Reconnect: I Have Come So That…
As most of you know, in my journey to be healthier, I’ve been attending Weight Watchers for a little over a year. I tried the online membership in the past, but I’ve found that unless I have to go and weigh in in front of a real live person, and unless I stay for the 30 minute meeting each week, I just don’t do as well. I find it easier to stray off course. The meetings – well, they aren’t always deep and profound. Sometimes members spend a lot of time talking about how many calories are in different alcoholic beverages, or we spend a meeting focused on meat-based recipes that this vegetarian doesn’t find particularly helpful. But I enjoy the sense of community, and occasionally, people share stories and comments that really stick with me. One week, a woman talked about joining Weight Watchers, years previously, with one of her friends. They both lost weight – but in very small amounts at a time. .2lbs one week. .4lbs another week. It was very slow. And so she, the speaker, quit – she decided to try some other weight loss programs instead, where she could lose weight faster. Her results were mixed – she’d lose, but gain everything back. But her friend, who stayed at Weight Watchers, continued to lose, slowly, but consistently, and eventually, she lost all the weight she wanted, while the speaker was still struggling, back to Weight Watchers, and determined to stick with it this time, noting that her friend lost slowly, but doing it the right way, and had more success than her own erratic up and down progress. That’s the thing about weight loss. Unless you have some other medical issue that complicates things for you, the way to lose weight is pretty basic: take in fewer calories than you burn each day, and you’ll lose weight. It certainly isn’t easy to do, but shortcuts, paths to weight loss that seem easier usually end up making your journey to health much longer in actual practice.
Really, though, I didn’t come here to share weight loss advice with you all – so let me tell you another story. One of the family vacations that will forever live in infamy is a time when we were taking several short trips to various locations around New York State. We’d gone to visit my grandparents in Kingston, NY, and from there, we were headed to Old Forge to spend the night so we could spend the next day at Enchanted Forest. My father was driving, and he decided to take a short cut. You already know where this is going, don’t you? He was sure that he could cut down our travel time by taking this gravel road that would bring us right to Old Forge. Of course, after hours of travel, we ended up in the completely wrong place at a dead end, with no options but to turn around and go back the way we came. It took so much longer than planned that instead of going to Old Forge, we just went home, and drove there the next day. What seemed like a shortcut ended up being an extra long, extra wrong way to go.
One more story. I’ve told you that theologian C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia are some of my very favorite books. In the sixth book in the series, The Magician’s Nephew, you learn about the creation of the land of Narnia by Aslan, the lion, the Christ-figure in the books. He sends a little boy named Diggory on a mission to retrieve a fruit from a special tree in a gated garden. But an evil witch is also in the new land of Narnia. When Diggory arrives at the garden, he sees the witch climbing over the walls of the garden to steal and eat fruit. Only, the gate to the garden isn’t locked – Diggory can walk right in. And he sees a sign at the garden that reads,
“Come in by the gold gates or not at all,
Take of my fruit for others or forebear,
For those who steal or those who climb my wall
Shall find their heart’s desire and find despair.”
Diggory can take fruit because he came in through the gate, and the fruit is not for himself, but to bring back to Aslan. The witch doesn’t drop dead or become physically ill, or anything like that. But her greed and longing for power corrupts her life until she destroys it entirely. If she had just gone in through the gate…
I don’t know if you remember, but this passage from John 10 contains the text that I preached on in my first Sunday here at Liverpool First. I told you that my favorite verse in the whole Bible is this: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I have come that you might have life, and have it abundantly.” It comes as part of John’s gospel, where Jesus shares two of several “I am” statements: I am the good shepherd, and I am the gate for the sheep. Jesus talks about those who try to enter the sheepfold by climbing in – thieves. He talks about sheep recognizing the voice of the shepherd, the voice of the gatekeeper. When Jesus calls himself the good shepherd, he says that a good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep, unlike the hired hand who would run and save his own life in a dangerous situation, rather than protect the sheep. He says he has other sheep too – other sheep in other flocks who will eventually become one fold. And again, he closes by emphasizing that he chooses to give his life. “I lay down my life in order to take it up again,” he says. “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.”
“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” “I lay down my life in order to take it up again.” Jesus models with his own life how we claim this abundance he talks about. We, by our own choosing, under our own power, lay down our life. Maybe we don’t have to sacrifice our physical life. But we lay it down so that we can carry a cross. We lay it down so that we are free to serve others. We lay it down before God, as an act of obedience. God never forces our obedience. Jesus never forces us to follow. But if we want to follow Jesus, if we mean to obey God, if we want this abundant life, we have to stop trying to climb over the walls into the sheepfold of God’s blessings, when the gate is already open for us. We have to stop grabbing as much fruit as we can for ourselves. We have to stop taking shortcuts that are really just dead end roads. We have to stop trying every crazy magic diet trick and wondering why we are both stuffed full and completely unsatisfied, and further away from where we want to be all the time. Lay down your life to take it up again. But what we take back up will be this abundance that strangely comes from giving it all away, pouring out our lives to be filled by God.
Pastor Aaron told me recently that he’d had a few folks who wanted to chat with him about his September newsletter article. Now, about a month ago in worship I asked you all if you’d read my newsletter column, and a few folks raised their hands, but then even more of you came to me after worship to say that yes, you’d read the column – it just took a little reminder from me in my sermon to remember what the column had been about. Well, I believe you. I believe you because when Pastor Aaron mentioned his column, which I had read, I had to pull it back out again to remind myself of the content. Pastor Aaron talked about the difference between the religion of Christianity and knowing about God and the life of discipleship that comes from having an active relationship with Jesus. If the difference is unclear, think about your favorite actress or sports figure. If you’re a big fan, you might know a million facts about the person – what movies they’ve been in or every award and trophy they’ve received. But sadly, that still doesn’t make you friends with your favorite celeb. There’s a difference between being a fan and being a friend.
We’ve spent this month talking about our purpose. Why are we here? Why are we doing this thing called church, in this place, in this time, in this way? Our purpose is about making a space in our lives, and inviting others to do the same, where relationships can be built – with God, with the Way of Jesus, with one another. Not fans, but friends, followers of Jesus. How do we foster that work of relationship building at Liverpool First? Jesus didn’t say that he came so that…we could get into heaven when we died. So that we could have it easy. So that we could be safe. So that we’d have all the answers. So that we could tell others what to do and how to live. Jesus said he came so that we might have life that is abundant. Life that is really life. And so when our choir sings, they sing not so that they can dazzle us with their musical expertise, although having that is nice – but so that they can glorify God and help us do the same. And when our Sunday School children go to classes they go not to memorize facts and Bible verses – although those are good tools to have – but so that they can come to know Jesus as their friend who they can trust and love and serve. And when the Trustees meet they gather not because we need the fanciest facilities with the newest equipment here, although we’ve got a beautiful place to worship and work in God’s name, but because our space here is a way we invite others to connect with God and we want a team of people who are working hard to make sure our space is warm and open and usable and full of life in every corner of the building on as many days of the week as possible. And when our Member Care folks are working hard to update records and directories, they do it not because we want our statistical reports each year to be 100% perfect, although that’d be a nice side result, but because each address and phone number and email represents a relationship that we cherish and want to nurture so that we can reach every person with the message of God’s love.
“I have come so that you might have abundant life!” Jesus claims. What about you? Why are you here? What’s your purpose? Have you come because you’re a big fan? Or because you and God are in a relationship? Because you plan to follow Jesus? Lay down your life to take it up again. Amen.