Friday, August 20, 2010

The Long Run

Sermon preached August 15, 2010

Texts: Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12: 49-53

Once upon a time there was a hare who considered himself the fastest creature in the forest. He challenged any other animal to a race, but no one would accept the challenge – that is, until one day a tortoise took it up. The hare taunted the tortoise. “You don’t have a chance against me. I’ll be done before you even get half way.” After the race began it seemed like the hare was probably going to be right. He sped ahead of the tortoise quickly. So confident was he in his abilities that the hare decided he had time for a snack and a nap. That was his undoing. The nap lasted longer than he thought, and the plodding tortoise finished ahead of the speedy hare.
Most of your recognize this old story from Aesop’s Fables. The moral of the story is usually stated as: “slow and steady wins the race.” A good life lesson BUT don’t you want to go fast sometimes, feel the wind in your hair (at least metaphorically). Cardboard gods is a book in which the author tells his story by reflecting on his baseball card collection from the 1970s. In one chapter, the author writes, “The point is that life is not to be methodically considered and solved like a math equation. Life… is to be sprinted toward and bungled beyond all recognition” (19).
Patience – slow and steady wins the race. Passion – life is to be sprinted toward. There is a place for both, a need for both in our lives lived with God, in our lives lived with each other in the community called the church. In the long run of life, in the long run of the journey of faith, we require both patience and passion.
The writer of Hebrews knew something about the importance of patience. He recorded a litany of names of patient people of faith. One can almost hear an early Christian sermon in his words. The lesson drawn from the stories is one of patience and perseverance. “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely; and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Patience – perseverance - - - I think we know that. We know that in our lives. Ever make a change in your life – lose weight, learn a new skill. It takes patience. While on vacation, I went golfing for the first time this summer. The first nine holes required patience, believe me. I know that if I really want to improve, I need to practice and play more, stick to it, continue to be patient. Long-term relationships, if they are to be successful, require a great deal of patience. Throughout a marriage we continue to adjust to living with a person who grows and changes, just as we grow and change. It requires patience to make it work well. Long-term friendships the same.
We know about patience in our church, too. We would not be here today if not for the patient service of countless persons through the years since 1869. I am so thankful for the great cloud of witnesses that have been a part of this congregation, and this week we are grieving the loss of one of those patient saints – Lee Amundson. In his book A Long Obedience, Eugene Peterson writes: Stick-to-it-iveness. Perseverance. Patience. The way of faith is not a fad that is taken up in one century only to be discarded in the next. It lasts. It is a way that works. (123-124)
Slow and steady wins the race. Patience. I think we know this, even though we don’t always embody it perfectly. I think we know this. I think we get this. Patience is a needed virtue for life in the long run.
What of passion? Joan Chittister uses this cryptic and difficult verse from Luke’s gospel to talk about passion and enthusiasm in life. There is so much life that is never lived because we lack the enthusiasm to live it. The problem is that I have seen apathy – that deep-down, bone-weary lethargy, that passes too often, I think, for calm – and I know that, though it is not death, it is not life either…. I’m with Jesus: I prefer fire to smoke. And God knows there is plenty of reason for fire in a world in which apathy has become both a social virtue and a contagious disease…. There is nothing in life worth doing that is not worth doing with enthusiasm. Anything else is simply a matter of going through the motions. (Living Well, 48-49, 51)
We are both drawn to and afraid of passion. That is understandable. We often associate passion with lack of control, with a lack of reflection. We have seen passionate hatred do damage to others. We have seen passionate religion used to persecute others. This week the author Anne Rice said she was quitting Christianity because it is “quarrelsome, hostile and disputatious.” Unfortunately, we know what she means. We have seen passionate politics degenerate into group think or, worse, mob violence.
But this unthinking, uncontrollable passion is not the genuine article. It is a degraded version. Genuine passion is thoughtful and reflective and can be directed. It is always in a give and take relationship with deep, reflective thinking. (Stephen Mitchell, Can Love Last, 199)
Not only can passion be deeply thoughtful, reflective and directed, it is needed in the long run of life, in the long run of the journey of faith. We need the energy of passion in our lives, in our relationships, in our church. Think of how flat life becomes when we go through periods where we are little enthused about anything. Think of how pale marriage or other relationships seem when there is little passion to draw on. Life lived together in the church needs passion in the long run, too.
Perhaps we need a new season of passion here – passion about God, Jesus, faith, church. There is reason for it. We celebrate a God whose love energizes and sustains our lives. We remember a Jesus whose wisdom, courage and love continue to enthrall and fascinate and draw us into deeper life. We are part of a faith that has guided and inspired people for centuries and while sometimes Christians have lost their way – becoming quarrelsome, hostile and disputatious, others have stayed faithful to a truer vision of life lived in relationship with God – a life of joy, genuineness, gentleness, generosity and justice. We have a community of people drawn together here for the purpose of growing as followers of Jesus Christ and making a positive difference in our world. In a world that often tells us we are valuable based only on how we look, or what we earn, or what we have – we proclaim a God who loves us as we are, who sees all we can be and desires that for us. In a world often willing to turn away from the suffering of the least, we here tune our ears to the voices of the outcast, the downcast, the left out and the left behind, knowing that they, too, are beloved by God and worthy of respect. I can get passionate about these things, how about you!?
Passion need not be loud, or raucous always, but sometimes it should be. Methodist theologian Don Sailers once said, “Whatever people can say with passion and in heightened speech they will end up singing in some form” (quoted in Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us, 205). Songs of passion should be part of our life together here – and the songs can be quiet or loud, classical, jazz, folk or rock, but we need songs of passion to energize us and sustain us for the long run.
Patience and passion – we need them both in the long run. We can generate them because the God of Jesus is a God who walks with us always. We can patiently rely on God. This God is also a God of surprise and joy – a God who evokes passion. Patience, passion – may we know both the slow and steady and the sprint of life, by the grace of God. Amen.

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