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Sermon for Sunday 25 October 2020

First Reading                             Revelation 14:6-7

6I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people. 7And he said with a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.”

Psalm                                                            Psalm 46

1God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. 2Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved, and though the mountains be toppled into the depths of the sea; 3Though its waters rage and foam, and though the mountains tremble at its tumult. 4The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold. 5There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. 6God is in the midst of her; she shall not be overthrown; God shall help her at the break of day. 7The nations make much ado, and the kingdoms are shaken; God has spoken, and the earth shall melt away. 8The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold. 9Come now and look upon the works of the Lord, what awesome things he has done on earth. 10It is he who makes war to cease in all the world; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear, and burns the shields with fire. 11“Be still, then, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations; I will be exalted in the earth.” 12The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.

Second Reading                 1 Corinthians 9:16-27

16 For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! 17 For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but if not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship. 18 What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel. 19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. 24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. 25 Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. 27 But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.

Gospel                                                    John 8:31-36

31Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 33They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” 34Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. 35The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. 36So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

Is the Rat Race the Right Race?

Today is Reformation Sunday and I know what I am supposed to do this morning.  As we celebrate the day that Luther nailed his 95 thesis to the door of Whittenburg church, I’m supposed to regale you with poignant facts from Lutheran history.  Some will think that I should startle you with some stabbing statement of Scripture, possibly about the angel flying overhead in our Revelation reading.  Or, I’m supposed to challenge you with some call of Christ as we hear in our gospel reading for St. John.  Or, maybe I’m supposed to impress you with some imperative of the gospel as we hear in our reading from 1 Corinthians.  But guess what?  I don’t want to do any of those things today.

This morning I want you to relax, to rest, to unwind, to sit loose, to take it easy, to perhaps let your mind wander if you want.  In fact, you don’t even have to listen to what I’m saying if there’s something more important that you have to think about, something more restful, then go ahead.  (Now I bet you weren’t expecting me to say that this morning!)  Instead let me ask you this: when friends ask “How are you?” how do you respond?

After more than 6 months of enduring the Covid-19 pandemic fallout, after week upon week of negative political ads and this divisive election season, I’m sure that most of us would love to give the honest reply, “I’m Tired.”  But the tiredness we feel is more than a weariness of bone, muscle or mind isn’t it?  It goes deeper than that, much deeper.  It’s a kind of lethargy of spirit, an exhaustion of emotions, a dullness of response.

In reality, we yearn, no, we cry out for rest; and yet, we are still rest-less.  We desperately want to relax.  We work so hard at relaxing; and yet, we’re still as taut as bow strings.  We’re tense.  We’re all on edge – on edge with each other, on edge with those we come in contact with.  And it’s understandable.  In the midst of this very tense election season, in the midst of this seemingly never-ending pandemic, we long for peace; and yet, as we look to the world, we cannot find any.  As Mark Ryman wrote in his devotion earlier this week, peace will not be found in the new vaccine.  Peace will not be found with the election of the president.  Peace can only be found in looking to God.  Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).

So in this moment, in this mood that we find ourselves in, let’s turn to God’s word.  But as we do, we discover almost immediately that sometimes there are passages of Scripture that seemingly don’t fit.  Our Epistle reading for the morning is a case in point.  St. Paul writes, “Don’t you know that everyone who runs in a race competes, and only one receives the prize?  So run that you may obtain it.”  Now I bet some of you are saying sarcastically, thanks a lot, Paul, that’s just what we needed.  

As though anyone living in the good ole U.S.A. in 2020 doesn’t know, we’re already in the race.  Oh I know, when you hear this passage you think about the races of the ancient Greek world in the amphitheater at Tarsus, but I’m talking about another race, one in which we’re all been thrust in to, whether we want to be or not.  We don’t call this race by any fancy name – a marathon, or a sprint, or a relay, or any other athletic term – we simply call it “The Rat Race.”  We’ve all heard the term, maybe even used it, but where did the name come from?

We really don’t know who originally coined the phrase, but it is apropos.  We’ve all seen it.  A rat is put into a cage that’s shaped like a wheel.  The rat starts to run.  They have the illusion that they’re running uphill, that they’re getting some place, that they’re accomplishing some goal, that they’re getting ahead of the other rats.  But all they’re really doing is making the wheel spin faster and faster and faster.  In order, then, to stay in the same place, they have to run faster.  They run as if there is some sort of goal.

