The Real F Words: Focused, Fearless, Forgiving

Sermon July 15, 2012 First Presbyterian Church of Skaneateles
Amos 7:12-15,  Mark 6: 7-13 

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This morning’s lessons teach us the real F words: Focused, Fearless, Forgiveness. Fix your Focus. Forget your Fears. Forgive and be Forgiven. Simple words. Hard to do.

Our Old Testament lesson this morning deals with Focus. The time was about 750 B.C., just a few years before the powerful Assyrians invaded the region. Israel and Judah had split apart. Amos was a farmer from Judah, the southern part of Israel. Amos was commanded by God to speak out. And what he delivered was not good news. Amos delivered messages of punishment coming from God against the surrounding foreign nations for their abominable behavior, but  he was also ordered to deliver a prophecy of disaster coming against his own home country of Judah. Judah had lost focus on the one true God, and was focusing instead on the old false gods. Amos delivered this news to Judah, and then was commanded to head north to Israel. Israel had also lost focus.

This morning’s reading tells what happened when Amos showed up in northern Israel, and delivered the bad news: You are focusing on the wrong things. You are focused on rituals and laws, not what the rituals and the laws are teaching. You are oppressing the poor, taking bribes. You are focused on the flesh, sexual immorality, amassing wealth, and using your religious power positions to your own advantage. For this, you will be crushed. I, God, will crush you. Your armies will not stand. Your bravest will run away. Israel and your temple at Bethel will be destroyed.

Fix your focus. Amos tells Israel their only hope is to return to God. Hate evil, love good, maintain justice in your courts. Enough focus on singing and music. I want justice and righteousness to roll down like a mighty river. This message was not well received by the high priest of Bethel. Instead of accepting Amos’ words, he told him to shut up and go back where he came from. God saw this as a failure to fix focus. Not too long after, the Assyrians swept down and wiped out the entire northern kingdom, leaving only Judah. God means what he says through his prophets.

Our New Testament lesson is also about focus – and fears – and forgiveness. Jesus sends out the 12 Apostles in teams of two. He gave each team authority over unclean spirits.  Jesus explicitly instructed them to travel light - nothing but a walking stick -  no money, no food, no luggage, no extra clothing – and of course, no credit cards.  Jesus told them to stay in houses that welcomed them, from the time they arrived in town until they left. And, if a town did not welcome them or want to listen to them, “Hey, no problem.” Shake their dust off your sandals as you leave town, letting them know for sure they’ve missed something important.  Move on, don’t argue, don’t carry a grudge.  Don't make a list of bad towns; don't call down lightning or divine vengeance on them. Just stay focused:  focus on preaching repentance and forgiveness to those who listen, focus on driving out the demons, focus on healing the sick.

They were focused. They were fearless. They preached forgiveness. Can you imagine setting out without a dime, without a credit card, with an abstract message, counting on the hospitality and kindness of people whom you've never met? No luggage, no toiletry kit, no nothing. Not even a raincoat. Think about when we pack for a two week vacation. If you're like me you generally bring enough for two months or more - no telling what might happen, what the weather could be like, the terrain, the occasions. Thank God for wheelie bags and roll-aboards.  Jesus sure did set some tough conditions for his disciples. 

Okay, let's shift to our lives and see what these lessons have for us.  I promised we would look at the real F words - Focused, Fearless, Forgiveness. I'm going to talk mainly about focus, because focus is the key.  The human condition, without focus on God, is a fearful condition. And, when we are fearful, anxiety ridden, worried about our own problems, we find it difficult to forgive. Fear drives out forgiveness. And that's the simple chain that all starts with focus.  Focus on God, and our reliance on God leads to freedom from fear. Freedom from fear allows us to forgive. Forgiveness, repentance, allows us to grow spiritually and to love, which is why God placed us here on earth. So, I'm going to focus on focus.

As we read the history of Judah and Israel, I am struck with how often the Jews lost focus on God, and instead worshipped things they could see. Right from the start, Aaron made them a golden calf they could look at, and worship, while Moses was off up the mountain. Why? Why this constant reversion to idols made of wood or stone or metal? I think the answer is very simple. People need to look at something. And we go wherever we look. 

How many of us here are sailors? Or skiers? Or have tried the newest phenomenon on the lake - stand up paddling? Or drive cars or bicycles? Anyone who sails knows that with the shifting winds on Skaneateles Lake and moving cross currents, there is one sure rule to navigation: look constantly at where you want to go.  Somehow, miraculously, our body and muscles subtly respond and we adjust our drift and direction to continually point the right way.  Or, if we are skiing, we look at and point our pole to the turn point. If we are driving or cycling, we keep our focus on the road ahead. You go wherever you look. If you are Stand Up Paddling and look down as you set out, you will go down. Splash down into the lake. If you're texting as you drive, taking focus off the road ahead, you'll catch yourself -- if we are lucky -- before you cross the center line or drift to the shoulder.  We go wherever we look. And if we do not focus on a fixed point, we will drift and crash. Human nature requires a focus.

Life around us provides plenty to focus on. We used to have one or two screens in the house, and now, if we count, between iPads, iPods, Smart Phones, Kindles, Nooks, Androids, Blackberries, Wiis, Game Boys, X-Boxes, GPS in the car, flat screen TVs in every room, laptops and desk tops - and soon Google Glasses with heads up displays hanging off our noses. We have focus overload.

Remember Amos' message to Israel?  The Invisible, Immortal God Only Wise was forgotten. People saw the idols.  People worship what they can see. People go wherever they look. And we are no different today.

