I am again preaching at South Highlands UMC and Cold Spring UMC this morning. Here are my thoughts for this 15th Sunday after Pentecost.
When I started working on this sermon, I chose the title “The Price of Wisdom.” I think I had in mind some witty conclusion based on the MasterCard commercials that we said that enumerate the cost of things and conclude with the price of something is priceless. I still think that wisdom, especially wisdom found through Jesus, is priceless. But I have found that what today is about is not the price of wisdom but rather what wisdom lets us do. Wisdom allows us to conquer fear.
Several years ago the church where I was a member decided to have a hog roast. The primary reason for having the roast was to get some of the college students in the area to know that the church was in the area. At the time the church was beginning its climb back from almost closing and it seemed like a good idea to let the local college students know that the church was there.
We ran into two problems with the hog roast. First, the night of the hog roast happened to be the same night as a major college event; as a result the hoped for attendance was lower than was anticipated. Second, it turned out that we really didn’t know how to roast a hog. This was only an inconvenience because we had built enough cooking time into the schedule so that, in the end, there wasn’t much of a problem in that regard. Still, with the lower attendance, we were left with about 200 hundred pounds of left-over pork.
This is where I came into the picture. We were relative newcomers to the church and weren’t involved in the original planning for this event. But we had come from a church where the church’s mid-week dinner was put on by the various Sunday School classes (and that included the Senior/Junior High class). So we knew about church dinners and preparation. We took the left-over meat home and started preparing some good old-fashioned pork barbeque. We prepared some baked beans to go with the barbeque and were able to get a quantity of rolls before we came back to church for services on Sunday. After services that morning, we sold BBQ sandwiches and reduced the leftovers to a minimal amount of waste.
The next year, during one of the summer Administrative Council meetings, the topic of hosting the hog roast came up. There were a number of complaints that we shouldn’t have another one because we didn’t make any money on the previous one. Since 1) the previous hog roast had never been intended as a money raiser and 2) we had made a profit, I objected to that particular characterization. I pointed out that we had made a profit (though I didn’t mention the fact that it was only about $5.00). I then stated that we should have a hog roast and that I would take care of it.
It wasn’t so much a matter of the date (we had learned from the previous year when to schedule this) nor was it a matter of getting the materials together. I came home from the meeting that night and let my wife know what I had volunteered the two of us for. She would handle arranging for the baked beans, desserts, and other basic things for a Methodist Church meal; I would handle obtaining the hog and getting the cook. Getting the hog was no problem because a member of the church was a hog farmer and would provide the prepared hog as a contribution to the church. That left me with procuring a cook.
I had someone in mind but wasn’t sure if he would do it. His wife was a member of the church and their kids were very active in the Sunday School program. I knew that he liked cooking but he always seemed to stay away from the church events. So there was some uncertainty in my mind whether he would do it or not. And, in light of the time frame that I was working on, if he said no, then I would be faced with a major problem.
But when I asked him if he would help us with the project, he gladly agreed to do so. That year, the hog roast was a success, both in terms of money (though that was never the reason we held the event) and people. People who knew little about the church came and found out that we were alive and doing better than they thought. More importantly, the one who I asked to cook the hog joined the church. He had entertained the idea of joining before this time but he was waiting for the invitation. He had wanted to join but had felt that he was not welcome in the church; to be invited to be a part of the activities of the church allowed to make the decision to join.
During that same period of time, we also revived the United Methodist Men’s program and he took a lead in the project, again being able to use his cooking skills to cook the men’s monthly breakfasts. The third year the hog roast became the men’s project and, with my thoughts turning to other matters, I was able to turn it over to them.
We all know that one way to kill an idea is to say, “We tried that one before and it didn’t work.” A second way to kill an idea is to use the wrong evaluation process. Those who felt that the first hog roast was a failure judged it in terms of the money that was received. Since they probably were not aware of the total sums involved, it was unlikely that they could have really judged whether or not it was a profit. Second, they saw the hog roast as a fund-raiser for a financially struggling church. But the event was never meant to be a fund-raiser; it was meant to bring people to the church. In that regard, it was a failure because we hadn’t anticipated another event would draw away the ones that we wanted to attend. But we fixed that problem with the next hog roast.
Now, considering the situation that the church was in at the time (a declining membership and the threat of closure), it was obvious why there was a reluctance to do the second hog roast. It was a reluctance grown out of a fear of failure. I think that, more than anything else it is the fear of the unknown and possible failure that prevents people and organizations from moving forward. It is an unwillingness to venture into the unknown.
Peter’s response to Jesus in today’s Gospel reading (1) shows us that fear. As Jesus describes what the future will be, Peter is doing his best to keep Jesus quiet. But Jesus will not allow Peter to prevent the people from hearing what the future will bring. It is noted that every time Jesus spoke of what the future would bring, people left because they were not willing to walk that path.
That, I think, is still true today. We hesitate to do things because we fear that they will not work. We do not seek to be innovative but rather try to things that have worked for others, even if they are not applicable to where we are or what resources we have. Let others try the new stuff; we will stay with our traditional approaches.
We, as individuals, seem to also fear what tomorrow brings. We readily follow those who promise to relieve our fears. The politics of today are not politics of promise or hope but politics of fear. I am not aware of too many politicians, on both sides of the aisle, who do not use fear to achieve their goals. And we readily accept their arguments because they play so much on our fears. We would rather do things that seem to take away our fear but, in reality, only mask that fear. Again, so much of what we do in this world is not to remove the cause of the fears but rather to mask the fears that we have.
