A Holy ‘No’

The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner 1896

I’ll share if you will:

MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Idylwood Presbyterian Church
December 16, 2012
Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country,
where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” 

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Some years ago I taught a class during Advent on the mother of Jesus, called “There’s Something about Mary.” (I may need to reprise that sometime here at IPC!) During the class we looked at how Mary has been portrayed in art and in music:

“Gentle Mary meekly bowed her head,” according to one hymn.
“Gentle Mary” laid her child in a manger, says another.
“In the Bleak Midwinter” speaks of the “maiden’s bliss.”
“Mary was that mother mild,” we sing in “Once in Royal David’s City.”

Ah, gentle Mary—mild, meek, the handmaiden of the Lord, head bowed in reverence. Can’t you see her there on so many paintings, stained glass windows, icons and Christmas cards?

There’s certainly scriptural support for this view of a demure mother of Jesus. When Mary asks, “How will it be that this child will come to me?” the angel answers, “the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” It’s that word, overshadow. Gentle Mary, meek and mild, will be diminished even further by God’s power, who will overshadow her.

But then… there’s this song.

It’s an improvisation of the song Hannah sings in the Old Testament after the birth of her son Samuel. But it is not a sweet lullaby. It is a battle cry, bold and defiant.

God has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

Does that sound meek and mild to you?

*          *          *

My friend and colleague Michael Kirby tells me that several years ago, someone began stealing the baby Jesuses from outdoor manger scenes in his Chicago neighborhood. It turned out to be a prank, and the figurines were later found in a woman’s yard, 32 of them, sorted by size and type. Unfortunately, many people coming to claim their figures tried to walk away with a “nicer” Jesus than the one they’d had. “They were trading up,” he said. “Everybody wanted the freshly painted, unfaded baby.”

Mary would not approve of such cheap attempts at an upgrade.

“[God] has lifted up the lowly,” she sings. God has looked with favor upon the dingy, the faded, the forlorn and discarded figures of this world.

…Because Mary’s song, at the heart of it, is a song of defiance, in the tradition of the old African-American spirituals and of protest songs. It is “We Shall Overcome”; it is “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” It is a dissent against the way things are. It is a counter-testimony to the dysfunction that passes for normal in our world.

Mary sings this song, because her pregnancy itself is God’s act of dissent against worldly power. God did not choose a queen, a wealthy noblewoman to bear the Messiah. God chose an unmarried peasant girl. God assessed the demands of the world and expectations of a king that would come in strength and might and prestige and said, “No, I’d just as soon not.” And in her song Mary echoes this divine No:

No to the proud and their haughty ways.

No to hunger that goes unfed.

No to suffering unrelieved.

No, no, no.

We’ve had a lot of occasions to say no this past week. I shared last Sunday about a friend whose son took his life at the age of 14. The moderator of our denomination, Cindy Bolbach, died on Wednesday after a cruel and relentless cancer. And of course, there is Sandy Hook Elementary School. To each of these, especially the last, and to countless other injustices, atrocities and heartbreaks we say No. No. No. And we do not say it meek and mild. We say it with clenched fist. We say it in protest. We say it loud and with a catch in our voice.

No, by the way, to the idea that God let this madness happen because we no longer pray in school. Like clockwork, the political and religious pundits have suggested exactly that. Imagine what kind of a God that is. A narcissistic thug who would allow such carnage because we don’t pray in the time and place and manner that God specifies. No.

And if I were ever to find out that that’s the kind of being God is, I think I’d have to renounce my ordination and go sell insurance, because that God and I would be finished.

*          *          *

So say No we must. But it’s not enough to say No. Lament is not enough. Heartbreak is not enough. Mary didn’t stop with a song. She embodied her song in her devotion to God; she lived that song as a witness to the God who is surprising and surpassingly good. And so must we. Mary sings, “My soul magnifies the Lord,” and it did. And so our lives must magnify, enlarge, make clear, the goodness of our God.

Right now, it’s hard to see anything but the horror of what happened in Newtown, Connecticut. But slowly, slowly, the stories are coming out of ordinary heroism and great sacrifice. Stories of average people whose lives were magnifiers of love and peace. The teacher who lost her life shielding her students from harm. Or the teacher who piled her class into a restroom and told them to be very quiet… but who also took the time to say how much she loved each of them—so that if this was the end, at least they would hear words of love. Thankfully, they all survived.

There will be more stories like this, coming out of Newtown.

And there must be more stories like this, from Newtown and from Falls Church and from everywhere that good people curse the darkness and long for the light. Our laments are insufficient without action, what my friend Roy this week called “embodied prayer.” There is too much violence, too many guns making their way into the wrong hands. There are too many disturbed people slipping through the cracks rather than receiving the mental health care they need. Time and perspective will guide us into a faithful response. But respond we must.

*          *          *

If my Facebook feed is any indication, there were a lot of preachers who burned the midnight oil last night. What does one say? What can one say? The difficulty is compounded by the fact that this is “Joy” Sunday, a word that seems to taunt us, especially if we let ourselves imagine 26 families, and many more, who will never be the same again. And yet, as a friend reminded me last night, joy is not the same as happiness. There is always a touch of heartbreak in joy, because joy is hard-earned.  C.S. Lewis, who “Joy is distinct… from pleasure. It must have the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing.”

It’s that longing in the midst of joy that we hear from Mary’s lips. Mary sings for the weak and the lowly, the poor and the hungry. And there is a stubbornness to Mary. She’s no fool, after all. She must look around and see rich getting richer and poor getting poorer. Surely she must see the powerful comfortably on their thrones and the lowly begging for food. She is singing of a world that does not yet exist, but still could.

And Mary invites that same holy stubbornness to erupt from our own hearts and lives.

We must refuse to be defeated.

We must refuse to let the darkness win.

We must refuse to let Friday’s atrocities be the lasting legacy of our age.

