I had a parishioner once who couldn’t tell the difference between me and the worst idea he’d ever heard. (Frankly, I’d have to be more specific than that to distinguish him from OTHER parishioners who have had that same feeling!)
Once, I wrote a church newsletter article about a group of folks “church people” tend to lovingly refer to as “C & E People”. C & E- Christmas and Easter. In other words, people who tend to only come to church at Christmas and Easter. And when that term is used, frankly, it is usually accompanied by a certain smugness and a “better than you” attitude. C & E folks tend to be looked down upon, or at least patronized, in many churches across the country. My article (Written either right before C or E!) suggested that, instead of making that group of people, who already feel awkward and embarrassed, feel even worse about themselves, perhaps we should just be glad to see them, make them feel welcome and invite them back for something we have coming up. Frankly, a pretty doggone positive article, if I do say so myself!
Well, when either C or E came up next, this aforementioned parishioner showed up. He came straight to me and sneered, “I’m one of your C and E people!” I smiled and said, “I’m glad you’re here!” That wasn’t going to cut it with him. “I’m not going to come to church or give one more dime to this church as long as YOU’RE here!” And then he added what he thought was the knockout punch, “All you want to do is change everything. And I would rather see this church DIE than change!” He huffed a bit and then waited for me to wilt. He clearly didn’t know me very well. I smiled my winningest smile and said, “Well, if your wish is to see this die rather than change…I fear you may be in luck!” He walked away and, sadly, I never saw him again.
There is an incredibly fine line sometimes between “glass half empty” and “glass half full”. And often, it’s hard for us to honestly assess which one WE are. Oh, we’re great at seeing it in others. But we all know a lot of “glass half empty” folks who would swear on a stack of King Jameses that they most decidedly “glass half full” people. I would argue that, sometimes, all it takes to switch from “half empty” to “half full” is a subtle shift or an intentional pause. Last week, I shared that this sermon series grew out of mishmash of things. I took a liberal dose of what God has laid on my heart, added a healthy measure of Scripture and then stirred in uneven amounts of singer/songwriter Rich Mullins and author Stephen Covey, stuck it all in the oven and…THIS is what came out the other end- The World As Best I Remember It.
We’re looking at what I think is important- things I would love for people to “hang their spiritual hat on. Some of it might make you squirm a bit. But the truth is that, if it makes you squirm a bit…you might need to squirm a bit! As we talk about what I think is important in life, we’ll also spend some time on what I think is NOT so important!
The person who wrote more of the New Testament than any other single personal was the Apostle Paul. Most of what he wrote were letters either to churches he started, addressing a problem they had and encouraging them, or to
Individuals, teaching and inspiring. But there is one letter he wrote that is wholly other- the Book of Romans. He wrote it to a church he didn’t start and had never visited. He was on his way there and wanted them to know about him. So the Book of Romans is the most complete collection of Paul’s theology that exists. Each chapter is dedicated to another aspect of faith. And chapter 6 hits dead in the center of what we are talking about today- living a new life in Christ.
Romans 6:15-23 What then? Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? By no means! Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness. I am using an example from everyday life because of your human limitations. Just as you used to offer yourselves as slaves to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer yourselves as slaves to righteousness leading to holiness. When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
There’s a word that we’re going to dance around for the next few minutes- righteous. SOUNDS great, but what does it actually mean? If you go to dictionary.com- and if you know me AT ALL, you KNOW I did!- you will find that “righteous” means “upright, moral, genuine”. Upright. Moral. Genuine. Upright. Moral. Genuine. Honestly, wouldn’t those be words you’d want used to describe you? Who wouldn’t?
Before this Scripture passage, Paul’s been talking about no longer being “under the law” but instead being under God’s grace- being righteous. But, since the law is supposed to be a restraining, protecting influence, wouldn’t moving out from under that protective umbrella expose you to an even greater danger of sinning than before? Doesn’t “the law” protect us from sinning? (Let me pause to un-wedge my tongue, which is firmly planted in my cheek! Just a second- there we go!)
Paul’s answer to his own question is both powerful and direct- whatever you submit to becomes your master. In the Gospels, Jesus said that everybody who sins is a slave to sin. OK- then logic would tell you the other option is a life of obedience to God.
