Sunday, June 01, 2008

Audio from June 1

Sermon from Sunday, June 1

I want to start this morning’s sermon with a question: When was the last time you set a goal for yourself? Maybe I should continue on with another question: When was the last time you reached a goal you set for yourself? This morning’s sermon from 1 Corinthians 9 is all about goals—how to reach goals we have set for ourselves, and what goals are worth setting for ourselves.
So I decided I should front with you about a couple of goals that I’ve set in my life. I remember one fateful night at the Olive Garden on City Line Ave., not far from Eastern Seminary where I was going to school. Over plates of pasta, Jill looked at me and said, “Maybe we should run a marathon.” At first, I thought it was the pasta talking. You know that strange sense of guilt and self-loathing that creeps over you after you eat too much pasta? You eat too much pasta and you think to yourself, “Something needs to change or I’m gonna get really big” and so you dream of doing something like a marathon. We talked about it, and decided that we were going to do it. Most marathons are run on Sunday mornings these days, and I knew that after I graduated from seminary I was likely going to be working on Sunday mornings, so we decided that we were in the right situation to do it.
So we did it. We researched marathons to run, chose the New Jersey Shore Marathon. It was fairly close and fairly flat. That was important. Then we researched training schedules. And we trained. Hard. The training plan had you running five days a week. Three middle distance runs of 6-8 miles on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. A short run of 3 miles on Saturday. And a long run on Sunday that, as the training schedule went along, worked up to 22 miles. We worked and trained and pushed ourselves; we stuck by the schedule even when it was difficult. And there were some difficult days, running in the rain, running in the cold and snow of January, running, running, running. When the day of the marathon came, we were poised to meet our goal. That morning broke rainy, windy and cold. And I had been running so well but had to walk a few miles in there. Jill, even though she could have finished, walked with me for those few miles. But we met our goal—we finished! We made it.
In order for us to reach our goal, we had to make some major life changes. We had to change the way we ate, the way we spent our free time. We had to look at our dayplanners each day, busy with schoolwork and other things, and be sure to set aside the time we needed to do the work required to achieve our goal. The marathon colored the way we looked at our lives. It meant that Thanksgiving morning, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, we set aside time to run. But we did reach our goal, and I’m proud that we did. Although I did tell Jill while we were walking, “If I ever talk about running a marathon again, remind me of this and don’t let me do it, no matter what.” She has had to do that a couple of times.
Well, that was a pleasant little goal and we achieved it. But of course it was a fairly self-contained goal—six months and it was all over. Some goals are longer term. For example, a goal that is always going to be important to me is to be a good worship planner. I do not know for certain that I will be a pastor all my life, but I do have a sense that God uses me to plan times of worship where I can help lead the community into God’s presence. To do this well and to understand this well, I felt like I should get more education. So I entered a Ph.D. program in it so that I could understand it at the highest level, and be wrestling with the deep issues that theologians are wrestling with these days. That is a goal of mine, and getting a degree is a step in pursuing that goal. And it has been a longer term process, and it has not always been an easy thing. It has meant some late nights studying, it has meant that my days off from church often have been spent in the books. Pursuing this goal means that some other goals have to be left behind. Choosing one goal means that other goals might not happen, and pursuing one goal means you won’t have a chance to do certain other things. That is the thing about setting goals—not everything can be a goal. You have to choose your goals.
I think you can tell a lot about a person by their goals. Because when you come right down to it, our goals are not just goals—they are principles by which we live our lives. Our goals guide us in decision-making. A great example is the Olive Garden; when you stare down the menu at the Olive Garden (or any restaurant, really), what you choose to eat depends on what your goals are. If your goal is to lose weight, you order a salad. If your goal is to get whatever you find most delicious, then you order lasagna or some other calorie-laden treat. A goal is not just something way off here that you’re hoping to get done; in some way, any goal in your life, short-term or long-term, has to take center stage in your life and shape what you do and shape how you spend your time. Another goal I have in my life is to be a good preacher—and so I read certain books, certain magazines, I read and listen to others’ sermons—when I could be spending my time on some other pastoral task. But because this is a goal, it is a principle that shapes how I spend my time.