A goal.  Have you ever stopped long enough to discover what our goal is, or if there is one at all?  Too often we’re like the military officer who was being flown from one tiny island in the Pacific to another.  After a while, he wandered up to the cockpit and asked where they were.  The captain replied: “Well, I’m sorry sir.  I don’t really know.  We’re lost.  But we have a terrific tail wind, and we’re making wonderful time!”  Too often, that’s the story of our lives.  We run and run and run all the while hoping to obtain the brass ring.  The question is, do we?  Are we ever able to obtain that elusive brass objective?  If it isn’t the goal, then maybe it’s about a prize?

The question would then be, what is the prize?  Most likely we’re a bit vague on that as well.  Is it wealth?  Power?  Popularity?  Fame?  Happiness?  Pleasure?  Security?  Love?  Retirement?  It could be any one of these, it could be a combination of prizes or, could be all the above.  It might even be none of the above.  Isn’t this what we tell each other that we’re working towards?  These are the prizes.  But how do we obtain them?  We’re told to get in the race – and we run with the rest of the rats in the wheel!  And our cheer leaders spur us on with our typical slogans: Give it everything you’ve got!  Put your shoulder to the wheel!  Keep your ear to the ground!  Put your nose to the grindstone!  Climb every mountain!  Ford every river!  Make every minute count!  Seize every opportunity!  Think big!  Think positively!  Think success!  Believe in yourself!  Make the most of yourself and of your opportunities!  Don’t settle for anything less than first place.  These are all great slogans!  You’ve all heard them a thousand times. 

And, of course, we then fill our lives with active verbs.  Have you noticed?  We LEAP out of bed.  We SKIM through a shower.  We JUMP into our clothes.  We GULP down some breakfast.  We SCAN the news.  We DASH to work.  We FLIP through our mail.  We BRIEF someone at a morning meeting.  We PLUNGE into our work.  We RUN out for lunch.  We WIND it all up.  We BEAT it for home.  We CRAM down some dinner.  We POP over to some friends.  We SPIN a bit of chatter.  We CUT OUT for home.  We FLOP into bed.  This is the rat race we find ourselves in.  But it doesn’t stop with this generation.

We start our children off in the race at the first possible moment.  We give our children computers, tablets, even cell phones as soon as they’re able to be trusted with them, so they won’t miss a moment!  And we’re noisy about our race, too.  In an article in “The Legion” magazine some time back it said: “There’s a humming in the land, and a ticking, tapping, buzzing, whining, honking, chugging, pounding, beating, throbbing, roaring, blasting and booming.”  The strength of that general noise background has increased 32 times in our cities in the last thirty years.  It’s making us deaf.  

Two specialists who have made a study in this field have discovered that millions of us are developing what they call “decibel fatigue.”  There’s a whole noise syndrome.  Our children, listening to music amplified through Bluetooth earpieces and headphones, are going to be deaf, many of them, in their 40s.  The result, the race is also destroying our hearing.  And if that isn’t bad enough, what do you think it’s doing to our nervous systems?

The fact that the increase in mental disease is on the rise makes us aware of that.  If this continues, it’s estimated that one out of ten can assume that they’ll spend some time in a mental institution before they die.  The pandemic aside, some estimated that 75% of our supposedly physical illnesses are psychosomatic, and who knows how much of the rest of what plagues us, have their source in the damage being done to our central nervous system?  In a very real sense, both physically and emotionally, we’re tearing ourselves apart!  One industry that profits from all this is the pharmaceutical industry.

Bristol-Myers spent fifteen million dollars one year telling us about it.  You might recall the commercial from days gone by.  The family is in the car on their hot, sticky, sandy way home from the beach one Sunday evening.  The father addresses the situation:

Listen, will you get those kids to deflate that dolphin?  It’s sticking me right in the neck!  Mom: Pull the thing out of the fish, will you, honey?  Dad: It must be six feet long.  Just pull the plug out!  Mom: Pull the plug.  Oh, there it goes, around the car!  Oh, it went out the window!  Dad: Will you please keep those kids quiet!  Mom: Mildred just threw your glasses out.  Dad: My sunglasses?  Mom: Yes, and Gerald wants to go to the bathroom.

