Proper 16B Sermon (2000)

Proper 16 (August 21-27)
Texts: Ephesians 6:10-20;
John 6:56-69; Josh 24

‘OUR STRIVING WOULD BE LOSING’

I’d like to start with a very interesting letter that was faxed to the church on Friday. It’s from an unusual source, the United Auto Workers Union, Local 180, their vice-president & chaplain, Kevin Mieczkowski. And what he has to say is quite unusual, I think, too:

Dear Church & Congregation:I am writing this letter in regards to the up coming Prayer Vigil or service to be held on August 29, 2000….

In light of the uncertainty in the Racine area, presently with the announcements of Sauer-Danfoss, Lake Electric and Case Corporation (CNH) on how many lives and jobs may be greatly affected. It’s time to make a difference!

We come together as people of faith to recognize, to encourage and to pray for all the workers and their families who have fears and concerns of their future. Looking deeper than their own personal situation, what affect does it have in our community?

Bringing home a paycheck to feed your family, having clothes on your back, having shelter over your head. Knowing that part of your pay (taxes) are used to aid someone else to help the needy the poor, sick, and the elderly. Promote education, health and family recognition. Aiding the church. Being prideful, knowing that I gave and contribute not only to my family but also to the community. Being, that I am somebody! I can make a difference! I care!

I believe that it ought to be the goal of every human being not to exploit each other but to encourage one another. It is our duty to do the best we can with what we have to aid every human being.

We need to pray for the city, county, state and nation as a whole…. We are the community that cares about one another.

Sincerely and God Bless,
Kevin M. Mieczkowski

I lift up this letter because I think it fits well with our second lesson from Ephesians 6. It’s a call to arms, in a sense. Mr. Mieczkowski speaks with a sense of urgency and passion, with the sense that something needs to be done. “It’s time to make a difference!” But what? A word that is glaring to me is his word “uncertainty.” “In light of the uncertainty in the Racine area.” There’s something wrong — isn’t there? But what? He names the plant closings, but the scope and tenor of his letter seems to grope for something more. There’s “uncertainty” in our community. I think he’s right. But what is it? I don’t think it’s a feeling that’s too much different than a lot of other communities across our nation and our world.

St. Paul tells us that it isn’t flesh and blood we contend with. No, we fight “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” But, if that’s the case, you can see why there’s such “uncertainty.” Who exactly is it that we fight against? What should we do? Pray, suggests Mr. Mieczkowski. And so does St. Paul:

Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.

There’s something else I think we need to see from this letter, though. A bit more troubling, perhaps, is the sense in this letter that we need to do something despite our best efforts. He names all the right things we do: ‘Bringing home a paycheck for food, clothes and shelter; knowing that part of your pay (taxes) are used to aid the needy; promoting education and health care; aiding the church; contributing not only to family but also to community.’ He even speaks of “the goal of every human being not to exploit each other but to encourage one another.” Yet, despite all our best efforts, there’s an “uncertainty” to which we must respond. We are called to make a difference against a foe that’s uncertain, not flesh and blood, but unseen powers. Let’s see if we can’t shed a bit of light on this.

Take a quick look at Gen. 3 again, the story about the first man and woman in the garden, a story which is really about all of us. Notice, first of all, that the story doesn’t say the serpent is some terrible creature, and certainly not some supernatural being like Satan. Later generations put all that stuff on the poor snake. No, the story simply says that the serpent is the craftiest creature in the garden. It’s beguiling. And what he says is attractive, tempting, not fearsome.

Even more importantly, notice the point of contention in this story, the tree in the middle of the garden which they are not to touch. What is it called? The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Now, really, is knowledge about good and evil such a terrible thing? In fact, it sounds a lot like what Mr. Mieczkowski recited for us: ‘Bringing home a paycheck, paying taxes to help the needy, aiding the church, not exploiting one another, etc.’

We are usually ready to summon up all kinds of otherworldly dark powers to explain our problems, our “uncertainties.” But this biblical story seems to refrain from that. The serpent is not an otherworldly power, it is one of God’s creatures, an alluring one, at that. And it’s not some invisible demon dreaming up all kinds of bad stuff for us that gets us into trouble, it’s our own decision to go after something as seemingly good as the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It is us even striving to know the good and do it — and it still gets us into trouble. Why’s that?

