Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Sunday's Sermon - A Hard Knock Life

Below is a copy of the sermon I preached on Sunday, May 21, 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 if you don’t already know it, the title of the sermon is a song from the musical Annie. And if you haven’t heard the song before, well, you’ll never be able to say that again, because here it is.

Of course, that performance isn’t from the actual show. I mean, if it was, then Annie and the other orphans are all cross-dressing, and I don’t think that’s the case. But that’s the song, and if you didn’t like it, you can be thankful that I didn’t show the version done by Jay Z or Dr. Evil and Mini-Me, and the rhyme was unintentional.

But you know, regardless of the version, the point is the same. And even though the term “a hard knock life” was first used in Annie, it’s sort of come to describe a life that’s full of hardships, you know, hard knocks. And that’s certainly in the lyrics. I mean, whether it’s Annie or Jay Z or Dr. Evil, the singer says, “It's a hard knock life for us, ...instead of treated, we get tricked, instead of kisses, we get kicked, it’s a hard knock life.” And the reason, well, that’s in the song too: “No one cares for you a smidge, when you're in an orphanage. It's the hard-knock life...”

And I’ve got to tell you, based on the how orphanages are presented in books or on film, that sure seems to be true. My gosh, whether you’re talking about Oliver Twist or Quasimodo, Cinderella or Bambi, life is no bed of roses for your garden variety fictional orphan. I think I’m safe in saying that Lord Voldemort carried a few scars, because he was an orphan.

And I’ll tell you something else, I think there are times when we all feel a little bit like orphans ourselves, and again I’m talking about how orphans are often portrayed. I mean, even though I’m sure, now-a-days, an orphan can get more gruel without having to ask, I’m still glad I wasn’t an orphan. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t times I feel a little like one.

For example, I don’t know about y’all, but there are times when I feel pretty weak, you know what I mean, powerless. My goodness, there’s stuff happening all around me over which I have almost no control. And even though most of it I didn’t create, or at least I don’t think I did, sometimes I’m still blamed for it or am expected to fix it. Now, does that ever happen to you? And so there you stand, with things unraveling right before your eyes, and you feel powerless to do anything about it, something that I think Annie must have felt all the time.

But then there are other times when I think we all feel really confused, you know, sort of aimless as we move into the future. I mean, can anybody make sense of what’s happening in our country right now? Of course, everyone I know is ready to assign blame.It’s the president. It’s the media. It’s the Russians. It’s the Chinese. But we all know that’s wrong, because we all know it’s Hillary Clinton. Still nobody seems to know what’s going to happen next, much less what we’re suppose to do about it. And that’s the big stuff, sometimes it seems like we constantly facing problems and challenges, and I’ve got to tell you, I don’t run across a lot of folks who know exactly what to do, something else I think Annie could understand. Let’s get real, our world is a pretty confusing place.

And then, as though we needed anything else to make matters worse, sometimes it sure seems like we’re all alone. And that ain’t a great place to be. It’s sort of like I say about my basketball career. I was short but made up for it by being slow. Man, we’re weak and lack the power to make changes and we’re confused and lack the direction to know what to do, but we make up for that by having no one to buck us up and to show us how to fly right. At least, sometimes that’s the way it feels, doesn’t it? Like good old Orphan Annie, we’re left on our own to figure it out. And I’ll tell you, if that’s how an orphan feels, you know, weak and confused and alone, well, I think there are times when we can identify. And for that reason, even though we may not sing about it, maybe, in our own way, we all know something about hard knock lives.

And I think that’s something that Jesus Christ understood about us, and I’m talking about all of us who are living in the world that we have, not necessarily the one that we want. In fact, in my opinion, that’s what’s going on in the passage printed in your bulletin. Now, remember the context, Jesus had just told this to Thomas and Philip; he said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” [John 14:1-3] In other words, Jesus told them that, soon he was going to leave them. And even though they could trust him, you know, especially since he was the way and the truth and the life and since he’d shown his power to do it over and over again, soon they would be on their own, without him being around.

