"From Self to Selflessness" - from Sunday, May 13, 2012
A Sermon by Alex Evans
Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA
From Sunday, May 13, 2012
Texts: Romans 12:1-2; Psalm 110
“From Self to Selflessness”
What is on your mind and heart today?
I am guessing that one thought has to do with your mother. This is Mother’s Day, and we are thinking about, thanking God for, our mothers.
According to a quick reference check, Mother’s Day was first proclaimed in Boston, in 1870. 100 years after the Boston Tea Party, and our independence from the “mother country,” this celebration of our mother’s was proclaimed. And in its earliest form, Mother’s Day had a great deal to do with pacifism, disarmament, and peace. In 1870, it was common for mothers whose sons had fought or died in the Civil War to meet, to find support for one another. So a mother’s day for peace began to take shape.
As the years unfolded into the 1900’s, mother’s day gained momentum as a woman in West Virginia who had been involved in the disarmament and peace discussions also pushed to commemorate her mother who had died in early May. She advocated to set aside a day to celebrate all mothers. West Virginia made it a holiday in 1910. Then President Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation in 1914: the second Sunday in May - Mother’s Day.
So we have mothers on our mind and in our heart today.
For some of us, this is so wonderful – we had loving mothers or have loving mothers; our mothers - whether alive with us or alive with God - help to shape us into who we are; many of you are mothers who seek to spread love and care; we have mothers and grandmothers for the baptisms today, and more. We celebrate all this today.
For others of us, this day might bring something else – reminders of mother’s failings, reminders of the inability to be mothers, or distance, even alienation from mothers, or worries about whether we will ever be mothers or anxiety about what kind of mothers we will be.
May God’s mothering love enfold us and hold us and encourage us where we most need it. And may God keep showing us how to live and love.
What else might be on your mind and heart today? Maybe babies and baptisms as we celebrate today with two different and extensive families. These baptisms invite us all to think about our own baptisms, or our children’s baptism. These baptisms today also provide another opportunity where we promise to love and pray for, help children and families grow in the ways of discipleship following Jesus – this is always our calling!
Whenever we gather around the baptismal font, God’s Spirit is powerfully present as we affirm God’s love poured upon us, as we make promises, and commit our lives to life and ministry with and for Jesus.
Maybe something else dominates your mind and heart today – something weighing heavy on you, some challenge or heartache, something unresolved, or haunting you, so that you are here but focused elsewhere. Or maybe there is something giving you great joy, filling this day with brightness. May God’s light shine on us and bless us where we need it most.
There is something else on our mind and heart today – at least it is before us - Psalm 110. Who has ever even heard of Psalm 110? It has to be one of the most remote and unfamiliar of all the psalms in the Bible! Right?
Here are some truths that might engage your mind and heart:
This psalm – 110 - seemingly so remote and unfamiliar, is the most quoted psalm in all of the New Testament. It is not Psalm 23– “the Lord is my shepherd,” or Psalm 100 – “make a joyful noise to the Lord,” or some other familiar phrase. Psalm 110 is the most quoted.
This psalm – 110 – is most often referenced in the confessions of the church, too, in response to the question of “where is Jesus now?” When the Apostles’ Creed says “I believe in Jesus Christ . . . who sits at the right hand of God,” this psalm is the one most mentioned.
So while this might be an obscure psalm for us, it may have been the most memorized, pondered psalm in the 1st and 2nd and 3rd centuries. It has been used for hundreds of years as a text for the installation of a king or leader who is meant to serve God. And it is referred to so many times in the New Testament because faithful people have seen the words of the psalm in the context of Jesus, the Messiah, established to rule over God’s kingdom. The main point of the psalm, applied to kings, applied to Jesus, and applies to us: this is a psalm that reminds us how to live as God’s people. And it speaks to us afresh on Mother’s Day, and wherever we might find ourselves today. The basic message is this: we are summoned from self to selflessness. We are to re-center our lives on the words, being, and actions of God.
The psalm opens “the Lord says.”
Now, we live in a world that is absolutely overwhelmed with messages. We can probably all relate to the Ziggy cartoon. It shows two people walking into their house at the end of the day. A parrot in a cage is central in the house in the cartoon. The bird’s feathers are all askew, its eyes crazy and mixed up. It is falling off its perch in the cage. The cage is wrecked. And clearly the bird has been stressed and shocked almost beyond recognition. And one person says to another, “Uh oh. What happened to the bird today?” And the other said, “Oh no! We left the TV on all day . . .and it was tuned to Fox News.”
It is not just the constant news stream that we get from across the world. We now also are bombarded by everyone’s thoughts all the time – through emails, Facebook, Twitter, text messages, and more. There are waves and waves of messages that come at us – we are not sure what to listen to, how to sort it all.
