Charles Atlas and the Gospel

Luke 6:27-38
© Stacey Steck

If you remember reading comic books as a kid, you probably remember those ads for the Charles Atlas Bodybuilding system. I remember that in every one I read, there was that little four-part comic within the comic about the scrawny little guy getting sand kicked in his face by the musclebound bully. Being a scrawny little guy myself, I could relate to the poor fellow. Finally, the scrawny guy gets wise, calls up Charles Atlas, comes back to the beach even more musclebound than the bully, and faces him down. He gets the girl. End of story. The message is pretty clear. If you want to be a winner in life, you become bigger and stronger than the bullies in your life. That’s how you get ahead. You beat the bully at his own game.

This approach may work pretty well in the comic book world in which we live, but it is an approach that is just the opposite of what Jesus had in mind in our passage from Luke. Throughout the Gospel, Jesus gives us some tough assignments but they are all a piece of cake compared to almost impossible, sometimes even life threatening, words he offers us this morning. “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” What? Do what, Jesus? Love whom? What are you, some kind of a nut?

Until I was in the fifth grade, I went to a private school. However, in that fateful fifth grade year, I transferred to the public school system and I can assure this was not at all a pleasant experience. When you come from a private school, are a little on the small and scrawny side, and have a girl’s name like Stacey, your life is a natural disaster. Where I grew up, the public school system assumed that you had gone to private school for a reason, so they tended to put kids like me straight into the class full of behavioral problems and malcontents. I had a lot of enemies, immediately. On the playground, I had a lot of evildoers to contend with. I had a lot of curses and taunting to endure. And I had a lot of violence to put up with in the form of spitballs and pencil jabs and kidney punches.

And did I call up Charles Atlas, bulk up, and face down my enemies? Well, it was tempting, although I’m not sure even that would have helped. Instead, I did nothing but run away and endure. And do you know why? Probably because I diligently went to Sunday School and had drilled into my head that brilliant wisdom Jesus offered his disciples, to “Turn the other cheek!” How many times have we heard this one? Turn the other cheek? We’ve heard over and over again that Jesus seems to be saying, “Be passive. Be nonviolent. Anger is bad. Don’t hit back. Christians shouldn’t hurt or confront people. Don’t resist.” This is precisely what oppressed peoples are always told: “You’ll receive your reward in Heaven for the indignities of this life. But in the meantime, turn the other cheek while I beat you and then get back to work.” Regarding turning the other cheek, I believe we’ve been misled.

Listen carefully once again to Jesus’ words: Turn the other cheek, Jesus says. Offer your cloak in addition to your coat. Give to those who ask from you. Lend without expecting repayment. Be perfect. You’ll notice that in each of these statements, Jesus commands us to do something in response, not just stand there and take it. There is an imperative here to take action, although in a different way than the Charles Atlas bodybuilding system.

An ethicist by the name of Glen Stassen wrote a great book entitled “Just Peacemaking,” and he uses as one of his Biblical touchstones the text before us this morning, because it has a strong message for we who would be peacemakers in a turbulent world. Stassen has investigated the concept of turning the other cheek and found that what Jesus meant here was that an insulted person, a person struck down as an inferior, should turn to the aggressor the other cheek also so as to confront the attacker with his inhuman behavior. It works like this.

Imagine if you were slapped or beaten by someone because he or she thought they had right to do so based on your worthlessness. You’d have three options: you could get beat up and run away, like I did in grade school. You could fight your attacker, bringing you down to his demeaning level. Or you could confront your attacker with their insult and turn it around on them. Turning the other cheek, as Jesus taught, meant standing up for yourself as a full human being and asserting your dignity. By turning the other cheek towards the attacker, the person who insulted you and considered you a worthless inferior, you were making a bold and active move. You were saying, “I’m not going to take this insult and run away. If you think I’m so inferior, you may have to slap me again, but I’m not going to back down and prove it for you.”

If you did this, if you actually offered your attacker your other cheek, the attacker would have two choices: to either slap you again on the other cheek, recognizing your dignity, or back down and also tacitly acknowledge you as an equal. Either way, by taking this active initiative you affirmed your status as a person of equal human standing. Stassen calls turning the other cheek a “transforming initiative,” because it breaks the cycle of aggression and passivity and transforms the moment, giving it possibilities for change.

