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Sermon for Sunday 28 February 2021

First Reading: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

1When Abram was ninety-nine years old the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, 2that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” 3Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, 4“Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. 5No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. 6I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. 7And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.”

15And God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”

Psalm 22: 22-30

22Praise the Lord, you that fear him; stand in awe of him, O offspring of Israel; all you of Jacob’s line, give glory. 23For he does not despise nor abhor the poor in their poverty; neither does he hide his face from them; but when they cry to him he hears them. 24My praise is of him in the great assembly; I will perform my vows in the presence of those who worship him. 25The poor shall eat and be satisfied, and those who seek the Lord shall praise him: “May your heart live forever!” 26All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall bow before him. 27For kingship belongs to the Lord; he rules over the nations. 28To him alone all who sleep in the earth bow down in worship; all who go down to the dust fall before him. 29My soul shall live for him; my descendants shall serve him; they shall be known as the Lord’s forever. 30They shall come and make known to a people yet unborn the saving deeds that he has done.

Second Reading: Romans 5:1-11

1Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. 6For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7For one will scarcely die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die — 8but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Gospel: Mark 8:27-38

27Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” 29And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” 30And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him. 31And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” 34And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? 37For what can a man give in return for his soul? 38For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

With God, I Can

A little boy was taken to the dentist with a cavity that needed to be filled.  “Now, young man,” asked the dentist, “what kind of filling would you like for that tooth?”  The youngster thought for a moment and replied, “Chocolate.”  That’s what I call positive thinking.  Growing up, much of my generation was being influenced by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale and his teachings on the power of positive thinking.  Depending on which school of thought you come from, it was either pure hogwash or was the mantra to live by.  If you aren’t familiar with Dr. Peale’s teachings, the basic message was, “If you can think it, you can do it!”

A good many influential people have repackaged this philosophy, and from the purely “I am in control” point of view, who can deny that a positive attitude is an important element in successful living?  Some of you may have seen a movie from 1993 that embodied the power of a positive attitude.  It was the true story of a University of Notre Dame football player named Rudy, and the movie bore his name.  The movie is set in 1974 when Rudy walked on the field to try out for the Notre Dame football team.  The head coach at the time was Ara Parseghian.

Rudy grew up in Joliet, IL.  He was the third of fourteen children and Rudy didn’t have the physical ability to make the Notre Dame team or any other major college football team for that matter.  But he had a dream, and he never quit trying to bring that dream to fruition.  His teammates say he treated every practice like it was a real game.  Over time, he won the respect of his fellow players.  He worked so hard at his dream that, at the end of his senior season, the entire team rallied to his support and demanded that coach Parseghian put Rudy in a game.

It was the closing moments of the last game of the year.  The crowd in the football stadium got wind that Rudy might finally get his chance, and the stadium echoed with the repetitive cheer–“Rudy, Rudy, Rudy!”  When Rudy got his chance, he made an outstanding tackle.  His cheering teammates carried him off the field.  No other player since has been accorded that honor at Notre Dame.  It’s stories like these that inspire us.  There are people who have a dream, people who think positive thoughts, people who conquer seemingly impossible odds.  It’s mind over matter, and as my father used to add, “if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”  There are good many people who subscribe to this outlook, that our attitudes can have an impact on our destiny.

Many doctors and nurses believe that some older people die simply because they think it’s time for them to die; they give up.  And then there are those with a more hopeful attitude, and these seem to live longer more vigorous lives.  In a study done at the State University of New York at Geneseo (Gen-E-see-O), they tested this hypothesis.  A psychologist began suggesting to fifteen healthy eighty-year-olds in a New York City nursing home that they could have a happy long life.  The results were certainly interesting.  On average these people lived 6.2 years longer than a matching control group who didn’t get the encouraging messages.  They also had fewer illnesses.  Their attitude about their lives seemed to have made a difference.  Now I, for one, agree with this study and the results.  My advice is, get off the couch and you’ll live longer.  This isn’t the only example of the fact that we can affect our own futures by maintaining a positive attitude and outlook.

Major F.J. Harold Kushner was held by the Viet Cong for five and a half years.  Among the prisoners in Kushner’s POW camp was a tough 24-year-old marine who had already survived two years of prison-camp life in relatively good health.  Part of the reason for this, was that the camp commander had promised to release the man if he cooperated.  Since this had been done before with others, the marine turned into a model POW and the leader of the camp’s thought-reform group.  As time passed, however, this young POW gradually realized that his captors were lying to him.  

