Sunday, August 10, 2008

Thirteenth Sunday in Pentecost
1 Kings 19:9-18
Psalm 85:8-13
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33

How beautiful are the feet of them that bring glad tidings of good things!

Sometimes as I prepare for writing MIDWEEK OASIS, I notice a key word or thought that helps guide my research and writing for the week. Sometimes those words or thoughts are comforting, sometimes they are convicting. Sometimes they are words I would rather not hear, sometimes they bring me peace. Most of the time they do all of the above, because that is the way God’s Word works. He brings us the truth of our nature, shows us a better way, provides for us the strength to get us through and the forgiveness we need for peace.

The word I see in this week’s lessons is “self-centeredness.”

The trouble is that we are all self-centered. That’s a natural human state of being. Most of us are able to conquer our self-centeredness, at least a little, so that we do see beyond ourselves. That is part of growing up and maturing. Children are naturally self-centered, well into their teenage years. But as parents lead by example and teach their children through experiences that widen their horizons, children eventually see themselves in a much different light.

A delicate balance exists between helping a child realize that they are merely a spot in the whole of the universe while also giving them a healthy sense of self-worth. Self-centeredness is not entirely bad. It is necessary to consider our own needs to stay healthy, to keep us safe and to help us go after our dreams. We can not reject all sense of self. So, it is important that we teach our children both that they are special but also that they are part of something greater than themselves. I’m afraid too often our children do not learn those lessons. Too many think so poorly of themselves that they believe they have no self-worth, and then we end up with kids who fall prey to gangs or mental illness. Others think so highly of themselves that they believe the entire world revolves around them and that they are entitled to everything they desire. Though narcissism tends to lean more toward love of self, there is a very fine line between love and hate. So, both the self-loather and the self-lover are narcissistic.

Narcissus is a character in Greek mythology whose name became a common word in our language. We all know what it means to be narcissistic. Narcissism is excessive preoccupation with oneself. It is self-centeredness. Narcissus was a beautiful young man who was beloved of all the woodland nymphs but he had no desire to fall in love and so rejected them all. At his birth, a prophet told his mother that he would live to a ripe old age if he never knew himself. One day, Narcissus was hunting in the woods when he became tired and thirsty. He knelt down next to a creek and saw his reflection for the first time. Thanks to a spell by Artemis, Narcissus fell was enraptured by the face he saw in the water. Eventually he realized that the face was his own and that he would never be able to possess the thing he loved the most. He was thus tortured in the same way he tortured all those whose love he had refused. He killed himself, the last self-centered thing any man can do.

A report in 2007 discovered that today’s college students are more narcissistic and self-centered than any generation before them. The researchers believe that this has to do with the ‘self-esteem movement’ which had parents and teachers focusing a child on his or her uniqueness. “You are special” we’ve all heard a million times, and while this is true, it has led to a generation of children believing that they are not just special, but more special than everyone else.

Unfortunately, when narcissists discover that they are not the greatest, they turn inward. When the world does not agree with their assessment of their talents, they respond negatively. We can see this in so many aspects of our life. Take reality shows, for example. All too often, the contestants who are least talented are also those who think themselves to be greatest. They react with venom, yelling at the judges, threatening them, promising that they will own everyone. The study mentioned above showed, “that narcissists are more likely to have romantic relationships that are short-lived, at risk for infidelity, lack emotional warmth, and to exhibit game-playing, dishonesty, and over-controlling and violent behaviors.”

Our relationship with God is not the same as our relationships with others. However, I wonder if the conclusion of this study can be juxtaposed with the state of the church today. We might not think it possible for a religious or faith life to be narcissistic, but it often is. How many people change churches because they “weren’t being fed” at their old church. We might not directly ask the question, “What is in it for me?” but many of our decisions are directly affected by the impact it will have on our lives. How often are we like Narcissus, always looking back to ourselves, thinking only of ourselves?

Even the most compassionate and generous person is in some ways self-centered. Even Jesus in today’s story said, “It is I.” Of course, as we look at the scriptures, we’ll see that in a whole different light than if we said the same thing.