The second of Jesus’ imperatives is also a transforming initiative. In Jesus’ time, the things to wear were the tunic, and the cloak, or the shirt and the coat as Luke calls them in our translation. This shirt was a knee length, almost dress-like garment that was worn next to the skin by both men and women. The coat was an outer garment worn on top of the shirt, as protection from the sun or other elements. This coat was a very necessary and valuable garment, especially for the poor or those without houses for one reason or another, like shepherds. This garment was so important that there are specific sections of the Jewish law designed to safeguard a wearer’s possession of his or her coat. In Exodus 22, we read, “If you take your neighbor’s garment in default, you must return it to him before the sun sets; it is his only clothing, the sole covering for his skin. In what else shall he sleep? Therefore, if he cries out to me, I will pay heed, for I am compassionate.”

What this is referring to is the seizing of a garment as payment for an unpaid loan. Sort of like ancient near eastern foreclosure. It is this very same immoral act of taking a person’s last protection from the cold wind that the Old Testament prophet Amos cried out against eight centuries before Jesus brings it up again. Amos condemns the people of Israel saying, “they lay themselves down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge.” In Amos’ time, this foreclosure of cloaks had a double indignity to which I think Jesus is referring. Seizing a cloak not only deprives a person of their garment, but it thumbs the creditor’s nose at God by violating a law set down by God to protect the defenseless.

So Jesus says to the people, when someone comes to seize your cloak, turn it around on them. Say to them, “You want my cloak? Here, take my tunic too, and see in what condition you leave me. See what a violator of the law you are!” The debtor’s condition is quite apparent: He or she is naked! Keep in mind that this transaction, this fashion foreclosure if you will, generally took place in the law court so that the debtor’s nakedness would serve as an indictment of the creditor’s sin and violation of the law in front of the entire community. Jesus tells the disciples of a nonviolent, yet non-passive, way to reclaim the dignity which is inherent in every single human being. He teaches them how to take a transforming initiative.

This is all well and good for two thousand year-old, tunic wearing middle easterners, but how often do we get slapped around or have our coat demanded of us? How many opportunities do we really have to take these transforming initiatives. I would suggest that we encounter situations all the time which call for us to do as Jesus tells us. It may not be that we ourselves are the victims and survivors of aggression, but inhumanity is never too far away, and if we take seriously Jesus’ commandment to “love our neighbor as we love ourselves,” we are also obligated to take transforming initiatives on behalf of others.

Several years ago, on Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, I tuned into a memorable TV movie called The Vernon Johns Story. It was about the pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, just before Dr. King assumed the pulpit there. In the movie, James Earl Jones plays Pastor Vernon Johns who is trying to get his middle class parishioners who are too-dignified-to-sing-Negro-Spirituals to become active in the fight against segregation. After many sizzling sermons and confrontational committee meetings, he finally gets through to one of the Deacons, Deacon Hill, with the story of Moses killing the Egyptian who was beating the Hebrew slave. A small, but meaningful, victory.

A little later in the story, the same Deacon Hill comes upon a typical sight in those times: two white police officers beating a black man senseless. And surrounding the scene, like so many deer caught in the glare of headlights on a dark Alabama highway, a crowd of people stands by transfixed by the barbarity openly displayed in front of them. Deacon Hill is transfixed too, but by the crowd watching the beating doing nothing. He looks to his left and he sees one black face gawking, the fear making his eyes bulge out like in a B-grade horror movie. He looks to his right and sees another face, a woman, motionless except for the tear gently rolling down her cheek.

But something breaks Deacon Hill’s trance, something besides the moaning of the beaten man and the deafening silence of the crowd, something that breaks the racist spell of the moment. He remembers Vernon Johns telling him of the story of Moses and the Egyptian who was beating the Hebrew slave. Finally, he pushes through the small cloud of witnesses and takes two, giant steps towards the officers. Waving his powerful arms over his head, he cries out for the beating to stop. One of the officers does stop the beating but he turns his attention to Deacon Hill and moves to intercept him, shoving him back with his nightstick. Deacon Hill doesn’t touch the officer, but the officer begins to beat Deacon Hill anyway and finally moves behind Hill and begins choking him with the nightstick. Hill uses his strength, his only weapon, and flips the officer onto the ground, grabs the hated nightstick and raises it to strike the officer who is now lying on the ground at his feet. He is poised to break the man’s skull with the very weapon used upon his own body. But he doesn’t do it. He gets shot first by the other officer.

Now you may be wondering why I would use this example to illustrate my point. After all, Hill was about to beat the officer, and maybe even kill him. This is true. But let us not forget that Deacon Hill’s first action, his first inclination, was to stand up for the oppressed and confront the attacker with the horrendousness of his act. Deacon Hill made a transforming initiative. He died for it too. Presumably, this part of the story was included to illustrate just how hard is the way of non-violence and where the civil rights movement went from there, that is, towards full nonviolence. Deacon Hill died too early to feel the influence of Dr. King. But his initial action was nonviolent, yet non-passive and dignifying, yet confrontational.

