So You Are a Late Comer? Whoop if God Chooses
Transcribed from the sermon preached August 6, 2017
The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor
Scripture Readings: Genesis 32:22-31, Romans 9:1-5, 30-33, Matthew 14:13-21,
In general there are two types of criticism. There is mean criticism intended to harm, and there is criticism as a part of evaluation to help us grow.
There are a few of us who turn any criticism into a reason to think negatively about the criticizer, or even to give it back and go after them. These folks are trying to hide a sense of inadequacy and come off as unwilling to acknowledge any weakness. They think weakness is failure and failure is deadly, so when criticism comes their way they go into fight or flight.
A bunch of us who tend toward depressive rather than narcissistic personality tend to internalize criticism easily. Brown Barr, pastor at First Congregational Church of Berkeley in the sixties and seventies and then my preaching instructor in seminary said, it is very common that when ministers get ten compliments on their sermon, and one criticism, then we focus on one negative. Brown said if the shoe fits, wear it. If it doesn’t, let it go, move on. In other words, listen to the criticism enough to see if the criticism is a legitimate one. If it is, address it. If it isn’t, let it go. And don’t forget about the compliments.
If we are looking for them, there are endless reasons to feel bad about ourselves. And if we can use some help, it is not hard to find a volunteer. A woman gave her husband a red tie and a blue tie for Christmas. One evening they were going out and the husband put on the new red tie. Upon seeing it the wife asked, “What is the matter? Didn’t you like the blue tie?” But it is also possible for us to say we feel bad as a way of getting attention. Almost every parent gets to a spot where they need some space or are busy, and so they ignore their kids. And to a greater or lesser degree the kids may learn a great way to get attention is by being annoying or getting sick or hurt. So it becomes a pattern when we feel a bit isolated to get annoying or express our pain.
But we can also train our body and mind into positive shape, and find work out coaches and partners to allow the positive power of God’s grace to empower us. The old veteran, Norman Vincent Peal, wrote, “Practice creative anticipation, the power of positive expectation; have confidence that you can draw the best not the worst to yourself.” He says, “Each of us has a big piece of good news deep within ourselves – the fact that with God’s help we have what it takes to meet all upsetting situations and act creatively to them.
In Church I have heard people offer all sorts of self-confidence and authority limiting statements. For instance, “Well, I shouldn’t get involved or offer my opinion because I am young or new, and those people have been here much longer and have more invested than me. Or, “Well, I don’t have much extra income to contribute, so I don’t have any space to say anything. And I have heard others say, well, I’m just one of the old folks you don’t really need my opinion. How about not giving up on the wrestling match? It is as easy to stereotype in church as anywhere. I remember thinking badly about myself because I didn’t think I was as faithful as another person looked to me. Then later I found the image I had of them was just an image I had created in my own head, and didn’t really reflect the whole of who that person was. They were both more and less than my original stereotype of them. Most of us tend to be a bit myopic and have a clearer, up close and personal view of our own problems and issues. Before we even come into a church we have heard the criticisms we imagine others might have of us. Maybe it is our current state of affairs has us extra sensitive. We think, oh, the rest of these people have got it altogether. They have been here so long and look so churchy, they must have God all figured out and their life and faith is a breeze. But that is just a projection; that is how we fill in the blanks before we know people. People are both more and less than the ideal or stereotype we project them to be. And if there might be one person who doesn’t like red ties and you happen to war one, there are ten others delighted and pleased by your presence and gifts and your red tie.
In general, virtually everyone I know in this congregation delights in your presence, no matter who you are, and we root for your health and success. Honor and respect our elders, root and hope in youth, celebrate diversity, work to get out of the way of our own negative opinions. There are ups and downs that have brought us to this moment, but now here we are, before God.
Jacob is a mixed bag for sure. He and his twin brother were fighting in the womb. Esau came out first with Jacob gripping his heel. Esau is the burly, manly hunter dude and Jacob is the stick around close to mom farmer guy. But he and his mom plot together, and Jacob steals his brothers blessing. Now they are grown up and Jacob has to flee for his life to his uncle Laban’s place. He falls in love with the second daughter Rachel and works for seven years and is then tricked into marrying the first born Leah first. Apparently it was dark at night before electricity and Laban gets Leah to sneak into the wedding bed. It is karma for what he did to his brother. So Jacob still wants Rachel but has to work another seven years before he can marry her too. Now with his two wives and all his helpers and stuff he is on the move again going home, but his scouts spot his brother and four hundred men. They are not coming for a friendly greeting. He splits his group into two, and then sends the group he is with across the river. Anxious, feeling guilty and distraught, he can’t sleep. Then a guy comes along and they get into a wrestling match.
The wrestling match goes on a while and Jacob at some point realizes he is wrestling with God. They go all night then God decides he is ready to stop this nonsense and dislocates Jacob’s hip. But Jacob is not letting go. Jacob insists, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” God can respect Jacob’s tenacity, and says, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob (deceiver), but Israel (strives with God), for you have striven with God and with humans and prevailed.”
There is a good message here for agnostics. Keep wrestling. Many times I have heard people say, “Well, my faith is not like the rest of the people in the church.” They say it as a self-disqualification. But almost all the time people who say this don’t know much about what others in the church believe or do not believe. It is often a projection of what they may have heard they were supposed to believe from some other church. There are more people wrestling with God than just you.
In the Religion section of the Huffington Post, 4/20/12 it was noted that Brick Johnstone (sounds like name from the Flintstones) found in a study of Buddhist meditators and Franciscan nuns that people can minimize the functioning of the right side of the brain, where self focus is located, and enhance the left side where spiritual connections are made. Johnstone says “It is like playing the piano; the more you train your brain, the more the brain becomes predisposed to piano playing. Practice makes perfect.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/20/god-spot-in-brain-is-not-_n_1440518.html dsfj
Focusing less on ourselves, our past mistakes, our relationship troubles, judging ourselves more worthy or less, focusing on God expands ourselves and frees up possibility and creative thinking. Or, to follow Jacob’s example, don’t give up the wrestling match. Don’t let someone else define God so narrowly and tightly that you give up your wrestling with Her. Now we may get annoying in our stubbornness and get our hip knocked out at some church along the way, but don’t give up. God will become more and more recognizable, though perhaps looking quite a bit differently than what we perceived him to be when we first started wrestling. Step up and stake your claim.
Now Paul is talking to two different groups in his letter to the Romans. There are those who are Jewish Christians who are the first born, the first out, the ones who get the birthright blessing. And then there are Christians who are gentiles. The newcomers and the first comers. The old guard and the new. Can they get along? Will one side feel inferior, give up and leave? Will the old folks just block every new thing, get grumpy at the new culture and say, “We’ve never done it this way before?” Will the new folks get annoyed with the old tradition and without thinking throw the baby out with the bathwater? Paul is adamantly clear: yes the Jews began this conversation and relationship with God, they have the covenant, the law, the worship and the promises, the patriarchs and Jesus was a Jew. And we cannot really understand who Jesus was without all that. But Jesus expands the covenant to include everyone who hungers and thirsts for grace and peace. It is not one or the other. It is both, together. Jesus then takes relationship with God beyond blood lines. Paul is telling both sides, don’t give up, but also, don’t be arrogant, be faithful, love and welcome one another.
How is it going to work? Can we feed everyone? There are few of us with limited talent and resource, just five loaves and two fish. Let us trust in faith – come and taste.