January 3, 2021

                                                                              Rev. John Watts

                                                                              Nampa First UMC

 

STARTING WELL

Matthew 7:1-2, 7, 12-14

 

We may or may not have a Tokyo Olympics this summer.  They were postponed one year from 2020.

In 1972 the Olympics were held in Munich.  That is the year terrorism shocked the world.  Eleven Israeli athletes and coaches were taken hostage and killed.  The Games were almost cancelled, but after a delay they resumed.  Here are some names you may remember from the 1972 Summer Olympics:  Frank Shorter, Olga Korbut, Mark Spitz, Lasse Viren, Steve Prefontaine.  Also, Dave Wottle.

Dave Wottle competed in the 800 meters, which is a short enough race that we can watch the whole thing right now.

(YouTube:  1972 Olympic 800 Meter Finalhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=120Bi0vhRPg

That was Dave Wottle’s M.O.  Start slow and finish strong.  But here’s the thing that’s easy to miss in that video.  Dave Wottle not only finished that race strong, he also started strong.  Even though he was way back in last place and appeared to be out of contention, he knew exactly what he was doing.  He ran an even pace the entire race.  He looked so fast at the end only because his competition started too fast and could not hold their pace.

I want to talk today about starting strong in this new year.  We’re going to need a good coach, and we have the best.  His name is Jesus.  We’re going to look today at four rules to live by.  They are found in the greatest sermon ever preached.  It’s called the Sermon on the Mount.  It’s found in Matthew, chapters 5, 6, and 7.

First rule:  Don’t judge; show grace.

Judge not, that you be not judged.  For with the judgment you give you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get (Matthew 7:1-2).

A survey was conducted a few years ago on why younger people are losing interest in church.  One of the top reasons is that Christians are judgmental (UnChristian, David Kinnaman).  How much of this is reality and how much is stereotype is hard to say, but regardless, this is the impression people have of us.  Especially younger people.  It does not help our witness and it is not consistent with this clear teaching of Jesus: “Judge not, that you be not judged.”  So Coach Jesus is telling us that this is one thing we need to be working on as we get this new year off to a good start.

And of course, most of us are pretty set in our ways and not as coachable as we might be.  So we might raise an objection.  We might point out to Jesus that it’s impossible to live our lives without making judgments.  We go to the grocery store and we make a judgment on what brand of cereal to buy.  In the business world, judgments have to be made – who to hire, who to fire, how to adapt to an ever-changing environment.  In the course of each day, we are constantly making judgments about what to do, what not to do, how to use our time.  We might even refer Jesus to his own Sermon on the Mount where he tells us how to judge false prophets.  Remember what he says?  “You will know them by their fruits.”  (Matthew 7:16).

So Jesus, are you really serious when you give us this blanket statement telling us we are never supposed to judge?

There is something here we need to understand.  Something about the way Jesus communicates.  He uses “prophetic hyperbole.”  That just means he exaggerates to make his point.  So we don’t always take Jesus literally.  For example, when he illustrates what he means by not judging others, he uses that word picture of a log in your own eye while you are trying to remove a tiny speck from someone else’s eye.  He doesn’t literally mean that you have a large piece of wood hanging out of your eye socket.  But with prophetic hyperbole, he makes his point.

And so too, when he says, “do not judge.”  Of course there are exceptions.  The point isn’t the exceptions.  When we are eager to point out the exceptions, it means we are missing the point.  The point is this:  We are quick to criticize others and we are slow to criticize ourselves.  And isn’t that the truth?  We love to talk dirt about the person who is not in the room.  It’s called gossip.  It makes us feel better about ourselves if we can identify and entertain ourselves with the shortcomings of somebody else.

We need to stop it.  That’s what Jesus is telling us here.  If you have some constructive criticism offered in love to help another person, that’s great.  And if another person has some constructive criticism offered in love to help you, that’s great.  There’s no reason to get defensive.  And there is no reason to hold back from saying what needs to be said.  We all have blind spots.  We need each other if we are going to see those blind spots and do something about them.  But the general principal is that my first concern is not how you are doing.  My first concern is how I am doing.  I have plenty of work to do on my own shortcomings, before I need to be concerned about yours.

Second rule:  Don’t give up; persevere.  2020 was a year that called for perseverance.  Remember a year ago January and all those clever sayings about our “20-20 Vision” for the new year?  It turned out to be a year to remember, mainly because it was a year we would like to forget.  But you didn’t give up.  I’m sure there were moments when it was hard not to.  And I’m sure 2021 will have its share of those moments.  Moments when you aren’t sure if you can keep going.  When those moments come, don’t give up.  Persevere.

On that first lap, things did not look good for Dave Wottle.  He was way back – twenty yards back, and in front of him were the fastest runners in the world.  He didn’t have a chance.  Not a realistic chance.  It would have been easy for him to give up.  But instead he persevered.  He kept going.  He kept pushing.  He kept believing.  And the miracle happened.

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you (Matthew 7:7).

Rule # 2 is about life in general.  If you knock on the door and no one answers, keep knocking.  Don’t go away.  Be a nuisance.  Someone eventually is going to open that door.  Either that or they are going to call the police.  So it’s about perseverance.  Don’t quit.  Someone has said: The moment you are about to quit is the moment right before the miracle happens.  Don’t give up!

So Jesus is talking about life in general.  But he is talking specifically about prayer.  He told a parable about knocking on a friend’s door at midnight.  The voice inside says, “Go away.”  But the knocking continues, only louder.  And eventually the friend comes to the door.  Not because of friendship, but because it’s the only way to make the knocking stop (Luke 11:5-8).

