Monday, November 23, 2015

November 22, 2015 The 23rd Psalm - A Blessed Life

A college friend of mind has a story that is an incredibly powerful reminder of appreciating the blessing of life.  She worked for IBM, and one day she was preparing for a business trip.  After booking her flight her boss asked her to cancel the trip.  She argued that it was an important trip to take but her boss was insistent that she cancel the trip, as IBM had decided to place a freeze on business travel.  She reluctantly canceled the trip.  The flight she booked flew on September 11, 2001, and turned out to be the second flight that hit the World Trade Center.

It would be impossible not to think of life as incredibly blessed after such an experience.  To awaken every day, knowing that because your trip had been canceled, you are alive.  You are alive and have the blessing of enjoying many more years with your spouse.  You are alive and have the blessing of watching your children grow to adulthood and have families of their own.  You awaken every day with the knowledge that life could have ended far too early – but it didn’t.  I believe such an experience to be a blessing that would prevent one from ever taking life for granted.

As we conclude our brief series of messages on the 23rd Psalm, this morning we study the last portion of verse five – my cup runneth over, with a message titled A Blessed Life.  As this is Consecration Sunday, when we pledge our time, talents, and resources to the church and to God’s kingdom, I believe it is an appropriate time to consider what blessed lives we lead.

Hear, again, the 23rd Psalm –

1 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

I love the image of an overflowing cup, as it represents the blessedness of life, so let’s talk about A Blessed Life.

1.  We are called to bless the lives of others. 
Those of you who have been part of the Bethel Bible Study learn something that is foundational to the study – as we are blessed by God we are called to, what?  To be a blessing to others.  You better get that right, or Thelma and Jim are going to get after you!

Sometimes, faith is viewed as such a personal matter that it can be void of a connection with others.  Some people even claim that faith belongs solely in the personal domain, and should not have a place in the public realm at all.  But faith is far more than personal; it has a very public side as well, as we are called to help fill the cup of others, so their cup too might overflow.  As we are in that time of year when we plan our church budget for next year, I want to take a moment and reflect on the way you, as a congregation, are such a blessing to others.  Consecration Sunday is about much more than simply raising money to keep the lights burning, the heat going, and the staff paid.  It is a time when we recommit ourselves to the offering of our time, our talents, and our lives to being a blessing to others.  As a congregation you are doing just that in so many ways, and not all of those ways of doing mission and ministry are reflected in our church budget.  I am working on a document in which I will list not only the many types of mission and ministry we do as a congregation, but to also calculate the money and volunteer hours that are given, and I think it would be an amount to surprise us all.

There is not a month, a week, or even a day that does not pass without someone in this congregation engaging in some type of mission or ministry activity, and the number of hours given would be incalculable. 

What does it mean, this image of a cup that runs over?  It is an image of abundance, of have so much more than enough that the vessel of our lives cannot contain all that comes our way.  Now, I realize that most, if not all of us, don’t always feel as though we have enough in life, let alone having more than enough.  But the reality is that, in some way, all of us have an abundance of something with which we can bless the lives of others.  Maybe you don’t have an abundance of financial resources, but you might have an abundance of time.  Maybe you don’t have an abundance of time, but maybe you have an abundance of some talent or ability that can bless the lives of others.

We are living in a time in history when there are millions of people who have been displaced because of violence and warfare.  There is a robust debate in many countries about whether or not to take in the people who are fleeing those war-torn areas of the world, and there is a robust debate in our own country as well.  Of course, we ought to take in people from those areas of the world.  I believe our faith compels us to do so.  We are so blessed with freedom, security, and resources and we ought to allow overflowing cup of blessing to bless the lives of others.

2.  Learn, from the blessing of adversity, how to bless others in their time of adversity.
It’s by design, I believe, that adversity is one of the great themes of Scripture.  Some of the most powerful writings and experiences come out of adversity.  When I was taking church history, I can well remember when we studied St. Augustine’s City of God, which was written centuries ago.  I was bored out of my mind.  I sat in the back of the class and thought to myself, there is absolutely no reason for me to know anything about this book as it has no use or relevance to my life.  And lo and behold, years later, I taught a class on that book for four years and wrote a study guide for it as well.  During that process I often wished I had paid attention in church history class! 