If that story seems a little removed from your own experience, let me share with you a commercial I saw once that really captures the idea of taking a transforming initiative. The setting is your typical office. The male boss comes over to a woman in his employ and starts in with the routine about how if she used her “natural assets” she could really get ahead in this business, blah, blah, blah. During this harassment, there’s this trick photography that makes the woman shrink again and again until she’s about half her size. He tells her how attractive she is and that “You should try to be a little more sexy. After all, we’re talking about your job!” And here the woman makes her transforming initiative. She says, “No! we’re talking about sexual harassment and I don’t have to take it.”

She didn’t knee him between the legs. She didn’t give in. She didn’t run straight to her lawyer and initiate a lawsuit, although that might indeed be considered a transforming initiative. What she did do, however, was confront her harasser with his humiliating behavior and assert the kind of dignity of which Jesus spoke.

Jesus knew what he was talking about. He knew about the risks involved and the potential for pain and suffering. He knew that people die asserting their dignity and standing up for the rights of others. But he also knew that unless we take transforming initiatives, we can never live into the point of his teaching: love your enemies. Friends, who, by coming to blows with their attacker, ever loved them to back to life? Who, by returning verbal humiliation with the same, ever was able to call another “friend?” And who, by allowing the rights of others to be sacrificed at altars of hatred ever was able to soothe their suffering.

As he often did, Jesus put a twist on things. This time he shows us that transforming initiatives are not taken just to establish our own dignity or humanity, but also to show our love for the other, indeed to show God’s love for all God’s children. It is precisely in confronting our oppressors with their own inhumanity that we express our love for them. “Love your enemies,” Jesus says, and I would interpret that as, “love them enough to make them human even in the face of their treatment of you.” Loving our enemies may seem incomprehensible to us. But we may begin to sort it out by remembering that in life, as well as in death, Jesus took the ultimate transforming initiative. Jesus’ transforming initiatives make ours possible. Amen.

Blessed is Wednesday’s Child

Jeremiah 17:5-10 and Luke 6:17-26
© Stacey Steck

I was born on a Wednesday, and therefore cursed, some would say. Through no fault of my own, I came into the world on the one day of the week which doomed me to a bad attitude and all the consequences that come with it. Yes, the day of my birth cursed me, and no one can change that fact. Remember that old nursery rhyme?
Monday’s child is fair of face
Tuesday’s child is full of grace
Wednesday’s child is full of woe
Thursday’s child has far to go,
Friday’s child is loving and giving,
Saturday’s child works hard for a living,
And the child that is born on the Sabbath day
Is bonny and blithe, and good and gay.

You know it’s true. I’ll prove it to you. Flora, was born on a Monday, and, as all can see, is fair of face. Phares Sechler and Dot Luther were each born on a Friday and they are truly loving and giving. Paul Gaylor was born on a Saturday and he sure works hard for a living. Charles Sloop? Tuesday, and as full of grace as they come. Greg Hager? You’re out of luck and in my boat, my friend, born on a Wednesday, and full of woe. You see, it all checks out. The curse of woe on Wednesday is as inescapable as the day of my birth.

But that’s just a nursery rhyme you say. It doesn’t have any power over you. You can choose not to believe it. Maybe that’s true, but the things we are told and taught as children are awfully hard to overcome later in life. We are the inheritors of the wisdom of the ages, the culture of our communities, and the characteristics of our families, all of them mighty powerful forces that shape how we think about ourselves. We are products of legend, story, and secret, each of them putting their indelible and invisible marks on us. Without divine intervention, we will never move out of the orbit of the societal and familial bodies around which we endlessly circle. Maybe we wouldn’t want to, even if we could. Maybe there’s nothing we want more than that. Maybe it’s a little of both.

The denizens of Jesus’ corner of the world had their particular kind of cultural and familial baggage too. The words of their nursery rhymes are lost to us, but in Jesus’ words to them in Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, we can detect their echoes. Are you poor? You must have sinned. Are you hungry? You parents must have sinned. Are you weeping? It’s because you did something wrong and God is punishing you. Do people hate you and exclude you and revile you and defame you because of the God you follow? It’s because your God is weak and powerless. It’s all through the Old Testament, those rules and regulations, those traditions and those transgressions, that demonstrated to all, poor and rich alike, hungry and full alike, weeping and laughing alike, that some people are just favored by God, and the rest are on the outside looking in, cursed with woe like Wednesday’s child. Everybody knows it. It’s right there in the Bible for Pete’s sake.

