Tasting the Victory

We’re coming up on an important celebration in the life of the Church Universal, the Feast of Christ the King, or The Triumph of the Reign of God, and already I’m getting swept up in the powerful statement of faith that this day holds for each of us.  Life is so challenging sometimes, and tragedy and loss threaten to derail us and maybe question whether God is really in charge after all.  But then comes this special Sunday, and we’re drawn once more into a quiet inner place where we simply KNOW that, of course, love will always triumph.

Our lives are created on a moment-to-moment basis. Every one of the thoughts we think, the words we speak, and the actions we take contributes to the complex quality and character of the Reign of God unfolding. It is simply not possible to be alive without making an impact on the world that surrounds us. Every action taken affects the whole as greatly as every action not taken. And when it comes to making the world a better place, what we choose not to do can be just as impactful as what we choose to do.

For example, when we neglect to feed the hungry, recycle, speak up for justice, vote for candidates that share our ideals, or help somebody in immediate need, we deny ourselves the opportunity to be an agent for God’s dream for humanity. And likewise, we withhold something potentially precious for someone else who might then be empowered to make her or his own contribution to the final victory of Heaven. To decide not to do something can, in fact, enable a particular course to continue unchallenged, picking up speed even as it goes along. (Think of the obvious example of Nazi Germany in the late 1930s.) By holding the false belief that our tiny actions make little difference, we will find ourselves deciding not to act more often than we might expect. Alternatively, if we see ourselves as important participants in an ever-evolving world, in an ever-expanding awareness of the impending Reign of God, we will feel more inspired to contribute our unique perspective and gifts to such a proposition.

It is wise to be somewhat selective about how and where we are using our energies and gifts in order to keep ourselves from becoming scattered. Not every cause or action is in the highest or best interest for every person.  However, when a situation catches our attention, and speaks to our heart, that is a sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit.  It’s important that we honor this impulse and determine how to take the action that feels right for us. And it’s not generally going to be something extravagant or dramatic.  It may be offering a kind word to an unpopular student, helping a neighbor rake her leaves, or –God forbid– just taking responsibility for our own behavior. By doing what we can, when we can, we add positive energy to our world, change the trajectory of someone else’s life, and most importantly, advance the unstoppable, irresistible onslaught of the love of Our God. It might just be your smallest act of kindness that finally tips the scales and effects the final victory.

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“He’s Calling YOU!”

In 2011, a national news report detailed the story of an adult man who received his sight back through the wonders of North American medicine. An interviewer asked the man, “What’s life like now? Tell us what does it mean to after all these years suddenly be able to see?” And the man initially said what you would expect—things like colors are amazing and it’s a wonderful gift to be able to see the faces of those that he loved. But the interviewer expected him to say those things. He wanted the man to say something extraordinary, something totally unexpected about how his life had changed since getting his sight back. So he asked him, “What’s the most unexpected thing?” The formerly blind man said that the most incredible thing was watching the leaves falling every autumn. He said, “I know that leaves fall. I know that people rake them and put them in piles and burn them. But I’d always imagined that the leaves would come down all at once, like a blanket. I didn’t know that when leaves fall that they float and glide and turn in the wind as they come down to the ground. It’s beautiful.”

In other words, the greatest beauty he saw was in dying things. The leaves are dying and that’s why they fall to the ground.  And that’s what is happening in this account about Bartimaeus. People are seeing Jesus and they are expecting something from him, something extraordinary. They are expecting him to make their lives easier.  Bartimaeus is here to remind us that Jesus makes ordinary life end. There’s an end of self, an end of what you were before. As a result, everything that was attached to you, including your limitations, are coming to their end as well. So that in the extraordinary life that Jesus is granting us, limitations are no longer liabilities. They actually become the means by which God is going to demonstrate God’s power and love.

If we want to think about the life that Jesus brings us, we just need to find our way through this account of Bartimaeus and see what’s changing. The lifeless ordinary for Bartimaeus begins with seeing more than others: they see a healer, he sees the Messiah and fulfillment of ancient promises. But it’s more than that. Somehow Bartimaeus says Jesus is not just the fulfillment of promise; Jesus also brings the mercy of God, so he cries out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” He’s destitute and desperate. He knows he can’t help himself, but at the same time he senses that his limitations are going to become part of Jesus’ ministry.