I came to appreciate the beauty of that great book, as it was written in response to a time of great adversity, and reminds us that one of life’s great lessons is the truth that faith is not forged and made strong by prosperity, but by adversity.  One of the great statements it offers is this – some of the best bread is baked in the oven of adversity.  I love that declaration – some of the best bread is baked in the oven of adversity.  Adversity is, as strange as it may sound, one of life’s gifts, because without adversity we could never truly appreciate the depths of love or gratitude or the blessings which are so abundant in our lives.

George Matheson was a Scottish minister who lived in the 19th century.  As a young man, when he was engaged to be married, his eyesight began to falter and his doctor told him he would quickly lose all of his vision.  When he told his fianc√© of his oncoming blindness she immediately handed back to him her engagement ring, saying she did now want to marry one who would soon be so dependent upon her.  It was a crushing experience for him, but out of that experience he wrote the hymn O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go

O love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in Thee;
I give Thee back the life I owe,
That in Thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.
(The Taste of Joy, Calvin Miller, p. 89)

3.  A blessed life is a life of faith.
Ernest Gordon was the longtime Dean of the Chapel at Princeton University.  I’ve referred to him a time or two before, I believe.  He wrote the book Through the Valley of the Kwai, which was the basis for the movie Bridge Over the River Kwai.  As a prisoner of war during World War II, Gordon and his fellow soldiers suffered unimaginable difficulty, but it was in those difficult conditions that Gordon himself came to faith.  Of his experience he wrote, faith thrives when there is no hope but God.  It is luxury and success that makes men greedy (The Good Life, Peter J. Gomes, p. 262)
Skeptics will say that faith is a genetic predisposition, a weakness of the intellect, a desire to control others, or that it’s born out of a fear of death.

People place faith in a great many things, but faith in God is, I believe, a foundational need in life. 

Luke 5:17-26 contains one of my favorite stories in the gospels.  It is the story of the paralyzed man, who was healed by Jesus.  What I like about the story is that the paralyzed man is not the focus of the story; his friends are.  These friends carried the paralyzed man on a mat to a house where Jesus was teaching.  They believed that Jesus could heal their friend, but when they arrived at the house there were so many people gathered it was impossible to get their friend close to Jesus.  Did they give up?  No.  They climbed to the roof of the home, dug a hole in the roof, and lowered their friend through the hole and placed him right in front of Jesus.  Wouldn’t you like to have some friends like that?  They were some great friends.

Faith is a communal activity, not just one that is solitary.  Think of how the faith of those friends must have strengthened the man who was paralyzed.  Imagine his reaction when they said they were taking him to Jesus.  Imagine his reaction upon discovering they couldn’t get to Jesus because of the crowd.  Imagine his reaction when his friends haul him up to the roof and start digging their way through the roof.  Imagine his reaction to suddenly find himself at the feet of Jesus.  They weren’t about to give up and lose faith.

My favorite part of the passage is what Luke says – when Jesus saw their faith.  It was not the faith of the paralyzed man that Jesus saw, but the faith of his friends.  It was the faith of his friends that brought about his healing.

I don’t believe I could do faith on my own.  I haven’t done faith on my own.  I have faith because of my parents, who first instilled it within me.  I have grown in faith because of teachers and mentors and role models who helped me understand faith in a more powerful way.  I continue in faith because of friends and loved ones, who have encouraged me and reminded me that faith never gives up, and never quits.

Remember how you got to where you are in life, because you did not get there on your own.  We so need to remember, because it is too easy to forget.

We live in such a forgetful, disposable culture; we use something for a short time and then throw it away.  Forget it.  Toss it.  The Recycled Teenagers went last Thursday to Nonesuch, to Irish Acres Antiques, located in an old school building, as we have done in recent years.  A couple of years ago when we were there, I was looking at a piece made between the late 1800s and about 1910.  Deanie Logan was explaining it to me, and made the interesting comment about the quality and endurance of things made during earlier eras.  Technology has just about finished off any such idea.  A phone lasts until the next, cooler version comes out.  In my previous congregation, we had a rotary dial telephone that remained mounted on the wall.  One day, one of the kids asked if they could use the phone, and then stood there staring at it.  I asked, what was the matter?  He had never seen a rotary dial phone and didn’t know how to use it.  But it worked when the power went off, and it worked when the cellular network was down.  People laughed at it, but it was more reliable than the smartphone in their pocket.

Some people treat faith as though it is something from a bygone, forgotten age.  They want us to believe that the age of faith has come and gone, and that it is foolish to continue to cling to faith in our modern age.

A blessed life is a life of faith.  It has served humanity well for thousands of years, and will do so until the end of time.

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