Sunday’s Sermon: The Ultimate Tough Mudder

  • New trend in fitness competitions: Tough Mudder
    • Wildly popular
      • 1,000,000+ entrants worldwide
      • Held in …
        • At least 29 states
        • Countries including:
          • Canada
          • Mexico
          • South Africa
    • Description of course –> “Probably the toughest event on the planet.”®
      • 10-12 mile run
      • Designed by British Special Forces
      • 25 Obstacles
        • Fire, ice water, 12-foot wall, cargo net, balance beam, underground tunnels, ascending/descending monkey bars, electric shock (10,000 volts)
      • Only 78% entrants complete
      • There’s even a “World’s Toughest Mudder” –> 24 hours on the course to complete as many laps/obstacles as you can
    • Believe it or not, the “running” part of a Tough Mudder is the easy part. Now, it’s one thing to choose to tackle something like this – a series of obstacles designed to test your strength and endurance. But what about when life throws obstacles like that at us? What about those challenges we face on a day-to-day basis that test us in ways we’d rather avoid?
      • Test our patience
      • Test our spirit
      • Test our resolve
  • Find acknowledgement of obstacles/tough times in Scriptures
    • NT – pretty explicit: Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented … They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.[1] –> Destitute, persecuted, and tormented … There are Christians all around the world today who continue to live in situations in which their faith makes them a target.
      • Voice of the Martyrs map – at least 64 countries around the world categorized as either “restricted” (countries where government policies/laws prevent Christians from practicing openly – e.g. China) or “hostile” (countries where governments try to protect Christians but they are victimized anyway – e.g. Chiapas, Mexico)[2]
      • Admittedly, it’s difficult for us here in America to understand these kinds of hurdles. For us, it’s safe to participate in our faith, but there’s no question that we face trials of our own, too. –> we suffer …
        • Loss of a loved one –> void that creates in our lives
        • Broken relationships –> loss of trust, shattered bond
        • Health crises –> things that weaken our physical, mental, and emotional strength
        • Personal failings/disappointments –> things we wish we could change about ourselves, that make us second guess ourselves
    • The Hebrews passage speaks to our struggle with these obstacles, too. –> text: Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.[3]
      • Gr. “run the race” = “make progress in the struggle” –> This could be any sort of issue that we’re dealing with – anything that’s causing us to slip, to stumble, to feel beat down and left behind. This could be any sort of struggle that causes us to cry out to God for help.
    • Ps speaks to this sort of struggle –> words of Ps used to cry out to God:
      • Hear the pain in struggle description of treatment of the vine: The boar from the forest ravages it, and all that move in the field feed on it. Why then have you broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit? They have burned it with fire, they have cut it down.[4]
        • Vine = people of Israel
        • The people are struggling. They’re hurt. They feel devastated and abandoned – left to face all the challenges of the world alone. And these words give voice to a feeling that we don’t often acknowledge. Somewhere along the line, we learn that we’re not allowed to question God. We’re not allowed to express how hurt or confused or lost we feel. In our heads, we’re supposed to always remember that God has our backs, so we think our hearts are never supposed to waiver, never supposed to feel unsure. But that sort of attitude is an obstacle in and of itself.
          • Illusion of perfection/“having it all together” = dangerous to our mental, emotional, spiritual health
        • Psalm gives us a way to deal with imperfection and chaos of life – a way to bring it before God – by actually acknowledging it
          • Healthier than pretending it doesn’t exist
          • Think of it this way: How can you figure out how to get around an obstacle if you don’t look at it?
            • Compare to running Tough Mudder with eyes closed —> can’t see the obstacles, can’t follow the path
          • Scholar: The belief that God is in some way confronted in suffering and death as well as prosperity and life is a remarkable affirmation.[5] –> You see, even though the Israelites found themselves in a terrible position – a position in which they had been conquered and by yet another foreign nation – they knew that God was with them. Yes, they were struggling with their faith. Yes, they were struggling with their identity as God’s people. They were even questioning where God was in the midst of their struggle. But they also brought that struggle before God – before the only One who could give them refuge, peace, strength, and courage to forge on ahead.