By self-identifying as “Christian”, you take something on. Some theologians have called it an obligation or responsibility. I would like to call a privilege and a blessing. You don’t have to be a slave to sin and negativity anymore. You can, instead, start building your life around the call of Jesus Christ. It’s not a dead weight tied around your neck- it’s a freedom. To be freed from the obligation of serving sin and negativity means to be freed FOR the service of righteousness. The truth is that you ARE going to serve one approach of the other- period.
There’s no middle ground where we get to set our own standards and act however we want and have it actually work. And once you really study the difference between being a slave to sin and negativity on one hand and being a slave to righteousness on the other, you quickly see there’s simply no comparison. One is hard, relentless, damaging and leads to spiritual death. The other one is uplifting, joy-filled, satisfying and leads to spiritual life and peace.
OK- this is the part of the sermon where the rubber meets the road. Glass half-full…or glass half-empty: which one are you? Last week, I said that the only way to “know” yourself was to take a HONEST look- “honest” being the operative word. You have to be willing to examine everything you do and say over the course of a day. Not a moment. Not an hour. A day. A week would be even better…but I’ll settle for a day. Can you go a day without criticizing something or someone? I challenge you. I DARE you!
Here’s a great place to start- with those things that are HARDEST! In other words, what are your “hot buttons”? What are the things that automatically put you in to “critical” mode? If you’re honest, it might center around issues of race. Or gender. Or age. Or educational level. Do some people automatically put you in “critical mode” simply because of the way they look or speak? Maybe it revolves around political issues- certain politicians, political parties or topics just set you off. (And I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that, the SECOND I said that one, some of you immediately defaulted to critical thinking about a person, group or issue, without even meaning to!)
Maybe, for you, it centers more around an overall approach to life. I call this the “Never quite good enough” approach. No matter how good something is, you can’t just acknowledge the positive and leave it. You have to say things like, “That was good…but…!” You know- “That dinner was good, but you know what would have made it better?” “That singer was good, but they would have been better if they had chosen a different outfit!” That sermon was good, but it would have been better delivered by the Right Rev. Billy Graham!” You get the idea! I would argue that, if you consistently find yourself thinking everything could have been better if only everybody would listen to you and do it the way YOU want it done- you struggle with issues of negativity.
Why does this have to be an HONEST look? Why can’t I just ask other people if I’m a positive person? They’ll tell me…right? That’s what Star Trek calls the Kobayashi Maru- the no-win scenario. When you ask someone else, “I’m a positive person…aren’t I?”, you have killed the whole thing before it ever got off the ground. There is NO good answer for them if they think you aren’t…and you know that. If they say, “Actually, no- you aren’t”, you have forced them to hurt your feelings. If they say “Ummm…sure”, you have forced them to lie. Either way, it’s unfair, not to mention mean, to them and of no REAL value to you, either
Here’s my take- if you have to ask OTHER people if you’re a positive person or not…you’re probably not. And instead of looking for an honest answer, you’re looking for the easy way out.
I was raised in a culture that judged…just about everything and everybody. And looking back, it grew out of a HUGE sense of insecurity. If I feel badly about myself, I want to drag everybody and everything else down so that I can feel better by comparison. Folks who love to wallow in the negative find us Pollyanna-ish positive people particularly nerve-inducing- we make the nervous. It took me YEARS to get beyond that mentality- I still struggle with it sometimes. But as I have moved beyond “who’s is better than who” or “what is not the way I like it” and started trying to see the world more through God’s perspective, a whole new world opened up- one I like a WHOLE lot better!
Just like being negative tends to create its own gravity, demanding that you focus on it, being positive creates its own gravitation field as well, pulling you into a scenario where it becomes, more and more, what you do and who you are. The energy we used to invest in serving sin and negativity now become the foundation of a new, positive challenge- to “accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative”. And surely this new master is worthy of more loyalty and devotion than the old one!
Through the grace of God, you’ve been united with Jesus Christ and given both the power and longing to be free from sin and negativity. That power and longing give us the freedom to trade our slavery to sin and negativity for a commitment to Jesus Christ and the righteousness He offers. And in the end- it’s a choice. A choice that only YOU can make. Which one will you choose- negativity and spiritual death or positivity and life abundantly?