"Walking the Tightrope of Life"

Jeremiah 1:4-10; Matthew 10:5-23

First Congregational Church, Columbus

June 16, 2002 -- 4th Sunday after Pentecost

Rev. Ronald Botts, Preaching

If I were to take a plank, ten feet long and six inches wide, and put it on the floor in front of the altar, then invite you one by one to walk on it from end to end, I would imagine that most of you could do it rather easily. It isn't all that hard. Let's, however, suspend that same board between two stepladders about three feet off the ground. Now how many would be willing to try?

Let's take it up to twenty feet. Our number of volunteers might be much smaller yet. Perhaps no one would attempt to walk across the plank. Yet, it's the very same board you would have willingly attempted on the ground. What's the difference? Your muscles are the same. Your coordination will not have changed.

What if we were to suspend that piece of lumber securely between two adjacent buildings downtown, maybe at about the level of the 10th floor. Many of you could walk that board frontward or backward on the ground, eyes closed or open. Would you tackle it now? Remember, it's still the same board.

No matter where it's positioned, the plank is actually no harder to walk. It takes exactly the same skill, the same balance. Only two components change: the distance off the ground and the increase in our fear. That's the sum of the change. But it makes a world of difference when it comes to volunteering.

Life is like that. When we have something firm under our feet then we walk the narrow way without fear. It is when we have nothing underneath that we get panicky. Our minds fix on the lack of support below, and that is the time when we're most apt to lose our balance.

Both of our scripture readings for the morning address fear and the reaction of a person when he or she feels there is suddenly nothing solid underneath their feet.

The prophet Jeremiah was born in a village just outside of Jerusalem, the son of a priest. It was in 627 B.C. that Jeremiah reports he received God's commission to bring a word of warning and judgment to Judah. Jeremiah criticized the Jews for their worship of gods other than the Lord. God's covenant people, must return to him. While the judgment will come, this prophet also brings a word of hope for the future. He sees a day where the present wrongs will be replaced by a new and more enduring relationship with God.

As you read this book, you'll find that it is more biographical than most. It tells quite a bit about the person Jeremiah and his struggles to faithfully bring his word to the nation. Uniquely in the writings of this particular prophet we find a number of personal laments, similar to those found in some of the Psalms. Here he wrestles out loud with God. Our passage for today is one of these.

"Ah, Lord, I don't know how to speak. I wouldn't know what to say. Indeed, I'm only a young man. Have some consideration for me."

But God replies, "Don't use the excuse of age. I really want you to do this. And here's something to remember: `You don't need to be afraid, for I'll give you the words to say and I'll be there to deliver you.'"

Though Jeremiah will have his opponents who won't like to hear the truth in his accusations and may plot his downfall, they shall not prevail. The resistance and hostility he will experience in bringing an unpopular message is real enough. It frightens him. Yet ultimately it is God's presence and support that helps him overcome his fear. God, he realizes, is with him to sustain him and see him through whatever comes his way.

His task would be easier should the people be more receptive but, whether they cheer or jeer, it is the same message he is to proclaim. When the prophet remembers God's strength and support with him, he approaches his mission with new-found confidence.

Jump now in time some six centuries later. The land is still the same, but the circumstances are far different. Jesus has begun his ministry and he, too, has a mission. He likewise has a word to bring from God. Our scripture from Matthew this morning relates how that message was shared through others as well.

Here Jesus calls the disciples to him that he might instruct them in taking his proclamation to the people. "Go," he says, "and take this message, `The Kingdom of heaven is near.' You have received without paying, so give without being paid. Don't carry any money in your pockets or worry about extra clothing. Workers will be given what they need.

"When you come to a town, go and look for someone who is willing to welcome you. Stay with that person. Enter the houses of the people with the greeting "peace be with you.' But if you are not welcomed and people there will not listen to you, move on. It will be a judgment on them, not you.

"Understand, I am sending you out like sheep to a pack of wolves. You need to be as cautious as snakes and as gentle as doves. Watch out, for there will be men who would arrest you and do you harm if they have the chance. Even if you should be brought to trial, don't worry about what you will say in defense. The words will come. Use even this as an opportunity to witness to the Good News that has been entrusted to you.