  • Constancy of God’s presence visible in both OT and NT
    • Ps recalls God’s presence facing past obstacles: You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land.[6]
      • Heb. “cleared” = not just haphazard hacking away at weeds and underbrush –> This word can mean “pay attention to,” “concern oneself with,” or “worry about,” so in making a place for the Israelites after leading them out of slavery in Egypt, God was acting with care and concern. There was intent. There was purpose. There was attentiveness. God was genuinely invested in the life of Israel.
    • Also see evidence of God being there in the past in passage from Heb – recounts history of many great Scriptural stories
      • Exodus from Egypt and parting of the Red Sea
      • Battle of Jericho
      • Triumphs of the judges – text: Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, and Samuel and the prophets – who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.[7] –> all of these = ways in which God has been with the people
        • Lifted them up
        • Gave them strength
        • Bolstered their spirits and their faith
        • The people mentioned in this passage all turned to God at one time or another. Were they perfect in their faith? Of course not. No one is.
          • People mentioned were full of flaws
            • Samson – vanity
            • David – lust, pride
            • Gideon – full of doubts, testing God
            • But God still came to the aid of each of them when they needed God most.
          • Thankfully, there is no prerequisite for calling out to God.
  • And that’s the bottom line here: No matter what obstacles we’re facing, no matter whether or not we feel “up to the challenge,” God is with us in the midst of those struggles.
    • When I spoke about the Tough Mudder earlier, I called it a “fitness competition.” But I guess that designation isn’t entirely accurate. You do get an entrant’s number to wear on your shirt, and there is a timer at the finish line. But running a Tough Mudder is more about making it through the obstacles and helping each other than it is about the timer at the end.
      • Description from website: Tough Mudders are team players who make sure no one gets left behind.[8] –> expresses same attitude that God has toward us – God will never leave us behind to try to conquer an obstacle alone.
    • This is why we know that even when we feel lost and abandoned in the face of our struggles as the Israelites did, we are never truly alone.
      • From Ps: But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself. Then we will never turn back from you; give us life, and we will call on your name. Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; let your face shine, that we might be saved.[9]
        • Scholar connects these ancient words to our faith today: In an act of faith and hope not unlike that of Psalm 80, the followers of Jesus dare to affirm that in Jesus the light of God shines and that through Jesus we are restored and have life. Like those who prayed Psalm 80 so long ago, Christians dare to see and expect the reign of God where others see only chaos and expect nothing.[10] –> You see, it’s not that as Christians, we’re going to avoid struggles altogether. Everyone experiences times in their lives when things are hard – times when we find our paths blocked by a seemingly-insurmountable obstacle. But as Christians, we know that our strength, our hope, and our ultimate end all lie in the same place: the grace given to us by Christ.
    • This is also the hope that we find in the Hebrews passage.
      • Text: Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.[11]
        • Hope and courage in the way Jesus faced ultimate obstacle of the cross – “disregarding its shame” –> Jesus  faced the cross knowing it would be a struggle. Through faith, knowing God is with us, we can face our obstacles, too.
        • Scholar (assurance): Faith allows people to see beyond what is right in front of them, their daily problems, to see what God is doing in their midst, to see what God has done throughout the ages, and to see the future joy God has in store for us.[12] –> Notice the way that statement ends: “the future joy God has in store for us.” People who run a Tough Mudder aren’t worried about time. Their goal isn’t the perfect race or the fastest finish. People who run a Tough Mudder know that the experience is as much about helping others get through the obstacles as it is about getting through the obstacles themselves.
          • From Tough Mudder website: Tough Mudder is all about taking on the obstacles in your life and the enormous sense of accomplishment that you feel when you overcome them. –> slightly altered: Faith is all about taking on the obstacles in your life and the enormous sense of unity you feel when you face them with God. Amen.

