Knowing You Matter

Knowing You Matter

December 06, 2020 • Rob Fuquay

If you have spent any time at all in church then today’s topic is one that is so familiar to you it risks drawing yawns on one hand or turning off the service in disgust on the other. Yet this topic is worth taking that risk because it is vital to having a healthy faith and relationship with God. What am I talking about? Personal redemption.

In some Christian circles personal redemption is emphasized to the point of ignoring other aspects of the Christian faith like serving the poor and advocating for justice. This is what allowed some churches in the days of slavery to say it’s okay to have slaves as long as they try to convert them. Personal redemption was not only emphasized above matters of justice, it excused any need for helping the underprivileged. The only question that mattered in this brand of Christianity was, “Have you been saved?”

At the same time, a lack of emphasis on personal redemption turns the Christian faith into a cult of do-gooders. Retaliating against the over-emphasis on personal redemption turns people toward saving the world but without the need of a Savior. In this practice of faith Christianity offers little more to a person than a responsibility to correct the wrongs of this world.

This tension around personal redemption was seen in the lives of the founders of Methodism, the brothers John and Charles Wesley. They easily preached about personal redemption, but their lives belied the grace of which they spoke. They focused on moral responsibility, doing the right thing, and living up to one’s responsibility before God. They traveled to America in 1736 to lead a Christian revival and convert the colonies, including native Americans. John Wesley, in particular, thundered from his pulpit how the people weren’t doing enough to be faithful. How popular do you think he was in his church?

The positive side of this experience is that the Wesleys came under the influence of Moravians, Protestant Christians from Germany. They challenged the Wesleys with this idea, “Do you have an experience in the heart for the things you preach?” That put John especially on his heels. Experience? The heart? What did that have to do with faith? Listen to this conversation Wesley had with Moravian leader who asks him:

“Does the Spirit of God bear witness with your spirit that you are a child of God? Wesley wrote, “I was surprised and knew not how to answer. He observed it and asked, “Do you know Jesus Christ?” I said, ‘I know he’s the Savior of the world?” “True,” replied he, “but do you know he has saved you?” I answered, “I hope so…” He only added, “Do you know yourself?” I said I do, but fear they were vain words.”

John and Charles knew they were hearing something they needed. Something was missing in their faith. They had knowledge of scripture, an understanding of the tradition of the church, the benefit of reasoned logic, but personal experience? That was another matter.

Returning to England they continued to struggle with this idea, until May 1738. Charles Wesley came to see his brother after attending a service to say, “I get it! I have it! I know what it’s like now to say that Christ truly lives in me. I’ve experienced it.”

John was happy for his brother but miserable for himself. He didn’t have “it.” Until a few days later, he attended a Moravian gathering where someone was reading from Luther’s preface to the book of Romans in the New Testament and “it” happened to John. He wrote, “I felt my heart strangely warmed…”

Now I want you to get an important point here. The Wesleys never changed in their desire to change the world. They continued fighting for justice, building schools to educate the illiterate, advocating for health care for all, standing against slavery, helping the poor. Their work didn’t change. Their motivation did. Their nucleus of faith altered. Their experience of Christ and the knowledge that all these truths of God applied to them in a personal way, now fueled their efforts.

So the next Christmas Charles Wesley was walking through London and heard church bells ringing. This was the first Christmas Day after his personal experience with Christ. Suddenly he felt an inspiration. Those bells were ringing for him. They were announcing that Christ had come for him. Sure Christ came for the world. But that meant God cared about him. His life mattered to God. And he thought of the message of the angels to the shepherds and he raced back to his room to write. You see Charles was a musician. He wrote some 6,000 hymns in his life. And with this inspiration he wrote the words that became: “Hark the Herald, angels sing, glory to the newborn king. Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.”

This was the news that had changed his life.

It is the first Christmas’ sermon, a message so powerful that it couldn’t just be spoken. It had to be sung. Jesus was born in Bethlehem, so the very next thing we read is that angels appear to shepherds in a field. They announce this news and then sing to them, “Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth with those whom God favors.” What? God favors shepherds? No one else did. Shepherding was the lowest job on the employment totem pole. What would that be today? What would be the job that makes you say, “When I get to the point that I have to take a job doing that, I’ll know I’ve hit rock bottom?” Well, that was shepherding in first century Palestine.