And they were beat down, Jesus’ people were. It doesn’t take much to discourage someone. All you have to do is criticize them, belittle them, humiliate them, make them feel like a failure long enough. It’s easy to do, and virtually no one is immune to it, especially children. As resilient as we human beings are, if you heap enough abuse and neglect on even the strongest among us, sooner or later, we’ll crack. The human psyche is, at once, incredibly strong, and unbelievably fragile. And this proud people, who could boast in their history of David and Solomon, of Moses and Elijah, had been on the receiving end of a long period of subjugation, a long and deep occupation of their lands and their labors, and they were feeling cursed. They were getting it from both ends. The Romans making them poor, and their own tradition making them guilty. It wasn’t that many years later when the whole powder keg exploded and the residents of Judea attacked their Roman occupiers with a hatred that burned white hot. The battle didn’t go well, and they lost the rest of what they had already lost the most of: their freedom, their temple, their culture. Cursed, filled with rage, provoked to violence.

Howard Thurman, the great twentieth century mystic prophet, described the process by which deprivation turns a person toward that kind of hate. “Suppose,” he says, “Suppose you are one of five children in a family and it happened, again and again, that if there was just enough for four children in any given circumstance, you were the child who had to do without. If there was money for four pairs of shoes and five pairs were needed, it was you who did without shoes. If there were five pieces of cake on the plate, four healthy slices and one small piece, you were given the small slice. At first, when this happened, you overlooked it, because you thought that your sisters and brothers, each in his turn, would have the same experience; but they did not. Then you complained quietly to the brother who was closest to you in understanding, and he thought that you were being disloyal to your mother and father to say such a thing. In a moment of self-righteousness you spoke to your father about it. Your father put you on the carpet so severely that you decided not to mention it again, but you kept on watching. The discrimination continued.

“At night, when the lights were out and you were safely tucked away in bed, you reached down into the quiet places of your little heart and lifted out your bundle of hates and resentments growing out of the family situation, and you fingered them gently, one by one. In the darkness you muttered to yourself, ‘They can keep me from talking about it to them, but they can’t keep me from resenting it. I hate them for what they are doing to me. No one can prevent me there.’ Hatred becomes for you a source of validation for your personality. As you consider the family and their attitude toward you, your hatred gives you a sense of significance which you fling defiantly into the teeth of their estimate of you.”

Howard Thurman was, of course, describing the plight of blacks in these United States, but the process is the same for anyone when what you need thrive is denied you, when love, in all the forms the Apostle Paul described it, is withheld from you. Thurman calls people from whom love, basic dignity, and respect have been withheld, the disinherited, those whose birthright of the love of God and their fellow human beings has been denied them. They have had the inheritance of grace taken away from the them, and the inheritance of health, the inheritance of self-determination and the inheritance of faith, all of it taken away and replaced by fear, deception, and hate, most of it turned inward. They have internalized their oppression and let it become the most corrosive of all human emotions: shame. I’m not good enough. I’m not worthy. I’m cursed. I’m Wednesday’s child full of woe.

And so maybe you see why it was so powerful when Jesus said, “Blessed
are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven” because you are blessed, NOT cursed. You are not shameful. You are not bad. You are not the scum of the earth, no matter what anyone tells you. You are blessed, not cursed; favored, not rejected; sacred, not profane; consecrated, not desecrated, bequeathed, not disinherited. God has not forgotten you, even if others act that way and have forgotten you themselves.

The Bible is filled with the disinherited: not only the poor, the meek, the hungry, and the mourning of the beatitudes, but also the epileptic, the schizophrenic, and the delusional, the bleeding, the injured, and the malformed, the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner, none of them responsible for their own plight, but each one prevented from full inclusion in God’s grace and their own community by factors of birth or circumstances beyond their control. “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” asked Jesus’ own disciples about a man born blind, about whom they were sure that someone had done something wrong to account for his curse. The implication here is that God abhors imperfection, and if we aren’t perfect, we’re cursed, sinners who deserve our disinheritance. And once cursed, blessing doesn’t come easily. There were no eye surgeons back in the day to bring blessing to the man born blind. He was just out of luck, wasn’t he? And it’s so hard to get out of that mindset isn’t it? Even after Jesus opens the man’s eyes and shows the world he’s blessed, not cursed, the Pharisees can’t just rejoice at the wonder that has taken place. No, sadly, they want the “sinner” to stay in his place, to keep intact the rules and the system they know so well, and that they controlled so tightly.

