Sunday, October 27, 2013

Bless the Beasts and the Children

(A sermon based on Mark 9:30-37 for Sunday, October 27, 2013, following the presentation of a children's musical)

Sometimes I stop to think about who I would really like to use my resources—my time, my energy, my money, my love—to help. I can’t do everything for everybody, after all, and I find myself thinking that I would really like to help those who can’t help themselves. Now, that’s a broad category. Even we able-bodied adults with reasonable intelligence, average common sense, and a decent work ethic sometimes need someone to reach out to hold us up or to help us out. I myself would not be standing here today had some gracious people not helped me out along the way when I was at the end of my rope.

When I get to thinking that way, my thoughts always come back around to children and animals (particularly dogs and cats). I guess I think along the lines of that Carpenters’ song from the early 1970s that prayed, “Bless the beasts and the children for in this world they have no voice; they have no choice.” They are largely at the mercy of how adult human beings choose to treat them—and we all know that adult human beings can always be trusted to be kind and humane!

Today’s text features no animals but it does prominently feature children. Jesus, who along with his disciples was headed toward Jerusalem where he would fulfill his mission, perceived that they had been discussing who was the greatest among them. He held a child in his arms and said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

That was a shocking act and statement in a cultural context in which social status was very important. Children were not given much consideration because they lacked status in society. Being way up the ladder was considered a good thing and children couldn’t get above the first rung.

But Jesus said that children were to be highly regarded and eagerly accepted and that when they were those who so regarded and accepted them were in fact regarding and accepting Jesus and the Heavenly Father who sent Jesus. The children, then—those who in that day and time had the lowest social status because they had the least to contribute—represented Christ. To welcome them was to welcome Jesus.

Now, while there are cultures in which children are not accorded high social standing, I would suggest that our First Baptist Church culture is not one of them. No, from the moment our children are born they become the most important people in our homes and extended families, and are equally valued alongside everyone else in our church. Indeed, we will devote more of our time and resources to them than we do to others. We let their schedules dictate ours. We put not only their needs but also their wants and desires ahead of just about everything else.

That is not to say that there are not children here in Fitzgerald who are not valued; clearly there are.

So it is a good thing to let these our children who have been before us this morning remind us of what Jesus said about receiving and welcoming “the least of these” in the church because “the least of these” represent Christ among us.

But who are the “children” in our society? Who are they in our setting? Who are those who can offer little or nothing and who are overlooked and undervalued but who therefore represent Jesus right here and now?

If Jesus were sitting right here in the First Baptist Church sanctuary today, he would not use one of these children to make his point that in welcoming those who are the least valued and the most vulnerable we are in fact welcoming him. So who would he put among us and take in his arms and say, “Whoever welcomes one such _____________ in my name welcomes me”?

Sunday, October 20, 2013

To Our Health!

(A Communion Meditation based on 1 Corinthians 11:17-26 for Sunday, October 20, 2013)

We have come together today to eat the Lord’s Supper. But, to use Paul’s phrase, have we come together “really to eat the Lord’s supper”? Put the emphasis where it belongs: Have we come together to eat the Lord’s supper? Paul said that it was not the Lord’s supper that the Corinthians had gathered to eat; it was something else, namely, it was their own supper.

Now, to be fair, it was the practice in the early church to observe the Lord’s Supper—the memorial of bread and cup in which we still share today—in the context of a regular fellowship meal, as was the case on the Thursday night when Jesus established the practice for his followers. The members of the church would bring their own food and eat together; the Lord’s Supper would be observed as a part of the larger meal. So the problem was not that the people were enjoying a meal together—it was rather than they were not really enjoying it together.

In 1st century Corinth, as in 21st century anywhere, the church was made up both of people who had much and people who had little. In Corinth, the well-to-do folks would bring their abundant food and wine and would eat and drink in front of the others—without sharing—so that, as Paul put it, “one goes hungry and another becomes drunk” (v. 21). Paul was very critical: “What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?” (v. 22).

