Rev. Susan M. Hudson, St Pauls Presbyterian Church,June 22 2014

Learning to Lose
[Jeremiah 20:7-13; Matthew 10:24-39]

            Gracious God… teach us to be “good losers” – even though the world grooms us to be diehard & cut-throat competitors. It’s a lesson we rarely choose, a course we rarely sign up for, a reality we run from if we see it coming. And yet, our experiences of loss are an open gate to the kingdom of God.  Help us loosen our grip on human attachments and reach out to the One who leads us through the storms of life. In Jesus’ name, we pray, Amen.
            Jeremiah had had it!  He was at his wits end.  And where was God? Disciples RARELY choose a “loser” to follow.  We line up behind a charismatic individual because we expect to “gain” something, not lose everything. Let’s be honest.  When this congregation called Sue Hudson to serve as pastor of St. Pauls Presbyterian Church, people hoped that I would be the “answer” or “Savior” to a congregation with declining membership.  People “sold me” as a “winner” – who might help to revitalize our congregation, bring more youth, young adults, and families to worship here.  Would you have called me here, if you thought I would lead you towards “dying”? I seriously doubt it.
            Jeremiah accuses God in this Old Testament passage of leaving him “high and dry” – after enticing him to be his spokesperson.  Jeremiah had become a laughing stock. Everyone mocked him. Jeremiah wanted so badly to “forget about God altogether” – because being a follower of God made him a victim of persecution. His prophetic speech did not bring him popularity but derision.  Even his closest friends conspired against him. This was no “Happy Dance” – like the St. Pauls High School video on the last day of school.  This was a crying lament from the prophet Jeremiah.  He says in verse 9:  “If I say, ‘I will not mention God or speak in his name any more, something like a burning fire rises up from my bones’ and I cannot hold it in, I have to speak what God tells me to say, despite the consequences.’”
Apparently, part of Jeremiah’s lament takes place because Jeremiah has spoken a word of judgment on the people who were being unfaithful to God and yet God’s judgment had not occurred. Jeremiah was being laughed at and mocked as a “false prophet.”  People were saying:  “See, even God doesn’t listen to you, Jeremiah! You are on your own without a leg to stand on. You fool!”
However, Jeremiah’s “Lament” – very similar to the Psalms, does not end with this “complaint” – despite no immediate response from God. Jeremiah VENTS loudly, but then digs a little deeper and holds on to God, whom he calls a dread warrior within him.  Jeremiah refuses to let “circumstances” have the final word.  In defiance of the persecution and God’s apparent silence or even absence, Jeremiah TRUSTS... which is, in itself, an act of defiance. Jeremiah asserts: “O Lord of hosts, you test the righteous, you see the heart and the mind; let me see your retribution upon them, for to you I have committed my cause. Sing to the Lord; praise the Lord! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers.”
The word “yakal” occurs four times in this passage. It means “to be able, have power, prevail, endure.”  The question throughout the passage is WHO will prevail?  Jeremiah seems to be losing, the evil doers seem to be winning; however, Jeremiah places his “bet” on the God to whom he is committed, in the hope that God alone will prevail.
Are we able to endure “loss” as Jeremiah did?  Are we able to be labeled “losers” – if that’s what it takes for God’s will to be done & for God to prevail?  That’s a tough question, which I don’t intend to answer in a sermon. These are questions we need to wrestle with as a congregation.
What if our “losing” is part of God’s plan? What if our “dying” is part of God’s plan?  Oh, no, we protest!!! I’m out of here if that’s God’s plan. What would our lament be?  We’d sound like Jeremiah. We would try to board another train if we thought this one was going over a cliff.  There are plenty of churches with booming youth groups… we could EASILY jump ship, if this one is sinking.  Andy Stanley’s churches are growing exponentially; let’s copy or create one of those!
Like it or not Jeremiah’s trust was in God, the dreaded warrior within him. Despite his own discouragement “Jeremiah can do nothing but climb back up into his prophetic pulpit, bearing (and making bare) God’s message once again.”
Here it is summer vacation, a time for rest and recreation. Do we have to have a “heavy topic” for our sermon this morning?  We’d like a low calorie, Gospel-Light, but it doesn’t seem to be on the menu.
Our Gospel reading from Matthew hits us in the face like a Mack Truck. You see a disciple is NOT above the teacher, so however Jesus was treated is exactly how we will be treated.  If they persecuted him and said he belonged to the house of the devil, they will say the same about us.  In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus lost about HALF of his followers when he started talking about “carrying a cross” and “losing their lives” in order to find life.