It turns out our expectations can delude us.  When I was first accepted into the diaconal program through the Eparchy of Chicago, I thought to myself, “Well, finally I will become spiritual and all that holiness in the seminary program and just being on seminary grounds will be a holy experience—so it will surely rub off on me!” What I really found was something quite different.  I discovered that my limitations, my lack of holiness, my lack of ability in certain areas were suddenly all the more obvious. Instead of having those limitations disappear, they became all the more obvious to me.  It turned out I was not the best in every subject and by the same token, the atmosphere was often anything but holy.  That’s because others’ limitations were also made manifest. Without faith in Jesus, every one of us might have despaired and abandoned our vocations.

But the realization that Our God, through Jesus, fulfills every promise and gives every mercy we need starts to perolate into our consciousness. And we realize that it’s precisely the limitations that God wants most of all to do something amazing through us. In other words, we come to a place where we not only see more than others, we come to find the courage to risk more than others. Risking is also part of this life Jesus offers us.

It means something for blind Bartimaeus the beggar to call to Jesus as the Son of David. He keeps saying it and the crowd keeps saying, “Shut up! Remember who you are, blindman!  You depend on our charity and assitance, you need our approval.  So just shut up!” So he is literally risking life and livelihood and any future in this village in order to proclaim that this is the Promised One. Just like every one of us has taken some level of risk for the sake of the Gospel.

We’ve taken some big steps by choosing to be part of this congregation/to be a foundational member of this parish. We want to share the love and mercy of God with others, but can we keep doing it even if God expands our view of reality? What if God calls us to reach out to people who will never have money or influence or power? (HR: Would we actually start a church in a place where people need us more than we need them?) Would we believe so much in a God of promise and mercy that we would risk it all for the sake of that call? And what if we realized that all things we don’t like about ourselves, all the things we see as limitations are not, in fact, limitations at all?  What if our vision were opened to the reality that our limitations might be just the things God is looking for so we can be sent by God to fulfill a deeper calling to impact the world—far beyond what we once thought?

Sometimes the greatest comfort comes from paying closer attention to the Scriptures.  At the end of verse 49 when Jesus stops after hearing Bartimaeus crying out, he say’s “Call him.” And the crowd says to the blind man, “Take heart. He’s calling you.” And for all of us, who from time to time are very aware of our limitations, maybe we need to remember that limitations are not liabilities when it comes to building the Reign of God. When we see our limitations most clearly, they hold the potential for us to magnify the greatness of the promises and the mercy of God. So this passage says to each one of us today, “Get up. He’s calling you. Your limitations are not liabilities; they are doors into the victory of Our God if we are still willing to follow.

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God is Still Giving

“And as he was setting out on a journey a man ran up and knelt before him…..” There’s an intensity about this young man because the Greek word used isn’t simply “ran”, it’s “raced up to him.”  This is someone who feels an urgent inner need to be and do better than he has ever done before. And we know nothing about him; we don’t have a name or job title or even a city of residence. Maybe that’s Mark’s clever way of inviting all of us to identify with this guy.  We learn from the conversation that he is a successful person; he’s a good person who has done all the things he was taught he “ought” to do. He has achieved some success and he has some material wealth as a result of his hard work.

At this point, in hearing his story, we realize that although we are separated by 20 centuries, we have some things in common with him. We can totally identify with his working hard to be a success in the world. We can also identify with his interior, spiritual side as well. “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” We carry the same questions about what is of real value in this life, and the longer we are alive, the more questions we have.

Questions of meaning and value are beginning to surface in this guy’s life–the road he’s traveling is beginning to look like I-65 between Merrillville and Indianapolis: nothing of interest to see and no exits anywhere around. The young man finds himself in a crisis of faith, and he has come to wonder about what his race to success really means. I think this happens to most of us, generally after age 40, when we look back and wonder what we’ve accomplished, whether it was all worth the effort and what the remaining years should be spent doing so that in another 40 years, if we are lucky enough to live to that point, we can look back with some degree of peace and satisfaction.