Elijah had accomplished a most miraculous thing: he'd made water burn. He challenged the prophets of Baal to call on the names of their gods to see if they could burn the flesh of a bull. Four hundred and fifty prophets tried and could not bring fire upon the sacrifice. Elijah set up his altar, laid the sacrifice upon it, soaked it with water until it filled a trench around the altar. When Elijah called upon the Lord God Almighty, He answered with a mighty sign, burning the sacrifice, the wood and even the stones and the soil. When the people praised God for this miraculous sign, Elijah ordered the slaughter of the prophets of Baal. In doing so, he made the wife of the king mad. Jezebel vowed to destroy Elijah. He was alone; the other prophets of God had already been killed and there were few left in Israel who worshipped the LORD. Now he was the target of a dangerous woman. So, he ran. He ran away into the desert and asked the Lord to let him die. The angels of the Lord ministered to his physical needs and sent him on a journey to Mt. Horeb.

I doubt that I would have reacted any differently than Elijah. Now, I don’t know if I would have asked to die, but I am sure I would have ran away and hid myself somewhere to have a pity party. I’m really good at saying, “Woe is me.” I’m really good at turning into myself when things do not go as I want them to go. We think we hear God's voice calling to us or see God's work in our world, but we doubt. We doubt because we also see the evil in the world, in our neighbors and in our own hearts. We feel alone. We feel scared. We feel burnt out. We feel like there is no way we can do anything that will make a difference. We feel like it is all a waste of our time. Running might have been the right thing to do, after all Jezebel wanted him dead. However, Elijah turned inward. He was being self-centered instead of God centered.

Why did Elijah pray to die? Was he afraid? Was he depressed? Was he totally drained? Was he full of self pity? Was he having a faith crisis? Did he feel alone and unsupported? Have you ever had a time when you felt any or all of those things? I think we have probably identified with at least one of these emotions at some point in our faith journey. We are afraid to step out into the tempest. We are depressed when things do not seem to be going our way. We are totally drained when it seems like we are doing everything. We are full of self pity, often. We even have faith crisis, when we wonder if what we are doing is really of God and for God. We think we are alone and unsupported.

God would not let him die. Instead, He invited Elijah into His presence. At the mountain, a powerful wind, earthquake and fire shook the mountain, but God was not in them. Then Elijah heard a gentle whisper. He put the hood of his cloak over his face and went to the mouth of the cave. There he met God, voiced his complaint and waited to hear God's answer. God does the same for us, meeting us in our doubt, fear and grief as a quiet voice calling us to trust in Him and follow His word with courage and faith.

Peter saw Jesus walking on water and he wanted to believe. He wanted to believe so much that he thought the only way he could do so was to prove to himself, and to the others including Jesus, that he had enough faith to walk on the water. He was doing well, keeping his eye on Jesus. Then suddenly he turned his attention to something else—the storm. His thoughts turned inward, to his safety and the ridiculous nature of what he was trying to do. He could not walk on water and by stepping out of the boat he was sure he would drown.

This story reminds me of a joke. An enthusiastic young Methodist minister was posted to a small town where there was both a Catholic church and a Jewish synagogue. The Catholic priest and the Jewish rabbi welcomed the young minister warmly and offered any assistance he might need in his new charge. Then they invited him to go fishing with them. As they were sitting in the boat about fifty yards from shore, the priest said he was thirsty. But they had left the cooler on the dock. The Rabbi said, “I'll get it.” With that he stepped out of the left side of the boat, walked to the dock, and returned with the cooler. Later the rabbi hooked a large trout, but the net had been left on the dock also. So the priest stepped out of the left side of the boat, walked to the dock, and returned with the net. By this time the young minister was a little red in the face. Then the old priest said that he had left his knife on the dock and he couldn't get the hook out of the fish's mouth. The young minister stood up and said, “I'll get it!” With that, he stepped out the right side of the boat and promptly sank to his eyebrows. The rabbi turned to the priest and said, “Well Father, if we're gonna' help this boy, we should start by showing him where the steppin' stones are.”

The joke is funny because the priest and the rabbi didn’t really walk on water. They knew about stepping stones that would take them to the dock safe and dry. The young minister did not know there were stones. He thought that the priest and the rabbi had so much more faith and he thought he had to prove to himself and to them, that he was a faithful and holy as they. His purpose for going to the dock was not to serve the others but instead was self-centered. He was motivated by his need to be as good as the other clergy in the town.