It was not like this in the early centuries. And people were really interested in hearing what “the Lord says.” Imagine that. A thirst, and longing, for good news from God – not constant comments from news pundits, or thousands of emails, or the many messages that flood our lives. What does the Lord say? And maybe this accounts for the obscurity of this psalm in modern life. We are not sure we care about what the Lord says because we are so overwhelmed with what the self says, or what others say, or what the world is saying. Perhaps we meditate and become fixated NOT on what “the Lord says” but on what I might achieve, and how I might succeed, and what is going on for me right now. As one commentator puts it, “the deep-rooted, me-first distortions of our humanity have been institutionalized in our economics and sanctioned by our psychologies.” Mostly we focus on and give energy to all the things that augment our human potential and make us feel good about ourselves. We want prayers that will bring us daily benefits in the form of a higher standard of living; we want miracles to relieve our health problems and our boredom. We want activities that meet our needs on our own schedules. We too often come to the Bible mostly as consumers, rummaging through texts to find something at a bargain. And we read Psalm 110 – about “the Lord says” – and we are all too ready to ponder the newscasts, check our email and phones one more time, meditate on the stock market, and look for our security and our hope in all kinds of other places. (See E. Peterson, Where Your Treasure Is, p. 39)
What if we actually sought to center our lives, to focus our lives in the way this psalm is framed? What if what “the Lord says” really shaped our lives? I am not talking about taking the Lord’s words literally, or as infallible, but living life hearing and living in God’s presence always. What if we listened and lived with God all moments of all days? What if our whole being was rooted in God ruling our hearts? What if we could indeed respond to God’s summons and were lured from self, and selfish pursuits, and self-attainment, to selflessness and genuine satisfaction and safety in God’s presence and peace?
You know, the self is pretty persistent. Most of us wake up each day and think, “well, what do I have to do today?” Or we ask, “how do I feel this morning?” Or we ponder “where do I have to go?” Or maybe “what might satisfy me today?” This is how we are, even as little ones. We assume it is all about us. We have jobs and duties to tend to; we have families to feed and care for; we have lawns to mow; we have causes in which we are hugely invested with our identity and our resources. We are good people, we strive to love, we seek to be faithful, but what is most central to our lives? It is a regular question that we need to be asking! It is also what we seek to grow into from our baptisms – life and purposes that are rooted in God.
And I will be honest. I struggle with this on many days – my own calendar gets filled with commitments and demands. My own life has worries about my children and my mother, and you, the people and the church I love and seek to serve. My own heart gets challenged with various dilemmas and distractions. It is hard to sort out what is selfish and what is selfless. Where is it my need and where is it godly work? And the challenge is to keep seeking to be centered, focused on being open to God’s presence and serving God selflessly – in whatever our involvements.
Psalm 110 established its eminence in those early Christian communities by centering the self in the God who speaks. Those earlier people knew that their lives were increasingly scattered and they wanted to do something about it. They recognized that their hearts were easily distracted and they sought to address that concern. So what did they do? They prayed and memorized, they pondered and reflected on Psalm 110. And it gave focus to their lives and purpose to their work. When God speaks, things happen. When God calls, attention is given. When God reminds us whose world this is, it re-frames our living. The Lord says, sit at my right hand and things will fall into their proper place. The Lord says, remain in my presence and all things will be kept in proper perspective. The Lord has sworn, and in that assurance we have life and hope and the promise of Christ’s reign.
That is one of the reasons that this psalm is quoted most often in the NT. It is that reference to the Lord’s promise, and never changing his mind, that there will be “a priest after the order of Melchizedek.” Melchizedek was the ancient Canaanite priest-king. And this reference is a foreshadowing of the Messiah. God’s Messiah would come and rule like a king, and also renew like a priest. God’s Messiah would come in power to reign, but also forgive and refresh, like a priest. The king was the one who gave structure to life. The priest was the one who gave life to the structure; and in the Messiah, in the order of Melchizedek, Jesus Christ would be both. And when we open and focus our lives there – in Christ - we have life and wholeness.
So often we feel like our selves are filled with distraction and distress; our selves are fixated on beating down the demons that threaten us; our selves are focused on doing it all ourselves. And then we get so lost.
But when our focus is on God – seek to live our lives in Christ - and away from the self, and toward selflessness, we are whole.
So, as Paul says, by the mercies of God, present yourselves before God, holy and acceptable, which is your spiritual worship. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you may discern the will of God.”
Today, and all days, we keep seeking, by God’s grace and through God’s power, to move from self to selflessness, listening to what God says, following Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Prayer of Commitment: Holy God, we believe; help our unbelief, especially as we open, trust, listen, commit our lives to Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN
Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during morning worship on Sunday, May 13, 2012. This is a rough manuscript.