Perhaps we’re coming into a fuller appreciation of the old Peggy Lee song, “Is That All There Is?”  We’ve reached a stable plateau, our kids are either grown and gone or at least they’re less and less dependant on us.  We lose a parent or maybe both. And the prospect of getting older and being unable to do what we want with our remaining years haunts us, especially when we find ourselves getting up for the 4th or 5th time to use the bathroom in the middle of the night.

“Is this all there is?” Where are the rewards I should get for having played by the rules?  Where are the blessings I should be experiencing for having loved God and having kept the bulk of the commandments?  “You know the commandments,” says Jesus, and then he lists them. “I’ve kept these since I was just a kid,” replies the man. And so have we, most of them, most of the time. We’ve been running all our lives by all the admonitions of home, family, church and culture: brush your teeth and don’t forget to floss, say your prayers, work hard, obey the law, get ahead, save for retirement. The young man followed the rules, lived by all the imperatives imposed on him from the outside. So have we. That’s the way we all grow—our parents command, our teachers teach, our church preaches, society imposes its models and definitions on us.

But sooner or later we get to the point where we have to do the deciding and choosing on our own. The running man had reached that point. Mark tells us that Jesus looked at him and loved him, because He understood completely.  “You lack one thing: go, sell what you own, give the money away, and you will have treasure in heaven, then come, follow me.” Throughout the history of the Church there have been those who took those words literally, like St. Francis. Whether we take them literally or not, Jesus is asking us to sever ties with all lesser things and depend only on him.  So often our possessions represent our dependencies.

Jesus was asking the rich young man–and us–to untie ourselve from the things that only provide temporary meaning.   Possessions are one of those attachments, but there are certainly others. Think of the Israelites being held captive by Pharoah.  For generations they believed that it was Pharoah who had the power to either hold them captive or let them go.  It turned out the reverse was true.  They chose to allow Pharoah to hold them captive because it gave them a sense of identity, a sense of a predictable life, and a a sense of assurance.

The theme of surrender emerges in this encounter, and really, isn’t surrender just another word for “dying?” Most of us think of death and resurrection as experiences at the end of life, not as an ongoing cycle of possibilities all the way through this life. It is a daily opportunity if we’re paying attention. As Christians we have to die to many things during a lifetime if we are to experience any new possibility.  Sometimes the Pharaoh in our lives is the role we play. Think of being a parent.  There are certainly enough challenges and satisfactions and disappointments as live more deeply into that role. When our kids are young, we think we can’t wait until they are grown and gone so we can resume our lives. But then the last one does move out, and suddenly the house is very quiet and empty.  We’ve been a parent for so long, we don’t remember anything else—and there is a crisis of identity.

Sometimes it’s the opposite.  Sometimes a parent will cling tenaciously to their role that they will try constantly to control, advise, manipulate and otherwise direct their children’s lives, never letting them grow up.

Daring to risk to die to old dependencies is what resurrection faith is all about. It’s hard to do. When the rich young man heard what Jesus was asking him to do with his possessions, “he was shocked and went away grieving, because he had many possessions.” In reality, his possessions had him. He was so close to finding the answer to his deepest needs, but he wasn’t paying attention to what was being said.  He didn’t really hear what he was saying in his own question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life.” If you’re going to inherit something, this usually means someone has to die first, and in this case, his own words revealed the truth that parts of himself were needing to die. Maybe that’s why Jesus just looks at him and loves him just as he is. It’s the same way he looks at you and me: he just looks and loves us as we are.  But rather than pulling up a chair and resting in that unconditional love, finding new meaning for life in that love, the young man walked away. Just like you and I walk away.

In a few minutes you and I are coming to a eucharistic feast where God takes some possessions—bread and wine, time and talent and treasure and lives we have offered, transforms them, and gives them back to us as something new and different–redeemed to become instruments of God’s power and presence in this time and place. And he gives us his own self.

The God who gave everything gives everything still.

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Sugar, How You Get So Fly??

