Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Sunday's Sermon - Foam Fingers and a Wooden Cross

Below is a copy of the sermon I preached on Sunday, May 28, in Cove Presbyterian Church, Weirton, West Virginia. You can hear a podcast of the sermon on the Cove Presbyterian Podbean page. You might also want to visit the congregational website (covepresbyterian.org) for more church information.

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.

Now I assume everybody has seen those big foam fingers. And even though they come in all kinds of sizes and shapes, the classic design is the index finger pointed up. And even if it’s not printed on the part that goes on the hand, the meaning is both clear and universal. Of course, they didn’t have them when I was a kid. I mean, when we went to a game, all we could do was to stand and shout, but now we have this huge finger to show where we stand. And we can wave it back and forth with all the other fingers in the stands so that it looks a little like waves on the ocean or those strips that go back and forth in a carwash. And I’ll tell you, the score is irrelevant. When people see all those foam fingers sticking up like stalks of corn in a field, they immediately know what we think of our team. And who cares that the guy behind us gets really annoyed, because he doesn’t want to have his view blocked by this up-cropping of polyurethane. It’s worth it just to announce to the world that “we’re number one.” “We’re number one.” “We’re number one.”

And you know, when you think about it, I believe this foam finger and the one-ness it represents, man, I believe that would probably be a pretty accurate image for our culture. I mean, isn’t that what we’re all suppose to want, you know, to be first, to come out ahead of the others, man, to be number one? And when that’s our attitude, we’re showing excitement aren’t we: excitement in our sports teams and excitement in our country pride and excitement in our school, in fact, excitement in whatever it is we support. I’ll tell you, it’s kind of got that “love it or leave it” feel to it. As a matter of fact, I can’t think of many things more exciting than waving around that foam finger and letting people know exactly who’s first.

And you know, when you get right down to it, why shouldn’t this kind of focus on the number one, man, why shouldn’t it be exciting? I mean, when we do this kind of thing, our minds are directed in the most exciting, the most thrilling, the most amazing direction possible, because it’s focused right on ourselves, isn’t it; and I’m talking about on our team or our nation or our school. It’s on what we think and on what we value and on what we want. It’s about being the best and brightest, and the first and foremost, and the one and only. And why is that our focus? That’s easy, because we really want to believe that we’re number one. And we’ve got a foam finger to prove it. Of course, it also means that everyone and everything else is, at best, secondary, you know, number two or lower. But who cares? Not us, I mean, not if our focus is on ourselves.

And I’ll tell you, to take this kind of perspective, man, it demands almost no effort at all. In fact, looking after and taking care of number one, that’s as natural as cooking out on Memorial Day or President Trump tweeting or Cleveland and Golden State playing in the NBA finals. My gosh, people of intelligence and good will might debate things like the validity of global warming or the merits of Obamacare or the reason why the Renaissance Fair is going to be called “Red, White, and Boom” this year, but to say that focusing on self isn’t natural, even easy; as our brothers and sisters in New Jersey might say, “Forget about it.”

And the result, the result of taking this easy route and focusing on number one, well, I think there are two outcomes we can pretty much expect: one good and one not so good. I mean, I think there’s always a lot of satisfaction, self-satisfaction when we see ourselves as best. Let’s face fact, it feels good believing that our team or our country or our school or well, ourselves, man, that we’re numero uno, number one. And even if it’s not true and deep down we kind of know it, it’s still nice to sort of forget reality for just a little bit and put that foam finger in the air either literally or figuratively and pretend we live in the world that we want, not the one we necessarily have. I’ll tell you, although I think he was just moving to the spot he needed to be for the group picture, I also believe that when the President of the United State moved in front of the Prime Minister of Montenegro, man, I believe it probably ticked off every Montenegrin, all 460,000 of them. Why? Because they believe that Montenegro, man, they’re number one. And if we were Montenegrins, we’d believe it too. And that kind of pride, man, it just feels good. And so, on one hand, this kind of one-ness, it’s the source of a lot of satisfaction.

On the other hand, though, it’s also pretty isolating and when your isolated, that can be also lonely. I mean, just think about how tough it is for those 386 Montenegrins who live in Albania. Talk about lonely. And I think we all know that it just doesn’t endear a guy to other folks when he’s shoving a foam finger in their faces and saying, “I’m number one, which means you’re not.” I’ll tell you, unless you’ve got a lot of your own kind around and haven’t decided to divide you kind into smaller, number one groups, the isolation and loneliness can chew up whatever satisfaction we get from that oversized, “we’re number one” finger. In other words, the results of this kind of oneness can be pretty disappointing.