Sometimes, even the most well-intentioned of us think we know how the world works, or at least how our part of the world works. And from that exalted vantage point, it’s hard to see our own imperfections, the once which would make us the disinherited from someone else’s point of view. Jesus includes some of those imperfections, doesn’t he? Woe to you who are rich, who are filled, who are laughing, who are well-thought of by those around you. But in the kingdom, it doesn’t work like we think it does. It’s all upside down. The last shall be first, The servant shall be the master. A little child shall lead them. The woes Jesus bestows on those who think they are blessed are given because they don’t really know the rules. You see, the rich and the satisfied and the well-respected aren’t that way only by accident of birth or circumstances beyond their control, but because they have not shared with those who have been excluded, because they have not heeded the command to care for the widow and the orphan and the stranger in their distress. It has been their choices that have earned them the condemnation Jesus hands out.

With a little hindsight, we can see that even those whom Jesus condemns are products of a flawed human system of sin, that they were just as trapped by the rules as those they oppressed and excluded with those rules. They are disinherited in another, equally tragic way, cut off from the fulness of human life, never knowing the blessings of letting everyone share equally in what they have, caught up in the never-ending pursuit of perfection or protection, worried and anxious about defending their birthright or the citizenship or their privilege, working night and day to avoid becoming one of those whom society views as being cursed. Being on the top of the heap is just as cursed a life as being on the bottom. The difference, Jesus says, is that those on the top can do something about their situation, while those on the bottom cannot. You can’t change the day of the week on which you were born, but you can change what you do with what you received on whatever day of the week you were born.

The beatitudes are that moment in the Gospel story that Jesus plants a sign in the world’s front yard, a sign that says, “This is a Shame-free zone,” and he invites everyone to enter in to the blessings that are found in a place like that. In the shame-free zone, no one is cursed for what they cannot control. In the shame-free zone, there’s no condemnation for those who are genuinely trying to change what they can control. In the shame-free zone, imperfections are just imperfections, not disqualifications. In the shame-free zone, you get a first chance or a second chance to experience fully the grace, mercy, and peace of Jesus Christ who doesn’t care on which day of the week you were born, but who does care that you were born, and wants the best for you. May the church truly be God’s shame-free zone in this world, and may all who enter in find the blessing they so richly deserve. Amen.

Duty to God

1 Corinthians 15:1-11 and Luke 5:1-11
© Stacey Steck

Those of you who have ventured into the Happy Place before Sunday School know that you will usually find Dunkin Donuts there rather than Krispy Kreme. There are many reasons for that, but one of the most compelling is that I don’t want to put Fred the Baker out of business. You remember good old Fred. (Watch video clip.) Yes, back in 1981, Fred saw his 3:30 a.m. role as his sacred duty – “time to make the donuts” – a sacrificial duty in the service of those customers like me who love those Dunkin Donuts.

“On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country.” So begins the Scout Oath, words of promise really. From its very beginning, Scouting has taken seriously the spiritual formation of the boys who are part of it. Every year, the Cub Scouts must complete a unit focused on their duty to God, a commitment recently reaffirmed by the Boy Scouts of America at a time when other national scouting organizations around the world have chosen a more secular path. The BSA holds the same duty to God it asks of its Scouts. Indeed, the founder of the Scouting movement, Sir Robert Baden-Powell, once said, “We never fail when we try to do our duty, we always fail when we neglect to do it.” I am pleased to have the Webelos of Pack 476 helping us again this morning to demonstrate that we do not neglect that aspect of our Scouting program.

The word duty comes from the Latin root meaning to “owe” someone something, to be in their debt in some way. When you borrow something from someone, then you are duty-bound to pay it back or there are consequences. Your mortgage lender certainly believes you have a duty to repay your loan. Of course, the word duty has evolved toward the sense of moral responsibility, of doing the right thing. We have a duty to protect children, not because we owe them anything but simply because we have no other morally acceptable alternative. Perhaps our duty to keep our environment clean has some sense of payback about it, seeing how much it has provided for us, but also because morally, our life together depends on keeping planet earth in good shape. Duty calls, and we respond, not always because there’s something in it for us directly, but because there are larger concerns at stake.