Humans are so interesting and paradoxical! None of us enjoys the company of those whose attitudes are persistently negative. I have several students who fall into that category and if they should miss a test question, for example, it’s never due to their own lack of studying or preparing, it’s always my fault “for not teaching it to us.”  These are the ones who, alas, will probably carry their negative chatter into adulthood unless they come to see how harmful that is. We are so accustomed to the stream of self-limiting, critical consciousness that winds its way through our thoughts, we are often unaware of the impact these thoughts have on our lives. It is only when we become aware of the power of such thoughts that we can rid ourselves of them and fill up on gratitude and the positive outlook that comes from trusting deeply in the God who made us. If we just take a few minutes to examine our thinking and the way our mind works while are, say, driving home from work, a lot of us might be shocked at how much negativity is lurking within our heads. When we take notice of involuntary thoughts in a non-judgmental way, i.e., without getting down on ourselves and thinking we’re “bad”, we can more easily set these thoughts aside.  Like most healings, this is a process that could take some time.

While the occasional negative or judgmental thought may be seen as having little impact on the overall quality of our life, these things can have a subtle effect on our prayer life, the way we view God, and even cause us to question or doubt the love we have from others. We spend a lot of time worrying about how to “change” external situations when, in reality, we can only change ourselves.  As every Benedictine discovers the first time he reads the Rule, Benedict gives us a lot of meditations and instruction on learning how to listen to and observe the most authentic reality we can ever experience: the Presence of God. When we enter into prayerful silence and become aware of the tone of our thoughts, we can choose to challenge and change them.

A good starting point might be to take a single day when we know we’ll be largely undistracted, and attempt to be conscious about our feelings, opinions, and judgments for that day. From rising in the morning to going to bed in the evening, we could evaluate the messages we are silently repeating to ourselves in our subconscious mind. Try to be objective, considering the situation from a detached distance and simply note the existence of negative, ungrateful thoughts.  Don’t judge yourself and put yourself down, simply observe the flow of your consciousness and keep a record of the number of times you find yourself focusing on the negative or on judging yourself or others.
As we become increasingly aware of our patterns of thought, both positive and negative, we will gradually learn where our resistance to gratitude lies.  Remember that just because a thought or idea passes through your mind that does not mean they are always a true picture of who you are, even though they have the power, if held in mind, to shape you—for better or worse—into someone you may or may not want to be.

In training yourself to be cognizant of your thoughts, you gain the ability to actively engage in prayerful gratitude at all times, which is after all what St. Paul recommends we do. This inner awareness will eventually enable you to create an authentic foundation of real gratitude for all that God has done and is doing in your life right now.

Have a great week!

Fr. Michel

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Who’s In? Who’s Out?

From the earliest days of the church, people have worried and fussed over who is in and who is out and who gets to decide and how they get to decide these things. In the Gospel reading we just heard, from Mark’s gospel, the disciples are disturbed about just such a situation. They go to Jesus to report the problem, “Teacher, there is someone casting out demons in your name. “ Why does this bother them? I mean, what is the problem?  That someone is casting out demons in the name of Jesus? Isn’t that a good thing? Why are they worried? Are they worried about competition? Are they worried because of denominational differences? Are they worried because his theology was too liberal or too conservative? If this other person is healing people and doing God’s work, why is there a problem?

The disciples soon disclose exactly what’s on their mind. “Teacher, this person isn’t following us.” Aha! “…not following us.” Notice they don’t say, “He’s not following you, Jesus. They say, “ He’s not following us.” It’s that old us versus them theology. That was the problem. It was a problem for the disciples as it continues to be a problem in the church universal today. Whenever we slip into “us” versus “them” theology, we are betraying the fact that we have momentarily forgotten our mission. When we practice “gate keeping” (carefully monitoring who can come in and who can’t), we forget why we’re here. When we draw the circle smaller, not wider, we ignore the mission of God. And what is God’s mission? To share and to demonstrate the love of God that we have experienced in Jesus Christ. Many of the mainline churches seem to be arguing constantly over who can serve and who can’t. We discuss and disagree and sometimes even fight about these things at regional gatherings and national conventions—despite the fact that issues relating to who is worthy and who is unworthy to engage in ministry were not an issue with Jesus. Jesus is not terribly concerned about the newcomer casting out demons in his name. He says, “Do even both trying to stop this person because no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able to speak ill of me.”   To me the message is clear: We need to look beyond our theological differences. We need to look beyond our denominational differences. We need to look beyond the color of our skin and beyond the languages that we speak and learn to serve God together and to do ministry together; to work together side by side doing flood cleanup; serving in soup kitchens, collecting donations of food for the food pantry; bringing in shoes and belts for exoffenders, etc…