I suspect that none of us will have the opportunity to walk on water. No matter how great our faith, we do not need to prove ourselves by doing something impossible and amazing. However, Jesus calls us out of our boat all the time. He calls us out of our comfort zone into situations where we can serve others even though we are not entirely comfortable. He calls us to come to Him in ways that are beyond our ability so that we will learn to keep our eyes on Him for our strength and power and grace. The problems come when we turn our thoughts inward. We get into trouble when our motivation is self-centered, when we allow fear and envy to guide our steps. When Jesus says, “Come” to us, calling us out of the boat, we will stand as long as we keep our eyes, and hearts, on Him.

The storms we face are quite different than that of Peter and Elijah. The Church is this modern world faces a great many difficulties. The world wants to mold believers to fit into their expectations. Believers disagree about what it means to be a Christian. We even fight about the color of the carpets in our naves. Churches are being sued, Christians are persecuted. Some churches have physical limitations, not enough space to do what they would like to do. Others do not know where they will find the money to pay the rent. Yet others can't come to a consensus as to what their mission is in this world. We are afraid, depressed, drained, and full of self pity. I am sure there is someone reading these words in the midst of a faith crisis, or who belongs to a church in the midst of a faith crisis. We think we are alone.

Paul reminds us in today's Epistle lesson that the word is near to us. It is in our mouths and in our hearts. The word is the word of faith that has been proclaimed to us. “…if thou shalt confess with thy mouth Jesus as Lord, and shalt believe in thy heart that God raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.” He adds, “For the scripture saith, Whosoever believeth on him shall not be put to shame.”

Did Peter feel shame in front of Jesus and the other disciples when he sank into the lake? Did Elijah experience shame in the presence of God? We are going to have moments like Elijah and Peter, whether we are at the beginning of our ministry or at the end, when we feel like the task ahead of us is impossible. We are going to be afraid, depressed, drained, and full of self pity. We are going to have those crises of faith. We will feel alone and unsupported. Yet, when we get to the very point in our life of faith when all we want is to die, in that lonely place we will hear God. Christ will come and say, “Do not be afraid, I am.” He is present. He is powerful. He is able to catch us, lift us and send us on our way to share the good news with the world.

This is Good News. Even when we fail, God is there to forgive us, transform us and send us into the world to share the message of grace with others. Even when we can’t see beyond ourselves, Jesus is there with outstretched hands calling our name. “Look at me. I am.” He is there, but He also IS. He called out to them, “Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid.” Another translation says, “Take courage!” He doesn't identify Himself, He literally says, “I am.” They needed the comfort of God's presence in the midst of their troubles, all of their troubles and He was there.

Have you ever wondered why there are people who do not know the grace of God in Christ Jesus? I can’t imagine life without Him. I wonder at those people who are able to live day after day without some relationship with God. I can't fathom the atheist who claims there is no God, especially when I see a perfect rose, a brightly colored rainbow or feel a cool breeze on a hot day. I see God's hand in the coincidences that seem to occur at just the right moment in just the right place to answer our prayers. I see Him in my relationships, in worship, in the lives of those who walk in faith. So, I can not understand how they do not see Him also.

Yet even as I say that, I know I have failed to live up to the calling of God to bear witness to Him in this world. I know there are people with whom I should have shared the Gospel message. I know there are times I have let the storms of life keep me from walking in faith. I’ve taken my eyes off Jesus. Sometimes the best we can do is live in the assurance that when we fail we can call out, “Lord, save me,” and He will. It is easy for us to let this become “all about me.” Even as I reread those last few paragraphs I see how centered my thoughts are on “me.” We can even make our salvation something we have done, or earned, or deserve. It is a natural human trait to make even the work of God our own.

Perhaps that is what happened to Elijah and Peter. They forgot that the miracles they were experiencing were by God’s power and for God’s purpose. The real world made them turn inward, think of themselves instead of seeing that it was God doing something incredible. With our eyes on Christ, we’ll see, and know, God’s salvation and His peace.

Those who fear God see His salvation. His salvation is available to all those who turn to Him, who listen to Him, who hear His Word of peace. The psalmist says, “But let them not turn again to folly.” Having heard the word of peace, let us remember to keep our eyes on the truth, which is where mercy dwells. If we turn from the truth, we’ll turn away from the peace that comes from the assurance of faith in God’s salvation. If we keep our eyes on God, well see the new growth that flows from faith growing and flowing into the world. As for the others, the only way they will see God is if they have heard His Word of grace. They can’t know they are drowning until they learn to see beyond themselves. They can’t call out for God’s salvation unless someone tells them the Good News. “How beautiful are the feet of them that bring glad tidings of good things!”

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