Saturday, February 02, 2013

Better To Have A Good Name

(sermon thinking for Sunday... enjoy)

I first want to thank everyone for their love, prayers, and support during my spiritual leave. I naturally supernatural ways I felt God' love through you. Whether or not it was a shout out on Facebook, a phone call just let me know you were thinking of me, or the folks who told me they were going to pray who I have been assured supernaturally followed through..... thank you all. Now that I've returned jut about everywhere I go I get greeted with hugs and hoorays. It's good to be loved. I guess absence really does make the heart grow fonder. Know the feeling is mutual.

The topic for today's sermon is "Better To Have a Good Name". One of my heroes in ministry is a now retired pastor in our conference who is regarded as being one of the most liberal or progressive pastors West Ohio has ever known. While we don't see eye to eye on every theological or social issue what I've always admired about this pastor is that he has always backed up in both word and deed what he's said and what he believed. 

He didn't just say that health care in Haiti for the poor was substandard and borderline nonexistent... he started a health organization that runs a children's hospital and a series of clinics throughout the country. 

He didn't just say that he believed that people together needed to engage in racial reconciliation. He, as a white man, volunteered to step away from a position of institutional power at a pay cut to serve in a cross-racial appointment, and even succeeded in making it grow.

He didn't just say that the church should be open and available to ALL people. He opened the doors of that church to the entire community, standing up to those who would believe that you had to pass some litmus test before you could sit in a pew.

He even at the age of 70, forced by Discipline to retire, not feeling like God was done with him yet, sought a part-time appointment nobody else seemed to want, the demands of which would wear out a younger man. Years later, he's still going strong, convinced that as long as he has breath that he not only must preach the Gospel, but demonstrate it. 

He engages in service, not lip service. His beliefs and actions are aligned and as a result he's one of the few people who everyone, even very conservative people in our conference, respect. Through a witness and life dedicated to proclaiming and living out the Gospel of Jesus Christ, his name has been made good.

Better to have a good name.

Proverbs 22:1 drops this pearl of wisdom: "A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver and gold".

I think there's a good reason Solomon passed on this nugget to us. It gets at the core of both what leads to us developing a legacy where our name is good. To look at this in more detail, let's turn our Bibles to Luke 4:1-21. In the scripture, we read that Jesus full of the Holy Spirit, is led by the Spirit into the wilderness. There, he encounters "the devil", which is translated from the greek word "Diablos" which means "slanderer" or "gossip" or "one who make false allegations". And in the desert, Diablos seeks to get dirt on Jesus by tempting him in three ways: he appeals to his appetite (4:3-4), which Jesus resists. Then he appeals to his ambition (4:5-8), which Jesus again resists. And finally, he appeals to the need Jesus has to find approval (4:9-12). Diablos wants an example of Jesus turning his hunger, a need to succeed, and a desire to be adored and accepted sideways, so that nobody will take him seriously.

He fails. Notice the difference in 4:1. Before he resists these temptations, Jesus is both filled and led by the Spirit. But after he resists Diablos, verse 14 says he's been empowered by the Spirit. It's one thing, for example, to want to be a police officer. You can even be led to apply for the position and go somewhere to receive training for the job. But it's another thing to be empowered with a badge and gun. Somewhere in that resisting, the Spirit gives Jesus sway, influence, authority over people who before, maybe wouldn't pay him much mind. His name can't be sullied or gossiped about - although it is repeatedly, even by people who should know better - because he lives an authentic life dedicated to the will of his Father. 

This is the reason I think Luke conveys to us that Jesus resists the temptation to allow his appetite, his ambition, and the need he has, and we all have, to feel approval from someone who would use those needs he has to destroy him. To channel our efforts and energies behind Jesus to hunger first and foremost for righteousness, to make known the Kingdom of Heaven, and seek the words "well done good and faithful servant", and mutually encourage one another to do so, empowers us. I'd venture a guess that more than one person's good name has been destroyed when they've cut corners or ran over others in an attempt to satisfy their appetite, ambition, or fulfill that need to be validated as a success.

It's the difference between being led by faith, and being empowered by it, day by day, slowly, with greater authority as we leave a legacy of grace.

