(This is the sermon that I preached on Sunday, November 15, 2020 in response to the readings for the day – Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, and Matthew 25:14-30. You can see the entire service clicking on our church website)
Everyone has something they enjoy – some activity. I’m sure you do too. Maybe it’s a form of exercise or working with your hands. Maybe it’s crocheting or gardening. Maybe it’s cutting wood. Maybe it’s swimming or riding a bike, or just taking a walk. Think about that activity for a moment. What is it about that activity that gives you that sense of life? What is it about that activity that makes you feel alive?
For me, that activity is running. There’s nothing quite like getting up early on a Saturday, putting on a hat and gloves, some long sleeves, slipping on my running shoes, putting in my ear buds and heading out the door and running. This time of year is the best time to run, as far as I’m concerned. It’s nice and cool and usually pretty still. It’s colorful too! It’s a pleasure to just be outside and to go for a number of miles.
Running is a process, just like life. Just like faith and discipleship. The life of a disciple is a marathon, not a sprint. Sometimes it’s like a small race, with hardly anyone participating, where you have stretches of the empty road that you run alone on for miles and miles. You get comfortable talking with God, and observing everything around you, wondering how far you’ve gone and how far you have to go. Those lonely races can be tough. But you keep going because you’ve trained for this and you know that the effort is worth it. It brings you joy after all.
Running is also like discipleship in that sometimes it’s like a huge race. I ran the NYC marathon 16 years ago. It’s still my favorite. 35,000 runners. I remember waking up at 4:30am to catch a bus that took me to Staten Island from where I was staying on Manhattan. I remember the canon booming at the start of the race with Frank Sinatra blaring “New York, New York.”
I remember running across the Verrazano- Narrows Bridge that connects Staten Island with Brooklyn. And when you are running across that bridge, you look off on the left in front of you, and you see way off in the distance the skyscrapers of Southern Manhattan and they look about three inches high. And then you realize, Oh My Gosh, that’s really far. That’s the end of the race and it looks so very far, far away. And I have to run all the way north through Brooklyn, Queens, and into the Bronx and then back down Manhattan to the finish line at the southern part of Central Park. It feels overwhelming and it can throw you off, right at the start.
And lastly, regardless of whether a race has many people or just a few participating, all races present great challenges.
The readings today can be a real challenge to hear too. Zephaniah is a struggle to read, let alone listen to. God sounds harsh and angry when we hear it for the first time. We hear about punishing people who rest in complacency, plundering wealth, a day of wrath, and a day of distress and anguish. We might struggle with what the Good News is here. It’s certainly not right there on the surface. There’s no nice easy warm up into this reading. It’s like a sprint up a hill on a rainy cold day while your foot hurts. Where is the Good News?
Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians can be a challenge too. We hear about God coming like a thief in the night and sudden destruction coming upon people, with no escape. It’s like running on a path that you are unfamiliar with and you have no idea how long it will be until you are done. Exhausting. Where is the Good News in this?
And our Gospel reading presents us with a challenging parable from Jesus that makes it sound like God only rewards those who are smart financial wizards – some sort of twisted prosperity gospel message.
The treatment of the third slave sounds harsh – almost like a coach who mercilessly yells at the team to sprint a lap around the track over and over and over again, with no pause or relief. Where is the Good News in that?
Frankly, these passages are exhausting. It’s similar to training for a marathon. At some point in the months of training, you are going to have a really difficult training run – one that makes you want to just throw in the towel and quit. Maybe because it’s freezing rain out and you get soaked and are chilled to the bone. Maybe you aren’t feeling well. Maybe you’re sore or you didn’t sleep well. Regardless, no matter how much you enjoy running overall, there are going to be times when you just don’t like getting out there and running. You just don’t want to hear a loved one tell you to get out and go. But you go anyway. And you adjust how you run.
If there’s one thing I know about training for a marathon, it’s this – you have to change up how you train. You have to do different runs. You do some cross training. And you rest.
That’s true for discipleship and faith too. We can’t approach faith with only one lens. We can’t be effective disciples by only following one command of Jesus, or only assuming that Jesus will comfort us and never challenge us. Following Jesus isn’t easy. It was never promised to be easy or comfortable. If we take this journey of discipleship that way, we’re bound to get hurt.
