latter part of verse 4.  Hear the Word of the Lord!

Philippians 3:4b-14

4If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 

7Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. 10I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 12Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.[1]

Paul is not preaching some prosperity gospel that if you live a good life or a certain type of life you will be blessed by God with material riches; on the contrary, he is reminding the people that the true path to God is by following Christ Jesus’ example. It’s not about living a life that follows every jot and tittle of the Law to complete some Divine scorecard; no, it’s about giving up one’s position of power and privilege to become a servant of the Master. It’s about cutting all cords to what we think is owed to us by others or society in general and rely on the gracious provision of God. It requires a Christ-Follower to make ethical and moral choices in a world where morals and ethics are now based on how a person personally feels at the time in how their behaviour or attitudes affect them over and against how their behaviour and attitudes affect others. Living as a Christian requires us to turn around and walk against the flow of the crowds indicating we are different and are heading to a better destination. He is telling them that to pledge one’s life and allegiance to Christ Jesus means one must rely completely on God’s grace and mercy as opposed to one’s own merits in living a “good life.” Paul then goes on to tell the church the only way they as a congregation and as individual believers can accomplish this shift; it’s a shift that will not be easy. Look at verses 13 and 14.  Paul says,

13Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Forgetting what lies behind.  What did that mean for Paul? In his day, “to forget”, meant to release something or someone to oblivion. A few years ago, a movie was released with George Clooney and Sandra Bullock called Gravity. The story revolves around what happens when astronaut crew members on a space-walk outside of the International Space Station encounter a large asteroid shower pummeling the space station.  The space station begins to disintegrate and the only remaining survivors, Bullock and Clooney of course, tether themselves together as they float off into oblivion, total silence and nothingness.  This is what Paul is talking about.  When he says he is forgetting everything that lies behind him, he is saying that he cuts it off into oblivion, nothingness, lost.

He is a member of God’s chosen people, the Israelites.  It matters little to him now.

He is born from the tribe of Benjamin.  In Paul’s mind, so what?

He is a Hebrew of Hebrews. He cuts it off into oblivion.

He is a Pharisee, a scholar and strict follower of the Torah, the Law. It means absolutely nothing to him and its cast into oblivion.

He is passionate about his Jewish faith and goes so far as to persecute who don’t follow the rules. He recasts that former passion into the opposite direction.

He is totally blameless with his following the Law and is considered righteous by every Jewish standard of the day. For Paul, it means nothing at all.

Paul goes so far as to say that not only is he forgetting all those accomplishments and his spiritual and cultural pedigree, he counts all those things as pure rubbish. Our English word ‘rubbish’ makes us think of what we find at the local dump. In Paul’s time, the word ‘rubbish’ meant human excrement. And why is he forgetting all his achievements?  First, they were his own self-righteous achievements based on the notion that, “If I do certain religious activities I will be loved by God.”  Second, Paul has come to realize salvation is a gift freely given by God and there is absolutely nothing we can do to earn it. Paul knew all his accomplishments of the past meant nothing at all compared to the high calling of Christ Jesus his Lord. Forgetting what was in the past meant that Paul had to turn around and face in an entirely different direction. He would cease ‘doing religion’ and turn in the direction of Christ Jesus to live a life of sacrificial allegiance to the Lord.  Paul discovered a vital spiritual and life principle and it’s this: You cannot walk into the future facing backwards.

Think about that for a moment. You cannot walk into the future facing backwards. Why is that? Well, imagine you and me go for a walk in downtown DeLand. Imagine the people on the sidewalk, the tables from the restaurants taking up space on the sidewalk, all the cars and intersections, not to mention the wares of the merchants positioned by opened doors and sidewalk sales. As we are about to take our first steps past Hunter’s Restaurant across Rich Avenue, I tell you, ‘Before we go any further, I need you to turn around and walk through town backwards based on what you think you remember is in the way.”  What do you think would happen as you made your way?  You will fall, trip, crash into things and people making yourself uncomfortable and the people you run into will be none-too-pleased either. What will those people yell at you as you walk into them backwards?  “Hey (insert your favourite derisive term), what are you doing walk backwards!? Turn around before you hurt yourself and somebody else!”