I had an explanation to answer this question. But, then, last night at the Saturday worship, I found something better — simpler and more to the point. We sang “A Mighty Fortress” from the Methodist hymnal, which has a different translation of Martin Luther’s German, and here’s how the second verse begins:

Did we in our own strength confide,
our striving would be losing. (1)

Did you catch that? Our striving would be losing. That says it all, I think. When it’s in our own strength that we confide, all our striving ends up getting us nowhere. We can even try our best to do what’s right, and we still run up against a wall of uncertainty. We end up facing these seemingly unnamed forces.

Well, with the word of God from Jesus, we can begin to name those powers we run up against. It’s basically us. It’s not necessarily just the “flesh and blood” us. It’s something more. It’s ‘our strivings.’ Our strivings, instead of us trying to do God’s strivings. The problem is that it’s only God’s strivings that are big enough and loving enough to ultimately get the job done. Our strivings, no matter how well intentioned, no matter how good they seem, always wind up making someone lose. And when someone loses, the final score is that we all lose. We run up against these forces of darkness that leave us uncertain, at best.

There’s so many examples. One might be the fight for equality over the past number of years. We’ve made so many strides forward; it seems like we’ve made so much progress in the fight for racial equality and the women’s movement. And yet we continue to run up against unseen forces that leave us uncertain. Could it be that those forces are our own strivings, the ways in which if our efforts aren’t rooted in God’s strivings, we still end up losing? (2)

The issue we’ve named in recent weeks is economics. Our capitalist form of economics is undoubtedly the best that has ever come along, the best of our human strivings. But there is the uncertainty which Mr. Mieczkowski names, represented by some in our community who are losing out because of plant closings. Despite our best efforts, our striving would be losing. There’s so many other areas: health and education, family, science and technology. The bottom line is that when these things are seen as our strivings only, we still end up losing somehow.

Why? It doesn’t seem fair. Yet I believe that Jesus is the Word of Eternal Life which has come to show us why, and to promise us that God sent him to make it different. That rooted in Jesus, and in his striving, which were God’s strivings, we could know and experience God’s kingdom, where everyone is a winner. Jesus showed us why our best strivings aren’t good enough. He showed us that, when in our own strength we confide, our desirings always turn to losing. Our desirings, our strivings, begin to conflict with one another until we rival one another and resent one another. Peter got it right in this morning’s gospel reading, but by the end of the Gospel story, we see how even Peter and the disciples end up playing the games of rivalry. They ended up vying for the best positions around Jesus, who would sit on the right and the left, who would be first among them. All that rivalry and resentment threatens to blow us apart, to make it impossible for us to live together in community — until it finally finds its own way of coming together: by focusing on one who’s to blame for the mess. Our desiring and striving finally come together by picking at least one loser, one scapegoat, if you will. Jesus was willing to take the place of even the scapegoat, to be the Lamb of God who we chew up. ‘When we in our own strength confide, our striving turns to losing.’ Someone always loses. The cross reveals to us that the foe, in essence, is us. Even the powers that go beyond simple flesh and blood are our strivings which leave God’s strivings out of the equation.

But Jesus also came as the Bread of Life. This is one time when our striving began to turn in God’s direction — not because we did something differently. No, our strivings ended up with the same old sacrifice. The difference was with God: that God had sent the Son this time as the one for us to sacrifice, and then raised him as the promise of something different. When we chew him up this Lamb of God, he forgives us, and he feeds us with God’s love, God’s strivings, so that when we go out our striving can be changed into something else besides losing: serving the Lord, going in peace.

Can we really do God’s strivings and not just our own? Yes, and an essential part of that is ‘praying in the Spirit.’ And we came here this morning to do that, too, so let’s get on with it….

Paul J. Nuechterlein,
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, August 26-27, 2000

Notes

1. Martin Luther, “A Mighty Fortress,” verse 2, trans. by Frederick H. Hedge, 1853 (from the United Methodist Hymnal, 1989, #110).

2. For an insightful look at the women’s movement, see Deadly Innocence: Feminism and the Mythology of Sin, by Angela West (London: Mowbray, 1995). A supporter and insider to the women’s movement, Ms. West takes an honest look at how folks within the movement so often came to rival one another and fight with one another; and so she takes a closer look at the Christian doctrine of original sin, seeing many things that might be classified as very Girardian.

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