Shepherds were too unclean to go into the temple courtyard. the lowest of the low. Think about the disconnect there. The ones who were responsible for caring for the very sheep brought to the temple for sacrifice, were not allowed themselves to worship in the temple courtyard.

To them the announcement comes that in Christ they are favored. This is the simple message of Christmas. That we are favored by God. But notice an interesting contrast in the angels’ announcement right before. They declare: “I am bringing you good news of great joy for…some people? No it doesn’t say that. I am bringing you good news of great joy for certain people? Not it says I am bring you good news of great joy for all the people…” Who does that include? That’s all the saints and the sinners isn’t it? That’s white, black and brown people. That’s gay and straight people. Heck, it can mean even University of North Carolina fans. I’m not comfortable with that, but all does mean all.

But then, notice the very next words, “…to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11) This Good News for all people includes you! That is so important. Without you everybody can mean just anybody. And who wants to be an anybody? No, the hope for all people doesn’t mean much if it is not hope for you. The shepherds are experiencing amazing news. Someone cares enough to seek them out to say, “You matter to me.”

Christian author Anne Lamott describes the moment she experienced that truth. It happened during a song. She tells this in her book Traveling Mercies. She was addicted to cocaine and alcohol, had an affair that produced a child which she aborted, and was watching her best friend die of cancer. She started visiting a church to listen to the music, but would leave before the sermon. There was something about the singing that comforted her. Then the week of her abortion she spiraled downward. She drowned herself in alcohol one night and fell into bed. As she tried to fall asleep she became aware of someone in the room with her. She looked around but no one was there. But she couldn’t get over this feeling, like someone hunched down in the corner of the room. She felt it must be Jesus. She wondered what people would think if she became a Christian. She shouted outloud, “I’d rather die.”

But over the days that followed she couldn’t escape this feeling of constantly being followed, like a cat was behind her. And she knew, don’t let a cat in, or it will never leave! A week later she returned to church. She was so hungover she couldn’t stand for the singing so she remained seated and listened to the sermon. She found what she heard about God sounding absolutely absurd, but then there was singing. She describes it this way:

The last song was so deep and raw and pure that I could not escape it. It was as if the people were singing in between the notes, weeping and joyful at the same time, and I felt like their voices or something was rocking me in its bosom, holding me like a scared kid, and I opened up to that feeling—and it washed over me.

 I began to cry and left before the benediction, and I raced home and felt the little cat running along at my heels, and I walked down the dock past dozens of potted flowers, under a sky as blue as God’s own dreams, and I opened the door to my houseboat, and I stood there a minute, and then I hung my head and said… “I quit.” I took a deep breath and said outloud, “All right, You can come in.”

 So this is my beautiful moment of conversion.

Singing is how she experienced God saying, “You are worth loving. Your life matters.” Personal redemption.

Go back to the shepherds. Think how amazing it is that God came to shepherds to invite them to the first Christmas worship service. If ever there was good news, that’s it. Shepherds! People who were excluded, shunned, or even worst, just ignored as if they didn’t exist. Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever been treated like something is wrong with you? Like you are different? Have you ever been made to feel that because you are the way you are, God doesn’t accept you? You’re not worthy of God’s love?

Think of the power of God sending the angels to the shepherds! Imagine what that moment must have been like, to go from sheer terror of recognizing that the invasion of these strangers in the sky is none other than a heavenly army and assuming because of everything you’ve been led to believe about your life that God must have come to strike you dead, or that you need to straighten up, or that you haven’t done enough and God is disappointed in you, but instead, they discover that that’s not true at all. This celestial party has come to tell you, you are favored. Just imagine.

You know, you may have no choice over the pieces of your life other people reject, but God’s coming means you have a choice whether to let their rejection define you. That’s Christmas, to know your life matters to God.

