Monday, March 21, 2011

I Used Everything You Gave Me

(Read Matthew 25:14-30)

Serena Williams is arguably the best women’s tennis player of all time with over 27 Grand Slam titles. She started playing as a youth with her father, who coached her and her older sister, Venus. I heard a story that very early on, the Williams sisters' father entered Venus in a tournament but not Serena. So you know what Serena did? She entered the tournament on her own. From the beginning, Serena had a great competitive spirit. She was both gifted and driven.

Imagine if Serena had not pursued playing tennis. She could have come up with plenty of excuses not to. She was just a poor girl from a poor neighborhood. African Americans were not widely seen on the tennis circuit. She had dreams of being an actress instead. If Serena had given up on tennis, generations of people would have lost out on seeing this sport taken to a higher level, and especially, minority women would have lost one of the greatest role models of our day.

It is not that Serena hasn’t had her challenges. She has been plagued by injuries of worn out tendons and has had two surgeries on her right foot alone. Also, in 2003, one of Serena’s older sisters, Yetunde Price, was murdered, and of course, this devastated the young star.

On February 18th, Serena suffered another setback, and she almost died from it. While on a routine airplane ride, Serena noticed that her left foot was tremendously swollen. In a recent article in People magazine, she said, “My foot was huge. Imagine the size of my thigh, just above my knee; that’s how big my foot was.” Thinking this was weird, but nothing of significance, Serena decided that she would ice her foot when she got home. But then, as she walked through the airport, she found herself inexplicably struggling to breathe. Again, not thinking there was anything seriously wrong, she made a mental note to herself that it was time to get back to the gym and really get in shape.

It wasn’t until she called her big sister, Venus, who was working out with her trainer, that Serena got it through her head that something must be wrong. “You have a blood clot, Venus told her. “You have to go to the doctor!”

As it turned out, the cause of Serena’s symptoms was a pulmonary embolism, a potentially fatal blood clot that had traveled to her lungs. Pulmonary embolism is diagnosed in approximately 600,000 Americans each year, and it is fatal in some 10%.
Serena was successfully treated for the problem and now proclaims, “I’m lucky to be alive.” While she is in recovery, she will remain on blood thinners for many months. One doctor recommended to her, “If I were you, I wouldn’t play tennis again.”

And so here we have it, a monumental decision for Serena Williams: will she ever play professional tennis again?

Serena’s story is more dramatic than most of ours, but each day, we are all faced with the decision of if and how we will use the gifts, the talents that God has given us.

Many of us our afraid to use our talents. We fear failure and rejection. We fear the pain and discomfort of stretching ourselves to grow and doing something that’s challenging. We procrastinate instead of digging in and working hard.

And if our fear doesn’t stop us, some time plain old indecision does. We know deep down that we are gifted, that we have something to offer the world, but we aren’t sure in what way we can use our talents for the good, and so we do nothing at all.

Not all talents are as obvious as Serena’s, but in God’s eyes they all have equal value. Perhaps you have been born with the talent of caring for small children or developing trust with teenagers. Perhaps you have been born with the gift of mending broken ties or the ability to bring laughter to a hurting world. The point is, there are millions of talents, and its important for you to know what yours are and use them.

This idea relates to the parable of the talents that we heard this morning. In the parable, a man is going on a journey, and he leaves his property to his slaves. He gives one servant 5 talents (which is a form of money), another 2 talents and another 1 talent, each according to his ability, and then the man goes away. None of the men squander the money for their own purposes, but the difference is this: the men who received 5 talents and 2 talents put the money to work and doubled it. While the man with one talent buried it in a whole so it would be safe.

We can interpret this story in this way: the man who leaves on the journey is Jesus leaving the earth, and we are the servants he leaves his property to. God gives to each of us some talent in the literal sense of the word and wants us to use our talent to grow the kingdom of heaven on earth. Two of the servants are obedient, courageous and wise and do just that, but the other servant plays it safe. Instead of using his talent and making it work for the kingdom, he buries it deep inside himself. You know the song, “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.” Well, two servants let their lights shine while the other hides his light under a bushel.

When the Master returns, he is deeply appreciative to the servants who have doubled his money. He says, “Well done, good and trustworthy servants; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:21).