Christians come in different flavors. We are different and that’s good. We need to celebrate our differences and our diversity, and not worry so much about getting others to conform to our way of thinking and doing things- as if ours was (and is) the only way of doing things. Jesus himself gives us a guideline: “Whoever is not against us, is for us.” There are a great many people who are non-Christian who are just as dedicated as we are to feeding the hungry, to changing social institutions so that justice might become a reality for the marginalized, to being open and inclusive and respectful of everyone.  All of this is about doing God’s work—even if the person doing the work is an atheist or someone who was so harmed by the Church that now she can only feel resentment toward all religion.

Jesus wanted his disciples to take the practice of ministry seriously: he wants us to take it seriously as well.  Our lives are supposed to manifest the living presence of the One who sent us forth as healers and disciples and that’s pretty serious. And then Jesus says something so weird, something that has disturbed me since I was a young boy.  “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. If your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out.” What?!  If we took that part of Scripture literally, the world would be filled with footless, handless blind people because just about every sin I can think of involves those things. But Jesus isn’t suggesting that we actually do these things; he’s using HYPERBOLE.  He uses exaggerated language to make a point: you and I are supposed to assist, aid, nurture and otherwise help others in their journey of faith. We were never called to hinder someone’s journey or to interfere in her or his experience of God.

In the 2,000 plus years of the Christian movement there has been one consistently large obstacle to people following Jesus with their whole heart and mind.  Can you guess what that is?  It’s the fact that there are Christians in the world and how we treat each other. It’s shameful and embarrassing! Why would anyone want to become a Christian, when on any given day we can find Christians badmouthing each other, badmouthing their pastors, their neighbors and friends. This negative behavior has the potential of undermining everything else we do, even the noble, self-less things. When we do these kinds of things, when we insert ourselves into another person’s faith journey and actually get in the way of grace or what God is trying to accomplish with and through that person, we cause real harm to someone else.

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When Fear Blocks Ministry

This morning’s Gospel reading places Jesus on the road with his disciples. It’s a story that we can relate to because it’s about three things we’re all familiar with: fear, fighting and how we struggle to be first. Mark tells us that Jesus and his posse are passing through Galilee and because he needed some time alone with the disciples, he didn’t want anyone to know he was in town. If you’re thinking that this sounds familiar, you are correct: this is the second time in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus is predicting his own betrayal, death and resurrection.  Even though this is the second time Jesus is telling them these things, they still don’t understand. They don’t get what Jesus is talking about and yet they are too afraid to ask him to clarify. Maybe that seems odd to us that they are too fearful to ask for clarification, but haven’t we all been in situations where we didn’t understand something but were too afraid to ask?

Math was always my lowest grade in school: I didn’t understand the formulas or the logorithms and I certainly never understood quadratic equations.   I still don’t. My worst nightmare were those horrible story problems that usually involved trains: If Train A is traveling southeast at 70 miles per hour, and Train B is traveling northwest at 55 miles per hour, what color dress is the conductor’s wife wearing at the cocktail party?  Those train story problems always read the same way to me! And I don’t know if the teacher was moving too quickly or if my brain was simply stuck in neutral, but I was convinced that I was the only one in the room who didn’t get any of it. In high school my algebra teacher made us stand at the board until we figured it out on our own: I spent a lot of time standing at that board, needless to say. And while she did occasionally ask the class if there were any questions, I could tell by the tone of her voice that it would be better not to say anything. I certainly didn’t want to annoy her or, worse, appear to be stupid myself.

So then, why is it that we disciples are sometimes afraid to ask questions when we don’t understand??

For some of us- it is embarrassment. We don’t want to be the only ones who “don’t get it”. We don’t want to look foolish, so we don’t ask. We don’t raise our hands or ask our questions. Some of us would rather remain in the dark than be in the spotlight by calling attention to ourselves. But on a deeper level, maybe we are afraid to ask the question, because we really don’t want to know the answer. We don’t ask the question because in fact we are terrified of the truth. We really don’t really want to know, what we suspect we already know. Sometimes, it’s easier to be oblivious- than for us to confront the obvious.  It’s like the former military policy of “don’t ask- don’t tell”.  We’re hoping that if we don’t ask, then God won’t tell us what we’re unable or unwilling to hear.