[1] Heb 11:36-37.


[3] Heb 12:1b.

[4] Ps 80:12-14.

[5] J. Clinton McCann, Jr. “The Book of Psalms: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 4. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996), 1001.

[6] Ps 80:8-9.

[7] Heb 11:32-34.

[9] Ps 80:17-19.

[10] McCann, 1001.

[11] Heb 12:1-2.

[12] David E. Gray. “Proper 15 (Sunday between August 14 and August 20 Inclusive): Hebrews 11:29-12:2 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, vol. 3. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 354.

Sunday’s Sermon: Napping in Church

  • Being a new mom of twins, there are a lot of things that I’ve learned in the past 3 months.
    • Best way to get stains out of just about everything
    • Always always always know location of at least 3 different burp clothes
    • Prioritize what needs to get done now & what can get done in about 18 years
    • And one of the most important things that I’ve learned is the value of a good nap! Sleep, my friends, is a beautiful thing. Or maybe I should say “re-learned.”
      • Naps = big part of our lives as young children, but too soon, we start to lose our appreciation for naps
        • Anyone who’s cared for young children can tell you how important “nap time” can be
          • E.g.s from wedding
        • Nap time = enforced in kindergarten, but then hit 1st grade – too cool for napping (very sad day)
        • And then we go all the way through elementary school and high school not appreciating the true beauty that is the nap.
      • Rediscover glory of the nap somewhat in college
        • I’d be willing to bet that you could step onto any campus at just about any time of day and find people spread out on any available surface, padded or not.
      • But even those naps were nothing compared to the length and importance of the naps we’ve learned to take as new parents.
    • And what is it about naps that make them so fabulous? –> refreshing
      • Allow our bodies to take a break from all the chaos around us
      • Allow us to lay down not only ourselves but our burdens, too
      • Now, I know this may sound odd, but God’s love is the most amazing nap you will ever take in your entire life. Seriously!
        • Allows us refuge from chaos around us
        • Allows us to lay our burdens down
        • Ultimately refreshing
        • Actually, God’s love is better than any nap you’ll ever take because it’s unconditional, and it’s available anytime – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
  • See this in Scriptures for this morning –> renewing nature of God’s love
    • Unconditional –> Think about it …
      • Conditions required to take a nap
        • Comfortable position
        • Semi-quiet
        • Semi-darkness
      • But our relationship with God is more open than that.
        • Come to God anywhere
        • Come to God under any circumstances
        • Come to God just as we are –> see especially in Ps
          • Once again, people of Israel have been less-than-perfect – text: But my people did not listen to my voice; Israel would not submit to me. So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsels.[1] –> Time and again throughout their history, Israel turned from God to follow after other idols, other gods, and other cultures. Time and again God called after them, desiring nothing greater than their return. And time and again, when they found themselves in trouble, Israel returned to God. And God welcomed them back with loving, forgiving arms.
            • Scholar: Psalm 81 suggests that even in the absence of the people’s choice to listen to and to follow God, they are still “my people.” The people will live finally by grace, by God’s compassion and willingness to forgive.[2]
      • Not so different from our lives –> all sorts of things distract us: money, job, other obligations, stress, others’ expectations, and that unconditional love of God extends to us, too.
        • Part of that unconditional love = willingness to shoulder our burdens for us
          • Ps: I relieved your shoulder of the burden; your hands were freed from the basket.[3]
          • Matt: Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.[4]
        • There is no extent to which God will not go for us. There is no burden that is too heavy for God to bear, no task too great for God to accomplish on our behalf.
          • Ps speaks to this: I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.[5] –> Remember, this was no small task for God.
            • Spoke to Moses in burning bush
            • 10 plagues to convince Pharaoh
            • Pillar of cloud & fire to lead Israelites through desert
            • Parting the Red Sea for Israelites & wiping out Pharaoh’s army
            • Dealing with Israelites’ complaints in the wilderness
            • Saga that takes 40 long chapters in Exod. –> But God did all these things for the people of Israel because God loved them. Bringing them out of slavery into the promised land was a labor of love.
      • God’s greatest labor of love = Jesus Christ –> God loved us so much that God sent Jesus – God’s only son – to carry out that promise of unconditional love, in all its beauty and pain, all its agony and glory.
        • Phil: He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.[6]
        • God knew our sins were going to weigh heavy on Jesus’ head – that he was going to have to accept many horrible things for our sake even though Christ himself was sinless. And yet, God’s only son came to earth anyway, to bring us that unconditional love and to teach us to share it with one another.
  • The other thing that makes God’s love even better than a nap is availability. God’s love is a part of our lives 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
    • As much as we’d love to, can’t just take a nap anytime we want to –> various demands on our time
      • Appointments
      • Work obligations
      • Family commitments
    • But no matter what, we can always find refuge when we call out to God.
      • Find this reassurance in gospel – text: Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.[7] –> no time frame, no caveats, no questions asked
      • See constancy and care in Ps: In distress you called, and I rescued you; I answered you in the secret place of thunder. Open your mouth wide and I will fill it. O that my people would listen to me, that Israel would walk in my ways! … I would feed you with the finest of wheat, and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.[8] –> God is promising to provide for the people of Israel – to lead them and care for them and give them fulfillment if they would only follow God. And God makes that same promise for us. “O that my people would listen to me, that you all – you, sitting there at the Goodhue County Fair – o, that you would listen to me and follow my guidance.”
      • Experience refuge in “real life” all the time
        • Everyday cases of God being available at all times
          • Dealing with things at work –> seek patience, energy, creativity
          • A safe trip home on a dark road or a snowy night
        • Extreme cases
          • Story from “Voice of the Martyrs”
  • Think back to the naps you took as a child, or think about the times that you’ve watched your own children, grandchildren, siblings, or whoever while they slept.
    • Describe way Ian and Luke sleep
    • There’s an innocence there because children know that, even as they sleep, they’re safe. They know that there’s always someone there to protect them – someone that was there when they closed their eyes and will still be there to care for them when they open their eyes again. Our faith in God coupled with God’s love for us is like that.
  • As I was preparing this sermon, I was listening to a lot of the praise music that I have specifically in search of lyrics that had to do with rest. I was afraid that I wasn’t going to find what I was looking for.
    • Lots of praise music is upbeat
    • On the contrary, I found more songs than I could fit into a dozen sermons on resting in God. But one song stuck out among all the rest. I’m going to leave you with the lyrics of that song.
      • You’re right where you have always been. Take me back to the place that I once knew as a little child. Constantly, the eyes of God watched over me. Oh, I want to be in the place that I once knew as a little child – fall into the bed of faith prepared for me. I will rest in you. I will rest in you. I will rest in you.[9] Amen.

