Proper 12A

July 24, 2017

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Genesis 29: 15-28

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 119:129-136

    Author: Stan Mast

  • Lectionary Epistle

    Romans 8: 26-39

    Author: Scott Hoezee

    All of us prefer winning over losing. All the world loves a winner. “There is no prize for second place” an old adage assures us. And most of us believe that without question. Once in a while, though, the world embraces a loser. Seldom did this happen more dramatically than at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Canada.

    Some of you may remember Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards. At that time Eddie was a 25-year-old plasterer with thick glasses and a goofy grin.

    Eddie the Eagle

    He entered the Games as England’s only (and first-ever) ski jumper. But Eddie was not very skilled. He fit the description of a born loser: someone who gets a paper-cut opening a Get Well card. Eddie looked decidedly non-athletic. In his yellow ski-jumping suit he looked more like Winnie the Pooh than the sculpted athletes we usually associate with the Olympics. Eddie’s training had been sub-standard and his equipment was second-rate. The airline lost Eddie’s luggage when he traveled to Calgary. On the day of his competition, the Olympic security agents almost did not let Eddie in at all because, they later said, the chunky man’s coke-bottle glasses had such thick lenses they were certain he was an imposter. But he did get let in eventually. He didn’t do very well. Outside magazine said that in the air, Eddie looked like an “errant slushball.” When it was all over, Eddie came in 56th place out of a field of 57 jumpers (but then, the 57th man had been disqualified).

    But all the world loved Eddie. Johnny Carson had Eddie flown down to Burbank to appear as a guest on The Tonight Show. TV crews and newspapers from around the world clamored to interview Eddie. Once he got back to England, he was treated like a full-blown celebrity who parlayed his fame into a tidy sum.

    To state the merely obvious, Eddie was the exception, not the rule. And even with all the attention paid to him, few people would have held Eddie up as a role model. When someone is as skilled as Michael Jordan, it doesn’t take long before you hear slogans such as “Be Like Mike!” But no one would say, “Be Like Eddie.” Because mostly we identify with those who win even as we distance ourselves from those who lose.   If your favorite basketball team manages to defeat a rival team in a big game, even those of us who were nowhere near the basketball court may quite happily declare, “Hooray! We won!” But when your team loses such a game, we are apt to say something like, “Shucks, they lost.” Just how is it that we win but they lose? Similarly in school a student on Monday may be glad to hold up a math quiz and say “I got an A!” even as the next day she may look at a history test and say, “The teacher gave me a D.” We are quick to align ourselves with victories but equally quick to put some daylight between ourselves and defeat.

    Given all that, we are glad to discover the apostle Paul’s ringing assurance at the end of Romans 8 that we are victors, winners, cosmic conquerors. In fact, in verse 37 it may very well be the case that Paul coined his own Greek word in a zestful attempt to express the enormity of everything he has written so far in this landmark chapter. In verse 37 Paul says not just that we are conquerors but he attaches the Greek prefix huper, from which we get our word “hyper.” We are not just winners, Paul explodes, we are hyper-winners.

    And probably most all of us are only too glad to hear it. As anyone in advertising and promotions could tell us, few phrases arrest our attention and pique our curiosity more than the line “Congratulations!  You’re A Winner!”

    “We are all winners, hyper-victors, through him who loved us” Paul says. But that is not all Paul says. Many of us are familiar with the phrase “more than conquerors.” But how often do we remember the four words that precede that declaration: in all these things. Paul is not like some slick advertiser who tries to catch your attention by coming up to you out of the blue to saying, “You’re a Winner!” Instead he first writes “in all these things we are more than conquerors” and so the logical question becomes, “In all what things?” Well, in all the things Paul has just been talking about.

    Paul writes, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ” followed by a list of potential candidates: trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword. Now maybe we can cruise over top of that list without batting an eye, but the reaction of the Roman Christians was rather different the first time they saw this. To them this was a description that hit pretty close to home. Would we be able to refresh the impact of these words if we substituted other items? Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall collapsing twin towers, AIDS, anthrax, secularism, unemployment, depression, terrorist plots, divorce, cancer, miscarriages, infertility, suicide bombers, handguns?

    You see, when at the head of verse 37 Paul says “in all these things,” he is describing the everyday realities of life that threaten us, that make life unhappy, dicey, and difficult. And please notice that Paul does not say that we are more than conquerors over all these things, as though to say that if we are faithful enough, these difficulties will never come our way in the first place. We are not victors over these things but in them. We do not lead victorious lives because we get spared the pain of this world but rather like Jesus himself, we find victory smack in the middle of this life’s worst realities.