Yesterday at Cindy Bolbach’s memorial service, we closed with a hymn. Not the Magnificat, but a similar protest song, a song of Martin Luther. We sang it defiantly, we sang it stubbornly, we sang it vigorously, we sang it in honor of our friend who loved it so, and we sang it for the children of Newtown, Connecticut.

The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
his rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure; one little word shall fell him.
That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
the Spirit and the gifts are ours, thru him who with us sideth.
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
the body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still; his kingdom is forever.

Image: Tanner’s Annunciation


Our church is continuing its year-long theme, “Who is our neighbor” with an emphasis on health issues in our community. On Sunday we had a guest speaker, so my sermon is a little more concise than usual:

MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Idylwood Presbyterian Church
October 28, 2012
Mark 10:46-52


Another thing God didn’t “intend to happen.”

46They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. 47When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 48Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 49Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” 50So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” 52Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

We’ve got about nine days until the election, and I think I speak for many of us when I say, “Thank God. Make it stop.” …The ads, the phone calls, and the soundbites. It’s been a particularly bizarre season for soundbites. Barely a week seems to go by without a political candidate putting his foot in his mouth. This week a Senate candidate from Indiana, Richard Mourdock, was asked about abortion. Many people who are pro-life make exceptions in cases of rape—in fact, most people do—but this particular person does not, and he said,

Life is that gift from God that I think even if life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”

My intent in bringing this up is not to talk politics, but theology. What do we believe about good things happening out of bad, even terrible, circumstances? Does that mean the bad thing was part of God’s plan?

Some are inclined to give Mr. Mourdock the benefit of the doubt—he wasn’t saying rape is good, he was saying that life is good, regardless of how it comes about. Others said his theology is flawed: pregnancy through rape is not the work of a good God, but a consequence of an evil human act and a burden that no woman should be forced to bear.

What’s more, I read countless reflections this week by people, friends, who have been victims of sexual violence who were hurt deeply by his words. A few weeks ago in worship we heard Jesus’ words, cautioning us not to create a “stumbling block” for others. Mr. Mourdock’s comments created a painful stumbling block for those who are still struggling with the painful aftermath of these traumas.

Let me put to you another situation: a few weeks ago I read a blog post by an Episcopal priest and a breast cancer survivor. She talked about the impact of cancer on her life, and she gave thanks for friends and family who supported her, she gave thanks for the strength to withstand the treatment, and she gave thanks for world-class medical care and the means to access it—something not everyone has. And then she said, “And thank you, God, for cancer.”

Thank you for cancer.

She went on:

Because of cancer I learned lessons I didn’t know I needed to learn. Because of cancer I discovered a depth of love, faith and gratitude I never knew existed. Because of cancer, I learned that bad news is best handled when infused with the Good News.

Is she right? Does God make cancer happen? Is Richard Mourdock right, about God’s intent? Does everything that befalls us have God’s fingerprints on it?

The question of God’s involvement in good and evil has puzzled theologians for thousands of years. The fancy theological word for that question of good and evil is “theodicy.” And for many people living in the late twentieth, early twenty-first century, it is the sticking point for faith. It’s hard to reconcile the existence of a good and loving God with the holocaust or the killing fields in Cambodia. And it’s not a problem we’re going to solve at Idylwood Presbyterian Church on October 28, 2012. But Jesus’ encounter with Bartimaeus gives us a few pieces to the puzzle:

God is a God of mercy. Repeatedly Bartimaeus calls out “have mercy on me!” Mercy is compassion. Mercy is kindness. Mercy is care. Does that sound like a God who makes cancer happen, who is so bent on granting the gift of life that God will use a rape to make it happen? There is nothing merciful about that.

God does not impose on us. Jesus asks Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” He doesn’t presume. He doesn’t assume he knows what Bartimaeus wants. He asks, and he waits for the answer. God is not a presumptuous God. Ultimately we are given the dignity to ask for what we want, and to make meaning of our experience for ourselves. I read a reflection by a woman who became pregnant through rape and made the audacious decision to keep the baby. And for her, there was redemption in that decision. And that’s the key phrase—for her. It’s her right to make meaning of her experience; no politician should do it for her. No clergyperson should either. I wonder about the priest with cancer—it’s fine for her to thank God for it but I sure hope she doesn’t insist on her parisioners’ doing so. If God, if Jesus, is gentle enough to ask, “What do you want? How do you see your life and your need?” then that is our call as well. God does not impose, and neither should we.

We are partners in our healing. Bartimaeus has to get up and go to Jesus. There is no remote-control healing here. He’s gotta get up and move, he’s got to ask for what he needs in order to receive it. That means that we avail ourselves of the medical technology that we are fortunate to have. That means that if we’re overweight or a smoker or making poor choices with our diet, we are called to do something about it, not hope for a divine rescue.

And again, that’s the problem with Mr. Mourdock’s theology. If God is the author of everything that happens, then what’s the point of striving for wellness, or going to the doctor? What’s the point of doing anything?

That doesn’t mean that our efforts are always successful. We know the heartbreak of people who do everything right, who make all the right choices, and who still suffer from disease or injury. There’s no getting around that.

And principled people can come to different conclusions about abortion and when life begins. But Mourdock’s theology is wrong. A God of mercy, a God who does not impose on us, a God who asks us to be a partner in our own healing, desires our wholeness…desires our peace… desires our shalom. And not just our wholeness and peace and shalom, but that of this world that God loves.

In Christ, God is reconciling the world. Thanks be to God.

For Jacob

I normally keep a thin veil of privacy between my blog and my church. I call the church I serve “Tiny Church,” and I don’t normally use names. Yes, this blog is public and I’m easily Googleable. But that separation feels important.

I am relaxing that already thin boundary today because so many of you have been following the family in our church whose sweet boy died a few weeks ago. You’ve been praying for them, holding them in the light, thinking good thoughts, etc. You’ve also supported me, which in turn helps support them.

I am also posting this because the family has been very generous in sharing their story on their CaringBridge site, and I expect this message will be posted there in the coming days. Here is what I said on Saturday.