[1] Ps 81:11-12.

[2] J. Clinton McCann, Jr. “The Book of Psalms: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 4. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996), 1004.

[3] Ps 81:6.

[4] Mt 11:28.

[5] Ps 81:10.

[6] Phil 2:8.

[7] Mt 11:29.

[8] Ps 81:13, 16.

[9] “I Will Rest in You” by Jaci Velasquez, © 2010.

Sunday’s Sermon: A Gift of the Heart

  • This may surprise you, but when I was in high school, I wasn’t exactly the athletic type.
    • Involved in other things: band, choir, speech –> And all my friends and all the older kids that I knew who were involved in these activities were also involved in the plays, so I thought that, by extension, I needed to be in the plays.
      • Major barrier here: shyness
        • Idea of being on-stage ≠ appealing
    • But I thought that, because everyone else was doing it, I had to do it, too. So when the next production rolled around, with great anxiety and trepidation, I signed up for an audition time.
      • Didn’t work out very well –> audition was a disaster
        • Story of trying to run lines with Joe
      • Outcome ≠ surprising –> I have to admit that my heart wasn’t really in it. I was more distracted by the thought that I had to do what “my group” did that I forgot to listen to what my heart was truly saying.
  • And today, we find both our Old and New Testament readings addressing a similar predicament. The characters in them have allowed their hearts to become distracted by the world, thus preventing them from giving their whole hearts to the God who treasures them.
    • OT – Israelites
      • Text (God speaking): The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols. … They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me. … My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all.[1] –> Now, God is speaking to the Israelites through Hosea during “the final days before its conquest and destruction by the Assyrians,”[2] and this passage makes it clear that the Israelites have once again turned away from God.
        • Sacrificing and calling out to other gods
        • Aren’t relying solely on those other gods –> The text does say, “To the Most High they call,” but their hearts aren’t really in that call. But the point is …
          • Not putting their whole faith in God
          • Not giving their whole hearts to God
        • Scholar pinpoints issue: Whenever we take something out of its rightful place in our lives and raise it to the status of the ultimate, we break the harmony of life. … Only God is ultimate, only God can secure us, finally, against the need to be secured.[3] –> The Israelites were feeling that need to be secured, and they were looking to a lot of other places for security instead of simply turning to the God that had led them, protected them, and loved them throughout their history.
    • NT passage – 2 e.g.s: man who asks Jesus to arbitrate his family dispute and rich man in the parable –> people putting their faith in everything but God
      • First man approaches Jesus – text: Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.[4] –> Doesn’t this feel a little trivial? I mean, at this point in the gospel, Jesus is beginning to be recognized by a few people as the Messiah. At the very least, he’s revered as an important religious teacher.
        • Others ask Jesus about eternal life or interpreting the Scriptures or how best to follow
        • And yet this man approaches Jesus like he’s tattling, like he’s asking the biggest kid on the playground to force his brother to play nice. His heart isn’t in Jesus’ message. His heart isn’t in God’s love or the breaking-in of God’s kingdom on earth. His heart is wholly distracted by this worldly issue of inheritance.
          • Jesus makes it clear that this man’s heart is in the wrong place: Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.[5] [repeat last line]
      • Rich man in parable also puts his heart in the wrong place – his response to an abundant harvest: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’[6]
        • Important cultural context behind this slip-up
          • First, Jewish law – at least some of your abundance was supposed to be used to care for widows, orphans, and those who couldn’t care for themselves –> no indication that this man is planning on doing this with any of his surplus of grain