But when we talk about duty to God, it sure seems that the older understanding of the word duty has some currency. In a very real sense, we owe God everything, from our very existence, to our sustenance, to our salvation. We always have been, and we always will be, indebted to God. If we believe that God created the world and everything in it, to turn our backs on repaying God would be the very definition of dereliction of duty. And yet we do it all the time, don’t we? We give good lip service to doing our duty to God, but since God is not actively foreclosing on our mortgages, it can be easy to let our payments slide. Even with a lender like God, who gives us the most favorable of terms, we still can’t seem to make regular payments. Of course, I’m not even talking about the financial part of the account. I’m talking about how easy it can be to look back at the end of one’s day and see it lived entirely for ourselves and not for anyone else, much less God. I’m talking about how easy it is to take our accomplishments for granted and take credit for them as if they’d been all our own doing. I’m talking about how easy it is the be consumers of grace and not producers and distributors of it. I’m talking about how easy it is to think that God’s good news is all about me.

In our reading from First Corinthians, the Apostle Paul seems pretty clear that it is his duty, and the duty of the Corinthian church, to proclaim the Gospel. But his duty to the Gospel comes from his understanding that he owes his life to God. “But by the grace of God I am what I am,” he says, “and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” Paul knows that there is no Paul without God. He knows there is not even a Saul without God. He knows that it is his duty to tell the story of how God changed his life, and the life of the world through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. He knows how much he owes God, and he is trying to convince the Corinthians to see it in that light. He even reminds them, in case they forgot, that he certainly wasn’t worthy of what God had given him, but he received it none the less: “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” Paul has a lot to be grateful for, and his gratitude issues forth in duty.

Maybe something similar is happening in the Gospel story for today when the disciples “left everything and followed” Jesus once they had caught so many fish with his help after they had caught nothing on their own. They’d given up for the day, rowed back into shore and were washing their nets to get ready again for tomorrow when Jesus appears followed by crowds who want to hear him teach. We aren’t told the content of the message, but from what follows, we can imagine that it had something to do with dependence on God and gratitude toward God. When he’s done speaking, Jesus punctuates the verbal lesson with an object lesson. “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” And so they humor him and put down their nets and get the surprise of their young lives, a catch so large it threatened to swamp two boats. And Peter, like Paul, recognizes his unworthiness, falls on his face and asks for mercy. But in that gracious Jesus way, our Savior simply says, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” And the “left everything and followed,” perhaps because they felt like they owed him something in return for what he had done, but most likely because, like Paul, they recognized their duty derived from gratitude rather than obligation.

It would be nice to think that Jesus just frees us from our obligations so that we can follow him and leave everything behind. You could sort of get that reading from this story, right? That since they had brought in so many fish, they could take a little time off for a change? I would love to be able to tell you that God is going to make sure you win the lottery so that you can quit your jobs and go out proclaiming the Gospel all day long. But the truth of the matter is that what Simon Peter and his friends realized is that there was something even more valuable than the largest catch they’d ever made. And so they followed.

John D. Rockefeller once noted that “Every right implies a responsibility; Every opportunity, an obligation, Every possession, a duty.” If Rockefeller is correct, that every possession implies a duty, what is it we possess that creates a duty? Our Scripture readings this morning suggest that the value and virtue of gratitude is what should be behind every Scout’s, and every Christian’s, duty to God. We’re mistaken if we think we can actually pay God back. If we can’t even pay attention very long, how can we pay God back! But the good news of the Gospel is that God’s grace doesn’t demand repayment. Rather, it invites a response of gratitude, like Paul’s, and like Peter and the first disciples who followed Jesus that day. These guys possessed and professed a gratitude which changed their lives, and the lives of countless others.

And what did this duty look like as it was lived out every day? It was hard work, Paul tells us. “I worked harder than any of them,” he says. It was probably awe-filled, if Peter’s experience of Jesus tells us anything: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” It was probably frustrating at times, because if you think waiting around all day for a fish to bite is frustrating, imagine fishing without luck for human beings, as fickle and faithless as we often are. But at the same time, we have to believe there was joy and satisfaction in their duty. Over and over in his letters Paul writes of his joy in sharing the Gospel, despite his hardships and prison sentences. The early church had a way about it that attracted people, and not just because they were healing people and handing out food. The Flemish playwright, Maurice Maeterlinck, was on to something when he said, “Remember that happiness is as contagious as gloom. It should be the first duty of those who are happy to let others know of their gladness.” I think that’s what those new followers of Jesus were about, that’s what made their way of life so attractive. They did their duty with joy, from a place of gratitude, and it made all the difference.

