AC2018 Opening Worship Sermon: "Take Heart"

AC2018 Opening Worship Sermon: "Take Heart"

Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton


Download a PDF copy of this sermon here.

2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1 (NRSV)

13 But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—“I believed, and so I spoke”—we also believe, and so we speak, 14 because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. 15 Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.
16 So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17 For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 18 because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.
For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
Opening Worship | Annual Conference 2018 | Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton

  • Hearts have been at the center of the advertising world for years.There’s just something about a heart.We have an iHeart radio, we live in a place where we “heart” New York, and we send over 190 billion Valentine’s Day card with hearts on them every year.
But it doesn’t stop there.  For years now, advertisers have hit on a very valuable technique.  They have put a heart on it.  Oatmeal, salmon, almonds, blueberries, soy milk, green tea.  If it’s low in cholesterol and saturated fats, it’s good for your heart.
  • Yet, in the midst of that ongoing advertising blitz, heart disease continues to be the great killer among our well-fed, stressed out, exercise free society.It has been sort of a revelation among us that we can reduce our vulnerability to heart attack by eating right and exercising.How is it with your heart?
But there’s more.  I believe there is a lot more than just clogged arteries and leaky valves endangering our hearts.  Many of us today are suffering from a “heart sickness” that has nothing to do with cholesterol and triglycerides.  Many today have heartaches that go way beyond the physical pumping of a muscle. 
It seems that we live with those heartaches every day.  There is something, somewhere that invades the heart and affects our spirit.  There is something that happens, nearly every day these days, that pierces the soul and dampens our spirits.  There is something that takes place, oh you can guarantee it, that will discourage you and tempt you to be something less than God made you to be.
It’s more than asking, “Did you have a heart healthy breakfast this morning?”  It’s really asking the much deeper question: “How is it with your soul today?”
  • The Apostle Paul spent most of his time writing to various communities across the Gentile world, urging them time and again to “not lose heart.”He did so because he loved the people he served so deeply.
Much of that passion within the Apostle Paul took place because he lived everything but a glamourous and easy life.  He was persecuted by the Jews, ridiculed by the pagans, tempted with discouragement from the religious authorities.  He was often mis-understood by other new believers themselves and, as a result, Paul had every reason in the book to be discouraged and to have his soul dampened by the events of the world around him.
But through it all, Paul refused to “lose heart.”
Indeed, one of the most remarkable testimonies about how the power of God was at work in this Apostle was that even things got worse, sometimes by the day, the more reasons Paul found to “take heart” instead of “losing heart” and letting the call and the passion of that call fade.
In II Corinthians 4:8-9, Paul admits to his readers that all of his persecutors have made them tempted with feeling “afflicted,” “persecuted,” and “struck down.”
Yet, through it all, and this is the miracle of the story behind this great man of God, his faith and his love remained intact and strong.
  • That’s what I want to talk with you about today as we begin this session of our Annual Conference.I love Annual Conference and I look forward so very much to being able to sing “And Are we Yet Alive?”, see your wonderful faces, and spend a precious time like this with you.
But this year, it seems that the need to look at you is more important to me than it has been?  There is so much going on, in the world and in the church and in our lives.  I don’t know about you but I, like Paul, have been so very tempted with feelings and actions that do more to tear down than build up.  I’ve wanted, needed to see you.
  • How ya doin?
  • How is it with your soul?