The Reverend Canon John L. Peterson spoke at the World Bank on May 31, 2005 about what has transpired since September 11, 2001. Speaking about comments the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, made concerning that day, Reverend Peterson said,
But the rest of Archbishop Rowan’s reflections did not really touch me until the following Saturday when I sat glued to BBC and CNN. All that day we heard on those two networks the language of revenge, the language of retaliation. Archbishop Rowan reminded me that God speaks a different language, not a language of revenge and retaliation, but a common language of reciprocity, of God sharing with us the experience of terror and death. “And when we speak to God the language of hatred and rejection, nails and spears, nail-bombs and air strikes, terror attacks and the bleeding bodies of children in Ireland, Baghdad, Jerusalem or New York, God refuses to answer in that language.” But then Archbishop Rowan says, “How hard for us really to believe we are free to speak God’s language!”
Later in his address, Reverend Peterson identified some comments written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu,
Tutu concludes: “Terrorists happen sometimes to be Christian, sometimes Muslim; sometimes Jewish, etc. The cause of terrorism lies not in their faith but in various circumstances: injustice, oppression, poverty, disease, hunger, ignorance, and so on. To combat this terrorism, we should not foolishly speak of ‘crusades’ against this or that faith, but we should eradicate the root causes that can drive people to the desperation that compels them to so engage in desperate acts. We will not win the war against terrorism until we do that.” (2)
In today’s Epistle reading (3) James warned the people of Jerusalem about the difficulty of speaking without knowledge. In verse 13, James wrote, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom.” (4) Believers should, therefore, be slow to speak. He wasn’t saying that one should not speak out but rather speak in terms of what you know.
James advises us to seek divine wisdom. Those that possess godly wisdom will show it with works, not just words. It is what we do that will remove our fears. Quoting Jonathan Sachs, Reverend Peterson wrote,
The Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregation of the Commonwealth, Jonathan Sachs, began his essay with a question asked by a Jewish sage: “Who is a hero?” So often society answers this question by lifting up the heroes of war and conflicts. But the Jewish Rabbi had a different answer: “Who is a hero?” “One who turns an enemy into a friend.” Sachs argued, “If I defeat you, I win and you lose. But in truth, I also lose because by diminishing you, I diminish myself. But if, in a moment of truth, I forgive you and you forgive me, then forgiveness leads to reconciliation. Reconciliation leads to friendship. And in friendship, instead of fighting one another, we can fight together the problems we share: poverty, hunger, starvation, disease, violence, injustice, and all the other injuries that still scar the face of our world. You gain, I gain, and all those with whom we are associated gain as well. We gain, economically, politically, but above all spiritually. My world has become bigger because it now includes you. Who is a hero? One who turns an enemy into a friend.”
Sachs reminds us that, “Breaking the cycle is anything but easy. War needs physical courage. Reconciliation demands moral courage, and that is far more rare. In war, ordinary people become heroes. In pursuit of peace, even great leaders are afraid to take the risk. The late Anwar Sadat and Yitzhak Rabin had the courage to take that risk, and both paid for it with their lives.” (2)
We are not going to conquer our fears with words of anger or uncertainty. Nor are we ever going to be able to go into the future without understanding. Jesus rebuked Peter because Peter was afraid of the future and because he was not thinking about what Jesus was saying. I realize that it must have been for those who followed Jesus back then to hear Him say that we must lose our life in order to save it. It must have been frightening to hear Him tell those who followed Him then that the road they would walk is long and hard, not short and easy. It is no wonder that so many dropped out as the time to Calvary grew shorter. But we are hearing these words after they were said, not when they were first were spoken. We know the outcome and we should not be afraid. We know the outcome and we should be working to fulfill the Gospel message.
I think that is why the reading from the Old Testament today (5) is the passage about looking for wisdom. Because if we don’t seek wisdom when we seek Jesus, we will only face calamity. As the writer of Proverbs wrote, “panic will strike like a storm; distress and anguish will come upon you.” It is because we are not open to Jesus in both mind and spirit that the lack of knowledge will be our downfall.
I have always had problems with the phrase “fear of the Lord.” But I have come to know that this fear is not the fear that threatens our lives; it is more an understanding of who God is and what God means to us. We may fear the Lord because it is a different world than the one we live in.
Jesus told his disciples to seek the truth and the truth will set you free. You cannot blindly seek the truth unless you are guided by the wisdom, both the wisdom of the world and the wisdom given through the Holy Spirit. As I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon, I found myself dealing more with the consequences of fear than I did the price of wisdom.
Whether it is a fear of failure in what we do with our lives or a fear that transcends our life, wisdom is the one thing that will conquer our fears. It is the wisdom that allows us to know Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. It is the wisdom that allows us to know that we can be empowered by the Holy Spirit and can then move forward into an uncertain future. We are closing today by singing that we will go where Jesus leads us. We do not necessarily know where that it but we will sing with the certainty of those who have come to Christ and have opened our hearts and minds to the power of the Risen Lord, safe in the knowledge that the future can bring no fear into our lives.
(1) Mark 8: 27 – 28
(3) James 3: 1- 12
(4) James 3: 13
(5) Proverbs 1: 20 – 33