Matthew 13:31-32 He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’

John 14:1-6‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe* in God, believe also in me. 2In my Father’s house there are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?*3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4And you know the way to the place where I am going.’* 5Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’6Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.


There’s a bit of scripture that talks about how God writes the truth on our hearts. A friend this week was telling me an old story of a student talking to the rabbi about this verse. The student says, “Why does God write on our hearts instead of in our hearts?” “Ah,” the rabbi said. “God writes the truth on our hearts so that when our hearts break, the truth can fall in. And take root there. And become real in a way that it never was before.”

We are here as people with broken hearts. The hurt is especially acute because this wound is not altogether new. An old hurt has been reopened. We are broken in a place that has already been broken once before, almost three years ago, when we said goodbye to Eric, sweet and golden Eric. It hurt terribly to say goodbye to him, and it hurts terribly today. It hurts because we will miss Jacob–do miss Jacob. And it hurts because his death violates our sense of the way things are supposed to work. There is something deeply not right about all of this.

And so we come here, hoping that the words of the rabbi are right. In the great wound that Jacob’s death leaves behind, in the terrible hole that he leaves in our lives, we are here in the hopes that God might pour in just enough grace, just enough courage, just enough comfort, just enough strength, for the living of these days.

I visited with Bob and Leslie earlier this week; it was a beautiful day and we sat on their back porch. Those of you who know Bob know that he always has a home project going. And so this back porch, already comfortable and fine, is still under construction. The siding on the house hasn’t been painted. There are some exposed beams. And I realized that this is what life will be like for them, for us. Learning to live without Jacob, building a life without him, is a project that will take place for a long time. There will be exposed places. It will feel incomplete. One part of the job will be finished and another part will begin.

And I was reminded of Jesus’ words to his friends, in a time of great stress and confusion and despair: Let not your hearts be troubled. In my Father’s house there are many rooms.

And I’ve always pictured that house as a finished product, a heavenly mansion with everything in its place. But maybe that’s not the kind of house that Jesus has in mind. Maybe that’s not the kind of house that you need right now. Maybe you need a house that’s always evolving, always becoming ever more beautiful, more functional, more comfortable. God the master builder will provide lots of different kinds of rooms for the needs of the moment. There’s a room for weeping–that’s probably a large room right now, but it will not always need to be so large. A room for laughing–I expect that room will grow over time. There’s a room to feel numb. A room to rail at God. A room for joy. A room to ask why.

A room to share stories.

And oh, what rich stories we have to share of Jacob!

Jacob, who was always very much his own person.

One of the instructions we received in planning the reception is that this be a chocolate-free reception, because Jacob did not like chocolate. Now I have to say… normally I would view such a person with great suspicion! I’m just not sure how I feel about that! But it’s a testament to how winsome Jacob was that he and I got along despite this quirk of preference…

I could always count on Jacob to provide the most off the wall comments during my children’s sermons, sitting there in his sweater vest and tie that he picked out himself.

Some of you may have read the note on the CaringBridge site about a little boy a few years ago who was nervous about going to school for the first time. But he came home that afternoon ready for more because he had met a boy named Jacob, who had a great laugh that made him feel like kindergarten was going to be OK after all.

It was that smile, and that forthrightness, that led him to make friends not just with people his own age, but also the office staff at [the elementary school] when he would come in throughout the day to take his medication for ALD.

And it was that boisterous spirit that got him in trouble on occasion. I’m told that Jacob once had a disciplinary issue at school because he was disrupting the class… by hugging the other kids.

It is that spirit that allowed him to make so many friends in Minnesota, both at the Ronald McDonald House and at the hospital. Bob and Leslie will be the first to tell you that the staff at Amplatz Children’s Hospital are truly amazing… but having been there twice to visit, it was evident the special affection the staff had for Jacob.

He was a boy of courage. I’ve said many times that he did everything that was asked of him in this journey, and he did it with resolve and pluck. Whether it was riding a bike around the hallways in physical therapy, or trying to eat solid food, or withstanding the pain as the doctors found the right combination of medication, or swallowing a pill cam, he did what the moment required and for that, we must never forget him, must never cease to be inspired by him.

And he was a boy of wisdom, maybe even an old soul. He once told his mother, “You know, I’m going to get to heaven before you.”

It is wrenching, yes wrenching, to think about an 8 year old making this statement. But it was also a comfort to know that in the end, there was no fear. Just the assurance, the faith of a child, that ALD would not have the last word. That there was a mansion that awaited him, and a big brother to show him the way. Jacob knew that he was loved—that he had a big sister who once had to write an essay about her favorite possession and she wrote about her brother Jacob. And he was loved by two parents who were there when he came into this world and who were with him when he went to the next.

You did right by him every step of the way.

* * *

I want to talk for a moment to the rest of you, those not in the immediate family, and if I may beg your indulgence for a moment, I want to share a personal note. I mentioned earlier that I made a couple of trips to Minnesota. The second and final trip was just a few days before Jacob died. We still had a great deal of hope at that point, we were praying for stem cells to do their work, but Jacob was very sick, and it was hard for me to leave.

I was talking to a friend after getting home and he said, “It was good that you went.” And I said, “I know it’s not nothing, but it felt like nothing.”

And he said, “I know.” And he shared his own experience of having a serious illness. And he said, after his diagnosts, “There were people like you, who felt like they did nothing. And there were people who did nothing. And there were no other categories.”

This is a great loss. And in the face of such a loss, making a casserole may feel like nothing. Or coordinating a funeral reception. Or writing a card. Or making a phone call, in a few days or a few weeks or a few months. Or offering some tangible assistance that makes the load of everyday life a little easier.

It may feel like nothing amid such a deep loss. But it’s not nothing.

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. It is the smallest of all the seeds, it seems like nothing. But it’s not nothing. That small seed has an entire universe within it. We do not know what good can come from the small things we do.