Paul knew this, and Paul was not a man who seemed to worry that he didn’t know what his goals were. Paul knew his goal was to win people to Christ—that is, he knew that his goal was to convince people that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead and to encourage them to become Christians and live their lives in Christians in response to that reality of the risen Jesus. That was his goal. And his goal shaped everything he did. The beginning of this chapter, before the part that Bruce read, had to do with whether or not ministers—including Paul—should be paid. Most Christian denominations today have professional paid ministers, but in those early days, that question was still up for grabs. Was being a minister a job, a full-time paid professional position? Or was the minister merely another member of the community who had leadership gifts and would have another job and use those gifts free of charge to the community? As you can imagine, people had different opinions on the issue. Paul begins the chapter by making a passionate statement that he believes ministers should be paid. He quotes an Old Testament text from Deuteronomy 25:4: “Do not muzzle the ox when it is treading out the grain.” When Jill was a girl, here family would use this same verse when they were picking blueberries—the person picking blueberries should be allowed to eat a few blueberries here and there. Paul applies that text to the current situation and says, basically, “Look, ministers have an important job. Their job is to preach, to teach, and to focus on the spiritual health of others. To do this, they need strength and they need to be able to focus on it. So the community should support them in the use of this gift.”
After Paul has made this argument, though, he goes on to say that he personally will not insist on being paid, only that in general they should pay ministers. Paul himself will not insist on being paid because it may interfere with his goal of winning people to Christ. Do you see how important this goal is to Paul? He even sets aside his paycheck for it. He says, “I have a right to this money, but I will not use it so that no one will be offended by me and thus dismiss what I have to say.” The message has such urgency that Paul does not want to put any obstacles up to people hearing it.
He carries on this theme and says that he always tailors everything around this goal of winning people to Jesus. “Though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.” Paul was a Roman citizen, which put him at the top of the social heap; but he took no advantage of this high estate, and instead considered himself a slave, considered himself on the bottom of the social heap, so that people would not miss his message. When he was with the Jews, he says, he took Jewish customs seriously and honored them so that the Jews would respect his message. When he was with the Gentiles, he took Gentile customs seriously so that the Gentiles would respect his message. You can see how seriously Paul took his goal—there was nothing untouchable in his life except that goal of winning people to Jesus. Everything else could change—he could get a paycheck, he could miss a paycheck; he could act like a Jew, he could act like a Gentile—but what could not change was that burning call to preach the Gospel. That was at the center of his life. That was his goal.
It does us well sometimes in our lives to ask uncomfortable questions. And so I will ask you one today: what is your goal? Not “What are your goals?” but “What is your goal?” What is that singular calling at the center of your life? What is it that everything else can change but this cannot? Put in real-life terms, what is the principle by which you make your decisions about what you’re going to do and when you’re going to do it? What is it that you most want to achieve with your life?
You might say that you don’t really have a goal like that. But I think all of us have goals; it’s just that often we don’t realize that we have them. I remember when I came home from college at Christmastime 1995. And I totally fell in love with a hockey video game I was playing, NHL ’94. Just loved it. Played it ALL THE TIME. In fact, I woke up one day and just wanted to play it. So I just sat and played ALL DAY LONG. And I played a lot of a season, not quite a full one, but by the time I laid down at night I felt just awful. I closed my eyes and saw little hockey players skating around; I thought through scoring opportunities I had just missed, times I had hit the post, or shot just wide. But mostly I just thought about one thing: I had just wasted a full day of my life on a worthless goal. I didn’t set out to do it specifically as a goal, I didn’t say, “You know, I think I’ll make playing video game hockey the goal of my life”—and yet it happened. Sure enough, it was a goal, because I spent all my time trying to pursue it. And It didn’t benefit anyone in the world, it didn’t benefit God, it didn’t benefit my family, it sure didn’t benefit me as I just sat there getting fatter. I hated myself because I had spent a precious day in pursuit of a worthless goal—a goal I didn’t choose to have, a goal I didn’t want to have, but a goal I undeniably had nonetheless. Being 17 is a precious thing—you only get so many days having the energy of a 17-year-old. And I had wasted one of them on a worthless goal.