The older I get, the more convinced I am that at the end of our lives it’s not going to be the answers we found that will bring us peace, rather it will be the quality of the questions we learned to ask.  So maybe it’s not that we’re afraid to ask, but maybe it’s that we don’t know how to ask the question.  Our questions seem awkward and so we don’t voice them.  Maybe that’s how it was with the disciples. Maybe they just weren’t ready to deal with what Jesus had shared about his betrayal, suffering and death. Maybe they didn’t want to understand because they were afraid.

It was on the road to Capernaum that their argument began. Perhaps they whispered; maybe they mumbled. But clearly they didn’t want Jesus to hear their boasting. “I am the one with the best talents for this ministry. No, I’m much more talented than you.” “No way, my gifts are greater than all of yours!”. Jesus didn’t say anything on the road, but when they got to the house, he confronts them, and they were no doubt embarrassed. Maybe even ashamed. They certainly realized how stupid their argument sounded. So no one spoke up. No one took ownership for the fight. What would they say: Jesus we were fighting about which of us is the best?

They knew that Jesus had overheard their bickering and their lobbying for the title of GREATEST- for that position on the top- -that place of honor that would give them prestige in the ministry. Their fighting was just another indication that the disciples didn’t get it. They didn’t really understand what Jesus and his message were really about. So they are silent and they don’t answer. And Jesus sees this teachable moment, sits down and calls them over.

This is such a comforting story because it illustrates so wonderfully how God doesn’t give up on us. Here are these disciples who are squabbling among themselves about something stupid and Jesus doesn’t send them away- but teaches them- and uses them to teach and reach others. If Jesus can use these disciples, he can also use us- in spite of our fears, in spite of our fighting, inspite of our questions.  And Jesus says to his disciples “whoever wants to be first needs to be last. Whoever wants to be greatest- must be the servant of all.”

If we look around the world, we can clearly see that the challenges the disciples faced are the same we face today.  Following Jesus is still a challenge because we lack understanding, because we’re carrying so much fear around inside, and we keep getting drawn into arguments about things that just don’t matter. In Matthew 25, when Jesus is judging the sheep and the goats, not ONCE does he question them on what they believe, or what level of faith they have.  Instead, he just wants to know how they have served the least of their sisters and brothers by feeding them, clothing them, visiting them in prison, etc… So if we’re going to be striving to be first or the best or the greatest, let’s see how much and how deeply we can care for the needs of others.  In the end, that’s all that matters.

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Finish Line

Years ago, when it looked very much like the boys and I would be relocating to midtown Manhattan to be near their mother, I was very apprehensive.  New York City has a lot to offer, no question about it, but the idea of moving there with young sons who were accustomed to midwest living??  It didn’t feel right.  I loved the idea of being a New Yorker all right, but only if I could do it part-time!  I’d like it a lot better if I could just commute there occasionally instead of living that frenetic life full-time.

This is kind of what a lot of Jesus’ followers were feeling: when they realized that he expected them to accept his invitation to build the Kingdom of God with him AND that it could only be a full-time commitment to living in that Kingdom in the here and now….they weren’t ready to do that.  If they couldn’t commute they weren’t going to commit to being part of it.  There is a certain sad note to the way this Gospel ends, I think, because certainly Jesus had spent a lot of time refining his teaching over many months, maybe even years, and more and more he was getting more explicit about what the Reign of God was, and the more details he gave them, the fewer people were actually willing to continue following him.  One by one they drifted away. And so, feeling sad and disappointed, Jesus turns to the Twelve and asks, “So, are you guys going to leave as well??”

And of course it falls to Peter to pipe up and say, “Look, Jesus, where else are we going to go?  We might have some issues with some of what you say, but hey, we can see that you’re the Messiah and we are relying on your teaching to give us life.”

Good old Simon Peter. Impetuous. Excitable. Sometimes speaking before his mind was fully in gear. But Simon Peter was in for the long term. His commitment was no momentary, fleeting experience good only when things were going his way. Certainly, he got discouraged. After the crucifixion, he was ready to go back to his fishing nets. We totally get that! He was crushed, profoundly disappointed and grieving besides…but the commitment never failed.

