Monday, February 15, 2016

Sunday's Sermon – Spinning Our Story

Below is a copy of the sermon I preached on Sunday, February 14, in Cove Presbyterian Church, Weirton, West Virginia. You can also find a podcast of this sermon on The Cove Podbean page. 

If you find this sermon meaningful, please consider supporting this ministry by sending an offering to Cove Presbyterian Church, 3404 Main Street, Weirton, West Virginia or through PayPal.


Deuteronomy 26:1-11

When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.” When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.” You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.

Spinning Our Story

Well, I think we can safely say that our next presidential election has started. I mean, we’ve survived the Iowa Caucus and the New Hampshire primary. And next Sunday this time, the Democrats will have had their caucus in Nevada and the Republicans their primary in South Carolina. And this is all just a prelude to the big day, March 1, when people will either vote or caucus in thirteen different states and territories, not counting seventeen delegates that’ll be selected by Democrats who live in forty different foreign countries. And so, I think I’m safe in saying that the race for our next president is in full gear.

And you know what that means? We can expect two things. In fact, we’ve already seen both happen. I mean, one, we’re going to see candidates start dropping out, something we already witnessed with a whole bunch of Republicans biting the dust and four Democrats. And two, we’re going to get the chance to see some good, old-fashion spinning. Now I think y’all know I’m not talking about turning around really fast, although I’ve got to tell you, sometimes when politicians do it, it really makes me dizzy and a little nauseous. No, the spinning I’ve got in mind is turning bad news into something that sounds good, sort of like the candidate, I’m not going to mention his name, who said after coming in fourth in New Hampshire and who barely got over ten percent of the Republican vote and who failed to win a single county in the state; he said that he had now proven his critics wrong and that he really is a viable candidate. Now, for me, that’s some pretty good fancy spinning.

But of course, this kind of thing isn’t limited to politics. About a month ago, I saw the movie “The Big Short,” and it seems as though some banks were doing that same sort of thing right to the bitter end. And I’ll tell you, I don’t think engaging in a little spinning; well, I don’t think it’s always a bad thing. I mean, suppose you’re playing football, and your team has just gotten hammered, sort of like what happened to the Colts this year (I don’t want to talk about it.) Along with all the stuff the team must have done wrong, I think it makes a lot of sense for a coach to point out some positives, you know, as a way to keep morale up and build for the future. Good night, it can’t be all bad. And I’ve got to tell you, as a parent, I know from experience that kids do this all the time, kind of spinning the bad so that it’s not quite so bad anymore. And sometimes, well, it’s tempting to just buy what they’re selling, because let’s face it if you’re not able to see something positive, then why not just throw up your hands and give up?

And you know, think we’ve got something like that going on in the passage we just read. In other words, according to these verses, I think Moses was encouraging the people of Israel to put a little spin on their story, to reinterpret their own history so that they’d be able to do something that he considered important. I mean, just think about what’s happening here. Right before the people entered the land, Moses described a ritual that Israel should do every year at harvest time. “When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name.” In other words, once they entered their new home and started to farm the land, Moses told them to present an offering to God. And the reason for the offering, well Moses talked about that too. He said, “You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, ‘Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land  that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.’ When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God: ‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.’”

Now I think this is really interesting, because this wasn’t the only way the children of Israel could have interpreted their past. My gosh, centuries before, a famine in the land they were entering forced them to wander into Egypt, where Pharaoh used them as slaves and even killed their first born sons when he thought their population was increasing too quickly. And even after they escaped, they’d been wandering around the wilderness forty years, living on nothing but manna, water and an occasional quail. And now all they had to do was conquer a land that all but two of their spies said was inhabited by giants. This is not a happy history. And yet, Moses challenged them to look at what happened in a different way, not as a tale of pain and disappointment and struggle, but rather one of promise and presence and power. In other words, so that they could make their offering with thanks and gratitude, Moses told not only his people but future generations to reimagine, to reinterpret, to spin their story, only this time, with God at the center.