And because that was just around the corner, he said to them, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” You see, knowing that his followers were probably going to be a little stressed after he’d gone, Jesus didn’t want them to feel like orphans. Instead he was going to send them the Advocate, the Paraclete, the Spirit of truth that would provide for them some of the things that orphans often feel they lack.

And I’ll tell you, in my book, that’s pretty good news, because I believe that same message applies to us as well. You see, just like he said to his disciples, Christ doesn’t what us to feel like orphans either. And that’s why he sends to us that same Spirit he sent to them, and that Spirit does for us exactly what it did for them. In fact, I think that Spirit brings into our lives the three things that we often need.

For example, first, it’s through this Spirit that we have power. And I think that power comes in the form of both knowledge and skills. You see, a little later, Jesus is going to say this to his disciples and through them to us: “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” [John 14:25-27] You see, even though Jesus isn’t standing here, teaching us; he’s given us something that’s just as good, and I’m talking the Spirit that will teach us everything that we need to know about God’s love for us and how we might respond. But more than that, this same Spirit gives us skills and talents that we can use to respond. It’s like Paul wrote to the Romans, “We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.” [Romans 12:6-8] Take it to the bank, we are anything but weak. Through the Spirit, we have power, power both to know and power to do. And if we don’t feel that, well, maybe we haven’t claimed it yet. You see, we have power, that’s the first thing Christ has given us.

And second, unlike the orphans we read about in books or see in movies, we also have a pretty clear purpose, a definite reason to be, in other words, we’ve got some bonafide direction. And we can find it right in the command that Jesus mentioned here in these verses and explained a little later on. You see, this was what Jesus said to all his followers: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” [John 15:12-14] Now, I’m not sure it can be any clearer than that. Jesus wants us to love one another; that’s our purpose. But before we assume that this love business is all tied up with how we feel, I think we need to remember that this is how Paul described love to the Corinthians. He wrote, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things,  endures all things.” [1 Corinthians 13:4-7] Now that’s the kind of agape love Jesus wants us to show, and this kind of love starts with a decision, you know, a decision to love. It’s not about liking everybody; my gosh, we couldn’t do that if we wanted to. No, it’s about deciding that we’re going to respond to everyone with kindness and respect. We’re not going put them down or say nasty things about them behind their backs. Instead, we’re going to treat them exactly like we want to be treated. That’s what Christian love is all about, and you know what that means? We can actually love folks we don’t even like. You see, that’s the direction Christ gives us. Man, that’s our purpose. And that’s the second gift of the Spirit.

And third, we also have a presence, because the Spirit is with us all the time. In fact, right now it’s flowing around us and through us. And I’ll tell you, this is something I hope everybody here believes, because remember, a few weeks ago when we were talking about Thomas, remember what happened before Jesus appeared to him. John wrote, “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” [John 20:19-22] You see, even though we might feel as we’re on our own, alone in the universe, we’re not. The Spirit is with us. And as a matter of fact, it’s through the Spirit that Jesus fulfills the promise he made to his disciples, up there on that Galilean mountain at the very end of Matthew, when Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” [Matthew 28:19-20] Through the Spirit, Jesus is Emmanuel. Through the Spirit, God is with us. Through the Spirit, we have his presence 24/7, and that’s the third thing we need to remember.

Now, if you know anything about Little Orphan Annie, her life got better after she was adopted by Daddy Warbucks, at least it did in the musical. You see, she wasn’t an orphan anymore. And you know, neither are we. I mean, even though there are times when we might feel really weak and confused and alone, just like Jesus promised his disciples, he’s given us the Spirit and with it comes a source of power and purpose and presence just waiting to be claimed. And if we do, if we claim this Spirit from God, than maybe life’s knocks won’t be quite so hard anymore.

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