Wednesday, December 20, 2006

'The Project'---A Christmas Sermon worth Pondering

Craig Hill is a fine NT scholar at Wesley Theological Seminary in D.C. and a fine preacher as well. We have been good friends for many years through the John Wesley Fellowship program. This is the sermon he preached in the Woodlands UMC a week ago. I found it so rich that I asked his permission to republish it here.


The Project Craig C. Hill
(or "All I want for Christmas")
Texts: Isa. 55:1-5; John 13:1-8

Advent, at least as most of us experience it, is a season of consumption, when waists grow wider and wallets thinner. One of the most powerful biblical texts on subject of consumption is Isaiah 55:1-5:

Ho, every one who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Hearken diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in richness. Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live...

These words from Isaiah are profoundly revealing and, in what they reveal, deeply challenging. "Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?" Let me try to deal with the prophet's questions by asking one of my own.

Beyond mere survival, to what goal are we most directed? With what do we most concern ourselves during the course of our waking hours? Certainly, a variety of things require our attention: what we'll eat, what we'll wear, how we'll accomplish the tasks before us. These all concern us, but none of them dominates our lives in quite the way that something else does. That thing is so central that it has been called "The Project."

I started working on my project when I was quite small, smaller than I can consciously remember. That time that I bought my mother a present for no special occasion with my allowance, the times I mowed the lawn or did other jobs without being asked–little did I know that I was hard at work on my project. The criticisms and childhood taunts that stung, the disappointment at not being chosen a part of the group, little did I understand that the hurt I felt was that of a project threatening to fail.

People have variously described the project. It is called the quest for meaning, the desire for competence. the need for self-esteem and purpose. Behind it all is the question "Who am I?"--or, more particularly, "Do I matter?"

I remember well my first girlfriend, Beth, and the tremendous, euphoric rush of feeling I had in those first dating experiences. Suddenly, here was another person--a girl--who considered me to be somebody. What joy! With apologies to Robin, my wife, whom I love dearly, there is still nothing quite like holding hands with a girl or boyfriend for the first time. But, you might recognize that in its own way, that sort of first love, for all of its emotional intensity, can be rather self-centered and small. In many respects, I was preoccupied with myself, with the sense of worth that came via Beth to me.

Nevertheless, that was one of the high points in the history of my project. (You can see what a tawdry affair this whole thing has been!) You can readily think of some of your own. Your winning team in high school, being elected to some office, closing a great deal, dazzling the company with your new house. You might also recall some of the low points -- the memories that sting to this day with a razor of recrimination. Just when you thought you were getting somewhere, that had to happen.

It's the pervasiveness of the project that is so interesting. It lurks around every corner; it's in the very prejudices, intentions, and dreams that guide our lives. What impression will I give by my dress, my speech, my possessions, my job? Will the others in the office think that I'm a good employee; am I a good mother or father; was I "being myself" when I behaved that way last night? How am I doing?

We thrive on recognition and other signs of personal value, be they claps or plaques or Cadillacs, and woe be unto those who do not sufficiently recognize us! I am certain that the majority of the whispers, pains, tensions and divisions that occur within any church have at their most basic level this dynamic of hurt feelings and wounded pride. Just forget to thank the host or the piano player, and you've got a potential schism on your hands!

And pastors are no different: "They didn't say anything about my sermon. Am I doing all right? Maybe I should have gone into insurance after all?" To put it rather satirically, we all have a propensity for enjoying the company of those who share our best estimate of ourselves. Even those who consider that they have matured beyond such things do so only because of the success of their internalized project. We are strong to resist what the crowd considers worthy only if we have found some other worthiness we can count our own.

It would be an inaccurate to conclude that the project is wrong. It is not in itself wrong; it is an unavoidable, an essential, part of what it means to be human. But that is not to say that the enterprise is without its problems. Indeed, the quest for fulfillment, meaning and purpose is treacherous. Among the problems are these:

1. The first is obvious, really. If I am deriving my sense of worth through some particular possession, skill or attribute, what happens when that thing is lost or taken away? What do you say to the person who loses his or her career, fortune, or looks? Investing in a project is a risky business. What place is there for failure in such a system? It is because of the project that love unrequited can so quickly turn to hate.

2. The second problem is like the first. If I consider myself to be valuable because I am the best answer guy at the company, what happens when someone else comes along with better answers? Competition, jealousy, suspicion, gossip. Most of our projects stand on shaky ground, and we meet the threat of a rival by throwing up a quick and sudden, even desperate, defense and counter-attack. So much is at stake.

3. Self-centeredness. The whole thing requires continual maintenance and constant self-evaluation. "What are they thinking of me. How am I doing?" It is so often impossible to be aware of others because we are so absorbed in ourselves. Even without malice, a project pushes self-consciousness strongly in the direction of selfishness.

4. The need to be a success often promotes in us illusions of our own goodness. We need to justify ourselves (to use biblical language), and in order to do so we lie about the kindness of our intentions, the extent of our innocence, and the purity of our cause. Someone has called, "Reputation: character minus what you get caught at." It's easy to forget the things we didn't get caught at.