Think about the man—we don’t know his name—a man in his late 30s, early 40s, who went to work one morning, or maybe it was his place of worship, or a community center, and they were having a bone marrow registry drive. And he said, “Hey, I’ll do that.” And he filled out a form and swiped a Q-tip against the inside of his cheek. Such a small thing. Smaller than a mustard seed. Nothing, really.

But not nothing. Everything.

That simple act set something in motion, and gave the gift of life to Jacob for 283 days. And we know not all of those days were great. Some of them were downright rotten. And we wish there had been more than 283 of them.

But there was goodness and hope and yes, not a small bit of joy in those days.
It was something.

As Mother Theresa famously said, “We can do no great things, just small things with great love.”

This world needs our mustard seeds. This family needs our mustard seeds, inadequate though they may seem. Just like that mustard seed can become a tree that provides shade for the birds, says Jesus, our small acts of kindness, of compassion, of presence, will shelter this family.

* * *

I think it was after Jacob had received the stem cells, but also after he was intubated, we didn’t know which way things were going to go, and Leslie said, “The last chapter of this hasn’t been written yet.”

I knew at the time what she meant, and I still know what she meant. We didn’t know then whether the treatment was going to work or not. I used this phrase with other people when they would ask about him (and do you have any idea how many people were praying for you?). I would say to them, “The last chapter of the story hasn’t been written.”

But I’m also here to say, that isn’t quite right. Because the last chapter was not whether Jacob would beat his disease. That’s the second to last chapter. We are here today in faith and hope and trust that the last chapter of Jacob’s life has always been written, it was written long, long ago, and it is being told right now, on another shore and in a greater light.
The last chapter is not death, but life.
The last chapter is not disease, but wholeness.
The last chapter is not struggle, but unity with God.
The last chapter is not despair, it is falling into the arms of our loving God.
The last chapter is not pain but peace.

Thanks be to God.

Armored in Grace: Part 2 of the Gospel and the Hunger Games

MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Idylwood Presbyterian Church
August 26, 2012
Parables and Pop Culture: The Gospel and The Hunger Games
Ephesians 6:10-20

Armored in Grace

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power.
Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.
For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.

*                *                *

This week we learned of yet another act of gun violence, this time in New York City near the Empire State Building. This, after other terrible incidents in Aurora, Colorado, a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, Texas A&M University, and others. The humor website The Onion captured it well in a headline from Friday:

Nation Celebrates Full Week Without Deadly Mass Shooting
UPDATE: Never Mind

It’s an example of satire that isn’t necessarily funny, but instead is pointed as it illustrates a deeper truth in our world. It’s been an unusally grisly summer for such acts.

There is a heaviness in the air. The election doesn’t help, with still more heated rhetoric coming our way, along with frenzied reporting over the latest gaffes, and all-around conduct unbecoming of those seeking to hold political office.

Meanwhile Tropical Storm Isaac pounded Haiti yesterday, a country in which thousands of people are still living in tents after the deadly earthquake some three years ago.

And of course, we remain very concerned about little Jacob as he continues to fight his battle with ALD.

It is very easy to lose heart.

Paul comes along in the midst of this and frames the world he lived in, and the world we live in now, as a cosmic battle between good and evil.

How are we to respond?

Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.

In last week’s sermon I gave a summary of The Hunger Games and talked about how the protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, volunteers to fight in place of her sister Prim. The male tribute from district 12 is a boy Katniss’s age named Peeta Mellark. There is a conversation between Kat and Peeta as they prepare to enter the arena the next day. Peeta says, Whatever happens tomorrow, even if I die, I want to die as myself. I don’t want the Capitol to take that away from me. I won’t let them turn me into something I am not.

Katniss doesn’t understand: What difference does it make if you’re dead either way? It seems foolish to care about such things.

But Peeta knows: in dark times, we may not prevail, but we can remain faithful to the values and principles that we hold dear. We can keep the faith. Who will we be in this world, as we seek to serve God and love as Christ loved? That is the question. As Viktor Frankl realized in the death camps of the Holocaust: “Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Paul would approve of this impulse of Peeta, and of Viktor Frankl. The battle is on, Paul writes, and so we must clothe ourselves with the things of God:

The belt of truth;
the breastplate of righteousness;
the helmet of salvation;
and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Note that the only offensive weapon is the word of God. You may have heard of “fight or flight.” But the armor of God equips us for a third task, which is to freeze: to stand with integrity and courage, where we are. We are not meant to be on the attack. We are not people of destruction. We are people of the Word, and the Word is love.

Now, Katniss says she doesn’t understand Peeta’s desire to die “as himself.” But her behavior shows that she does understand, very well.

Katniss befriends a fellow tribute named Rue. Rue is young, like Prim. She is not tough or strong—an alliance with her is not a tremendous asset to Katniss. But Rue is clever and her heart is true, and she and Kat are able to gain a couple of advantages over the others… but then, sadly, Rue loses her life.

And something breaks open in Katniss.

Remember that the Hunger Games is a reality show. Everything the tributes do in the arena is broadcast for the entire country to see. Katniss knows that a hovercraft will be along soon to pick up Rue’s body and remove it from the arena. Katniss feels moved to do something to acknowledge her friend but she knows she doesn’t have much time. She must show the Capitol that there is a part of her that they cannot control.

And so she gathers white flowers and places them around Rue’s head, in her arms, around the body. She does this in memory of her friend, in recognition of her dignity, her worth, not just as a pawn in the Capitol’s power games, but as a human being. She does this so everyone will see, and know.

There is a dignity that can never be taken away.

The interesting thing about the book is that it’s told from Katniss’s point of view and hers alone. She does not know what effect her honoring of Rue might have, if any. What the movie makes clear, however, is that her actions inspire the people of Rue’s district to rise up. A revolution is beginning that will unfold over the three books in the Hunger Games trilogy. And it begins with an act of goodness and grace, in which Katniss refuses to be a pawn.