I ask myself, what percent of my time do I focus on an "old-fashioned" paper Bible, or on a Bible app on my iPad, and what percent of my time do I focus on email, angry birds, squealing pigs, solitaire, up to the minute news headlines, PBS or a good movie on TV or DVD?  I am appalled by the answer. Because I know I will go wherever my eyes focus.  And our screens, our electronics are not the only distractions. We look at the glories of nature all around us, and many of us, many of our children, worship nature. We think we are worshipping God, but we  don't realize we are worshipping the creation, not the Creator. Our focus is too low.

We're here for one hour on Sunday morning - focused on the Pulpit, the Word of God, the words of our hymnal, the words of the anthems. I love our Presbyterian Service. But, as Presbyterians with limited times of worship, how do we find or make occasions to focus on God outside this one hour of worship on Sunday morning?  Many of us maintain that focus through community service, mission activity, fellowship activity, Bible study at home or in community, but most especially, in daily prayer and praise. And that is why we exhort you to a daily practice of prayer and praise. Focus.

Why is it important? Because if we do not, there are many, many other things to attract our focus and lead us in another direction. What happens then?  What's it like when we turn our focus away from God? Humans differ from other animals in a couple of ways. Sure, 98% of our genome is indistinguishable from other primates, but our self-consciousness causes us to have three excessive fears and needs other animals do not have. We have the potential for excess desire for physical security. We have the potential for excess desire for pleasure. We have the potential for excess desire for power, control, independence.  These three human needs are driven and fueled by fear. Maybe the concept of "original sin" is just the recognition that these primal human fears are wired into us and in excess lead us into sin. Sin? Remember the seven deadly sins?  They are all driven by fear: Anger, Pride, Envy, Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Apathy. How do we move beyond this condition?  Jesus teaches us - fix your focus on God, recognize you are dependent on God, and stop being afraid.

Dependent means to "hang from". My mental image of being dependent on God is of a huge, loving father who holds my hand, lifts me and lets me swing free of the dangers and traps that fill the world.

Without focus on God as revealed in Jesus and Jesus' teaching, we'll end up focused -- and dependent on -- the things, the stuff, the worries, the power.  When we depend on, focus on, only the things of this world, we find it's never enough.  We don't have that peace that Jesus promised.  If we've got prosperity, we need more, and we need more than the next guy; if we've got power, we need to use it constantly or it might go away; if we're enjoying something, we need to eat it or play it to excess.  And we know something's missing.  What's happening is we're tending our material selves, but letting our spiritual lives wither and starving our souls.  Big time penalty for loss of focus.

It isn't easy to focus on the Invisible God. It requires a deliberate focus of mind, an inner eye to stay focused on God.  The strongest tool we have is constant prayer and praise, daily and hourly.  And service as a fruit of prayer and focus. Jesus put it in the right order: Love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength -- and love your neighbor as yourself.

We have been studying the Book of Judges in our Wednesday Bible study. Every time a tribal Judge, like Gideon or Samson or Deborah arose and rescued the country from the mess they had fallen into, after a period of peace and prosperity, we read, "And, then everyone did what was right in their own eyes."   Good times are the most dangerous. Why?  Because we're most vulnerable to the distractions around us, pulling our focus off God.  In a troubled time, we know we aren't in control, that this world is a fearsome place, that we are dependent on God.  But in good times, it's easy to let that dependency drift into the background and to chase after all the distractions around us -- especially the ones that look benign.   

But when we lose focus on God, we become fearful. We feel we have to depend on ourselves. And this feeling of alone-ness fuels our fears and anxieties. And, these fears make us unable to forgive.  We are afraid of our pride being hurt. We are afraid we will be harmed again. We are fearful that our needs for pleasure will be thwarted. We're afraid of loss of power, loss of position. When we are a "proud" people, we are usually a fearful people. Fearful people find it very, very hard to forgive. Without forgiveness, we cannot extend love. We need forgiveness to experience love and we need a spirit of forgiveness, of compassion, a felt sharing in the suffering of others, to extend love. If we carry grudges, desire for vengeance, pride that prevents us from forgiving, we will for sure drift out of our lane.

Let's be truthful. Here we are on Genesee Street in Skaneateles, and we've got it pretty good. These are good times for most of us. War is remote, we're not hungry. We've got it good -- much better than we let on. This is the most dangerous time, the most important time to fix our focus, and let me use the biggest F word, to fix our FAITH in God. These are the dangerous times of prosperity when it is easy to let our focus wander. It's easy to focus on our social needs, our ego needs, on community experience - and let our spirits wither.

God showed us this with the ancient Israelites. Jesus demonstrated this with his disciples. Be focused, be fearless, be forgiving. This is what Jesus taught. When we focus on Faith in God, we recognize  our dependence on God. He is holding our hand, lifting us. And, dependence on God eliminates fear. We have a mighty God who really wants to save us from this mess and give us what we need - not what we think we want. Jesus "stripping" of the disciples of money, extra clothing and supplies when he sent them out is a lesson for us. If we focus on our fragile support systems, our human fears, our ego needs will rob us of the ability to grow spiritually. Jesus told them and us, take nothing but a walking stick - and that walking stick is the Word of God.

I love the hymn; Immortal, Invisible, God only wise, In light inaccessible hid from our eyes. All praise we would render; O help us to see.

So, fix your Focus on God - from whom we depend.
Be Fearless, knowing God lifts you, cares for you and loves you.
Forgive. Forgive easily, forgive quickly, forgive often.
And know that we are also forgiven.

And be strong in the great F word which sums this all up ...  Faith in the living God.

Let's all stand and join in that familiar hymn about focus, fearlessness and forgiveness; Amazing Grace, on page 280 of our hymnal.

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