Discipleship isn’t some compartment of our faith or our lives. It’s not about being happy all the time. It doesn’t put us in a place of comfort – often it’s uncomfortable. Discipleship is no different than training for a marathon. It changes you. But that change is essential. Things that are alive change and adapt. It’s what allows us to go on, to take on those difficult runs, and to do the race. It’s what allows us to experience the fuller joy of something that we love deeply and intimately. It’s what allows us to be drawn closer to Jesus in our journey of life and faith.
Today God encounters us in a challenging way in these readings. Jesus shows up and tells us a story that we struggle with.
You see all of these readings share a common theme – that God really cares. God cares so much, that God will go to great lengths. God has expectations. Anyone who is serious about something, and really cares about someone, has expectations. And what are those expectations – they are for our benefit. Living the faith congruently isn’t about making our lives easy – but it does transform us and bring us joy on the journey.
What God is doing is important. It’s not play time. It’s a race. A long distance race. A race that taps into muscles that we may not be used to using. Muscles like evangelism – which is noticing what God is already up to and naming it. Muscles like proclamation – which is looking at the reality we are in, calling out injustice and announcing the Good News to people who desperately need to hear it. Muscles that we don’t even know the names of and had no idea that they exist until we start to use them and feel how sore they are after we do use them. But with all muscles, the more we work them out, the less sore they are, and the stronger they become. The more we use these muscles, the less effort we need to make – the muscles just operate on their own.
And the goal isn’t to win. It’s to run in the race. So often we get caught up in the result. But with God, it’s not the end that is most important. It’s the journey, the process, the training, the means. The result will come – God already knows what’s going to happen. That’s secure.
All of these readings are about how we live and move. They are about how serious we are when it comes to following God and Jesus. Are we congruent? We have been given everything we need, and the question is, now what?
But if that’s all they were, that wouldn’t be good news. That would just more on our shoulders, a heavier burden, a bigger hill to climb.
No, the Good News of these readings, the Good News that God encounters us with today, that Jesus touches us with today is this – Jesus invites us into his abundance. Into his grace. Jesus offers us everything we need. He equips us. He supplies us with everything. He gives us the shoes for the race. He gives us the proper nutrition that we need. And not just enough for us to run, but enough for us to share with others on the course of life.
In fact, Jesus has already given everyone what they need – the right equipment. Often times we don’t even realize it. We are so focused on the race ahead – the finish line – that we lose sight of what is right there in front of us, the journey we are on right now. We become like the third slave – afraid. Afraid we don’t have the right equipment. Afraid that we don’t have what it takes to run the race. Afraid that we’ll be running it alone. Afraid that the sore muscles of evangelism and proclamation mean that we can’t go any farther. Afraid to the point that we’ve already convinced ourselves that we have lost.
Race day is here. That shouldn’t scare us. As Paul tells the Thessalonians and we heard this morning, “For God has destined us not for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.” Jesus is all in for us. Those are words of encouragement. I’ll tell you what – when you hit the wall in a race, the point in which everything hurts and you don’t know if you can go on – hearing words of encouragement are all you’ve got and they keep you going. Because you know you aren’t alone.
A friend wrote a story this week about an encounter he had at a protest. It was a tense situation between two sides that do not see eye to eye. Some of the people present were not Christians and they watched and made observations about Christianity based on what they saw. And there were Christians there too, on both sides. Some were acting very un-Christlike. Their message was not a message of hope, grace, or mercy, but a message of hatred, division, and manipulation of God’s word. He asked these questions – How do we do evangelism in this context when Christianity looks like bad news? How do I talk with people on both sides and share Good News with all? How do I talk with the openly devious? How do we shift the public face of Christian witness and show the world good news?
These are good questions. They are questions of a man running a race with many others wondering if all his training would carry him along the course. I think the answer is that we do the same thing Jesus did and does. To see the realities around us – sometimes unpleasant realities, painful realities – and offer an alternative. To be audacious enough to just keep going forward – even if it is only one step at a time.
To do and say things that get others to respond to the message of Jesus, rather than responding and allowing the other ways to draw our attention away from the race at hand. It’s not about ignoring and pretending that these things are not real or that they are magically vanishing. It’s about moving forward regardless, knowing that there will always be other paths. But we follow a course marked out by Jesus. It’s not an easy course. It’s got hills, rain, sore muscles, and more. But Jesus gives us everything we need to run the race with others. To encourage each other. To carry each other when needed. It’s not about finishing first. It’s about running the race well and giving it all we’ve got, because we’re following the one who gave everything for us. We’re already in the race. Jesus put our shoes on and gave us the water of life. Let’s go for a run.