When the full realization of this took hold, he basically became catatonic.  He refused to do any work, he rejected all offers of food and encouragement, and simply lay on his cot in a fetal position.  In a matter of weeks, he died.  There is creditable proof that our attitude can have an effect on how long we live or how quickly we die.  It can, to a certain extent, also determine how successful we are while we’re living.  My father had another favorite saying.  He said that, “some people are simply too stupid to fail.”  Of course, what he meant by this was, that some folks never entertain the idea of failure and will work tirelessly until they succeed.  It follows Dr. Peale’s philosophy of, if I think I can, then I can.  Back in the 1950s there was a fascinating experiment with fish.

Researchers took a 200-gallon aquarium, filled it with water and put in a northern pike.  Northern pike is known as an aggressive predator.  Every day they dumped in some minnows, which is the pike’s favorite food.  The pike had all the minnows it could eat. One day they divided the tank in half with a piece of glass.  On one side was the pike and on the other side were the minnows.  The pike now had a problem, it was unable to get to its prey.  The pike swam into the glass time after time trying to get to its meal.  Soon the pike gave up and swam around in circles.  Then the experimenters removed the glass.

Now the pike and minnows were free to go anywhere in the tank they chose.  You can probably guess what happened to the pike.  The northern pike kept swimming around in circles and it starved to death.  Its favorite food was literally right there swimming alongside of it.  But it had been conditioned to believe food was no longer available, and so the pike starved.  Motivational experts tell us that human beings are somewhat like that northern pike.

A negative attitude can act like a glass wall, keeping us from our dreams and goals.  If we believe we’re inadequate, we will be.  If we believe we can’t do something, generally we’ll prove ourselves right.  Chuck Swindoll puts it this way in one of his books, “The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life.  Attitude is more important than facts.  It’s more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than successes . . . The remarkable thing is that we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day.  Yes, there are many things that we cannot change.  The one thing we can do, is capitalize on the one aspect we can affect, and that is our attitude . . . I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it . . . and so it is with you . . . we are in charge of our attitudes.”

Now I’m not sure I buy into the power of positive thinking as fully as Chuck Swindoll, nor do I agree with all of his assertions.  The fact is, each of us are given gifts by God to be used for His kingdom.  Those gifts need to be honed and used, but we’re also part of the body of Christ.  We need to bear in mind what Jesus said, “all things are possible with God” (Matthew 19:26).  Bottom line is, on my own, no matter how positive I think, I have limitations.  With that in mind, I do believe that our attitude can have a sweeping effect in our lives.  And even the most dreamy eyed among us, know that there is a limit to how far a positive attitude can take us.  As followers of Jesus, we know we have limitations, that we need more than a positive attitude.  We need each other and we need God!

In the 1960s, China went through its Cultural Revolution under Mao Zedong.  A major feature of the revolution was the outlawing of all intellectuals and anyone else who had “western” connections.  Mao’s henchman tried to reprogram the nation’s mind by making all citizens memorize Mao’s quotations.  By memorizing those quotations, a person was taught that they could do anything.  Nien Cheng was a medical doctor before the revolution.  After it, she was banished for seven years in solitary confinement.

She lived in wretched conditions, and her constant cold developed into bronchitis.  She requested medical help, knowing from her medical training what was wrong and what needed to be done.  A young man came to her and quickly decided she had hepatitis and that he would need to check her blood.  This is how she responded to that diagnosis: “I was astonished.  Any ignoramus with no special medical knowledge would know I had bronchitis, possibly verging on pneumonia, not hepatitis, an inflammation of the liver with symptoms entirely different from mine.  What sort of ‘doctor’ was this young man?  I bent down to look at him through the opening of the small window.  I saw a country lad no more than twenty years of age in a soldier’s uniform.  I realized he was not a trained doctor at all, but had been given the job because Mao Zedong had said, ‘We must learn swimming from swimming . . .’  The young man was simply carrying out Mao’s order to learn to be a doctor by being one.

“There were many reports in the newspaper of cases where untrained hospital corpsmen were said to have performed operations successfully after mastering Mao’s quotations.  During an operation, Revolutionaries, anxious to prove the magic of Mao’s words, remained in the operating room reciting quotations from the Little Red Book (of quotes from Mao) while the untrained ‘doctor’ struggled with the patient . . .”  Can you imagine being operated on by a doctor with absolutely no training?

I don’t know about you, but no matter how much I believe in the power of positive thinking, I simply do not have the talents needed to be a surgeon.  If I must choose between a doctor with the right attitude or one with the right skills, I’ll choose skill any day.  Nien Cheng reports that when Mao himself needed medical attention, experts, trained in Western universities were bundled into special planes and flown to Bejing, often hastily removed from the countryside where they had been exiled to perform hard labor.  Positive thinking is great, but we have limitations.  I think being positive means recognizing our limitations, working within those limitations and seeking the help we need.