"Don't be afraid my friends. Even sparrows which are numerous are in God's hand. How much more are you worth than these birds. Everyone, therefore, who acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven."

Heretofore the disciples have stayed closely with Jesus; now he unexpectedly sends them out to do what he has been doing-- to preach and to cure those who are sick of mind or body. His message is their message. They've done this before, but with him or in groups. Now they are asked to go out alone so that the greatest numbers may be reached.

It won't be without problems or even danger. Some people would like to do nothing better than shut their ears to a new truth through shutting the mouth of those who proclaim it. When people are receptive, the work isn't hard. When they are resistive, they will do all sorts of things to impede the messengers.

Be aware and be cautious, he advises them, but use the same dedication and skills you always have. Only two things will change: you won't have me or the other disciples physically at your side and you will be more fearful. Remember, though, God's presence is always with you and God's strength, working in and through you, will sustain you.

In much of our lives, too, we fear the lack of support. We're afraid of so many things. Fear isn't all bad, though. It protects us to a degree by warning us of dangerous situations. It alerts us to problems that might be ahead. But fear can also block us as well. It can stifle us, hold us in check, refuse to let us go on. It can make us want to stay in bed with the covers pulled up. We all know the feeling.

Sometimes our fears need to be taken out and looked at, to see them for what they are. Fears cause us to do things differently, to be less successful than we would otherwise be. To take a practical example, people are often reluctant to serve as liturgist for a Sunday. If you're able to read scripture aloud at home, shouldn't you be able to do the same here? What's so different? Is it because there's a room full of people here? We tend to be fearful in talking before others. The more people there are, the greater our stagefright may become.

Perhaps there might be some justification for being fearful if you were to speak on national TV or at a convention of the American Atheists Association, but here you're with people you know. They are receptive and not hostile. They would want you to do well, and would surely be very forgiving should you stumble a bit. The downside of saying "yes" to Sunday leadership is far less than some would imagine. You see, fear can get out of hand when it's not examined.

But confident living is more than this. It is more than just not letting our fears get the best of us. Confident living is knowing that God is with us at all times, that God loves and cares for us, and gives us the strength to move ahead to do the very best we are capable of. All fear may not disappear, but it can be kept in balance. People of faith find a strength beyond themselves. They-- you--can do so much more than could be done alone and without support.

Each day life brings us challenges, and some of these are tough. They strain every fiber in our body. They make us wonder whether indeed we are capable of going on. We often feel that we don't have it within us to succeed. We look to ourselves and instantly see our weaknesses. Our fears take over. But it doesn't have to be that way if we remember, if we remember the

Good News that has been given us.

Several years ago a wild animal trainer went into the cage with several of his tigers. It was a routine performance and part of the excitement of his act was that the door was locked

behind him. He had done it hundreds of times, and done it successfully without harm.

As the audience watched on this particular night, they gasped when the unthinkable happened. There was a power failure and all the lights went out. For several minutes the trainer

remained locked in the cage with the tigers. The animals could see him, but he couldn't see them. All he had was a whip and a chair, but he survived despite the seeming imbalance of power. And when the lights came back on, he calmly finished his performance.

He was asked later in an interview how it felt to be in that situation. He admitted that at first there was a chilling fear, but then he told himself that even though he couldn't see the cats at all in the darkness, they didn't know that. So he kept cracking his whip and calling out the stunts to perform just like he always did. He acted the same even under radically changed circumstances and refused to panic.

At some points in our lives we all face tigers in the dark. We have to cope in new and perhaps dangerous situations. We can't see where we're going like we usually can. It's then that we find out that the secret to surviving is refusing to panic. We learn the importance of holding onto the whip and chair-- our support systems-- until the lights come on again.

Our scriptures for the day go even further. They tell us there is no greater support in all of life than realizing God's continuing presence with us. They tell us that we are not alone on our journeys. At home or away, whether the going is easy or tough, receptive audience or hostile, new circumstances or old, God's love is the constant that will get us through. God's love is our support in all circumstances, and that will make the difference.

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