When we use our talents, God is also deeply appreciative and greatly pleased. And the more we use our gifts, the more opportunities we have to use them. In this way, our lives grow more meaningful and we have more abundance.

However, the opposite is also true. The Master is deeply displeased with the servant who buried his talent in a hole. The Master takes the talent away because it is being wasted and gives it to one who is more trustworthy. The Master also sentences this servant to the outer darkness.

When we do not use our talents, when we bury our gifts out of fear, insecurity or laziness, we upset God. He gave us these gifts so that they would be used. And in this way, the one who does not believe in him or herself, the one who does not use what they have been given for the kingdom’s growth experiences a life that is dark and covered in shadows. In essence, this person really misses out.

God gives us skills and talents so that we can use them. As we discover how we are gifted, we must begin the task of utilizing our strengths in a fashion that achieves God’s goals. Otherwise, we will never truly be happy. We won’t be expressing ourselves fully, and we will feel incomplete and unsatisfied.

I know that all of us have legitimate fears and insecurities that hold us back. We also get lazy and procrastinate because we don’t want the hard work. But, when we do this, we are not being faithful disciples. We are doubting God’s plan and purpose for our lives, and not only does God feel frustrated, but we feel frustrated with ourselves.

I told you in the beginning of 2010 that I was going to write a book, and I didn’t do it. I had legitimate reasons, like I was putting my energy elsewhere, and I wasn’t even really sure what to write. But I was frustrated as a person, and I think the forward movement, the growth in my life was halted or at least slowed because I refused to use my talent in a way that I believe God is calling me to use then.

Finally, I have reached a place where there are no more excuses. I’m doing it. I am in the process of writing my first book, which for now, I am calling, A Father Talks to His Daughter: The Story of Two Lifetimes and One Bloodline. I really believe that my life will remain stuck until I do this thing for God, for my father and for myself. I’m still scared. I don’t know if it will be any good, but I have to do it. Just like the servant with 1 talent had to put himself out there, had to take a risk, in order to please his Master. The other servants had success, why would he not? Other people write books all the time, why can’t I ?

God spoke to me in prayer the other night and said, “Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid to think. Do not be afraid to write. Do not be afraid to say what you know. Believe in yourself. Believe also in me.” And since I gave up doubt for Lent, I have no choice but to heed these words and move forward with courage and faith.

Benjamin Mays said, “…the tragedy in life does not lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach. It isn’t a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled, but it is a calamity not to dream.” Well, I think we should all have goals and dreams. I think we should go after them, which requires hard work and for us to use the very best of what we have been given. And the result, we can’t worry so much about the result that it stops us from beginning the task. We can’t measure results in terms of worldly success. We can only measure results in terms of having been true to our talent. God will decide the success of our efforts.

Is there something that you are not doing, something deep inside of you that has been given to you from God that you are hiding or wasting? Today, is a day of reckoning for all of us as individuals and as a community.

After we sing and pray, Frazer Pehmoeller is going to act as a spokesperson for our church, and he is going to call us to think about new and creative ways we can use our talents to build up God’s kingdom and make our church a self-sustaining, vital force for many years to come. I hope you will listen to his message with the parable of the talents in mind. And I hope you will listen as people of faith and believe that what God has given us, God will bless as we use it according to his will and for his purposes.

Erma Bombeck wrote more than 4,000 hilarious newspaper columns chronicling the everyday life of a suburban housewife and her kids. Erma said, “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say,‘I used everything you gave me.’”

May we all be able to stand before God and say the same thing, “I used everything you gave me.”

As for Serena Williams, I know she’s using all the talent she has been given, and I know she will keep on using it for as long as she can. In response to that doctor who told her, “If I were you, I wouldn’t play again,” Serena said, “You’re not me….I like having a challenge, and this will be my biggest challenge yet.” She hopes to be competing in women’s professional tennis by this summer.

I believe God is pleased with Serena’s intention and will one day say to her, “Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” (Mattew 25:21).