Walking through town facing backwards is a pretty silly and dangerous thing to do but let me let you in a little secret: All of us do that time to time in our own lives.  Instead of forgetting what lies behind, we cling to the past in unhealthy ways that inhibit our spiritual, emotional, or social growth.  Let’s look at a few examples.

Regret.  There are those people we have hurt or passed by, opportunities we have missed or ignored in the past we regret not pursuing. We get mired in, “I wish I did such-in-such back then because my life would be better now.” When we walk into the future facing backwards at our regret for what should’ve, could’ve, would’ve been or done, we miss the opportunities God has placed in front of us if we would only turn around!

Remorse. There are those moments in our lives we are locked up in remorse for what we have done or left undone in the past. Instead of swimming in the grace God bestows on us in Christ, we walk into the future facing backwards with guilt and remorse for what we did or did not do or say.

Anger.  Anger is another one of those feelings and attitudes that force us to walk into the future facing backwards. Someone or something has hurt us badly in the past; we have been emotionally, financially, or perhaps even physically violated.  We are consumed with horrible thoughts towards people who caused us this unfair pain and we seethe. The anger prevents us from developing new relationships, makes us distrustful of others, and leery of making or receiving commitments. Anger eventually turns in on itself and manifests itself as a deep-seeded depression. Walking into the future facing backwards at old anger and resentments means you are carrying a very heavy load that will cause you to miss your step and fall; all that we have to do is put the anger down and release it into forgiveness as we face forward to a lighter, brighter tomorrow.

Loss. Loss is another issue that keeps us walking into the future facing backwards. Instead of grieving and incorporating the loss into our lives, we grow sad or resentful because of it. It means seeing life as hopeless and hapless. All we have to do is turn around and walk forward and our sense of loss is bathed in the warm waters of Christ’s love and we can begin incorporating that loss into our lives resurrecting hope when there was none.

Nostalgia, also known as the “the good old days.”  The nostalgic dreaming of the good old days is a way to walk into the future facing backwards.  Nostalgia is simply a wanting to go back home or to a time that never really existed in the first place.  We create a past in our minds that help us remember redemptive and positive times.  “Oh, don’t you remember when the church did this or did that? Weren’t those days the best days of the church?”  Walking into the future facing backwards with nostalgic thinking will cause us to trip over new opportunities waiting for us in the future but we will miss them because we have fallen fanny-over-tea kettle on top of them.

The Peter-Pan syndrome.  This is a way we walk into the future facing backwards because we refuse to grow up and mature in our social, emotional, professional or spiritual lives.  Change is hard and so to escape the chipping away of old habits or ways we look at the world, we find it easier to stay stuck where we are.  We remained mired in either/or thinking, right/wrong thinking, you/me or us/them thinking instead of facing forward into the teaching of the Holy Spirit that your box, your world, your thinking is too small. Like Paul, we need to let go of the past and lean into the exciting mind and spirit-blowing power of God and see the world, people, and God with new eyes and perspectives.  This was Paul’s issue and if God can work with Paul in his stubborn ways, then there is great hope God will do the same for us!

Regret. Remorse. Anger. Loss. Nostalgia. Peter Pan syndrome.  None of these is bad in and of themselves; it’s the power they have at keeping us stuck in the past that is the problem.  What, beloved, is causing you to walk into the future facing backwards?  What do you and I need to let go of so that we can turn and walk into God’s glorious Presence in the now and in tomorrow? Let us let that question lean on us a little bit this week.

Forgetting what lies behind, let’s strain forward to the wonderful life ahead awaiting us in Christ. And all of God’s people say, Amen.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
724 North Woodland Blvd.
DeLand, Florida 32720
pwrisley@drew.edu
Wrisley.org

© 2017 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission.   All rights reserved.

[1] The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.