Jesus tells the disciples not to be afraid, but he prepares them for a life-and-death struggle, when he says:  “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Mt. 10:34). These words fly in the face of our desire for peace, harmony, tranquility and growth.
By the time Jesus went to the cross, he even lost his closest friends. Peter denied he knew Jesus.  Imagine how everyone must have felt when the air was literally sucked out of the universe on that first Bad Friday afternoon. Human beings put God to death on a cross and thought they could get away with it.  Of course, they didn’t.  God prevailed.  However, the “earthly mission of Jesus” ended with humiliation, persecution, derision. Don’t you know that everyone who opposed Jesus’ ministry was gloating royally… for three dismally dark days?
However, God was not mocked. God prevailed. God raised Jesus from the dead in God’s timing and in God’s way.  Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemene for a “Plan B” – but God said NO!
As much as we don’t like to hear it, AND WE DON’T!  Jesus said the following words:  “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”  Are you serious, Jesus?  Is it possible that some of our family conflicts arise out of deep issues of faith?  Are we ALWAYS supposed to smooth things over for the sake of family?  Do our family commitments TRUMP our relationship with God, or vice versa?  Does God ever put us in a forced choice situation where we have to choose EITHER our family or our commitment to God?  Surely God wouldn’t do that! And yet God does.
It gets worse. Listen to verses 37-39.  “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
I love my family as much as any of the rest of you here today, and yet, when David and I made the decision to move to India, because we believed it was God’s will, we had two angry daughters on our hands.  When my dear friend Laura Gingerich prepared a “going away dinner” for me and my family, I could not stay to the end. I went home early and wept bitterly, knowing that I would have continents between me and two of my daughters for an unknown period of time.  It was a “death” I do not want to die again anytime soon. My heart was bleeding uncontrollably. Frankly I never wavered from the decision, and yet, I am still witnessing some of the scars our decision left behind. We taught our family one lesson: God first. I don’t regret it.
“Letting go of what we love the most is the best way to save it.”  It’s counter-intuitive and very painful, but that is the pure & unedited Gospel message. Have we learned to lose?  I surely didn’t learn it from my earthly family. I was groomed to be a “winner” – but God has taught me to “lose” – and wow, what a lesson it has been. Excruciating at times! Even families strong in faith are naturally “protective” of one another’s safety.  Have we learned to take up our cross?  Have we learned to die?  Our lives on earth are not all about us and our families. I hate to break it to you, but the “Family Values” some politicians promote are NOT biblical values. You see, in the Bible, the family is NOT number 1. God is.  And if we love ANYONE or ANYTHING more than God, our values & priorities are out of wack!
In the same way, if our love for “this church” – the building, the people, the history, the traditions, the music, the liturgy, or anything else is more important to us than that “dreaded warrior God” – whose fire in our bellies continues to burn, we are OFF TRACK and headed in the wrong direction.  God prevails, whether we like it or not. We don’t get to choose or vote on God’s will.  So we can jump ship and find one that is sailing in calmer waters, or we can take up our crosses and follow Jesus.  We may end up losing everything that matters to us, but we will also taste the resurrection life Jesus offers. Are we prepared to “die” with Jesus…as individuals and as a church… so that God’s will may be done here? God wants to do a new thing… but first we have to die. It’s easy to be a winner; but losing takes courage. If this scares you, let’s conclude this sermon with a Welcoming Prayer, written by Mary Mrozowski.
She invites us to “welcome our feelings,” by paying attention to them, as Jeremiah did. “Welcome, fear.” We honor our fear by noticing, embracing, receiving it.  Losing/dying/ changing naturally invoke fear in us.  Now let us practice “letting go fear.”  Please repeat the lines of this prayer after me: Lord, I let go of my desire to hold onto what I cannot keep. Lord, I let go of my desire for security and survival. Lord, I let go of my desire for esteem and affection. Lord, I let go of my desire for power and control. Lord I let go of my desire to change my situation.  Thy will be done, gracious God. We pray in Jesus’ name,

         Douglass M. Bailey, “Homiletical Perspective on Jeremiah 20:7-13,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. III, p. 151.