  • What are the sort of things that are tempt you, us to “lose heart” today?
Few of us experience the physical and torture that Paul faced.  Yet, we too struggle with a sagging spirit and we too find ourselves digging around in bed of depression and sadness. 
And it’s hard, really hard to stay focused and strong.  And, as a result, it’s really important that we work hard to love one another and seek together the blessing and inspiration of God’s Holy Spirit in our midst.
  • We are just hurting one another.It has created such sadness in my soul.
  • This group is wrong.That group is right.This group is dumb.That group is smart.
  • There are people out there who are not so much committed to seeing us through our struggles as they are committed to convincing us what we should be afraid of and who’s to blame for it.
  • It makes one paralyzed and it has caused me to ask, “How do you lead in the midst of it all?”
  • Gosh, you know it’s bad when you are even being accused of trying to keep peace in the family.Trying to keep everyone happy.
  • Fear is one of the biggest things clutching at our chest cavity today.It’s happening outside in the world and its happening inside our church.We are afraid of many things:
    • Losing our jobs
    • Keeping our relationships strong
    • Losing our church
    • Losing relationships
    • How to raise our children
    • Afraid of growing violence
    • Afraid of the neighbor that Jesus calls us to love.
We’re afraid, . . . and, as a result, we slowly lose heart.
  • For me, fear is stoked by a general lack of trust.
We’re not only afraid of the stranger, we struggle to trust people we call friend.  Basically, we’ve created an environment where don’t trust anyone.  Do you find yourself looking out of the corner of our eye in skepticism wondering at times how our supposed friends are using us or wondering what they want from us?
We’ve heard too many stories about how people have been used and manipulated.  In fact, we have our own stories of being used and manipulated.
Remember the old saying from the business world?  “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”  Well, fed by a lack of trust and a whole lot of skepticism, that line has been changed for 2018.  “It’s not who you know, it’s what you know about who you know.”
Someone looks at your child and you think, “Abuser.”  Someone smiles at you and is friendly and you think “user.”
It’s hard to share your heart – your hopes, your dreams, your fears, your love with someone you suspect is keeping a file on you or out to get you or, at the very least, ready to criticize you at a moment’s notice.
We lack trust and we slowly lose heart.
  • And that doesn’t even address the internal issues within ourselves.I’m convinced that one of the major contributors to a loss of heart is because we lack confidence in ourselves, our abilities, and our worth.
If you don’t feel good about who you are, the life you’ve been given, the state of life you live, if you don’t like who you are, what you’ve got and where you are, . . . you’ll never like anything that happens or, for that matter, anybody around you.
We feel so small and significant at times. Without confidence and security about what God has created us to be, our heart and our spirit falls flat. 
  • Paul knew that kind of world.
He knew full well the kinds of fears, disappointments, rejections and defeats his Christian brothers and sisters were facing.
He knew from personal experience the kind of heart disease that could develop from a steady diet of fear, lack of trust, and insecurity.  He had plenty of time thinking about it as a prisoner for his faith in a cold, damp, dark cell block.  He had plenty of time to wallow in his self-pity, curse God for his calling, and develop such a thick skin that he would never, ever trust anyone again.
Yet, somehow, Paul stayed a step ahead of it all.  When he counseled his fellow Christians to not “lose heart” he did so because he found the way to keep his heart strong.
It was a simple way: Faith in Christ.
It was a simple way for John Wesley to find a heart strangely warmed: Faith in Christ.
It will be a simple way for us too.
That simple way will not be found by fixing our gaze on the externals of our lives.
  • Many of us focus our lives on our bodies.
  • Others focus on their children
  • Still others focus on job success or on material possessions only to be laid off or go so high in debt one cannot really enjoy all the “things”

