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Sermon – November 14, 2010: Make Up Your Minds

Sermon for Sunday, November 14, 2010 First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Make Up Your Minds

Isaiah 65: 17-25; 2 Thessalonians 3: 6-13; Luke 21: 5 – 19

A couple in a young people’s Sunday School class were studying Jesus and the

Pharisees. Jesus admonished the Pharisees for tithing mint, dill, and cumin, but neglecting

care for the needy, and said that they should do both. The class focused on the Pharisees’

rule-following emphases, their tendency, in the gospels, always to object that Jesus and his

followers were not scrupulous enough about the ritual obligations of religion.

People said several things, but the most emphatic remarks were from the young

wife. She said what was wrong with the Pharisees was that they didn’t understand that love

for God wasn’t to be shown by obeying rules, but was to flow out of the spontaneous

feeling of the heart. It was unnatural for devotion to be expressed by duty. It was

supposed to be the natural outgrowth of kindled affection.

That same year she left her husband and ran off with the mailman. The husband was

shattered. A year later he still looked a little stunned and lost. He’d married a woman

committed to following the instincts of the heart, who didn’t believe that following rules had

anything to do with love.

Well, a person can go wrong either way. That’s the tough thing about life, isn’t it? that

it never resolves into recognizing that the way always to go right is to be dutiful, or the way

to do right always is to follow one’s bliss. Sometimes we achieve our humanity–and our

nature as children of God–best by accepting discipline and consciously rising to a standard .

Other times we become who God wants us to be by setting ourselves free to be guided

and shaped by some new claim on us which we find compelling.

The scriptures this morning give us a chance to think about both the sincerity of

spontaneity and the merit of fulfilling established obligations. When Jesus predicts

persecution for his followers, he tells them that when they are called upon to give a defense

of their beliefs, they should count on God’s spirit to provide what they are to say at that

time– they aren’t to think about what to say beforehand. In that situation, for the purposes

of Jesus in the gospel, the best thing to do is to refuse to think ahead about how to handle

something , and count on the heart, at the right time, being given something to say.

Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, on the other hand, emphasizes social duties and

obligations. Paul reminds the church that he himself, when he was with them, didn’t accept

his due as a person of God and servant of the church, but worked with his hands to support

himself, so that he didn’t have to rely on other people’s resources. He urges them to follow

his example. In that situation, for Paul’s purposes as a leader of Christian fellowships, the

best thing to do is what some established authority insists upon as the proper approach.

The passage from Isaiah we had disposes of the problem of whether we choose

following rules or going with the flow. Isaiah foresees a time when human freedom, and its

inevitable wrong guesses about when to follow rules and when to follow a personal vision,

doesn’t mess up the way the world goes. Isaiah says that God will make everything right.

Nature will be right, and people will be right. God will so influence things that love and

peace and companionable contentment will be established even in the unlikeliest

relationships. God’s will for creation is peace and long life and love and satisfaction.

How are we to approach living in the world now, in this long, testing meantime

between God’s announcements of God’s final victory and everything being wrapped up

and working out just the way God wants it? How are we to manage in a world in which

some of the time we are to trust what comes to us and other times we are to stick to

following the rules?

If we could completely solve that riddle life would be easier than it is, but there are

things we must do. The first is to recognize that neither strict rule-following nor routinely

embracing new impulses always is the right choice.

Jesus finds the Pharisees wrong for being sticklers for rules, and Paul finds some of

the Thessalonians wrong for flouting the rules to follow their own inclination to be lazy.

Neither conscientiously learning and following proper guidelines nor deciding to follow one’s

instincts is always going to be appropriate.

The idlers in Paul’s church are the first to address, and I want to emphasize them not

so much as parasites as persons who have discovered that Christianity challenges the old

rules–they certainly formerly lived in a culture in which they were forced to fend for

themselves– and have decided to forget the old rules and do what feels good. They aren’t

noticing, or they don’t regard as a problem, that their failure to support themselves amounts

to forcing other people to take care of them, placing the burden of effort unfairly on their

charitable neighbors.

The New Testament is so devoted to taking care of the community that there are a

couple of these scriptures which address the inevitable fraud which accompanies the easing

of burdens. Paul uses his authority to urge the Thessalonian church no longer to support

those unwilling to work, which means that Paul is certain that this extension of Christian love

and care is being taken advantage of by malingerers.

I’m using these loafers in Paul’s church as an example of people who decide not to

follow rules but instead do what they feel like doing. What makes this approach bad is that

their not taking responsibility for themselves forces other people, with needs of their own,

to take responsibility for them. That’s the thing that Paul refused to do when he ministered in

their midst. It’s not that Christian sharing and care for everyone is not a good thing– it’s that

capable individuals exploiting it in order to make their own lives easier while making others’

lives more difficult is a bad thing.

That offers a rule of sorts about refusing to prepare and trusting God to provide. If

what that means is that other people are going to be burdened–if you’re shifting an

inevitable burden so that you escape it and others have it imposed on them– that’s not

God’s will. God may well provide for you through other people–but that’s for God to

decide as God’s response to your situation.

I want to stress that these strictures apply to persons successfully employable who

find leisure more pleasurable and that’s why they end up supported by others. There are

all sorts of people, for many reasons, who have no choice but to be supported by others.

To the extent that we are a Christian society it’s inevitable that persons with needs are

secured from suffering by everyone else. That is not something to regret. What’s too bad

is that it is impossible to devise a system which safeguards the vulnerable which doesn’t,

at the same time, make it possible for people to take selfish advantage of it.

When may a person count on God instead of counting entirely on himself? Jesus’

example of testimony can be such a time, where the sincerity of unrehearsed honesty has

more persuasiveness than either strategies or eloquence could devise. Many times

people put off important statements because they don’t know how to say them. Often

what they find when they finally speak, no matter how artlessly, is very successful

communication. Stuff straight from the heart has its own power.

There are other ways of expressing ourselves which can be defeated by too much

prior consideration. Sufficiently practiced musicians or athletes may perform better simply

playing than thinking a lot about what they’re doing at every point. A spirit of fun, to offer

another example, may carry off effective social interactions better than reliance on

remembered rules of how to win friends and influence people.

So what does that mean? It means that spontaneity, trusting the moment, going

with the feeling can be the best thing when it helps communicate better with others. God

may indeed give you the words to say which you couldn’t possibly devise. Relying on

instincts may also be best in various kinds of play or playfulness.

The effect one has on others, however, means that one’s special sense of being

gifted, guided, or led–getting in a groove, perhaps, for an athlete, or surrendering to one’s

muse, for a musician–isn’t absolute. The athlete, especially if on a team, must still heed the

coach, and the musician, in an ensemble, the director.

I’ve privileged following the rules, in a way, because the only case I’ve made for that

is the implicit one that a spouse who doesn’t follow rules brings sorrow into others’ lives,

and people who don’t take responsibility for themselves burden others. No matter how

often we read Jesus in the gospels criticizing the Pharisees for being narrow about rules,

most of us believe in rules, and usually for good reason.

Until God at last resolves everything, and we’ll be free of our freedom to go wrong,

we’ll have to do the best we can. We must pray and try hard to see what’s best for others

in making our choice between meeting set expectations or following our instincts. The less it

imposes on other people, the more free we are to trust that new thing which compels us.

The more people we affect, the likelier we are to need to follow established rules.


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