Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Measure of Success: Saint Paul and Spiderman

 Preached at the Methodist Church in Kahlotus, WA, on May 27, 2012.

In the Washtucna  Community Church we had a special service honoring the High School graduates (a Baccalaureate Service) on this day and one of the members of the school staff was asked by the graduating class to be the speaker. That meant I would be preaching in only one of my two congregations. I decided to adapt a "baccalaureate" sermon that I had preached several years before, in 2007.
Scripture readings: Micah 6:6-8; Acts 27:1-44
If I can be said to have a job at all, I would say that one of the most important parts of my job is to enable other people to encounter and meet the presence of God in the words of the Scriptures, in the words of the Bible: to meet God in these words and help them to hear God speaking to them in these words. And so I would tell you that what we have read in the prophet Micah, and in Luke’s Book of the Acts of the Apostles, is about the success for which God designed us.

These words are part of the measure of your success and mine. Micah’s words give us a definition of success, and Luke’s words about Paul’s shipwreck give us a picture, or a portrait, of success.

Micah’s words tell us that success is being what God wants you to be. It is the answer to the question, “What does God require or expect of you?”

People are always asking kids what they want to be when they grow up, or when they finish school. Maybe we need to be asked that question, from God’s point of view, all our lives. What does God want you to be?

Micah was talking to people who were confused and a bit afraid of what God might want them to be and to do. They had tried to be and do what they wanted. They had been far from successful, and they were confused and more than a little bit afraid of what it might take to be a real success.

Some of the nations around ancient Israel offered human sacrifices for various kinds of success from the gods and goddess they worshiped. Parents offered their young children or infants as human sacrifices: horrendous sacrifices. Yet some modern people sacrifice their children though neglect, for the sake of their own success, or for their own convenience: having things their own way.

The ancient people saw sacrifices as a religious issue. Most modern people wouldn’t describe it that way; but it still is, because today the most popular religion is the worship of one’s self.

Micah imagines a conversation where people ask God what kind of gift would please him. What is the gift that God desires before he grants success? How much does God want from us before he will give us what we desire?

The answer is that God does not want any gifts from you, but God wants you. This is what it means: “to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

What does it mean “to do justice”? Some people think it means giving other people what they deserve, and getting for yourself what you think you deserve. Well, I know there are times when I would like to see other people get what they deserve.

In the movie “Spiderman 3” there is this being from outer space that makes itself into a black suit for Peter Parker, who is Spiderman. But the suit is like a parasite (a symbiont actually, in science fiction terms). It changes Peter Parker and it feeds off of him, and yet it also feeds him.

It feeds his dark side like an addiction. Peter begins to see justice as a matter getting what he thinks he deserves, and giving others what he thinks they deserve. It makes him selfish, spiteful, and vengeful. It makes him a complete jerk and idiot.

But Peter’s Aunt May knows the real meaning of justice. It is not giving others what they deserve. It is giving them what they need.

She tells him how to deal with his troubles (although she has no idea that he is Spiderman): “You’re a good boy, Peter, and I know that you will do what you can to make things right.” This is doing justice. This is success.

The Apostle Paul almost says, “I told you so.” The winter voyage that was taking him to his trial in Rome was headed for disaster. He had warned them against sailing out of season.

But he didn’t treat the crew, and the owner, and all, as they might have deserved. He didn’t talk to them they way they might have deserved. Paul prayed for them, and kept them working together as a team. Paul encouraged them, and made them eat when they needed the energy for the final plunge.

Paul didn’t have to think about others. He had more than enough to think about for himself. Paul was a prisoner on his way to be tried by the emperor’s Supreme Court (perhaps by the emperor himself) as an imperial trouble maker. He could be headed for a death sentence.

Paul had been at the center of a riot in Jerusalem. He hadn’t caused the riot, but he could be punished as a political example. There was no reason to suppose that he would find mercy with Caesar, but Paul believed in mercy anyway. Paul loved mercy.

What does it mean to love mercy? Paul had a violent past: a past (before he became a Christian) when he had Christians arrested, and imprisoned, and killed for their faith. Paul had blood on his hands.

Since then, Paul had learned to love mercy (I know it sounds selfish), because he knew he needed mercy. Paul knew that he had received mercy from God. But, even more than that, Paul knew that he had received mercy from the Christians he had tried to destroy. From that time on, Paul tried to give mercy to others. This was his success.

Spiderman found out, in the middle of the final battle of the movie, that the man who actually had killed his Uncle Ben had done so unintentionally. He realized how much this man had already paid for what he did.

Spiderman remembered the things that he, himself, had done, in the name of vengeance, when he was obsessed with giving other people what he thought they deserved. He made his confession to the man he had tried to kill. “I have done terrible things myself. I forgive you.”  This is success.

One of the things Peter Parker was raised to believe, from his Uncle Ben and Aunt May, was that he was not here, in this world, just for himself. “With great gifts come great responsibilities.”

This world can be a very confusing, scary, and disturbing place. But this is nothing new. It was the same in the days when our scriptures were written. The people who wrote the ancient words we have read were not able to find safe places from the storms and the dangers that surrounded them.

They believed firmly that this world is loved, even as it is. They believed that God finds this world loveable. That is why God does his own kind of justice, and loves mercy, and walks humbly with us.

We believe the strangest of all beliefs; that God himself loved this world so much that he became a part of it, as one living thing among the many. God became human in Jesus, to become one with us in the joys, and the challenges, and the sufferings of life.

In Jesus, God became one with us to meet, head on, all the enemies of life. He met with misunderstanding, with injustice, with hatred, with prejudice, with betrayal, with scorn, with every kind of sin and evil.

We believe that this strange mission came out of his desire to walk with us humbly as our friend. This is why he faced our most real enemies as his own, on the cross; along with the enemy we call death.

We believe that (when he died) he seemed to go under, in defeat; but that was only a move (like a wrestling trick) in which he became the champion. Jesus died and rose from the dead, to be one with us and to make us one with him; to be with us in our struggles, and to be with us in his strength.

God walked humbly with us, and this is his success and ours. To know this, and to be thankful for it, is to walk humbly with our God.

This is a great gift, and with it comes great responsibility.

But it can be a scary thing to seek to be what God wants you to be. The world around us, our peers, our friends, maybe our own family, may have a different idea of success. They may have a different standard and try to hold us to it, or judge us by it.

There are different measures of success that will be applied or recommended to you, or forced on you (whether you want it or not). You will be tempted to evaluate yourself by the standards of people who do not know the standard of success for which God created all of us. Surely this is both the strangest and the best measure of success of all: to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.

No comments:

Post a Comment