And then there’s the scene in the shoe store.  The harried clerk says to the lady customer: “Well, it looks like 7D to me.”  And the lady says: “It must be somebody else’s foot, I have always worn 4 triple A.”  Clerk: “Well, it’s growing on the end of your leg, so it must be your foot!”  These – if you haven’t already guessed – are Exedrin Headaches No. 39 and No. 45.  There are thousands of them.  They all end up with somebody taking a couple of tablets.  But no matter how many extra ingredients Exedrin has, they never solve the problem.

Considering the pace at which we run, the frantic pace at which we plow through life, have you ever stopped to ask the real reason for the race?  What is the goal?  What is the prize?  More importantly, what is the price?  Most of us, like the rat in the wheel, just keep racing.  We ask no questions.  We’re the people who run on the moving walkways, all because they don’t go fast enough.  Someone has written a typical American prayer: “Dear God, please give me patience.  And I want it now.”  Well, thank the good Lord, there are some who are at least beginning to doubt some of our assumptions – to take a look at all this.

I ran across this quote a few days ago and I thought I’d share it with you.  “We see a lot of advertisements about how to learn to read faster.  Phooey!  What America needs is more slow readers and fewer fast talkers.  Speed does not beget comprehension.  It’s almost impossible to enjoy a landscape while you are speeding down an expressway.”  A movie star quoted the line that he said had most affected his own life.  It was this: “You only pass this way but once.  You had better take some time to smell the roses.”  How long has it been since any of us took time to do that?

We forget that Jesus exemplified the same thing in His own life in a different way.  First, Jesus enjoyed His life immensely because He never lost His sense of humor.  One theologian has written a book on the humor of Christ.  Certainly, His disciples today have forgotten all about it.  Christ can look at the shortcomings, the follies, the contradictions, the incongruities, the conflicts of our rat race and see the humor in our antics.  The Bible tells us: “He who sits in the heavens laughs” (Psalm 2:4).  I’m certain that God, at times, can only sit and laugh at us!  The question is, does He also hold us in derision for the chaos we create?  Jesus could laugh at the man who wanted to take the splinter out of his brother’s eye, while he had a beam sticking out of his own eye.  

The reason we’re amused by the Exedrin commercials is that they point out how silly and humorous all these situations are that require Exedrin.   What we can’t seem to realize is, we’re caught up in this as well.  We’re running so fast, too concerned about so many things.  Isn’t it time we stop running the rat race and listen for a moment to our psalmist this morning?  Our psalmist wrote, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved, and though the mountains be toppled into the depths of the sea; Though its waters rage and foam, and though the mountains tremble at its tumult.  The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold” (Psalm 46:1-4).

Yes, we’re to make full use of our lives, but our lives were not meant to stand what we are subjecting them to.  Our nervous systems, our physical bodies were not built to do what we’re trying to make them do.  We don’t have to join the rat race.  Consider the life and ministry of our Lord.  He spent thirty years preparing for three years of the ministry.  And, in that entire three years, it was never recorded that He ever hurried any place.  He never ran.  One might say He deliberately dilly-dallied.  

The Bible even records that He was late on occasion, and He never apologized for it.  There were numerous times when the whole multitude surrounded Him – the world with all its needs, the people with their problems, the sick, the crippled, the lost, the desperate, crowding in upon Him.  And what did He do?  He took the time needed to minister to those in need and then He went out to commune with the Father, to meditate, to pray.  If Jesus knew how to prioritize His life, then there’s a pretty good chance that you and I also, need to do that very thing. 

Jesus knew that there was a time for everything.  A time to work, a time to relax and a time to worship and a time to pray.  Communion with God is the goal of human life, it’s why God created us.  God knows the importance of rest, that’s why He rested on the seventh day.  Isn’t it time we gave up the rat race and instead reprioritized our lives?  When we place God first, God will take care of the rest, including help us prioritize everything else.  So, as soon as the service is over this morning, go home and relax, you have God’s permission; isn’t that why He set aside the 7th day? 

So as soon as the service is over, go home, relax, and forget about the chaos of the election season, forget about the problems associated with the pandemic, forget about the calendar and the things that will crowd your day tomorrow.  God commanded, “Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest” (Exodus 34:21).  Today is a day of worship, of giving thanks for all God has done, and for rest.  So go home, relax, and enjoy! Amen

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