So we are to be persistent in our prayers. We keep asking.  We keep seeking.  We keep knocking.  We don’t give up.  We persevere.

Is that how prayer works?  We make ourselves a nuisance long enough and eventually God gives in and gives us what we want?  I don’t think so.  Earlier in this same Sermon on the Mount, it’s the verse just before the Lord’s Prayer where Jesus said, “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8).  God knows what we need because he is all-knowing, and God gives us what we need because he is all-loving.  So why bother praying?  What good does it do? God already knows and already cares.  Why does God need our help?  How about this?

It’s possible to charge a phone by laying it on a charging pad.  You don’t even have to plug it in.  You probably know that.  But I wonder if you know that it is now possible also to charge your phone without your phone even touching the charger.  Energy is transferred over a distance.  As far as 30 feet.  I wonder if intercessory prayer works that way.

You pray for someone who is sick.  You say the name, you see the face, you visualize this person healthy and happy, filled with joy and vitality.  And a transfer of spiritual energy happens between you and the person you are praying for.  I have no idea if it works this way or not, but I am certain that prayer does works.  Don’t give up after one time.  Keep praying.  Keep asking, seeking, knocking.

Third rule:  Don’t go along; stand out.

There’s a book about this.  It’s by Brené Brown and the title says it all:  The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone.  We need both.  We need to belong.  And we need to stand alone.  But it’s not either-or.  She says the opposite of true belonging is fitting it.  Fitting in means I will make myself into whatever it takes for you to accept me.  True belonging means being true to myself.  And that often means standing alone.  I don’t say it nearly as well as she says it, so here’s how she says it:

True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness.  True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.

Jesus said it first.  Jesus said it best.

Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter it are many.  For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few (Matthew 7:13-14).

It happened at the University of Washington.  It happened in the school library.  There was a protest going on.  I’m not sure what they were protesting, but they were loud.  It was pretty much impossible to study with all that noise.  But what can you do?  What can one person do?  One person had the courage to stand alone and say what needed to be said.

(YouTube: “Hey, Hey, Hey, this is Library”) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DHhy2Gk_xik

That video went viral.  That one courageous University of Washington student is now an internet sensation.

Do you have the courage of your convictions?  Or do you just go along with everyone else because it’s easier that way?  Or because that’s the price you have to pay to belong to their club?  Are you going to continue betraying yourself because you want so much to fit in?  Or will this be the year you will dare to be different?

Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:2).

I wanted to illustrate this with an example of someone who lived it – someone who exemplified what it means to stand out and not just go along.  Then it occurred to me that there is no better example than Jesus.  He chose the narrow gate that leads to life, and because he did, we have life, abundant and eternal, in him.

Rule 4:  Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.  Of the four rules we are looking at today, this is the only one that is commonly called a rule.  We know it as the Golden Rule.

So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets (Matthew 7:12).

These four rules, I hope you see by now, are not just for Christians.  They are not just for spiritual overachievers.  They are for everyone.  These four things will make life better for you and for those around you.  They are basic.  They are fundamentals.  So back to coach Jesus, he wants us to learn these and master these first.  Before you get to the advanced skills.  You’ve got to learn the fundamentals. Kind of like when my Little League coach taught me which hand to put above the other when I grip my bat.

Don’t judge; show grace.  Don’t give up; persevere.  Don’t go along; stand out.  And most of all this one:  Treat other people the way you would like them to treat you.

In other words, put yourself in the other person’s shoes.  What is life like for them?  Once you do that, it may dawn on you that the way they would like to be treated may not be the way you would like to be treated.

For example, maybe you are one of the many in the state of Idaho who thinks masks are ridiculous.  There is kind of a war going on, I’m sure you’ve noticed, between the maskers and the anti-maskers.  Maybe you are right that wearing a mask doesn’t do much good and is an infringement of your constitutional rights.  Put yourself in the shoes of the other person.  The person who is in a high risk category or who is living with someone who is in a high risk category. Or the person who is just afraid.  If you treat them the way you would want to be treated, you wouldn’t bother with a mask.  But if you treat them the way they would want to be treated, you would wear one.  Even if you think it’s ridiculous.  Because it’s the loving thing to do.

That’s really what the Golden Rule is all about.  Living a life of love.  Thinking about other people before you think of yourself.  Life works best that way.  For you and for them.

There’s a sequel to the Dave Wottle story.  Remember his hat?  He always wore that goofy hat.  In fact, maybe you noticed in the video, he even wore it on the victory stand when he was awarded his gold medal and the National Anthem was played.  You’re not supposed to do that.  It’s another rule.  You’re supposed to remove your hat.

And so some people assumed that Dave Wottle was staging some kind of a protest.  Like Colin Kaepernick would do a few years later.  Or like Tommy Smith and John Carlos did four years earlier in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

But that wasn’t it at all.  He just forgot.  Or he didn’t know the rule.  He didn’t mean anything by it.  He was just a shy, humble, introverted 21-year-old who never dreamed this moment would happen.

But it did happen.  He finished strong.  He also started strong.

It was two laps around the track for him.  It’s just one lap around the sun for you.  One lap and 2021 will be over.  May you run strong, from beginning to end.

 

Dear God, we never know what a new year will bring.  But we always know that you will be with us in the living of this year.  Some of us are into resolutions and some of us aren’t, but God we’ve all got to at least master the fundamentals.  It’s time.  Time to follow your rules, and not make it up as we go.  May we be coachable.  May we learn from Jesus.  In his name we pray, Amen.