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Freedom of Saying “No”

(Read Matthew 4:1-11)

Jesus said “no” to the devil, and it set him free. The story goes something like this: Jesus has been out fasting in the wilderness for forty days and nights. When he reaches a point of being famished and weak, the tempter or the devil comes to him and asks him three different questions, all as tests that could lead Jesus to abandon his mission and calling. First, the tempter says, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” He is tempting Jesus to provide for his own needs. “No,” Jesus says. “I don’t live by bread. I live by the word of God.” Second, the tempter says, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself off the pinnacle of the temple and let God rescue you.” He is tempting Jesus to challenge God, to test God’s power and faithfulness. “No,” Jesus says. “I’m not putting God up to some test. I know who I am, and I know who God is in relation to me.” Third, the tempter says, “I’ll give you whatever you want in all the world, if only you will worship me instead of God.” He is tempting Jesus to put power and wealth above his relationship to God. “No,” Jesus says. “What I want most in all the world is to worship God and serve only him.”

And because of these three wise responses, the devil must depart from Jesus. He has no hold over him, no control over him. Jesus is free. And suddenly, angels come and wait on him.

Most of the time when we think of freedom, we think of the freedom to be able to do things, the freedom to be able to say “yes.” When you are 16, freedom is getting to take the car and go out with your friends. “Yes,” we think, “I can do that now.”

At 21, freedom is going out to a bar and having an alcoholic beverage. “Yes,” we think, “I can do that now.” But anyone whose ever had a hangover knows that sometimes the real freedom is in saying “no.”

I spent Friday night celebrating the 40th birthday of a dear friend, Jeff Scholes. I know Jeff from Seminary, and he’s a fun and interesting person, as are many of the people that I went to Seminary with. One of Jeff’s distinguishing characteristics is that he went gray in his 20’s. So the joke on the eve of his 40th birthday was that he was finally growing into his hair.

Another thing about Jeff is that he is an avid smoker, a pack a day of American Spirits. While we were visiting, I was standing outside with Jeff and his girlfriend while he had a cigarette, and he was telling us how sick of smoking he is. He lamented that no one smokes anymore and about how expensive cigarettes had become. “But,” he said, “what really bothers me is that I’m a slave to these things. I can’t go anywhere without them. They drive me from my bed. They drive me from my office. I have to leave the restaurant in the middle of dinner to smoke. I’m a prisoner.”

My response to Jeff was something that my father had said to me many years ago. “Jeff,” I said, “I think it’s time you learned that there is freedom in saying ‘no.’”

I told my parents I was preaching on the freedom of saying “no” today, and my mother, who is by far the most caring, giving woman I have ever known, jumped right on the idea. She said, “Sometimes in life, people ask too much of you, and you cannot do what they want you to do. You have to say “no” for your own well-being. It can be really hard,” she went on “because sometimes people won’t like you for saying “no.” But I’m at a point in my life [She’s 66, a wife, a mother of 3 and a grandmother of 3] where I have to say, ‘I don’t care if you’re mad at me or not, the answer is “no.” If you always have to do something for someone else, it robs your soul of yourself.”

Pretty powerful words, and I understand exactly what she means. We all want to be liked and do our best for people, but at what cost? Quite often, we end up depleted, resentful and unhappy. Instead, we must be wise, and when we are teetering on the line, it’s most important for us to be genuine and truthful with each other about what we can give in a truly healthy way. Sometimes, that means saying “no.”

The quest for freedom, which leads to happiness and health, can be personal or it can be communal. So far I’ve been talking about personal freedom, but look what’s happening in the Middle East right now.

Five nations are in revolt: Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, and Tunisia. Tunisia was the first, and within two weeks of the people revolting and essentially saying “no” to their government, the leader had stepped down. He listening to his people, and he respected the freedom of saying “no.”

However, Kaddafi, the leader of Libya, refuses to listen to his people and is killing them with bombs. What he is saying is: “You don’t have a right to say “no.” In fact, if you say “no,” you don’t have a right to live.” And anybody in the whole earth can see that what Kadafi is doing is evil.

So I just ask you, as you are walking your road to redemption this Lent, to ponder some things. Consider whether some of the freedom that you seek can be yours by the power of one word, “no.”

I believe my friend, Jeff, will quit smoking because there is no worse pain than being a prisoner. And it’s even more awful because he is imprisoning himself. I also believe all of us here are capable, by the grace of God, to be freed from our own prisons, whatever they may be. Liberation doesn’t always mean doing whatever we want. Very often, liberation comes from the power of saying “no.”