When looking at the life and accomplishments of the Old Testament patriarch Abraham, it might be easy to think of him as the ultimate positive thinker.  At age 75, he leaves his family and travels to a new land all on a promise that God will make him a great nation.  Then 24 years later at age 99, he believed God again that he would be the father a great nation, even though he and his wife Sarai were childless!  Of course, Sarai at the time was nearly ninety, which makes the whole scenario even more absurd.

Listen as St. Paul describes Abraham’s attitude about life: “Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’  Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead–since he was about a hundred years old–and that Sarah’s womb was also dead.  Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised” (Romans 4:18-22).

Again, remember God first came to Abram when he was 75 years of age and made him that promise.  I’m certain that over the 24 years since God made His first appearance to him, Abram tried to make this promise happen.  And no matter how positive Abram was in that 24 years, without God’s help, Abram was unsuccessful.  This is the key to Jesus’ words I mentioned earlier, “all things are possible with God.”  This is what differentiates the Christian from secular society. 

We don’t depend solely on our own powers of positive thinking, we understand and depend on God that His will, will be done.  You probably remember the story of Pinocchio the wooden puppet that wanted to be a real boy.  It was to Pinocchio that Jiminy Cricket sang that wondrous song of hope: “When you wish upon a star / Makes no difference who you are /Anything your heart desires / Will come to you . . .”  That’s part of our cultural psyche.  Your dreams can come true.  All you have to do is to believe and work really, really hard.  But we know better.  We understand God is the source of all good gifts and we look to Him to strengthen and empower us for work in His kingdom.

The truth is, Abraham wasn’t a positive thinker, his success came from placing his trust in God.  Remember St. Paul reminds us that Abraham was justified by faith.  Therefore, it would be a mistake to use him as an example of how far inspiration alone can carry us.  We must not fall into the trap of Dr. Peale’s philosophy; just because we convince ourselves we can, this doesn’t always mean we can.  Abraham placed his faith in what God can do, and this is a critical difference.   It’s nice to believe that by having the right attitude, we can have a positive effect on our lives.  As I said, a positive attitude can help in many ways, including how long we live and how well we live.  But it’s even more important to know that we have a loving God watching over our lives who will help us be what He has created us to be, His children and workers in His kingdom.  Understanding this is better than all the positive thinking in the world.

Rev. Dr. John Killinger tells about a friend of his named Millard Reed: “Millard is president‑emeritus of Trevecca University in Nashville.  Millard was on a speaking trip in South Carolina when he suddenly fell ill and was rushed to the hospital.  His liver had just stopped functioning.  His system was shutting down.  The doctors didn’t give him much hope.  But a lot of people prayed for Millard, and when the doctors performed a liver transplant, and he began to recover.

“One day, when Millard was back at home, he was feeling a little depressed and decided to go for a walk around his neighborhood.  It was springtime and there were flowers growing in a neighbor’s yard.  Millard stopped to look at them.  A bumblebee was buzzing from one blossom to another.  Millard knew about bumblebees and how aerodynamically challenged they are, with those heavy, cumbersome bodies and the tiny, insubstantial little wings.  But suddenly this bumblebee did something truly amazing.  It headed straight at Millard.  And then before it got to him, it suddenly did a perfect loop‑de‑loop, like a stunt plane, and went back to the flower where it had started!  This took Millard by complete surprise.  

He remembered in the Book of Job, of how God, at one point, had asked Job if he could make a horse, or if he could make a whale, or any of the other magnificent creatures that God had put in the world.  Millard said he could almost hear God saying aloud to him, ‘Millard, if I could make that crazy bumblebee do that, I could provide you a new liver.’  Millard broke down in tears.  He was still crying when he went back to his house a few minutes later.  His wife was alarmed.  She thought something was wrong.  ‘Oh no, honey,’ Millard said, ‘these aren’t tears of sadness, these are tears of joy.  I am so happy to be alive by God’s help in His beautiful world!’”

I hope that each of us are happy to be alive in God’s beautiful world!  I hope that each of us have a good balance of a positive attitude, of what our limitations are and our need to depend on God for the things we cannot control.  Many of you remember the Serenity Prayer Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr famously taught, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” 

A positive attitude can help us do many things, and there are many benefits to believing that no matter what, we can if we try.  Of course, in this season of Lent, we’re reminded of one huge limitation we have: no matter how hard we try, or how positive our attitude is, we cannot on our own merit God’s grace.  We must depend solely on God.  We must by faith alone come to God for His forgiveness.  Our faith and hope are placed in a God who loved us so much, He sent His only Son, a God who promises to never forget us, never forsake us, and who will give each of us all the blessings He intends for His children.  So instead of adopting Peale’s philosophy we should adopt Paul’s attitude; “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).


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