Now here’s what’s brilliant about Paul’s words. He gives us these robust images of armor:





And we might picture chain mail, a suit of steel like a medieval knight. Or maybe kevlar. Something bulletproof. But then there’s this reversal: The armor of God is made of…





Which turns out to pretty thin armor. When you’re wearing righteousness, truth, peace, faith, you still feel the pain of the world. You still hurt when others hurt. To clothes ourselves with the things of God does not protect us from grief. But it gives us strength to stand in faith. It gives us hope and courage to fight another day.

I was with a group of clergy women a few weeks ago, leading them in a retreat. We spent some time talking about the anxiety that pervades so much of our culture. As an illustration of this, we created a large collage using newspapers and magazines. The headlines we read, the images we ingest—so many of them convey this anxiety: We’re not thin enough. We’re not young enough. We’re not rich enough. We don’t have enough stuff.

Then we shared the story together of the days following 9/11 in New York. A writer named Sally Schneider describes the experience of wandering the deserted and devastated streets, and finding a restaurant open. It was Mario Batali’s Italian restaurant. Mario himself said, “Yes, we’re open,” and welcomed them in. There was something so comforting in the food people shared in that place—as if life was normal, somehow. It almost felt defiant… like Katniss decorating the body of an “expendable” tribute with flowers.

Sally described the experience later to a friend—what was it about that meal that made it so significant?—and her friend said, “Of course. We fight back with beauty.”

And so this group of clergy women considered how we fight back against the anxiety, against the despair, against the darkness, with beauty and righteousness and truth, all those things Paul wrote about. And we tore pieces of colored paper and wrote acts of beauty on them and pasted them on that board. And the anxiety still poked through but a new picture began to emerge, a crazy quilt of beauty.

That is our task…

to fight back with beauty.

to fight back with righteousness.

to fight back with peace, and grace, and truth.

May we do so, armed only with the Word of God… the Word which is Love. Amen.

The One Thing Job Didn’t Lose

Job, Oldrich Kulhanek

Things are very raw around Tiny Church right now with the death of our sweet J. It is particularly devastating given his big brother’s death just three years ago at the same age (8).

We had a prayer service last night. I envisioned it as a place for people to grieve and to express sorrow, but also to begin to be equipped for the task of supporting B and L as they come home from Minnesota with their daughter in the coming days.

I want to thank my Facebook friends for helping me think through the phrase “God has a plan.” I have never found that phrase helpful, and while I still don’t, and don’t keep it in my pastoral toolkit, many of you helped me understand what it can mean to people who use it. Those thoughts helped shape what follows.


As I think about this tragedy, my thoughts go inevitably to the book of Job. Job, you may recall, lost his children, he lost his fortune, he lost even his own physical health. Here is what happens next:

Job 2:11-13 Now when Job’s three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They met together to go and console and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. They sat with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.

As you can see, one thing Job does not lose is his friends. And notice what they do. They go to him. They weep. They seek to console and to comfort him. They tear their clothes and throw dust upon their heads—that sounds weird to our modern ears, but in Job’s time, tearing one’s clothes was a sign of great distress. It shows that the fabric of life is somehow broken by this tragedy and cannot be easily repaired, if ever.

Then they sit with him in silence, for seven long days and seven dark nights. They refuse to leave his side, but they also do not feel the need to speak. Their presence is enough.

Then, something happens to Job’s friends and the story takes a sour turn. Maybe they themselves become uncomfortable with the silence and want to find an explanation. Maybe they think Job should be “getting over it” by now. Maybe they genuinely want to help their friend. But whatever it is, the friends begin to speak. And they speak for chapters and chapters, heaping on words that do not help, words that are not healing like that silence and their presence was. Words that say that Job must have sinned to incite God’s punishment.

As the speeches go on, Job’s friends increasingly call him to task, urging him to confess his sins, although they themselves are at a loss as to which sin he has committed. In their view of theology, God always rewards good and punishes evil, so on some level, Job must have invited this punishment. Through it all, Job refuses to accept their view of things, and the arguments continue for pages and pages.

Thankfully, our view of God has shifted, and is not that of Job’s friends. We know that there is nothing that J, or his parents, or his brother E for that matter, did to deserve the difficulties that they have faced.

And yet it is human nature to try to make sense of such tragedy. It is human nature to want to try to tie it up in statements about God’s plan, or God somehow needing more angels up in heaven, or God never giving us more than we can handle, or any of a number of statements we might make that appear to speak for God and God’s will.

I have a friend who is a chaplain at a children’s hospital, and she spends a lot of her time  with families who have lost children, trying to undo the hurt that is unwittingly done by friends whose intentions were good… but who, like Job’s friends, seem to get too uncomfortable with the silence and the questions, who need to insert their own interpretation on these matters. Who feel the need to defend God and God’s action, or lack of action, in the difficult events that have transpired.

Let me be clear: it is not bad to try to make sense of the events of our lives. “Where is God in this?” is a good and faithful question. And many of us have seen the ways that good can come out of even the most terrible of circumstances. But here’s the thing: we cannot do that work for others. Any meaning that B and L wish to make of this event is theirs to make. We stand beside them and support them mightily through our love, and our prayers, and our tangible signs of support, and our witness to the love of God that we know in Christ.

Someone asked me the other day what to say. “I don’t know what to say,” she told me.

I love you, I care, I am praying for you, I am sorry, I am here for whatever you need.

That’s all that need be said.

You may also add, if you so believe, that God is working out God’s shalom, God’s peace, God’s healing in our lives, and that the suffering of little boys is not part of God’s intentions for this world. That God promises never to forsake us or leave us. That the death of Jesus means that there is no sorrow and suffering that God has not also participated in. And the resurrection of Jesus means that we live as people of hope, that death is not the end.

Our job is simultaneously very hard and very easy.

It is hard not to want to put our own interpretation on these events. To try to make sense of them as somehow God’s will, or part of the divine plan. It is hard to let the questions linger in the air, to live with the mystery, because mystery is painful. Why do children sometimes die? Why do others live to a ripe old age? Why are good people not rewarded with a long and untroubled life? These are painful questions and it is tempting to wrap them up. It’s hard to avoid that temptation.