If Paul had only focused on the “externals” he would have lost heart. 
If John Wesley had done the same he too would have been unfulfilled in his ministry.
Instead, they both found success when they were able to separate life into two worlds: The outer world and the inner world.
Paul’s outer world was filled with conflict, chaos, despair, persecution and pain. 
John Wesley’s outer world was filled with aspiration, public show, and a life of works.
But their inner world, their heart was filled with the presence of God.  How is it with your soul? How is it, my friend, with your heart?
  • One of the saddest realities of my life is that none of you will probably ever meet my Mom and Dad.They are two of the most wonderful people God ever created.And while I’m biased as can be, I know it deeply to be true.
Up until last year, my Mom & Dad never missed one of my Annual Conferences.  First year (“I’m your father and I can do anything I want to.”)
Many of you know that just about two years ago, my ageless Father fell and broke three vertebrae in his neck.  This man who had this amazing gift of creatively using his hands now struggles to hold a fork.  When Dad fell it was pretty touch and go.  We thought for a while that he wasn’t going to make it.  I left Jurisdictional Conference and immediately headed to Florida. 
Dad wasn’t able to move and his speech was so impaired that you really struggled to make out what he was saying.  At one point during our vigil, Dad’s friend and pastor, Jim, came to visit.  My Dad’s name is Jim too.  The two Jim’s were together. 
We had a very nice visit together and, after a while, Jim indicated that it was about time for him to go.  I stood, and said, “Okay, let’s gather around the bed, hold hands and ask Jim to pray for us.”  Before I knew what happened, Jim began to pray.  But it wasn’t Jim the preacher.  It was the other Jim.  The one lying in the bed.  Throughout the day we struggled to hear what he was saying, but in the precious moments to follow, we heard every word.  “O God, we thank you for the life you have given to us.  We thank you for our family and our friends.  We thank you because you have been so good to us, God.  Watch over us with your love and care.  Amen.”
You see, Jim had every reason to not pray that prayer.  His life was in the balance, filled with chaos, conflict, pain, and great uncertainty.  But those words crossed his lips with clarity and conviction and in that moment, we knew that state of Jim’s heart.  And even though today my Dad will frequently say, “Sometimes I throw myself a pity party.  But then I catch myself and realize how very good God has been to me.”
“Let not your heart be troubled,” God’s tender word I hear,
And resting on God’s goodness, I lose my doubts and fears;
Though by the path God leadeth, but one step I may see;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know God watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know God watches me.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
It’s all about a heart of faith.
  • Because Paul had a deep and vast love for Jesus Christ and trust in God’s providential care, he could take heart, even in the midst of the ridicule, the prison sentences, the beatings and the foolishness of others, because he knew that none of those things could harm his inner spirit.
  • For Paul, his inner spirit was driven by Jesus Christ.Paul could not, would not lose heart because at the center of his being was Jesus Christ.
  • No matter what fears assaulted him or doubts assailed him in the outer world, Christ was within him, “renewed day-by-day.”
  • So much so that Paul, with strength, could say that the outer world was only a “momentary affliction preparing him for the eternal weight of glory.”
It’s like two Jets re-fueling in mid-air.  Right in the middle of flight there is a boost, a re-fueling, a renewed source of energy that helps the plane complete the flight and find its way safely home. 
We are flying high in our ministry here in New York.  But here, in mid-flight, right in the midst of all that we are doing, there is a need for a mid-flight refueling. 
There have been great investments of time, emotion, money, call, and energy.
But there is a rhetoric out there that is saying that it’s time to give up, throw in the towel, forget about it.  If you listen to it, it seems that leaders can’t lead, and followers are dropping off, the church can’t relate and it’s just too difficult.  And you are tempted just lose heart.
But when the Spirit of Christ within us takes hold, there is a resiliency that takes hold, a spirit that begins to build with renewed courage and hope for the future.
  • Do your plans seem to be turning into disasters?
Take heart New York:  Paul says, “our inner nature is being renewed every day.”
  • Do things seem to be going from bad to worse for you?
Take heart New York: Paul says, “For it is by God’s mercy that we are here.”
  • Do you feel like you have nothing to show for all your efforts?
Take heart New York: Paul says, “We will all reap at God’s harvest-time.”
  • Do you feel the weight of the world on your shoulders?
Take heart New York:  For Paul says, “Christ endured such hostility against himself so that we may not grow weary or lose heart.”
I remember one day overhearing a non-church goer say that he didn’t go to church because he saw no sense in getting all dressed up just to hang a frown on his face and be told how bad he was.
We are a people of faith and of grace.  We say with all conviction “NO” to the frown, “NO” to getting dressed up for the show, and “NO” to the guilt trip.
We have come here today to find hope and earnestly search for joy. 
In the midst of his sinful persecution of others, in the midst of his mysterious affliction and in the midst of his imprisonment and pain, Paul said to the outcasts of the Gentile world, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you belong,” 
“In the name of Jesus Christ, you are cared for, not because of what we have done but because of who we have accepted deep in our hearts.”
A patient was preparing to undergo open-heart surgery.  The day of the operation he requested communion from the hospital chaplain.  As the chaplain opened the liturgy, he read these words to a man who was preparing for bypass surgery and didn’t realize what he was saying or who he was saying it to when he read,
“Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are opened.”
How true.  Our hearts are opened in the presence of God.  Our hearts are healed by the Great Physician.  Our hearts are restored by the power of God at work among us.
Take heart, my friends.  Take heart.  God is still in charge and it can be, will be, well with our souls.
“I sing because I’m happy.  I sing because I’m free.  For God’s eye is on the sparrow.  And I know God watches me.”