A lot of times, I think the self-loathing we feel comes from pursuing worthless goals, goals we don’t even know we are pursuing. We might not articulate that the goal of our life is our comfort, but a lot of us live that way; we work long hours to accrue things that we want or think we need. Or for some of us it is prestige at our jobs, and so again we work long hours to curry favor with the right people or to advance to a position we covet. For some of us, our goal is having a perfect family, and so we worry and obsess over how our family is. No matter what our goal is, it gives shape to our lives—it shapes how we spend our time and how we spend our money and how we spend our emotional energy.
And when you structure your life around the wrong goal, we usually notice that same sort of feeling I noticed when I was 17 playing that video game—self-loathing, this gnawing sense that we are spending our wild and precious days pursuing a goal that is just not worth pursuing. You might not feel as bad as I did that night when I was 17, but that’s probably because your goal isn’t quite as worthless as mine was. But if you slow down enough, you too will feel that gnawing sense of wasted time if you have a worthless goal. In fact, that’s why so few people ever slow down in their lives, I think: if they slow down, they will see that their goals are worthless, so they keep busy so they never have to face that cold, empty fact.
Choosing new goals and pursuing them is hard work, work some don’t want to achieve. Paul compares it to training, like I did for a marathon. “Athletes exercise self-control in all things…I punish my body and enslave it.” By this he means that pursuing a goal means more than just something up in our minds, it is something that we must pursue with our whole beings.
So what is your goal? So much of what we will achieve or not achieve as a church depends on your goals. This is true in our lives together—for instance, we have a vision statement as a church, summed up on the front of our bulletins. We say that this is what we envision for our church, so it’s important for we who lead to guide the church in a direction toward the fulfillment of this goal we say we have for ourselves.
And yet even more important to my way of thinking are each of our individual goals for our lives. People ask me often what makes Baptists different from other Christians. Is it something about baptism, they wonder? Or something about communion or the way we understand the Bible, etc.? But probably the thing that most distinguishes Baptists from other Christian denominations is our understanding of the church. We don’t believe the church comes from the top down; we believe it comes from the bottom up. So in some other denominations, a church is established when the hierarchy wants to set a church there. In a Catholic situation, Rome wants to plant a parish, they set up a priest and boom!—a church happens because Rome wants it to happen. But the Baptist vision is very different. Baptists believe that a church happens whenever committed Christians come together and wish to form a church. Doesn’t need a priest, doesn’t even need a pastor, just needs the people who feel called by God to be a church. And so the congregation—not the hierarchy—has the power. And an individual church is not successful or unsuccessful because of what the hierarchy does—a church rises and falls with the people. If a Baptist church is to be all it can be, it depends on each of us—on me but frankly mostly on you as the congregation—having good goals. The church is not something a group of paid professionals sells to consumers. The church is a gathering of people committed to the purpose of being a church in the world, for all that means—for maintaining the right worship of God, for living in Christlike service to the world, for growing in the truth and sharing God’s love and truth with others. And if you want that to happen in this place, it means that each person gathered here this morning must reevaluate their goals. We each must live as if that is a goal that animates our lives. As the church is in your life, so it is in society. If the church is made up of people who wish to keep spiritual things on the margins of their lives, there are no tricks that pastors or popes can pull to make the church vital and exciting. There is no pastor so good that he or she can overcome the will of the people if they do not want to invest themselves fully in the Christian life. And the flip side of it is there is no pastor so bad that he or she can hold the people back; if they want to live the Christian life to the full, their church will be vital and exciting.
So—what is your goal? Are you happy with it? Is your goal to become more like Jesus and is that reflected in all things in your life? If not, let me urge you to make this the day you choose a new goal. Being like Jesus is a hard goal, but it is the only goal I have ever found worth pursuing. Let us pray for courage to see our goals clearly and, when necessary, to choose new ones.