As a pastor, I see the same thing.  New people show up at church and they cry when they’re told they can receive communion no matter who they are, no matter where they are or where they’ve been on life’s journey.  They hug me afterwards sometimes, and more than a few have told me, in the emotion of the moment, that they will follow me “to the ends of the earth.” And every time that happens, I now know what certainty what will follow: they may come once or twice again, but they will eventually disappear, never to be seen again.  Or sometimes parents who are dedicated, regular attendees stop going to church as soon as the kids are raised and out of the house.  I have known people who spent twenty or thirty years in their congregation, and suddenly have a disagreement with another member or with the pastor, and they disappear. So when people really are listening to the invitation from Jesus to be part of the community he founded, and they are willing to take the risks of following him, it is nothing short of a blessing!  These people have a special kind of faith, a faith for the long run, a faith that will there for them in challenging times.

We have very few promises about this life, only that God will love us unconditionally and he will be with us now and in the life to come.  Life is a marathon: it’s hard and the obstacles are many.  Just because we get swept up in the emotions of the moment and declare our faith in Jesus does not mean God will make our lives any easier. We will still get cancer, have heart attacks, strokes, and type two diabetes. We will watch family members and the ones we love most go through terrible suffering.  We will lose our jobs, our dignity and our most precious memories.  The longer we live the more losses we will endure, the more funerals we will attend, the more grief we will carry.  We’re not going to make it out of this life alive, and we’re certainly not going to make it out of here without a faith geared to the long term.

If you’ve ever watched even the CNN highlights of the Tour de France, you know something about life.  The bikers who are in the lead at the start of the race are rarely the ones who finish first.  Life is that kind of marathon, it’s a Tour de France, so how we begin is decidedly less important than how we finish.

Most of us are good starters: we have talent, we have enthusiasm, we start off with a burst of good intentions and probably some kind of strong emotion. But those intense beginnings can’t be sustained, and therein lies the problem. That’s true in all our commitments: to Jesus Christ, to our spouse, our partner, in our work, in our school work, etc….  How then are we going to finish? And what is the “second act” of the theatrical production of our lives going to look like?

That is the real test of any commitment. When the enthusiasm fades, when the passions cool, when the numbers drop off, can we maintain enough intensity to reach the finish?  Think about running a marathon.  There comes a point when we just want to stop the pain, to give less than our best, and to maybe hope that we’ll finish by luck or by other people doing even less well than ourselves. The truth is that unless we’re willing to push past our limits, past our hangups and our perceived limitations. Life is a marathon. Finishing is what it is all about.

So we come to the punch line for this sermon, and that is: faith is all about finishing, and it’s critical for us to see that clearly. It’s easy to believe in Jesus when the sun is shining and we’re healthy and all our bills are paid. Real faith becomes real when we are down and out, when nothing in our life makes sense, when we’re unable to find solace in reading the Scriptures or in any kind of praying, when we’re ready to call it quits.

Corrie ten Boom, the Dutch woman who spent months in prison and in the Ravensbrueck concentration camp for hiding Jews during WW2 found that kind of faith. Her experiences in the camp caused her to question her faith, and she often asked God to give her a sign that He was there somehow, and that somehow God was still in charge. Months and months went by with no sign from God, and many nights she fell asleep weeping in despair. Then one morning Corrie awakened to see a beam of light shining through a crack in the concrete ceiling, illuminating a few straggly blades of grass that were growing on the dirt floor.

“I knew without any doubt,” Corrie writes,, “that God was alive and that his light would shine again in my life in a beautiful and wonderful way, even though it seemed impossible.”

That morning Corrie found the faith that mattered most: her fundatmental trust in God and her renewed commitment to holding fast.

It’s not how we start, but where we finish. Real faith, faith that is far beyond emotional reactions or feelings, is about hanging tough.  It’s about doing what we can throughout the race, and coming down to the finish line doing whatever it takes to see the miracles all around us. Revelation put God’s promise to us about finishing the race like this: “Be faithful unto death”, the writer of the Revelation writes, “and I will give you the crown of life” (2:10). In other words, life is a marathon, don’t lose sight of the finish.

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