First United Methodist Church – Omaha
Dr. Cynthia Lindenmeyer
August 27, 2017
Scripture: Matthew 26:47-52, 56
Sermon: “Eight Seconds”
Bull riders attempt to stay on a bucking bull for eight seconds. If you’ve ever tried riding a bull, then you’ve been knocked off balance in dramatic fashion. If you are expecting me to tell a personal story of when I rode a bull, very sorry to disappoint. My only experience is on a mechanical bull. At a wedding.
Most here are probably too smart to get on a bull. Events in our lives that create chaos can throw us off balance quicker than trying to ride. Bushwhacker, the legendary 1600-pound bull, was only once ridden eight seconds. There are moments when life’s conflict and crises throw me around like a bucking bull and I try to remember that the anxiety caused by said crises can only prosper if I make the choice to stay on and not let go. Practicing the art of letting go is much tougher than it sounds.
How we respond to crises and conflict says quite a bit about who we are. Sometimes the crisis occurs at an individual level—health, job, relationships….maybe even faith. Or the crisis exists at the communal level—racism, gender and sexual discrimination, environmental injustice, hurricanes. Whether the crisis involves the individual and the communal level, or both, no wonder we want to react like the disciples, we want to flee. Escape.
I believe stories in the Scriptures were written not only to reveal truths about God but about ourselves. And there’s something about the story of the disciples running away in the face of danger to which I totally can relate. How would you respond if your mentor, close friend, was arrested by an angry mob carrying clubs, swords and torches? Would you flee?
Twelve disciples followed Christ at least three years. They ate together. Traveled together. Shared stories with one another. They were close like a family, and looked to Jesus as their spiritual guide. To the disciples, the arrest was a huge crisis.
Along our spiritual life journey, significant events shape us and make us who we are. I use the phrase spiritual journey because there is a difference between living each day-to-day, and viewing each day as part of a spiritual journey. If my life becomes a daily errand of checking off to-do lists, then I am easily caught up in benchmarks of success and the mentality of a finish line—“Once I am married, then I won’t have any problems.” “Once I finish my degree, then I will have wisdom.” “Once I retire, then I will have more time.”
But a journey is different. It isn’t the destination, but the engagement with the path traveled. A spiritual journey embraces our spirituality, that aspect of how we seek meaning and purpose in the way we connect to the present moment, to ourselves, to others, to nature, to God…and to crises.
Think about your life. If you were to draw a line that represented the day you were born to the present moment, then make marks along that line of significant events that shaped you to be who are today, what would they be? What defining moments are on your spiritual life journey? Then ask yourself, was it the event itself that determined the outcome, or your response to the event? Pain and suffering, many times, result from the stories we tell ourselves about the consequences that might happen in the future. Quite possibly, the story could be true. If diagnosed with a non-curable disease, then pain, suffering, and death are on the horizon. If budget cuts terminate employment, then the possibility of financial bankruptcy becomes very real. If divorce enters your journey, then family as you know it changes forever. If a category four hurricane descends upon your home, then how does one respond?
Whatever the event, we perceive it as a threat. Our bodies respond to a threat in what psychologists call “fight or flight.” We see “Fight or flight” in the Scripture story about when Jesus was arrested.
Peter, one of the disciples, responds in fight mode and cuts off the ears of one of the slaves of the high priests. The others go right into flight mode. Within a time period of under 20 hours, Jesus experiences trials, sentencing, and death. Some disciples witnessed his death. The arrest was a significant emotional event. The crucifixion was a significant emotional event. The resurrection was a significant emotional event. How do the disciples respond to the day of the resurrection? They hide in a locked room.
Tempted to go into the disciple witness protection program as resurrection conspiracy theories spread throughout the region, the disciples eventually emerge and travel around the world to tell the story of Jesus. We know Matthew ends up Ethiopia. Thomas in India. Thaddeus in Beirut. Simon the Zealot in Africa. Not sure what happens to James the Lesser, but the other James becomes the first one martyred as he is put to death by King Herod. Bartholomew goes to India, placed in a sack and thrown alive into the sea. Tradition says Peter is crucified upside down and the present day Vatican is built on his burial site. His brother Andrew must have really travelled because he is the patron saint of Russia, Greece, and Scotland. John is the only apostle to die of natural causes as all the other disciples, according to tradition, die martyrs proclaiming the messages they learned from Jesus.
Remember, had the disciples chosen to live in fear, what would we know today of Jesus? Instead, the disciples formed a narrative not founded on the probable adverse consequences that would follow, but focused on telling about Jesus. And that narrative determined their missionary response.
Maybe you’ve been inspired by how others overcome adversity. I want to read a quote from a prisoner at his unjust trial:
During my lifetime, I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
Those words were spoken in April of 1964 by a prisoner accused of sabotage, high treason, and conspiracy. He spent the next 26 years in harsh imprisonment. A fourth of his life taken, he could have allowed anger and bitterness to consume him, but Nelson Mandela would rise from prisoner to President, writing, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave one is not the one who does not feel afraid, but the one who conquers that fear.” He changed his story from one of captive to one of opportunity.
I think we can learn from the disciples and people of our time who have reframed the narrative and overcome. First, we have to have hope. Many of you experienced the eclipse this past Monday, and watching the news that night brought hope to me that despite all the reports of atheism on the rise, people still do crave a connection to God. Finding beauty in nature helps us to appreciate the sacredness of life. Helps us to realize that the garden we cultivate in our hearts and minds really does take mindfulness. Response and ability, the root of responsibility, for care of who we are and our actions….
I forgot to mention one disciple—Philip. He ends up in Turkey in a town known as Hierapolis. And here is where a bit of imagination comes to mind. The following story could or could not have happened, but I like to imagine it did. I wonder if Philip met a slave named Epictetus, who was badly beaten by his master. I wonder if Philip’s story inspired Epictetus who, despite being a slave, understood that “People are not disturbed by things, but by the view they take of them.” Epictetus realized that humans could not control what happened in their life, only how they responded.
When we hear distressing news, when are anxious, when our nation seems like it has gone backward, it isn’t what happens to us, but how we react….Epictetus’ writings captured in the book, The Art of Living, identify the concept of discerning what is in one’s control and what is not in one’s control.
The last disciple I haven’t talked about is Judas. After three years of ministry, he doesn’t think Jesus is taking charge and asserting himself. So Judas wants to speed up the process. He plots to have Jesus arrested thinking that would force him to reveal himself as the Messiah. It’s the same logic of throwing a kid in the deep end of the pool to force them to swim; Judas was hoping good would come out of setting up the arrest of Jesus. However, the outcome is not what Judas anticipated.
How does Judas respond? Ask forgiveness from the disciples? Forgive himself and travel the region to talk about Jesus? No. The narrative in his head that he responds to does not lead down a path of hope. He takes his life. It’s not the event, but the narrative we create in response to the event that determines our reactions.
When crises occur, community is essential. A community helps us to discern what we can control, our response, and can come beside us in our journey. When we realize we are not alone, then possibly we can let go of the “what if” narratives that keep us riding the proverbial bulls.
How do we as a church respond to difficult times, such as racism? Do we flee as well? Sort of gives a new concept to white flight. As a faith community, we may not be able to control external circumstances, but we can always choose how we as a community respond to them. When we feel imprisoned, think of Mandela. When we feel enslaved, think of Epictetus. When we want to run away, think of the disciples.
In closing, every moment brings a choice to practice stress or to practice peace. When an event occurs that creates anxiety, pause for eight seconds. Meditate upon the narrative you will choose to respond. Invite the Holy Spirit into your story. May God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change; courage to change the things we can; and wisdom to know the difference.