    That’s why verse 36 makes clear that we face death all day long even as we are all the time considered like sheep to be slaughtered. That’s what we look like to this world: like sheep to be slaughtered. That line is a quote from Psalm 44 but in a New Testament context comparing us to sheep at the slaughter is a loaded allusion to also Jesus, the Lamb of God, the Lamb that was slain. As followers of the crucified Christ, of the one who was weirdly and paradoxically glorified on a cross (of all places) so we also face death all the day long. We live cross-shaped, cruciform lives of sacrifice and service. We are constantly putting to death the clutchings of ego and desire, of vengeance and the way of violence. We are people told to turn the other cheek, to forgive seventy times seventy times in a life that does not use a calculus of grace but that exudes grace in wildly exorbitant ways.

    “Nice guys finish last” a popular aphorism says, and as Christians who walk under the sign of the cross, we reply that if this is so, then we will be quite content to finish last.   In your mind’s eye when reading Romans 8:38-39 you need to see assembled before the apostle Paul a long line of people who represent typical Christians in his day and ever since. Standing before Paul and coming up to him one by one, these Christian folks have things to ask. And in hearing Paul’s answer, we need to perceive not just flowery words to counter-cross-stitch onto a wall hanging but a pastor’s answer to deeply pained questions.

    And so a woman whose body is riddled with cancer comes to Paul and asks, “Do my tumors separate me from the love of God?” And Paul says “No!” A man in a wheelchair rolls up and asks, “Does my disability separate me from the love of God?” And Paul says “No!” A just-widowed woman who senses the reality of death so keenly her whole body aches with the grief of it all asks, “Does my dear one’s death separate him or me from the love of God?” And Paul says “No!” A man whose clinical depression means he may spend the rest of his days tethered to a vial of Prozac asks, “Does my depression separate me from the love of God?” And Paul says “No!” The woman with an addiction shuffles up shame-faced, eyes downcast as she mutters, “Am I such a bad sinner that I am separated from the love of God?” And Paul says “No!” Finally, before this goes on and on, Paul says, “Listen, everyone! There is nothing in all creation that can separate you from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord! That covers everyone, everything, every conceivable situation you could ask me about.”

    In so many ways the basic orientation of our lives may make us look like misguided folks who value all the wrong things. Some while back the multi-billionaire cable TV magnate Ted Turner said he could never become a Christian because Christianity seems like “a religion for losers.” Microsoft chairman Bill Gates also once derided worship by saying he could think of lots of far more productive things to do with a Sunday morning than singing and praying in a church.

    The world hails us as losers whose lives are outwardly no better than the next person’s life. But still we willingly follow our Lord. We walk the way to the cross and go down into death along with Jesus and we do it because we know that somehow, in the deep magic of the cosmos, victory comes through defeat, healing comes through humility. That is the gospel way and we follow it even though it so often leads us away from success as the world defines it. And we do all this because we carry in our hearts the better vision of God’s kingdom. Successful people, the “winners” of society, get ahead by conforming themselves to this world, adapting themselves to its values, working its angles, and going with the flow. Losers like us, on the other hand, do not conform to the world but instead we try to give life the shape of things to come by living into the better patterns of God’s kingdom.

    Eddie the Eagle is a lousy ski jumper, but he really loves it. In fact, he had hoped to compete again in a future Olympics. But it turned out that Olympic officials did not like Eddie and felt he reflected badly on the Games. So they instituted what some call the “Eddie rule” which requires all athletes to have finished in the top half of an international sports event as a prerequisite for getting into the Olympics. Doubtless that will keep Eddie, and many like him, out. You see, the Olympic folks don’t mind having people lose but only because without losers there could be no winners. But if a loser gets attention, the winners seem diminished.   In this world losers are supposed to fade away quietly so that winners can occupy center stage.

    But the secret of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is that we become winners by losing, we gain life by dying, we gain the victory in all these things that pain us because it was precisely for all these things that Jesus came into this world in the first place.

    Illustration Idea

    The preacher Fred Craddock once made a poignant comment.  In the days when the “Left Behind” series of books sold a scandalous number of copies, Craddock noted the dispensationalist belief that one day all good Christians will be raptured out of this world and be instantly beamed up to heaven before things get really bad here on earth. Craddock finds this teaching to be arrogant. Without even knowing it, those who long to escape suffering by getting snatched out of the world first are basically saying that the disciple is greater than the master. Jesus suffered his whole life. But if we can find a different path to take ourselves, we will.

    But even short of some hoped-for rapture there are other ways by which to deny suffering, pain, and difficulty.  I once heard a Christian author lament some of the songs he sang in his youth and the way those songs damaged his theological senses. Back in Sunday school this man used to sing, “I’m inright, outright, upright, downright happy all the time. Since Jesus Christ came in and cleansed me from my sin, I’m inright, outright, upright, downright happy all the time.” Without for a moment denying the true joy that comes to all who are “in Christ,” still we can properly hesitate over sentiments that rule out of the Christian life things like sorrow, struggle, doubt, sadness.