But our job is also much easier. All we need to do is provide our presence. Like Job’s friends. That presence is enough.

May the Odds Be Ever in Your Favor: The Gospel and the Hunger Games

I preached this sermon a few weeks ago. In it I reference briefly the family in our church who have had not one, but two boys with ALD, adrenoleukodystrophy. Between this sermon and now, we lost sweet Jacob, who fought hard but has now joined his older brother Eric in the life to come. 

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted…


MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Idylwood Presbyterian Church
August 19, 2012
Parables and Pop Culture: The Gospel and The Hunger Games
Matthew 5:1-12

May the Odds Be Ever in Your Favor

Reaping Day in District 12

It’s appropriate that last week we looked at reality TV in our series, because Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy is in some ways an example of reality TV taken to its absurd conclusion.

By way of summary: The Hunger Games is a yearly contest in which 24 young people are chosen randomly, a boy and a girl from each of 12 districts, and put in an arena and made to fight one another until there is only one victor left standing.

That is horrific enough, but the Hunger Games are actually a means of social control. The Capitol, which is the city that oversees the games, stages this event as a way of reminding the districts who is in charge. Some time in the past there was an uprising against the Capitol. The people were unsuccessful in the end, and in order to keep the people down, the leadership in the Capitol makes them offer up their children for this event, and then make them watch it. It’s the elites’ way of saying, Don’t you dare forget that we are the powerful ones and you are so weak and expendable. Many of these districts already suffer from poverty and starvation; the Hunger Games are just the final blow against any hope they might have of bettering their situation.

By the way, you may know that crucifixion served a similar function. It was reserved for low-status defendants, not for Roman citizens and members of the elite. It made an example of those who threatened the Roman social order: runaway slaves, those who attacked the property of the powerful rich, those who committed treason by claiming power and rule not authorized by Rome. Jesus’ crucifixion indicates that he is perceived by the ruling elite to pose a threat to the status quo. That’s exactly the dynamic that’s going on here. Terrorism, by the powerful toward the powerless.

The competitors, called tributes, are chosen in each district during a ceremony called the reaping. The residents are made to get dressed up and act as if this macabre scene is some kind of festive celebration. And the Capitol’s representative in district 12 always says the same thing prior to the selection of tributes: “May the odds be ever in your favor.”

It’s one of the more haunting refrains in the book because it is so hollow, so insincere. For the Hunger Games to happen, the odds can’t be in everyone’s favor. A boy will be chosen as tribute. A girl will be chosen as tribute. And only one person will prevail in the arena, and 23 others will lose… and lose their lives. The whole rotten system depends on the odds being in some people’s favor and not others.

Now, each young person’s name is entered into the reaping once a year, but some children’s names are listed multiple times. Because conditions are so dire in some of the districts, families can buy additional rations of food, but these rations come at a price: they must enter their children’s names another time into the reaping bowl. It’s a gamble, because the more times a name is entered, the greater that person’s chances of being selected as a tribute to fight in the games. But at the brink of starvation, it’s a gamble many feel trapped into making.

The story opens with our hero, Katniss Everdeen, preparing to go to the reaping ceremony. It is also her younger sister’s first year, since she is now 12 years old, the minimum age for the games. Katniss isn’t even thinking about her sister, since her name is only entered once, and there are so many names, some of which have been entered dozens of times. Of all the thousands of slips of paper, what are the chances that Primrose would be chosen?

But the unthinkable happens, and she is chosen, little Prim, who is so small and young, who has no skills in fighting.

The odds are not in her favor.

I think a lot about the odds. I’ve shared with you before that if I ever have the chance to ask God a question, it would be this: I understand that there is suffering in the world. I understand that we live in a “fallen creation.” But why can’t the suffering at least be evenly distributed? Why do certain people seem to have more than their share of hardship?

Close to home, many of us have wondered why ALD has hit such a wonderful family in our church, and not once but twice? Why do some people struggle so?

We know there are neighborhoods in our city where young people are more likely to go to jail than to college. Where double digit unemployment is not just a function of the recession, but a constant state of being. Yes, with enough luck and talent and resiliency, folks can succeed. But it would be naïve to suggest that the odds are as much in their favor as they are for children of the people in this room.

I think we all know people who seem to have more than their share of hardship. The person with the mental illness that they’ve struggled with for years.  The person who has been looking for a job for such a long time. When we look at these cases we often use the phrase, “They were just dealt a bad hand.” That’s not too far away from saying that the odds were not in their favor.

It’s not fair. It’s not just.

This yearning for justice has echoed through the centuries and millenia of human history. Jesus’ followers, living under empire, struggled with the same questions. It’s not fair that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It’s not just to have a system in which some people are seen as valuable and some people are expendable.

It’s not right that the odds seem to be so heavily in some people’s favor.

And right in the midst of these questions and struggles, Jesus speaks:

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falselyon my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

The word of the Lord.

*          *          *

A few things occur to me as I consider these words of Jesus.

One is that they come at the beginning of his so-called Sermon on the Mount. Before he says anything about how to pray or how to spend money or how to love or forgive or treat our neighbor, he begins with these words. This is the starting point. Jesus steps up before the crowd, clears his throat and the first word out of his mouth is Blessed. Blessed.

And the word is (to get a little grammatical here) indicative. It’s not a command—go and be blessed—and it’s not conditional—if you do this, then you will be blessed.  It describes something that is already so.

Blessed is Jesus’ very first word in his very first teaching, and the message could not be clearer: that there is a grace that exists in the world, it’s loose in the world, running amok, rewriting the rules about who is beloved and who is not, who is favored and who is not, whose “odds” really matter. That grace is simply this: if God is for us, who can be against us? The blessing is that if you are in mourning, or if you are poor in spirit, if you are at the end of your own resources, if you are feeling persecuted, if the odds are never ever ever in your favor… you are blessed of God.