          • Second, rich harvests like this – considered blessing from God –> no indication that this rich man is planning on giving thanks to God for such a blessing
        • Like my ill-considered excursion into that play audition, these people’s hearts were distracted by wealth and material things, so they gave their hearts up to those things instead of investing them in their faith and in their relationship with God.
  • Outcome revealed in text
    • NT is stark
      • With the man who approached Jesus – text (Jesus’ words): Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?[7] –> This may sound like a harsh reprimand from Jesus, but sometimes that’s what we need sometimes, isn’t it? We need someone or something to snap us back into focus.
      • Even more startling outcome for rich man at end of the parable: But God said to [the rich man], “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.[8] –> This response leaves no doubt: What do you truly treasure? Have we given our hearts to the fleeting and broken things of this world or have we given our hearts to something more permanent, more fulfilling, and more eternal? If you were to die tonight, what would the contents of your heart say about you?
  • Other side of this – OT passage makes it clear that God has already given us a special place in God’s own heart –> hear God’s true desire clearly through prophet Hosea
    • Somewhat rare show of emotion from God –> speaks of God’s tender and enduring love for us – text: When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. … It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms … I led them with the cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.[9] –> We hear warmth and affection in this. We hear compassion and attentiveness and steadfastness.
      • God speaks in beautiful imagery – mother tenderly caring for her baby: teaching, scooping up into her arms, cuddling and cooing and gently caressing, glowing with love and protection
    • Scripture also reveals pain God feels over Israel’s abandonment – text: How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.[10] –> Can’t you just hear how God is torn apart over this rejection? God knows that the “right” thing to do is to leave Israel. They have forsaken God time and again, and even though they have sworn in the past, “You will be our only God, and we will be your people,” here they are agai, chasing after foreign deities, sacrificing to false idols, and turning their backs on the One who has cared for them through it all.
      • Scholar (poignantly stated): At the core, this is one of the oldest stories there is. … God loves us, entirely. God creates us, delivers us, and tends us. The more God pursues, the more we turn away. It is the story of our shame. It is the story of God’s grace. We know how it ends – God does not give up.[11]
  • Our texts for today deal with times in which the people of God gave their hearts over to the wrong things, but as the scholar pointed out, this failure isn’t the end of the story.
    • End of my story – may not have found my place under the bright lights on stage but found my place in the theater dept. (stage manager – behind the scenes) –> This was where I found fulfillment and joy. This was where my heart was supposed to be.
    • And the ultimate end for our hearts – the ultimate way in which we give of ourselves – is in God. We give our hearts to God because God’s love is an unending love and a love that leads us back to a place of true fulfillment in God’s presence. We give our hearts to God because God’s grace is a grace that forgives our slip-ups and welcomes us back into the fold. We give our hearts to God because God has already unequivocally given God’s heart to us. Amen.

[1] Hos 11:2, 5, 7.

[2] “Hosea” in The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd ed. With the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001), 1278.

[3] Anna Case-Winters. “Proper 13 (Sunday between July 31 and August 6 Inclusive): Hosea 11:1-11 – Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, vol. 3. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 296.

[4] Lk 12:13.

[5] Lk 12:15.

[6] Lk 12: 18-19.

[7] Lk 12:14.

[8] Lk 12:20-21.

[9] Hos 11:1, 3-4.

[10] Hos 11:8-9.

[11] Stacey Simpson Duke. “Proper 13 (Sunday between July 31 and August 6 Inclusive): Hosea 11:1-11 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, vol. 3. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 292.