I want to share an email I got two weeks ago. Its from a person named Tabitha. She said:

Hello, I'm a former member of–and she named a church I used to serve in North Carolina. I left when I was 8 years old. Lately my family and I have been watching your recent sermons online and I've seen you mention the acceptance of the LGBTQ community within your church. I've always struggled with Christianity so you could imagine how much worse it got when I came out two years ago. It's only gotten worse until my family and I watched a few of your services. I was moved to tears because it was the first time I'd ever felt like it was okay for me to exist as a queer person in the church… I want you to know that after that I prayed for the first time in 4 years. I still really struggle with religion but It's comforting to know that there are still good Christians out there who are willing to accept me despite my sexuality.

Theologian Paul Tillich once said that the goal of the spiritual life is to accept that we are accepted by God. How is it that message can be so easily missed, especially in churches? How is it that we create this understanding of faith that we have to be good enough and faithful enough to be accepted by God?

Maybe this pandemic is making it hard on you to feel that your life really matters. As we enter into month ten, you may be feeling so alone and isolated this whole time, you may wonder, “Does God even care?” Maybe you’re a parent and you feel like you are a failure at teaching your kids and being able to work and keep your house, it causes you to think, “My life can’t really matter that much otherwise I would be doing a better job.” And maybe you desperately want to know today that God does care about you, and God comes to you to let you know, but you don’t have that experience. There are no angels appearing over your head singing to you. How can you know?

The only thing I can say about such experiences is they are out of our control. We don’t make them happen any more than the shepherds made the angels appear, but suddenly, as if out of nowhere, God shows up, it may not be in a sky full of angels, but in the soul it’s just as spectacular, something, that in a fleeting moment we know that our temporary, finite lives just got invaded by the Eternal, and the message is simple: I have you in my watch. I am with you. You’re life matters.

A few months ago I shared in a sermon the book The Sin of Certainty by Peter Enns. Toward the end of that book he tells a story about his daughter Lizz who went through a terrible period of anxiety. It became so debilitating, Peter and his wife accepted that the best help would be her going to a treatment center and boarding school in Arizona for 16 months. While this was going on, Peter was facing being let go from his seminary teaching position because the new administration felt his teaching didn’t conform to their liking. He was feeling like a failure, in his career and as a parent.

He had been out of town with his son’s travel baseball team right before Lizz was to leave. The one thing she wanted him to bring her was a yellow Livestrong bracelet, this was before Lance Armstrong’s scandal. Anyway, he tells about going to store after store and couldn’t find one. He felt so defeated, because it’s the one thing he could do for his daughter to remind her she’s not alone, she is strong.

Well, on the last night of the baseball trip he saw another dad wearing one of these bracelets. He couldn’t believe. He figured the dad would know where he could get one. So he said, “I noticed you’re wearing one of the…” And the man interrupted him and said, “Yeah. I a whole a bag of these. Want one?” Peter Enns couldn’t believe it. He says, “I know it’s just a silly little bracelet. But the coincidences involved just convicted me that God was in this. To Peter Enns, it was this moment like God was saying, “I know you feel like a failure. I know you’re hurting for your daughter, and you’re even disappointed with me for not showing up for you in ways you want. But I’m here. I’ve never taken my eye off you. And your life matters.”

Sometimes God comes in such a simple way: a phone call just when we needed it. A letter or email that couldn’t have come at a better time. A bracelet. And in that moment it’s like the heavens opened and angels started singing and God said, “I haven’t forgotten you. Your life matters to me. You are of eternal worth.”

And I think about the man who shared that bracelet. He probably didn’t think much about it, but because he cared enough to share, look at how God used it. Who knows, maybe God wants to use you today to be an angel to someone. Maybe God has put someone on your heart to share a word of encouragement, to make a call or write an email. Or even get them a gift. Sometimes we need the angels to come to us, but other times God uses us to be angels. Maybe you feel a nudge to reach out to someone. That’s often how God works. And in it all is a God working to tell all people, and especially you, that you matter.

Well, it’s not a bracelet, but God does give us something to hold…(go into communion)