Notice whom Jesus blesses: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. That’s who showed up that day, right? Needing to experience the power of the living God? The people who feel like the odds are never in their favor… that’s who he’s talking to, that’s who the message is for. For people like Katniss Everdeen and the people of District 12. For people on the negative side of world’s ledger. Those are Jesus’ people.

That’s good news no matter who you are. If you consider yourself down and out, inhale and exhale and trust that you have been called blessed, that suffering is not God’s desire for you, that God can and does work out God’s shalom which is so much deeper than evening up the odds.

And if you are not poor in spirit, if you are not mourning, if you are not persecuted, well congratulations, you get to be the mechanism through which God can shower blessing upon those who are.

I read an article this week about a man named Zach Balle:

Zach Balle had a successful real estate career in Phoenix, which earned him an impressive paycheck but left him unfulfilled.

After a colleague offered some unorthodox advice—“Book a flight to a country you’ve never been to”—Balle found himself in a small Guatemalan community where many children received their lessons outdoors. “If it rained, they didn’t have class that day,” says Balle, now 28. “I decided I wanted to build them a school—which was totally unrealistic.”

Armed with newfound inspiration, Balle quit his job and started researching his plan. He was dismayed to discover that even a simple structure would cost nearly $15,000 for supplies and labor. When he explained his dilemma to a contact in the Peace Corps, she told him about a method of construction she was using that transforms trash into building material. Balle decided to help her build a school in the Guatemalan community of Granados.

After local children collected empty soda bottles and stuffed them full of chip bags and candy wrappers, the resulting “ecobricks” were placed between chicken wire panels and covered with cement to create the walls of the structure.Their two-room schoolhouse, completed in October 2009, used more than 5,000 plastic bottles and 2,053 pounds of trash, cost less than $6,000 to build, and now serves roughly 300 of Granados’s students. (Source)

That is the kind of blessing that God makes possible. Where the world sees refuse and hopelessness and very long odds, God sees an opportunity for blessing. A way where there seems to be no way. Trash into treasure.

That’s the kind of blessing that we are invited to participate in.

I said earlier that during the reaping in District 12, Primrose Everdeen, Katniss’s younger sister, is chosen as tribute. Folks who’ve read the books know what happens, and others can guess: The guards come to take Prim away, and everyone sees and feels how young she is, how wrong this is, and before she can stop herself her big sister Katniss yells out, “I volunteer!”

“I volunteer as tribute.”

There has not been a volunteer in District 12 in a long, long time. Nobody knows what to do. How does this work? And while the powers consult the book of rules, the people assembled there, the poor in spirit and the mourners, the meek and hungry, stand in silence, and they offer her the traditional salute that is reserved for moments of great thanksgiving and reverence.

They know that they have seen something beautiful. They have seen something transcendent. They have seen a moment soaked in blessing. And that doesn’t make everything OK, because the Capitol still oppresses the people and keeps them under the thumb. Blessing doesn’t suddenly put the odds in our favor. But a blessing inaugurates something. It changes the calculus. Katniss’s sacrifice sets something in motion that cannot be stopped. We’ll talk about that some next week. But for the moment, all the people can do is watch—in silence, in reverence—this blessing that somehow happened against all odds.

Blessed are the poor in spirit.

Blessed are those who mourn.

Blessed are the peacemakers.

Blessed are you who hunger and thirst.

Blessed are you.

What About Barsabbas? — competition, the Olympics and faith

MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Idylwood Presbyterian Church
July 22, 2012
Parables and Pop Culture: The Olympics
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

What About Barsabbas?

It’s the beginning of the book of Acts and the beginning of a new chapter of ministry for the disciples. And with Judas out of the picture, there is a slot open among the twelve:

In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred twenty persons) and said, “Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus — for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us–one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.

After some prayer and the casting of lots, which was an ancient way of discerning the will of God, Matthias is chosen. Thus Matthias goes down in biblical history as one of the inner circle, one of the twelve disciples. By contrast, Barsabbas is so utterly forgotten that when I mentioned the title of the sermon to someone this week he said, “Don’t you mean Barabbas?” (the criminal that Pilate released in place of Jesus).

Poor Barsabbas. He is the first runner-up to the most elite circle of apostles of the church, and yet he’s less well known than a common criminal—a murderer, even.

Matthias is chosen… and Barsabbas is not.

I wonder what made things go Matthias’s way.

Admittedly, I have Olympic fever right now, but I wonder… did Matthias just… train harder? Did he want it more?

Was it a close call between the two men? A photo finish? Like the photo on the cover of the bulletin (above), were Matthias and Barsabbas so similar in gifts for ministry that the others couldn’t choose, so they decided to cast lots? (Casting lots is not unlike flipping a coin—which incidentally was what the US Olympic officials considered doing in the case of the tie on the front cover.)

Whatever the circumstances, Matthias is in and Barsabbas is out. And we don’t know how Barsabbas responded, but let’s hope he accepted the news graciously. Maybe he scheduled a press conference following the disciples’ time trials and said, “I’ll try again in four years for a chance to serve on this incredible team. In the meantime I’m going to keep training and running the race God has set out for me.”

The Olympic Games are coming, a spectacle that’s one of the most compelling displays of competition we have. But that sense of competition is pervasive in our world, not just in the Olympics. We live in a competitive, achievement-oriented culture. I imagine some of us here in this sanctuary relish competition and push ourselves hard to do well.

Perhaps there are others of you who don’t have the competitive urge. And yet all of us, I suspect, long to have a sense that we matter—that our gifts are important and valued. It feels good to be acknowledged and affirmed. So I can’t help but wonder whether Barsabbas felt at least a little stung by being passed over. I don’t think we would blame him a bit; it’s a very human response, even if the thought of “competing” with Matthias never once crossed his mind. We’ve all felt that sting, whether it’s being the last one chosen for the pick-up game at recess, or not getting the job we thought we were perfect for.

