Tag: faith

Podcast: Passing on a Legacy of Faith

For Mother’s Day, I preached from 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 on the subject, “Passing on a Legacy of Faith.” Just as the apostle Paul and Susanna Wesley both passed on a legacy of faith to others, we can do the same for those within our circles of influence, including our families, friends, neighbors, and coworkers. Here’s the audio of last Sunday’s sermon —  

Sermon: The Paradox of Following Jesus

On the last Sunday of Lent, I preached from John 12:20-33. It’s the story of Jesus after his entry into Jerusalem, and this passage involves three things. First, there were those who wanted to see Jesus; secondly, Jesus warned that those who loved life in this world would lose theirs; and, finally, Jesus described what following him really meant. I used three phrases to capture these three points: focusing on Jesus, forsaking the world system, and following faithfully. Here’s the podcast of the sermon:

Why Samuel, David, and a Bunch of Others Need Us

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The book of Hebrews was written to encourage Christians of the first century to remain faithful despite persecution. Examples of great heroes of the faith like Abraham, Moses, David, Daniel, Elijah and Elisha; and, events like crossing the Red Sea, the battle of Jericho, the survival of the lions’ den and fiery furnace inspired Christians then and now. But, there is a downside to faithfulness. Sometimes faithfulness to God doesn’t end triumphantly, but instead with the faithful being beaten, persecuted, displaced, and killed.

The writer of Hebrews reminds us that Jesus knows what suffering is about. He endured the shame of the Roman cross in anticipation of the glory of the presence of God. The popular song, “Even in the Valley God is Good,” summarizes our response to suffering. For the first century Christians and for us, the most important thing we can remember is that God is present with us regardless of whether we triumph or whether we struggle.

Our lives contribute to the story of God begun by those in the hall of faith listed in Hebrews chapter 11 through 12. Just as we need them, they need our faithfulness to finish the final chapters in the story that God began in their day. Faith in the face of adversity is still needed today, and our faith builds on the witness of those who have gone before.

For the podcast of this message, click here:

[audio https://chuckwarnockblog.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/02-why-samuel-david-and-others-need-us.mp3]

Who Do You Trust?

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The epistle reading for today is Colossians 1:15-23. The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Colossae contrasting the good news of Jesus with the claims of the first century Roman empire.

In their book Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire, authors Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat contend that Colossians contrasts the violence, inhumanity, and corruption of the Roman empire with the new imagination of Christian community centered around Christ.

As a Roman outpost, Colossae participated in the emperor cult which asserted that the emperor was the son of god and the deity around which the universe revolved. The Roman empire was also the undisputed example of political organization and military might. From Rome’s dominance came what was ironically called the Pax Romana — the Roman peace. However, the Roman peace was secured with overwhelming violence against those nations and city-states Roman legions pacified by force.

Paul challenges the ideas of the emperor’s supremacy, the empire’s legitimacy, and the Pax Romana with the assertion that Christ is the image of God, the creator of all things, the sustainer of the universe, the first-born from the dead, the head of a new community called the church, and the true prince of peace.

The point of Paul’s letter to the Colossians was to contrast the misplaced confidence they formerly had in the Roman empire with the new hope they found in Christ. Prior to following Christ as Lord, the Colossians had placed their trust in the Empire for their security, happiness, and fulfillment.

Today millions have misplaced their trust, too. If Paul were writing the letter to the Colossians today, he might contrast the trust we place in power, money, and technology with the supremacy of Christ.

Power is still the currency of international relationships. Mao Zedong said, “Political power comes from the barrel of a gun.” That philosophy is shared by virtually all of the nation-states on the world stage today. While the United States is still the most powerful nation on earth, countries like North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, and others project the power they have in order to influence international events. Just as the Roman empire used its military, economic, and political power to shape the course of history, nations continue to be seduced by the promise of power today.

The second member of our illegitimate trinity is money. China is relocating 325-million peasants — rural farmers — into newly-created cities. Why? Because China’s economy, according to the IMF and other economists, doesn’t have enough consumerism. The key to growth in the Chinese economy in the near future, economists say, is creating a new class of consumers who will buy TVs, refrigerators, cell phones, and cars. In a world where one billion people live on less than $1 a day, money is a seductive force, often coupled with power.

However, a new player has entered the arena as a close partner to power and money. Both power and the quest for money are being driven by technology. We now have the technology to instantly deliver books, newspapers, and magazines to personal computers, tablets, or mobile phones. In  2007 Steve Jobs of Apple introduced the iPhone and revolutionized the mobile phone industry. Today over 5 billion cell phones are in service, and 1 billion of those are smart phones.

