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Since I currently have several employers/supervisors/churches/etc., please know that none of the words on my blog represent them or their beliefs. This blog is my own creation.

It also does not represent my children's perspective, nor my mother's; they think I am funny, but misguided.
(Quick update: only my mother thinks I'm funny now.)

Sunday, March 17, 2013

This One Thing I Do

Artis struisvogel leest krant van oppasser
There is a reference to an ostrich in the Isaiah passage.
The congregation praised God today, making bird sounds.
No, really.
Sunday, March 17, 2013
by Katie Mulligan

Preached at West Trenton Presbyterian Church (thanks for the invite, Rev. Jim!)

Scripture Readings: Isaiah 43:16-21 and Philippians 4:3b-14

I ask your indulgence this morning. I was struck by Paul's words, "This one thing I do...I press on."  I've been sitting with it all week, and it got all tangled up with a sentence I heard in a sermon last week. I want to catch you up to my thoughts, and it will take me a minute. But I promise to return to Paul and pressing on toward the goal.

In my rounds as youth pastor for several churches, I often don't preach these days. In fact, I haven't preached since New Year's, so I've spent quite a bit of time on your side of the pulpit. You know how it is: there you are in the pews, eyes glazing over. It's been a long service already. You stood up, you sat down. You prayed, you sang. The children squirmed, there's somebody nodding off. We've made it through the announcements and the prayers, the choir, and the children's sermon. The pastor pulls out the prodigal son--an old favorite, and a story that perhaps you can say by heart. Or perhaps not--maybe it is new to you or you are new to church--I shouldn't presume, after all, that most of us have been around the church block a few times.

But, there I was, sitting in the pew. There was a restless teenager sitting next to me and squirming pre-teens behind me. We were at the end of the service and finally to the sermon when I realized it was the prodigal son story. The liturgist began to read and the teenager next to me groaned, one earbud in his right ear so his grandma on the left couldn't see it. I know the prodigal son story--heck I've preached it a gazillion times. Inwardly I groaned and fidgeted with my phone.

It's the story, you see, of that ungrateful younger son who asks for his inheritance early, takes himself off with the cash and wastes it all on loose living. In a terrible place, the son returns home to beg to be a servant, and the loving father welcomes him home as a son. Meanwhile, the elder brother stews outside the back door, furious that the younger brother gets to have his cake and eat it too. Jesus, as he does, leaves us without a resolution--no hint of reconciliation or further family conflict. The story just ends, leaving us with the familiar dilemma: are you the profligate younger brother in need of grace? Are you the angry older brother in need of grace? Do you aspire to be the father, offering Christlike forgiveness? A thousand times I've heard this story.

And then suddenly, it happened: there was a new thing said--or at least new to me. My colleague, Jan Willem at Covenant, he said, "Real trust is a gift; it cannot be earned or received."

I've been sitting with that sentence all week. I've been sitting with people troubled by that sentence all week too. How many times must we forgive our transgressor? Seventy times seventy? Ok. But if I forgive them, do I have to trust them again? Turn the other cheek? Is there a loophole?

Real trust is a gift. It cannot be earned or received. This sentence grabbed a hold of me and wouldn't let go. I emailed the pastor. I brought it to parents. I brought it to college students. We wrestled with it. A gift, not earned. Which means it's a waste of time to try to get someone to earn trust. They can't do it. Trust is a gift. Which means it's a waste of time to try to earn someone's trust. We can't do it. It must be gifted. I tell you, this sentence created havoc in my conversations this week. We all like to think we are forgiving people, but everyone I talked to had at least one person (and usually more than seven) to whom they would not gift trust again. And they all had sound, rational reasons for not trusting the scoundrels in their lives (and oh my, do I have my own untrustworthy scoundrels!).

It wasn't until Tuesday night dinner with some college students that I managed to find something redeeming in this ridiculous sentence that would not let me go. We talked amongst ourselves and once again agreed that it was a faithful thing to try and forgive and trust again after pain and hurt. And we all agreed that none of us could do this perfectly, and we supposed that that's why we need Jesus.

And then I served communion. And as I passed out the bread and the wine I remembered that Christ had passed out the bread and the wine to his own dinner companions. He shared table that night so long ago with his disciples, one of whom had already sold him out to be executed, and another who he knew later would betray him by claiming not to know him. He shared table with these people he knew would destroy his life and risk his legacy. He didn't trust them not to betray him. He trusted that God would use whatever happened to make something useful. Jesus lived a trusting life, open to betrayal, trusting that nothing could take the love of God from him. He gifted trust.