5. None of this answers the question of whether the value we're deriving from something is even valid. Someone might be happy knowing that he has carved out the biggest drug ring in metropolitan Houston. What foundation is there for determining real meaning from pseudo-meaning -- or is there really any such distinction? When its all said and done, is it just about how I feel?

6. Finally every strictly human project must, in a most vital respect, fail. I may be a somebody, I may stay a somebody all my life, but the end of all of my striving, like it or not, is going to be the grave. As Tony Campolo says,

"They always tell you that so and so was worth 5 million dollars when he died. I want to tell you something: When you die, you ain't worth nothing. They'll take you out and drop you in a hole in the ground and go back to the church and eat potato salad."

Ten thousand years from now, ten million years from now, who is going to be around that is going to know that you existed, much less care? The whole thing, human endeavor and history as well as personal accomplishment, is alone finally "noise and fury signifying nothing."

Or is it? We have said that the question of meaning and purpose, the need for fulfillment and success, is at the very heart of human existence. Every one of us in some way is asking, "Do I matter?" And this is a religious question. William James wrote, "Religion in its most abstract expression may be defined as the affirmation that all is not vanity." Religion is not cake; it is bread. It is the warp and woof of daily living.

Salvation, that commonly mentioned benefit of religion, is, at least by one definition, the place where there is ultimate meaning, purpose and significance to these lives of ours, despite failure, despite limitations, even despite death. It is both finding and being given that for which we strive all the days of our lives, the meaning and value of our own existence. Talk about a great Christmas present.

God’s acceptance is given freely, graciously. Within such a system there is room for failure, room for the one who comes in second, room even for death. So, we can get off that treadmill; the verdict on the project has already been rendered. Self is no longer on the line, so we can stop worrying about self and be set free to start worrying about others.

Think of the disciples. Throughout the Gospel tradition, they jockey with each other for position, each trying to gain a little more prominence than the others. Undoubtedly they anticipated an eventual payoff, imagining a time in the near future when they would rule with Jesus in Jerusalem.

One day it happened that Jesus and his disciples came indoors, tired, hot, and dusty. No servant was present to wash their feet. The disciples eyed each other. They must have thought, "Well, I’m certainly not going to wash their feet. I’d look like the lowest slave." What does the scripture say?

Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father...Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up...and took a towel... [John 13]

Jesus was the only one in that room who knew who he was, and thus the only one free to serve. The disciples could not take on the role of a servant, because they assumed that such work meant taking on the status of a servant, being diminished, losing the status they had carved out for themselves.

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?

Whether or not we know God, the question that dominates our lives remains the same. At issue is where we look for the answer. The easiest thing to do, the thing that probably most of us do most of the time, is to follow the world's lead, to buy (often literally) into a system of values that says, if only you could own this, or look like this, or do this, then you'd be happy, then your life would have meaning.

But it is not real bread, it is not the stuff that satisfies. We are made for God, and only in God will we discover the meaning for which we long, and which is our birthright as God's children.

Ho, every one who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Hearken diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in fatness. Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live.


Great and gracious God, apart from knowing you, we cannot know ourselves. And yet we spend our energies, time, and money looking everywhere else first, so much do we desire meaning, so little do we know where to find it. God, let that change now. Let us find in you the answer to our strongest yearning, bread that satisfies our souls’ deepest hunger. And, teaching us who we are, set us free to be who you have called us to be, light and salt, servants to the world. In Jesus’ name, Amen.


byron smith said...

Thanks for this - food for the soul.

Lynne said...

Wow, thank you so much for this - the word that cuts like a sword through the tawdry tinsel that tends to drape across everything at this time of year. Beyond is the place of the manger and the cross (can the two be rightly separated?)where we are confronted with the one eternal choice that really matters .. do I keep trying to shore up my own self, or do I admit the whole structure is at the point of collapse and allow Him to carry me instead?

Ben Witherington said...

Exactly, the most powerful moment in this sermon orally was when Craig said that Jesus could wash his disciples feet because he wasn't worried about losing face-- he was secure in who he was.



see-through faith said...

wonderful and yes! a wake up call

In His Glad Service said...

It's wonderful to say, as an exercise of gratitude, that it is wonderful to be married to a pastor who embodies the AMEN for this sermon. In the pulpit, in the hospital room, singing with the little kids, and in our home. Thanks,Ben, for this gift that has prompted my appreciation. Robbie

Unknown said...

Thanks Ben and thanks Craig. I really did need to be reminded of my project and how it keeps taking over from Jesus project for me.

Tangela said...

This definitley was an eye opening piece of writing that I enjoyed. I found you through the Ivy Bush and I love taking the time to read the things you have on here.



Tangela said...

This was an eye opening piece of writing and I enjoyed reading it. I found you threw the Ivy Bush and I love your blogs here.

Many Blessings,


digitaldion (Dion Forster) said...

Dear Ben,

Thanks so much for taking the effort to get this remarkably challenging sermon!

I appreciate both the uncompromising challenge that it presents, yet also the fact that it is couched in the kind of sensitivity that comes from understanding the complexity of our frail human condition.

This is a winner for Christmas!

Blessings from John Wesley College South Africa!