I think now in our day instead of calling it an appetite, we'd call what Jesus resisted as crass consumerism or materialism. The attempt on our part to principally find satisfaction and happiness through the physical or material. I think that's why on every extended mission experience I've had to place like Haiti, the folks who go with me - old or young - are generally humbled, and maybe a little bit shamed by the joy they see in others who have very, very little. How often in your life has "enough" just not been "enough" to the point of comedy, or even tragedy? "I did what I had to do" might carry us in justifying what we did to get what we needed or wanted but if the cost resulted in creating fear, anger, resentment, or derision on the part of those who were watching us closely, it won't take out the sting.

And worse yet, what if in getting what we want, we still aren't DIRECTLY satisfied? I'd guess there a lot of people out there carrying around regret over sacrificing their integrity and principles for stuff that in the end, still didn't make them happy.

To carry this forward, ambition too is a killer. Ambition that overwhelms us, consumes us. Ambition that leads to workaholism.... working past the point where your effort and energy expended in pursuit of "doing right by yourself and others" actually does right by others. Unrealized ambition that has made us bitter about how we've spent our lives. Ambition is a cruel master.

You know I was gone three weeks, and not long after I got back I was taking my oldest son, Max, to one of his many activities and events. He was asking about my trip, what the highlights were, and we got around to me talking about how the hardest part of being away so long was being away from Aimee, his brothers, and himself. 

"Yeah", he said, "I'll bet you didn't miss Eli and Toby (our two youngest) half as much as they missed you."

And I'm like, immediately, all over that.... what about you and Xavier? 

He assured me they missed me also, but when I talked to my wife about it she was just honest.... "Honey, for the first week they didn't even realize you were gone. You're gone a lot."

(Can somebody pull this knife out of my heart?)

Now I don't know about you, but I work long and hard and I justify the time I'm working (among other things) by doing what I do to feed my family. And yet, my family, all things being equal, would rather I was present and involved in their lives. Our drive to succeed and quest for power often bends our values.

Often too, just like satisfying our appetites with things that don't matter or last, too many people wake up one morning after years of devoted to their ambitions still unfulfilled, wondering what they traded all the time, energy and effort for the end.

Finally, I think the last temptation Jesus resists to feed the gossip mill, approval, is particularly interesting. Never at any time in history has it been as easier to collect fans than it is right now. People can become famous for being famous. It you are geek like me, you know that this how ultimately, Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader. Each poor choice he makes to grow in power as a means of control, which he justifies as being necessary to protect his family, drives his family from him. I get the sense that more than one person in this world has had their name sullied because their ambition drove them to make choices that in the moment seemed wise, but in retrospect came at a dear, dear price.

Our need for approval, too, can erode how others feel about us, and the clout we have with others to be an effective witness and servant. Maybe at no other time in history are those with an outsized need for approval, for fans, been as easily fulfilled than right now. You can even be famous just for being famous. To attract and collect devoted fans for no other reason than you have other fans.

I watched an interview with one of those famous for being famous people not too long ago. At one time she was everywhere - TV, radio, billboards, websites, social media... you name it. The interview was done in the wake of multiple underperforming projects the celebrity had just launched years now after she had appeared on the scene and done all she could to stay in the public's eye. A TV show had been cancelled. An album hadn't sold. A product launched hadn't been bought. And the interviewer asked this celebrity a simple question, "With so many new celebrities like you coming onto the scene, do you worry that your time has passed?"

The celebrity began to cry, threw a tantrum, and ended the interview.

There is a part of us that is still the little child who begs mom and dad to watch him ride his bike or wants her art project to be put in the place of honor on the front of the refrigerator. I've watched unmet desire for approval destroy marriages, careers, financial portfolios, and generally drive a life spent making poor decisions in the quest for personal affirmation. It's a reason, I think, you see so much bizarre behavior in the world today. People will do just about anything for, and to keep, a fan.

