Monday, July 4, 2016

Success is a Gift

July 3, 2016 – The 7th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 9C
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
How do you prepare for a journey? For example, let’s say that you are planning a trip to Austin, Texas, for a wedding. Where would you start? Well, first you have to figure out how you’re going to get there. So you spend a few weeks searching the same travel sites to compare roundtrip fares from Huntsville and Birmingham and Nashville and Atlanta, wondering when the price is going to fall. And, during that time, you keep opening up Google Maps to confirm that, yes, it is a twelve and a half hour drive. And you try to convince yourself that, no, that isn’t really as far as it seems. But that doesn’t work. So eventually you buy your ticket, and then it’s confirmed: you really are going to Austin.

So then what? You’ve got to find a place to stay. Will you stay in a hotel? Will you look for a house on Airbnb? You won’t have a car. How far do you want to walk to the wedding…in Austin…in July? So you survey the options and find the best bet and make your reservation. Done! And now that the basics are taken care of—travel and accommodations—you can turn to the fun stuff: food. I was worried that I was the only person who thought like this, but I was relieved and delighted to find that Kristin Blackerby, one of my traveling companions, and I like to plan a trip the exact same way—with our appetites. Where do the locals eat? What are the specialties in Austin that we can’t get anywhere else? Everything else can (and should) revolve around food. What we’ll see and do will depend on which restaurants we want to be near when it’s time to eat. Does that sound familiar to any of you?

That’s how I like to travel. I’m a planner, and I want to return home knowing that I took full advantage of every opportunity that the place I’ve gone has to offer. I want to think through everything ahead of time. My worst nightmare is going to a great city like Austin and then coming home and having someone ask me, “Did you eat at this great restaurant?” or “Did you see that great place?” and realizing that I’d never even heard of it. But that’s not the way Jesus plans a journey. In fact, he hardly plans at all, which I find not only confusing but actually anxiety producing.

Go, he says, and, before you go, you should know that I am sending you out like sheep in the midst of wolves. Don’t bother packing a bag or a change of clothes, and don’t bother taking any money with you. Just go. And don’t worry about where you’re going to stay. Knock on the first door you come to, and, if they will let you stay with them, great. If not, try the next house. Eventually, you’ll figure it out. And don’t worry about food. Eat whatever they give you. If the food is terrible, you’ll get over it. Don’t move from house to house. Just stay put and eat the food they provide. Do your work in that town, and then move on to the next and do it all over again. And, whether they receive you or not, your words to them should be the same: know that the kingdom of God has come near to you.

That sounds terrible. Eat whatever they put in front of you? Don’t take a change of clothes? Don’t even take any money? What kind of nonsense is this, Jesus? What if it doesn’t work? What if we can’t find a place to stay? What if we need money to stay in an inn? What if we need money to buy food? This is, without a doubt, the worst idea you’ve ever had. How will this make us successful missionaries? I’m going to be so worried about the lack of planning that I won’t be able to focus on the healing work that you’ve given us to do.

But you know what? It worked. Despite the lack of planning, the seventy returned to Jesus, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us.” Jesus had given them the power to prevail over evil. Despite their meager travel protocol, they had triumphed in their work. And why did it work? Because Jesus wasn’t sending them out as sheep in the midst of wolves in order to set them up for failure. He was teaching them that what they do isn’t nearly as important as who they are. And that’s a lesson he’s trying to teach us today.

Notice that, when they returned and began to celebrate what they had accomplished, Jesus even took that wind right out of their sails. Yeah, yeah, he said, big deal. “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you [this] authority…Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” In other words, this wasn’t about how many people that they healed or how many demons they cast out. This was a chance for them to discover that they had already been given everything they needed: they were chosen by Jesus; they were chosen by God. And so are we. And it’s a simple as that.

In the twenty-first century, we are crushed under the weight of our need for success. It starts on the ball field, where parents, who want the very best for their children, buy into the illusion that their four-year-old’s performance somehow indicates whether that child will grow up to be something special. It continues in school, where the parents’ obsession with grades and test scores becomes the child’s obsession, too. It spreads into relationships, and we worry whether we have enough friends and whether we have the right friends. Will we get into a good college? Will we get a good job? Will we succeed in our career? Are we successful parents? And by that I mean will we pass along to them all of our anxiety-producing, pharmaceutically-controlled obsession with success?

The same is true for churches. Are we growing? Do we have enough young families? What’s the average Sunday attendance? Are the sermons good enough? Is the children’s program thriving? Do we have an energetic youth minister? Is the organist halfway decent? Are people coming, or are they leaving? I haven’t seen the Johnsons in a while. Did I hear that they are going to the Methodist church? Is stewardship growing? Will the capital campaign be successful? Will we build the biggest, prettiest, most impressive edifice as a great and lasting testament to anyone who drives by that we are a success?

All of that? That’s us saying to Jesus, “Look, Jesus, look what we did! Aren’t we special? Aren’t you proud of us? And Jesus says to us, None of that matters. Do not rejoice in those things. Rejoice, instead, that your names are written in heaven. What you do isn’t as important as who you are. And, until you figure that out, I’m going to keep sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves—unprepared and vulnerable. Sooner or later, you’ll learn that what matters isn’t measured in budgets or attendance or square footage. It isn’t measured in salaries or mortgage payments or grade point averages or scholarship offers or little league batting averages. Success isn’t earned; it’s given. Like all good things, success is a gift that we are given by our heavenly Father who loves us and cares for us and calls us his own. There isn’t a harder or more important lesson for us to learn.
You are God’s beloved child. That’s the only thing that matters. You and your name belong with him in heaven. That’s all we’ve got. Other than that, we are emptyhanded. But that doesn’t matter because we already have the most important thing of all—his love. You didn’t do anything to receive it, and you can’t do anything to lose it, so why would you worry about it?


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