I’ve thought a lot over the years about competition as it relates to faith. I’m not sure how competition and faith jive theologically, because competition is so often framed around scarcity, about striving for one spot. The Olympics will captivate us for days and days, in no small part because there will be winners and losers, grand victories and bitter defeats. People will run and row and swim and shot-put their hearts out, and in the end only three individuals or teams will stand on those podiums. No matter how fast all of the runners are, only one will win the gold.

And no matter what Barsabbas’s good points, only one person fills the empty slot among the twelve.

There’s a scarcity mentality at work. (I know twelve is a holy number, but they couldn’t have thirteen disciples?) And scarcity lies beneath our economic system too—businesses compete for a finite set of customers, individuals compete for a finite set of jobs… Yet theologically it’s hard to square this kind of competition with the promise of abundant life in Jesus Christ.

Competition is a tricky concept biblically as well. Paul’s description of the church as the body of Christ suggests a partnership—like parts of a human body, we work together for the good of the whole.

“Can the eye say to the hand, ‘I’m better than you’? ”

Or how about the fruit of the spirit?

“Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control,”


“Pain, gain, ruthlessness, relentlessness, scarcity, opposition, obsessiveness, rivalry.”

So where does that leave those of us who thrive on hearty, no-holds-barred competition? Or who love to watch it, as so many billions of people across the world will do over the next few weeks? Is competition even appropriate if we are to follow the One who was humble in his strength, who went willingly to the cross, who had all the power in the world, the power to save himself but did not?

This is personal for me, because I have a competitive streak. Not so much in sports, but in academics… and board games. Just ask Robert about what we’ve come to call The Canasta Incident.

A competitive drive can encourage us to work hard, to pursue goals with determination and vigor, but competition can also become an obsession.

Some years ago I was talking about my competitive tendencies to a friend and mentor, and just wishing that I could stop being that way when my mentor said, “Stop trying not to be competitive. That is part of who you are. Just figure out how to take that competitive nature and use it to God’s glory.”

Her words changed my perspective on this issue. Is it possible for a competitive nature to be a gift to God? Maybe it is, provided we do it in the right way and for the right reasons, and with the proper regard for others.

As I see it, there still aren’t many biblical models for Christian competition, but there is one, in Roman 12: “outdo one another in showing honor.” This passage is often read at weddings, and it serves as a reminder to spur one another on to do better and better. “Outdo one another in showing honor,” not for one’s own glory or to lord it over someone else, but to the glory of God and in thanksgiving for God’s gift of grace in Jesus Christ.

In a world in which the events of Aurora, Colorado are possible—what could be more important than striving to outdo one another in showing honor, grace and love?

Maybe Paul’s words can be a guide for all of us. Whether your life’s work is being an elder in the church or raising children or working in an office or playing sand volleyball, that’s work that God has given you and it’s worth your very best effort. Eric Liddell famously said in Chariots of Fire: “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.”

That’s the famous line. But he also said:

“You came to see a race today. To see someone win. It happened to be me. But I want you to do more than just watch a race. I want you to take part in it. I want to compare faith to running in a race. It’s hard. It requires concentration of will, energy of soul.”

I wonder whether we can watch the upcoming games in London not just as an opportunity to see feats of strength and strategy and speed, but as parables—stories that inspire us to bring our best effort to the work to which God calls us, whatever the result of that effort might be.

In preparation for this sermon I asked you all for your favorite Olympic stories. Some people shared stories of incredible athletic prowess. My favorite example was Bob Beamon, who broke the world record for long jump in 1968 in Mexico City. Records in this sport are broken inches at a time, but Beamon broke the record by almost two feet. The only proper response to an event like that is awe… awe at seeing something truly transcendent.

But most of the Olympic stories that we cherish aren’t about breaking records. They are about triumph over adversity, or succeeding despite the odds… even if success does not mean a gold, silver or bronze.

When I think about “Outdoing one another in showing honor,” I think about Ashley Nee and Caroline Queen, who have trained together for years in the sport of kayaking. They are close friends, and they talk about how their friendship and competition spur one another on to do their best. They are happy for one another’s successes and mourn each other’s losses. They both made the Olympic team this year.

Or remember Dan Jansen, the gifted speed skater. Jansen won a gold medal in 1994 and set a world record. But it was his performance in 1988 that captured our hearts, when he skated in memory of his sister, who had died that very day of leukemia. He skated, and fell… but he won the Olympic Spirit award that year.

May we run the race that is ours to run, to paraphrase Paul… and may we outdo one another in showing honor.

We don’t know what became of old Barsabbas, the first alternate to Jesus’ Olympic Team of Twelve, but I like to believe that he persisted in his ministry. He wasn’t in it for glory and recognition anyway.

And that is good news. Because the truth is, we are all Barsabbas. Whether we’re wired for competition or not, we all fall short. There is always someone smarter, quicker, more successful… or more spiritual, more fluent in the Bible, more dedicated. And yet, we persist in “running the race,” and we strive for excellence in all that we do for God.

Consider the Olympic marathon race in 1968 in Mexico City. [story from the August 2012 Runners World] A runner from Ethiopia won that year, finishing the 26 miles in 2:20. One hour later, after the stadium had mostly emptied and only a few thousand spectators remained, a Tanzanian athlete named John Stephen Akhwari loped into the ring. He had fallen hard at some point in the race and his knee was badly hurt.

Medics were begging him to quit but he would not. He broke into a halting, painful jog, to a smattering of applause. As he continued around the track, injured but undeterred, toward the finish line, that applause grew into a wild crescendo. This was not the Olympic champion, the applause was saying; this is the Olympic spirit incarnate. Akhwari finished in 3 hours 25 minutes, more than 19 minutes after any other runner.

Later Akhwari would be asked why he did not stop, given the seriousness of his injury. He answered, “My country did not send me 11,000 kilometers to start the Olympic Marathon. They sent me here to finish it.”

And so he did.

And so may we.