Thus says The Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the might waters...Do not consider the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing...do you not perceive it?

We get stuck in these questions, these fears, these same old stories and scripts--over and over in our lives we are hurt, betrayed, damaged. And over and over again we are faced with the question, do I trust again? Do I turn the other cheek? Has this other person earned that? Are they entitled to it?

But The Lord is about to do a new thing--do you perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. We are called to live a trusting life--trusting that we will surely be stranded in the wilderness and thirsty in the desert. But The Lord will                 make a way, and water will be found.Thus says The Lord.

I work with the youth, and so you know how that is. One week everything is fine, and then the next week somebody said something about somebody else and somebody else other than that repeated it until it got back to the person it was said about, out of context, slightly altered with a swear for Jesus that this is what so-and-so said. And suddenly, the youth group that loved each other on Thursday hates each other by Tuesday. Just like the early church the different camps form--don't you remember those high school cliques? And so on Wednesday we scrapped all of our youth group plans, and we spent an hour and a half affirming one another. No nasty words permitted. No passive aggressive nonsense. Just honest, loving words. We set it up so people who didn't know each other or didn't like each other would have to find something good to say. They had to toast one another with a cup of water. They had to hold hands. They had to hug at the end.

It isn't perfect. Somebody still said something, and somebody still passed it on, and several somebodies (including me) overreacted, and you can't go back in time. We didn't try to pretend everything is fixed. But I watched students think long and hard about who to affirm and how to affirm someone who had hurt them, and I saw some of the smaller wounds heal. Will they trust one another again? I hope they will trust each other to be imperfectly untrustworthy. And I hope they will trust God to make something of our mess.

The question isn't, '"Will I trust Joe or Carlos or Susan or Selma after they beat me, cheat me, rob, leave me?" The question is, "Will I trust God that this life has meaning?" The question isn't, "How can I avoid the desert?" For none of us can. The question is, "Where do I look for the water?"

Paul wrote to the community at Philippi from prison, locked away because his wandering preaching and community organizing made authorities nervous and uncomfortable. The community had sent him one of their own to visit him in prison, and he sent back this letter, admonishing them to be one with one another--to trust one another. There were deep divisions in the community; anger and mistrust had built up between leaders at Philippi.

Paul opens this paragraph with a plea to two of the leaders to be reconciled and to be of one mind. If any of you think you are all that, he says, I am all that and a bag of chips. I was circumcised according to the law. I am of the tribe of Benjamin, for goodness sake. I am a scholar, well versed in the law. I persecuted heretics--as was proper. I was a righteous man. Of any of you, he seems to say, I have earned trust, love, and authority in this community.

And yet.

And yet, trust is a gift, not earned. The cross was a gift, not earned. Christ ate with his betrayers, knowing their actions would lead to his death and disgrace. Christ stepped into death, knowing most would not understand or care. Knowing that individual members of his family and friends could not be trusted to act in good faith, Christ nevertheless kept hold of a broader vision and trusted God to make something worthwhile out of the mess that was brewing. And so, in the face of betrayal, he passed the bread and blessed them. And blessed us!

Paul writes further that all his efforts toward righteousness, toward earning trust and love and faith, are nothing. He has lost everything--he sits in prison, probably betrayed by somebody to get him there. But he counts that all as nothing, looking only to the gift of trust Christ gave us. God will make something worthwhile out of our difficult, untrustworthy lives. Betrayal abounds, and God's trust prevails. We can move forward---we can press on toward the highest goal, without waiting for others to earn our trust. We do not have to jump through anybody's hoops to earn their trust in order to be good with God. Knowing that Christ walked ahead of us, we can live a life of trust.

Will you be robbed or beaten or left or cheated? Probably, at some point.Probably you already have been if you're older than 10. Do you have to loan your money to Uncle Bob or Aunt Sloan after they spent it on drugs or gambling or an X-box? Well, no. You can, it's your money. But more important is whether we allow these betrayals to stop us in our tracks. Will we be sidetracked by conflict, unable to live out the gospel, unable to serve one another, because we are angry with one another?

Paul, who has every reason to be angry and bitter and resentful and stuck, Paul urges the community forward. Whatever has been done in the past, remember what is to come in the future. Recommending to the Philippians that they give their lives over to trusting God, he says with characteristic self-deprecation:

Not 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. Beloved, 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, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.


We cannot earn God's trust: it is a gift. God does not bother jumping through our hoops to earn our trust: God moves forward and waits for us to gift it. I have not figured this whole thing out yet, says Paul, but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on. I press on.

May we, each of us, find the strength and courage to say, "this one thing I do: I press on toward the goal."

 

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