And I’ll tell you, that’s the reason I think we can be grateful to Jesus Christ, because he offered another way to look at the number one, a way that results in a radically different kind of oneness than the kind represented by the foam finger. And it’s right here, at the end of the passage we’re looking at this morning. In his prayer to his father, Jesus said, “All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” [John 17:11] Let me say that last part again: “so that they may be one, as we are one.” Now, that’s what he said.

And that’s important because, rather than all the divisions and all the isolation and all the loneliness that comes from trying to be number one, the kind of oneness that Jesus talked about to his disciples, well it’s going to result in things like unity and fellowship and strength that goes beyond the limitations of team or group. In fact, I think it leads to the kind of community that can reach around the world and that can include people from different cultures and who speak different languages and who follow different customs, and yet who share something profound and powerful that holds them together. You see, rather than breaking down into increasingly smaller groups, each claiming to be first, we can become a body in which people can not only use their unique talents to complement
one another, we can all grow in our understanding of others and of ourselves. And even though we might lose a little personal satisfaction that comes from believing that we’re better than others, we’ll gain a lot of strength and confidence, knowing that we’re a part of something bigger than our little group. You see, the oneness preached by Christ will have some powerful results.

But to get there, well, it’s not going to be easy; it’s going to take genuine effort on our part. I mean, it’s not easy to give up the illusion that we can be self-sufficient, that we can prosper without the help of others, that we can live as disciples of Jesus Christ within our own little group. Man, it’s not easy surrendering the idea that we’re the center of the universe and that what we want is more important than what they need and keeping what we’ve got is more important than sharing what we’ve been given. It’s just not easy.

And I’ll tell you, I think Jesus knew that, because in this prayer, and by-the-way, this is his last prayer in the Gospel of John, Jesus asked God to help his disciples really become one. I mean, according to this passage, “after Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed. I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” [John 17:1-11]

You see, since he was leaving, Jesus asked God to protect these people whom the Father had given to the Son, these folks who’d received the truth from the mouth of Christ himself and who’d decided to trust that what he said was indeed true, these brothers and sisters who’d received the glory of God. He prayed that God might protect them from the Evil One, who distractions us from the truth, and to protect them from the values of a world that wants us to divide into little groups. And he prayed so that God might protect us, too. As he’ll say a little later in his prayer, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. [John 17:20-21a] You see, although this unity, this wholeness, this oneness isn’t going to be easy, we can be confident that we won’t be making this effort alone.

And so, with God’s help, we’ll be able to shift our focus, and I’m talking about to shift it away from the stuff that world says is important and toward something very different. I mean, rather than my group being number one and your group something lower, our focus will be on us all being one, one people who are loved by one God and who will be redeemed by one Savior and who are right now surrounded and filled by one Spirit. And for those of us who already trust that it’s true, we can come together as one body that cuts across political borders and cultural boundaries. And as we look to those who don’t yet trust, well, together we can share with them, in ways that they can understand, “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit...” [2 Corinthians 13:13] You see, just like the results we’ll see and the effort we’ll need, our focus will be different when we claim the vision of oneness offered by Jesus Christ.

And because it’s so different, maybe a foam finger isn’t the best way to express this new vision. I mean, while it was great is showing everybody that we were focused on ourselves even though that separated us from others and while waving that finger around demanded almost no effort at all because wanting to be number one seems to be really natural and while doing this kind of thing resulted in some satisfaction but also a lot of isolation and loneliness, Jesus has offered us a different kind of oneness to claim. I mean, the kind of one he wanted us to become is going to result in both unity and growth and even though it’s going to require genuine effort on our part, we won’t be doing it alone and it’s going to shift our focus from self and separation to unity and others. Now, I think that’s what Jesus was going for when he asked his Father to “...protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” And if that’s the case, well, a bunch of molded polyurethane just doesn’t seem right. And so, even though we might continue to wave them around at ball games, as it relates to our lives as followers of Christ, maybe we should swap all those foam fingers for a symbol that’s more appropriate, maybe something like a single wooden cross.

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