And I’m telling you something, I think we can do the exact same thing ourselves. And I believe this is as important for us as it was for them, because as we look at not just our lives, but the life of our nation and community and church, man, we don’t have to be all that creative to be negative. Good night, as I listen to people talk, plenty of folks sound like, as a country, our best days are behind us and that we’re lost unless we’re able to do the impossible and turn the clock back. And as a community, can anyone say, and talking about with a straight face, that economically we’re any where close to where we were twenty years before I came? And the church, good night nurse, I read the results of the survey. There may be people here this morning who doubt whether this congregation will be around much longer. And I haven’t even mentioned the disappointments and even decline that we all face as we pass a certain age. I’m telling you, if we want to do it, we can take our history and we can decide to focus on every reason we have to be disappointed and depressed and discouraged, and to feel helpless, hopeless and joyless. Man, we can just wallow around in negativity. And why shouldn’t we; my gosh, our story stinks and is probably going to get worse. You see, this is something we can do.

But I’m telling you right here and now, we don’t have to. We don’t have to focus on the dark side. And we don’t have to move into the future feeling misery and despair. Instead we can put a spin on our story, and I’m talking about our story as a country and community and congregation, and even our stories as men and women who’s lives have been a mixed bag of good and not so good. But let me be clear about this, I’m not talking about some kind of Polly Anna exercise in positive thinking, you know, of blocking out the bad and remembering only the good. My goodness, that’s certainly not what Moses challenged his people to do, not when he had them remember how “...the Egyptians treated [them] harshly and afflicted [them], by imposing hard labor on [them].” No, he didn’t tell them to sanitize their past and put on a pair of rose colored glasses as they looked into the future. And I’m not saying that either. I think we have to accept the past, and I’m talking about our history for what it is, which includes a lot of things that are positive and affirming and constructive, you know what I’m talking about, times and situations that we can sincerely say that God was with us and that he was blessing us. But we can also take those events and experiences that were rough and difficult, and we can choose to see God there as well, not only helping us endure but maybe giving us the insight and sensitivity to help others. Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about.

When I was in seminary, there was a guy in my class named Duncan and he had muscular dystrophy, a disease for which there is no cure. He was in a wheel chair all the time, and he knew that his life was probably going to be short. Well, one day, we were talking over at Lingle Hall, and someone asked Duncan if he’d ever considered going to a faith healer. And I remember Duncan saying something like, “No, I never have, because God has given me the opportunity to minister to people like me, people who desperately need hope. And they may never listen you, but they will listen to me.” Now, I thought that was amazing. You see, Duncan had put a different spin on his story and could see God’s promise and his presence and his power in situation that probably would have overwhelmed me.

And I’m telling you, brothers and sisters, if he can do it, so can we. And if we do, if we do what Moses told his people to do with their own history, then I believe we’ll also be able to offer our first fruits to the God who’s always been with us, through the good times and the bad, the triumphs and the trials. You see, we’ll be able to take our baskets and lay them in front of his altar with gratitude and hope and joy, because we know that regardless of what we’ve had to endure, Paul was right when he told the Ephesians that God “...has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.” And that he was also right on the mark when he said to the Romans that “...we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” I’m telling you, this is possible when we choose to reinterpret our history, our story.

Now, as it comes to the presidential election, well, paraphrasing that great American poet, Robert Frost, “we have miles to go before we sleep.” And of course that means we’ll have more candidates dropping out and so much spinning that it’ll feel like we’re on Dancing with the Stars, and that’s probably not a good thing. But I’ll tell you, as we consider our past, rather than focusing just on the negative, things that are disappointing and depressing and discouraging, you know, stuff that leaves us feeling helpless, hopeless, and joyless, instead of this being our focus, we can choose to see God’s promise and presence and power throughout our lives. And if that’s what we decide to do, we’re going to be able to approach him with gratitude and hope and joy. You see, I believe that’ll happen, when we put a little spin on our story.

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