You know, we don’t usually say, “It’s my duty to play.” We don’t say, “It’s my duty to enjoy my life.” We say, “I have jury duty.” We appeal to a sense of duty when we want to compel someone to do something. Our duty is all wrapped up in our culture and our shame and our guilt about not doing enough. And we have largely turned duty into a list of things to do, to check off the boxes of the things we think we are supposed to be doing. Duty is almost always attached to other words which make duty seem like a pretty unpleasant thing. An officer appears at your door and says, “It is my duty to inform you that there has been an accident.” Duty, responsibility, obligation. Not much fun in there. Duty always seems to be about “having to do something.”

But what if I told you that to God’s way of thinking, we do have a duty to play. That we have a duty to enjoy life. That in the kingdom, the word duty is synonymous with opportunity, with joy, with gratitude. It’s the difference between, “I have to do this or that” and “I get to do this or that.” Following Jesus, our obligations get reframed. “I have to get up and workout,” can be re-framed as “I get to get up and run this morning through the beautiful landscape in my neighborhood.” “I have to get this presentation done,” can be re-framed as “I get to work on this presentation that will now be even better.” “I have to meet with this difficult student,” can be re-framed as “I get to meet with this student who has been difficult in the past, but this gives me another shot at getting through to him – and that would be a huge success.” Gratitude reframes our “have-to’s” of debt and obligation into our “get-to’s” of joy and satisfaction. And that make duty to God a blessing rather than a burden.

I have seen our Scouts of all ages in action and I believe they are learning that duty to God is more than just the exercises they have to do one a year to move up a rank. My prayer is that they will always take the time to be grateful for all that is being invested in them by their families and schools and churches and scout leaders, and that when given the opportunity to “do a good turn,” they will find the same joy and satisfaction Paul and the first disciples found as they did their duty to God. And my further prayer is that this church will understand its duty to God through Scouting as a source of joy and satisfaction as well, grateful for the opportunity to pass on, like Paul did, what we have received, the message of the Gospel and all that has been shared with us down through the years. At times we may feel like a groggy Fred the Baker waking up at 3:30 in the morning to make the donuts, but we know there is joy and satisfaction in our labors. May we all respond to the wakeup call of God’s grace with our joyful duty to God. Amen.

Sunday Love

1 Corinthians 13:1-13
© Stacey Steck

Who’s getting married this morning? I mean, we’ve just heard the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians, so somebody has to be getting married? It’s almost Valentine’s Day. Anyone want to propose right now? I got rings! We can move straight to the vows. No takers? Not even for renewal of vows?

I’ve preached on this famous “love passage” many times, but never on a Sunday. That’s ironic since the Apostle Paul’s great treatise on love isn’t about Saturday love, a couple in love, but Sunday love, a God in love. Of course, it does have applications to marital love, and parental love, and love between friends or family members, but mostly it’s about how we are to respond to God in love because of the way that God has responded to us in love. It’s about how God treats us, and how we must treat one another, with patience and kindness, in ways that are not envious or boastful or rude or insisting on our own way or being irritable or resentful, by rejoicing in the truth rather than in wrongdoing, by bearing all things, and believing all things, and hoping all things, and enduring all things.

There are some interesting facts out there about the thirteenth chapter of first Corinthians, like the fact that it is one of the greatest examples of an encomium in Greek language literature. An encomium is a speech or piece of writing that praises someone or something highly, as Paul does the virtue of love. This thirteenth chapter is also brilliantly connected to the rest of the book in ways so clever even the best scholars are still uncovering them. It has inspired great art, like El Greco’s Modena Triptych, and was read at the funeral of Princess Diana. It has given us wonderful, memorable images and phrases, like “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels and have not love” and “When I was a child, I spoke like a child,” and “For now we see through a glass darkly.” It’s a masterpiece for so many reasons. But does any of that really matter?

The story is told of the Dutch diamond collector who was seeking for a very rare diamond. A dealer in New York by the name of Mr. Winston heard of this inquiry and contacted him letting him know that he believed he possessed the diamond he was looking for. The diamond collector arrived, and Mr. Winston had his salesman present the diamond. The salesman described all the technical aspects of the diamond, however within minutes, the diamond collector rose his hand and said that this was not what he was looking for.

Watching from a distance, Mr. Winston hurriedly intercepted him as he was walking out and he asked him if he could present the diamond again. The collector agreed. Mr. Winston pulled out the same diamond and started describing his admiration for this particular diamond. Within minutes they were signing papers, and he purchased the diamond. After the gentleman had left, the salesman who had failed to close the deal asked Mr. Winston, “What just happened? Why was it so easy for him to say no to me a little while ago, while with you he purchased the diamond?