I think that's maybe why we see so many celebrities who get famous ending up really messed up. Either the approval becomes suffocating and overwhelming, or it eventually dies down and is withdrawn altogether. Maybe the only thing worse than not getting approval, is getting it in spades and then have it withdrawn. In any event if we ever craved approval, particularly from someone who mattered a lot to us, and it wasn't received, it can hurt. Deeply.

Solomon in all of his wisdom knew when he wrote that verse in Proverbs that we are built to receive satisfaction, accomplishment, and assurance. These are needs deep within us that have to be fulfilled. But we can't let those needs warp the choices we make. To sell out something more important - summed up by Jesus as loving God and loving our neighbor - than our hunger, need to succeed, or receive applause just so we can feel a moment of temporary peace, will only lead to moments of temporary peace.

I think that's why for so many there's so much power just in the word, "Jesus". Somebody who stopped by my office not long ago talked about how in the aftermath of a family tragedy, in the depths of despair, all they could do was just repeat the word, "Jesus" over and over. Jesus, who was led by the spirit into the wilderness, but after resisting the temptation to give into his appetite, ambition, and need for approval, came out of that wilderness empowered by the spirit (v.14) to accomplish over the next three years, with each teaching, miracle, and in the example of his life, what he said he came to do:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoner
and recovery of sight from the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor (v.18-19)

Jesus, who hungered for the Father and his kingdom, who lived so that the work of that Kingdom would be accomplished, and in the cacophony of voices sought only One from whom he needed approval, was single-minded enough fulfill that promise made. A promise that took staying within the discipline the empowering Spirit demanded from him, and us.

That's how he built his good name. That's why his name continues to live on, and carry weight of authority and power for people.

But here's the problem... it's one thing if the sum total of someone's life, all we know of it, sought to seek the fulfillment of appetite, ambition, and approval from the Lord, first and foremost. It's something totally different if your life has meandered from that purpose... maybe far away from that purpose. To a degree every single one of our names has been sullied... spoiled. We've failed by letting our appetites get the best of us, letting our ambitions - realized or not - get out of control, and our need for approval to drive us to do things that now we regret.

So, if that describes you, now what?

Well, as we prepare for communion this morning, I'd share one last thought on this matter that was shared with me by one of the leaders at a conference I recently attended. As he has been pondering all of this, he's started coming to realization that maybe, in all of his years of ministry, his own insatiable appetites, ambitions, and need for approval might have been drivers in his ministry, as opposed to the leading and calling of the Lord. And as he began to unpack the reality that maybe even the good things he was trying to do came out of a place that was less than Heaven directed, he began to be filled with guilt and shame.

And then, he remembered Jesus', hanging on the cross, uttering the words of the Psalmist:

"My God, my God. Why have you abandoned me?" 

Jesus, who lives rightly and out of the right motivations, experiences the sting of an appetite going unfilled. An ambition being extinguished. And probably most devastatingly, approval withheld.

And then this leader at this conference said these words I'll never forget....

"Knowing Jesus did everything right and still felt that terrible sting of rejection upon the cross, crucified the sting of those failures in my life."

Not that that man, that day, speaking to us, doesn't know or understand any longer the ways his sin has hurt others and sullied his name. It's just now he doesn't have to be trapped in an endless cycle of regret, beating himself up for what was done or done, said or not said. When Jesus rises from the dead, that sting on the cross is now healed. He doesn't have to wonder about God's attitude or opinion regarding his life. He is secure in those words, "This is my son with whom I am well pleased".

Jesus invites us into experience so that it should be with us.

Nothing you have has destroyed God's love for you, or altered the course of history for you or anyone else for that matter, that will deny that same divine love and acceptance from being available and encountered by others. Even if we are a little late to the game of realizing that the only legacy we have is how we've protected our good name, and that by walking with Jesus, doing what he did, loving who he loved, that name is made good, nothing we've done to this point needs to defeat you. In fact, it can be offered to Christ, who can use it for victory.

Just ask this broken man who found mercy in the words of a leader at a conference they both just attended.

And so, this day, I invite you, if there's something that's left a sting. A failure to properly satisfy your appetite, ambition, or need for approval to place it at the feet of Jesus, and let it go. Give it up. Let it drive you deeper into His arms and Kingdom, and away from your despair.