It was not the Lord’s supper that the Corinthians were observing, Paul said, if their attention was on fulfilling their own desires without noticing or meeting the needs of their fellow believers. They could not give proper attention to the Lord who gave his life for them if their focus was on themselves rather than on others.

Were Paul writing his letter today he might have asked his readers, as I now ask you, to take note of a scientific study the results of which were released last week. Researchers at Connecticut College have found that Oreo cookies are just as if not more addictive than cocaine, at least for rats, whose brains apparently—no big surprise here—function much like the brains of humans. The researchers set up a maze with Oreos on one side and rice cakes on the other side and the rats—again no big surprise here—much more often chose the Oreos than the rice cakes. Here’s the real news, though: the pleasure centers of the rats’ brains were activated—researchers have ways of seeing what areas of the brain “light up” when stimulated—just as much if not more when the rats ate Oreos than they did when they were given cocaine. Thus the researchers arrived at the conclusion that Oreos are addictive—maybe more addictive than cocaine (Walton).

Ah, if only the Corinthians had understood the difference between hedonistic and eudaimonic pleasure! Hedonistic pleasure is a pleasure individually experienced, such as eating a big meal. Eudaimonic pleasure results from doing something with a view toward contributing to the greater good and toward fulfilling a purpose that goes beyond your own gratification, such as working on a Habitat for Humanity House or volunteering at the local food bank. So that we don’t have to remember those challenging words, let’s think in terms of the difference between pleasure that comes from doing something that makes you feel good and pleasure that comes from doing something that does someone else good.

Another recent study suggests that the pleasure derived from doing something for others has greater physical benefits than the pleasure gained from doing something just for yourself. A team of researchers led by Professor Barbara L. Frederickson of the University of North Carolina studied the impact that different kinds of happiness have on human genes. They found that doing something that makes you feel good contributes to an increase in the gene profile that helps to contribute to inflammation in the body that can lead to such diseases as arthritis and heart disease and a decrease in the gene profile that contributes to antiviral responses.

Paul said a similar thing 2000 years before this research was done: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (1 Corinthians 11:27-30).

The study also revealed, though, that doing things that are for the greater good contributes to a decrease in the gene profile that leads to illness. The sense of well-being that comes from doing something that helps give people better lives and that helps make our community or world a better place, then, contributes to real long-term well-being.

Professor Frederickson said, “We can make ourselves happy through simple pleasures, but those ‘empty calories’ don’t help us broaden our awareness or build our capacity in ways that benefit us physically. At the cellular level, our bodies appear to respond better to a different kind of well-being, one based on a sense of connectedness and purpose” (University of North Carolina).

Put simply, doing things that make you feel good can in the long run make you less healthy while doing things that contribute to the greater good can in the long run make you more healthy. Selfishness can make you sick; selflessness can make you well.

Those Corinthian Christians, then, who were gorging themselves and ignoring their sisters and brothers were on a temporary high that contributed to their long-term lack of health. And that is not to mention the negative affect that their attitudes and practices had on their spiritual health, on the spiritual health of their church family, and on their witness to the Savior who sought only to give himself up. For them to eat the bread and to drink the cup that represented the body and blood of the crucified Jesus when they lived in such selfish ways was an affront to him.

So now we come to the Table of the Lord. Do we eat and drink to our sickness or to our health? Christ’s death was to him not about him; it was about everybody else. How do we give ourselves up for others? How do we sacrifice ourselves for our brothers and sisters?

It seems counterintuitive but it’s the truth—when it’s about others and not about us, then it’s good for us, too.

So here’s to our health …

References

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (2013, July 29). Human cells respond in healthy, unhealthy ways to different kinds of happiness. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 17, 2013, from http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2013/07/130729161952.htm

Alice G. Walton (2013, October 16). Why Oreos are as addictive as cocaine to your brain. Forbes. Retrieved October 17, 2013, from http://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2013/10/16/why-your-brain-treats-oreos-like-a-drug/