Mr. Winston answered, “My friend, you are the best salesman in the business. You know more about diamonds than anyone, including myself, and I pay you a good salary for your knowledge and expertise. But I would gladly pay you twice as much if I could put into you something I have which you lack. You see, you know diamonds, but I love them.”

There are probably a lot of things I could say that would help you know First Corinthians 13 better, to understand it in its original Greco-Roman context, to see how it connects with the other writings of Paul, to understand its internal logic. And all of those things would be a blessing to you. But sharing those things would just make me a noisy gong, or a clanging symbol, wouldn’t they. They wouldn’t make you love any better the God who loves you. And so this morning, I just want to tell you a few more little stories about Sunday love, God’s love, for you to take home with you and ponder a little, and see how that kind of love might work itself out in your life.

It was 1898 and Ben had left the East Coast 8 years before to head out West in hopes of making his fortune. Well, he wasn’t rich, but he had accumulated over 300 acres of good land and built a comfortable farm house on it. He raised wheat, corn, and all of his vegetables. He had managed to build his herd of cattle to over 200 head. Having accomplished all of this in only 8 years, he decided that it was now time.

So the ad that he placed in the New York newspaper said, “Wanted: A good woman willing to be a pen pal. Marriage is a possibility for the right woman.” Before long, he began receiving letters from Molly. Their correspondence soon turned into love for each other. Now, here he stood in the Kansas City train station waiting to finally meet her. When the train arrived, there were a lot of women getting off. Suddenly, he yelled, “Molly, over here!” She looked his way, walked over to him, smiled and held out her hand. He took it for a moment, then let it go.
She said, “How did you know who I was?”

He then reached into the back pocket of his overalls and said, “From these here letters.”

“But there are no pictures in them.”

He looked down at the stack of letters and said, “Oh yes there are! There are lots of pictures in your words.” You see, he had spent hours reading every word—looking for every little clue that would tell him who Molly really was. He had fallen in love with her words—words that had painted her portrait.

Yes, it’s true, that’s a Saturday love kind of story, but the same is true for Sunday love. You see, as we comb through the words of the Apostle Paul, as we take the time to look deeply into the eyes of those we care for, as we pray our hopeful little prayers for our children or grandchildren, the portrait of God’s Sunday love comes into focus.

The story is told of a woman who left her husband. The husband called the police and filed a “missing persons report.” A few weeks later the police found her a few counties over. They asked him if he wanted them to take him to her. By now the husband had realized how poorly he had treated his wife, and felt badly about it. He decided to write his wife, which he did for months, but she never came home. Finally, Christmas came, and he went to see her in the run-down hotel where she was staying. He asked her to come home and she did. On the way home he said, “I’ve written you for months, why did you come home so easily?” She replied, “Because those were just letters, this time you came in person.”

Friends, Sunday love is possible because God has come in person to us, not just in words on a page but in risking life and limb, in taking risks for us. And that presence is revealed to us once again in the breaking of the bread, and the sharing of the cup, a feast of love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things. Love never ends.”

On a hot summer day in south Florida a little boy decided to go for a swim in the old swimming hole behind his house. In a hurry to dive into the cool water, he ran out the back door, leaving behind shoes, socks, and shirt as he went. He flew into the water, not realizing that as he swam toward the middle of the lake, an alligator was swimming toward the shore.

His mother, still in the house, was looking out the window and saw the two as they got closer and closer together. In terror, she came flying out of the house and ran toward the water, yelling to her son as loudly as she could. Hearing her voice, the little boy became alarmed and made a U-turn to swim to his mother.

But it was too late. Just as he reached her, the alligator reached him. From the dock, the mother grabbed her little boy by the arms just as the alligator snatched his legs. That began an incredible tug-of-war between the two. The alligator was much stronger than the mother, but the mother was much too passionate to let go. As grace would have it, a farmer happened to drive by, heard her screams, raced from his truck, took aim and shot the alligator. Remarkably, after weeks and weeks in the hospital, the little boy survived.

His legs were deeply scarred by the vicious attack of the animal. And, on his arms, were deep scratches where his mother’s fingernails dug into his flesh in her effort to hang on to the son she loved. A newspaper reporter came to interview the boy after he had recovered enough from the trauma, and asked if he would show him his scars. The boy lifted his pant legs; and then, with obvious pride, he said to the reporter, “But look at my arms. I have great scars on my arms, too. I have them because my mom wouldn’t let go.”

“And now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love,” Sunday love, that just will not let us go. Amen.