“Quit Playing the Wimp Card”

Epiphany 4

January 31, 2016


Text: Jeremiah 1:4-10; Luke 4:21-30; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13


          Last Sunday after worship Katie approached me and asked me to give blood at her blood drive this coming Wednesday. I told her I have never donated blood because I’m scared to death of needles. She told me she hears that a lot. Afterward I got to thinking about how stupid that excuse sounds. What does it say about my faith to be scared of the small momentary pain of being poked in the arm with a needle, especially when it is keeping me from the opportunity of doing something good for others? Besides, I’m almost 58 years old. I am too stinking old to be playing the wimp card. So this coming Wednesday I am going to be a first time blood donor. I’m not proud of this—I’m embarrassed that it took me so long to find the minimal courage it takes to do it.

          This morning we read the story of Jeremiah’s call to be a prophet. When God informed Jeremiah that he had been chosen, even since before he was born, to speak on God’s behalf to the people, how did Jeremiah respond? He said, “Lord, I don’t know how to speak. I’m too young.” What I think he was really saying was, “I’m scared.” After all, God told Jeremiah not be afraid of those to whom he would speak. Jeremiah tried to play the wimp card, and God trumped it. “Where I send you, you must go; what I tell you, you must say. Don’t be afraid of them, because I’m with you to rescue you,” God said. Then God touched Jeremiah’s mouth and continued, “I’m putting my words in your mouth. This very day I appoint you over nations and empires, to dig up and pull down, to destroy and demolish, to build and plant.” I can understand Jeremiah’s fear. After all, God had chosen Jeremiah for the difficult task of proclaiming God’s judgment on a complacent and rebellious people, warning them of their impending captivity and exile. They would not gladly hear what Jeremiah had to say. He would be imprisoned in a dungeon, accused of treasonous behavior. But even as Jeremiah’s message warned of the destruction of the present order, it also offered hope that beyond exile God had a better future for his people yet in store, if they would place their trust in God.

          Today’s Gospel lesson, meanwhile, continues the account of the day early in Jesus’ ministry when he went to the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. As you may recall from last Sunday, he read the following passage from the book of Isaiah:

          “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” After reading this text, he rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the attendant, and sat down. Then he said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

          That got people talking! Although many people were initially impressed by the gracious words he said, some also started wondering, “Hey, wait a minute—isn’t this Joseph’s boy?” as if to imply “We’ve known this guy all his life. Since when did he get to be so special?” Then, Jesus managed to kill the favorable impression completely when he continued, “You’ll probably quote to me the saying, ‘Doctor, heal yourself!’ Do here in your hometown what we hear you’ve done in Capernaum. No prophet is welcome in the prophet’s own hometown. There were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when it did not rain for 3½ years and there was a terrible food shortage. But Elijah was sent to none of them, but only to a Gentile widow in the city of Zarephath in the land of Sidon. And there were many people with skin diseases in the time of Elisha, but none of them were cleansed—the only one cleansed was the Syrian general Naaman.” In other words Jesus was telling them, “God’s purposes for me are far bigger than just you. Don’t expect any special favors from me.” That didn’t set well with the good folks of Nazareth at all. In fact, they got so angry that they ran him out of town and tried to throw him off a cliff. But he got free from them, passed through the crowd, and left.

          As I wondered how Jesus felt about all this, I thought about the times in my life I have found it necessary to say something to someone I cared about deeply that I knew they would find upsetting, and might well respond angrily? I have found those times to be rather scary. Surely Jesus, being human like us, experienced more than a few butterflies in his stomach as this incident unfolded. But he did not play the wimp card. He told them what he believed God needed them to hear—that his God-given mission was far bigger than them.

          God sent both Jeremiah and Jesus out with difficult missions that were often unpopular, especially among those who had at least some degree of power in their worlds. Both came announcing that God was about to bring about major changes. In Jeremiah’s time that meant his own people’s defeat and exile, followed by a new future. In Jesus’ time it meant the fulfillment of God’s purposes through the defeat of sin and death and the opening of God’s realm to all people, not just Jewish people. This was so world-upsetting that some of those who opposed the early Christians described them as “the people who are turning the world upside down.”

          We live in a world where change is happening ever more rapidly. The world and church I was trained to serve when I was in seminary in the early 1980’s was in many ways very different from the world and church I experience today. And as rapidly as things are changing, the world and church five years from now will likely be very different than it is today.

          Change can be frightening. Change is not something I can control, and I like to be in control. The world we live in often seems out of control, careening madly toward an uncertain and possibly very dangerous future. The political polarization in the church and world today, it seems to me, is the result of people desperately trying to regain some semblance of control over how the world works.

          I also believe much of the division and polarization we see in church and society alike have to do with disagreements about which changes should be embraced and which ones should not. The “take America back” slogans we are hearing in many of the political ads leading up to tomorrow’s caucuses can be taken two ways, I think. One way to understand that slogan is to reclaim America from those who are perceived as having taken it away. The other is to take America back in time to a time when things were different, when the culture seemed friendlier to certain cherished values. Either way, the statement assumes that things have mostly changed for the worse. Whether that is actually the case is a matter of opinion. I believe that some of the changes that have happened are good, and others are not. The statement also often assumes that somewhere back in the past there was a pristine time when things were wonderful that ought to be reclaimed. I do not believe a pristine historical period exists. Every historical period has both positive and negative attributes. And I cannot recall any time in history where an attempt to go back to the way things were in an earlier time actually succeeded. Even the most successful reform movements in history have generally taken lessons from the past and repackaged them for the reality of their time rather than simply turning back the clock.

          So what does it mean to quit playing the wimp card in our time? I believe it means not to fearfully shy away from change, but to look it squarely in the eye. It also means to prayerfully and carefully discern which changes need to be embraced and which ones should not be. This becomes tricky because people acting and believing in good faith often come to different conclusions. This is the very point at which I often become afraid—of being disagreed with, of being challenged, of having to do the work of rethinking. It often leads to my having uncharitable opinions of those with whom I disagree. This fear is really another form of playing the wimp card.

          This is why we need to remember the central message of 1 Corinthians 13—that love prevails above all. Living this way is far more difficult. It requires me to remember:

  • I don’t know everything.
  • I only see part of the picture.
  • I could be wrong.

          If we do not love one another, all of our opinions, all of our spiritual gifts, all of our faith, all of our good works, amount to nothing. As Paul reminds us, “Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is not jealous. Love does not brag. Love is not arrogant. Love is not rude. Love does not seek its own advantage. Love is not irritable. Love does not keep a record of complaints. Love is not happy with injustice. Love is happy with the truth. Love puts up with all things. Love trusts in all things. Love hopes for all things. Love endures all things.”

          These words of Paul can actually be a good test for our own lives, simply by substituting the word “I” for the word “love” and adjusting the verb that follows accordingly. I invite you to repeat after me:

  • I am patient.
  • I am kind.
  • I am not jealous.
  • I do not brag.
  • I am not arrogant.
  • I am not rude.
  • I do not seek my own advantage.
  • I am not irritable.
  • I do not keep a record of complaints.
  • I am not happy with injustice.
  • I am happy with the truth.
  • I put up with all things.
  • I trust in all things.
  • I hope for all things.
  • I endure all things.

A person who fully lives this way has advanced far on the road to holiness. I know I fall short on many of these. But God calls me to press on toward the goal of his upward call in Christ Jesus, trusting in his mercy and grace as I do so.

I invite you to join me in discarding the wimp card. I invite you to join me in boldly seeking to live in faith and above all in love, not fear, especially at the point of dealing with change and loving those with whom we disagree.


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