The NSA surveillance programs leaked by Edward Snowden showed us that the US now possesses and uses advanced technology to track every telephone call, email, and cell phone location everywhere in the world; scan those communications for suspicious links to suspicious characters; track users by location; and, know who everyone everywhere in the world is talking to and what they are talking about.

Technology is our Pax Romana — both the new security savior and cyber weapon in our war to be safe from terrorism. Our trust in technology compels us to give out our credit card information, our personal history, our family and friend connections, the schools we attended, our workplace, our daily routines, even where we eat, shop, and travel. Why? Because we cannot live without the always-on, always-available world at our fingertips. We depend on technology for friendships, for commerce, for security, and even for our faith (yes, there are online churches and faith groups). Increasingly, we give away our own privacy in pursuit of friends, followers, page views, and search rankings.

But power has not brought peace, consumerism has not brought satisfaction, and technology has not brought with it the authentic life we yearn to live.

We have separated our faith from our function as human beings, believing that we, too, can place absolute trust in power, money, and technology. By doing so, we are letting those things shape us.

Paul reminds us that we ought to be shaped by the radical good news that this world system, whether the Roman empire of the first century or the internet of the 21st century, are not the legitimate gods of this world. They are the pretenders, the interlopers, and the pale substitutes for that which is real.

If you want to know God, Paul says, look at Jesus. If you want to know who the creator of the world is look at Jesus. If you want to know who keeps the world turning, look at Jesus. If you want to know who’s in charge of everything, even the things that are not acting according to God’s plan, look at Jesus.

If you want to know where real peace comes from look at Jesus.

Despite the fact that misplaced trust in power, money, and technology are found in every culture on every continent, Paul says the good news about Jesus is also ubiquitous.

The question then becomes: Who do you trust? After all, the Roman empire is no longer a world power, is it?

Sermon: Re-digging Our Fathers’ Wells

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I am preaching this sermon on Father’s Day, June 16, 2013. I hope your Father’s Day celebration is wonderful. 

Re-digging Our Fathers’ Wells

Genesis 26:18 NIV

18 Isaac reopened the wells that had been dug in the time of his father Abraham, which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham died, and he gave them the same names his father had given them.

Today is Father’s Day

Today is Fathers’ Day. As often happens on this day, dads are served their favorite breakfast, presented with handmade cards that say things like, “You’re the greatest, Dad!” and, generally made to feel pretty special on this day.

The idea for a Father’s Day to balance the honoring of mothers on Mothers’ Day was the brainchild of Sonora Dodd of Spokane, Washington. In 1910, after noting the success of Mothers’ Day, Dodd proposed that a similar day to honor fathers be set aside. She suggested her own father’s birthday, but apparently her pastor did not have enough time to prepare a suitable sermon, and so the celebration was delayed until June 19, 1910, where at the YMCA of Spokane, Washington the first Father’s Day was observed.

Unfortunately, the designation of a special day for fathers failed to catch on like Mothers’ Day, but Dodd enlisted retailers who sold men’s clothing, tobacco, and other accessories in the effort to promote and establish a permanent holiday. Father’s Day observances grew, but it wasn’t until 1972 that President Richard Nixon signed a bill proclaiming this Sunday the official observance of Father’s Day here in the United States.

But beyond the ties, t-shirts, mugs, and other gifts dads receive on Father’s Day, and despite the fact that the celebration has serious commercial undertones, there is a significant point to Father’s Day. Father’s Day celebrates the best that our fathers, or those who acted in that role, bequeathed to us in their examples, words, instruction, guidance, and care.

The Legacy of Abraham, Isaac’s Father

The passage I have chosen today from Genesis 26:18 is a rather simple accounting of Isaac re-opening the wells that his father Abraham had dug previously. This brief and to-the-point verse tells a very interesting story.

“Isaac reopened the wells that had been dug in the time of his father Abraham, which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham died, and he gave them the same names his father had given them.” -Genesis 26:18 NIV

Here’s the background to this short verse. God had called Abraham out of the Ur of Chaldees. God’s plan was for Abraham to become the father of a great nation of people which we know as the Jews, and the nation of Israel. But when God called Abraham, he was already an old man, and his wife Sarah was old, too. They had no children of their own, and so the promise of God that Abraham would be the father of a great nation was one they both chuckled at on more than one occasion.

In addition to that, they tried to help God out. At Sarah’s urging, Abraham took her servant, Hagar, and fathered a child named Ishmael. They did things like that then, and it was perfectly acceptable because not to have an heir was to have no one to care for you in your old age.

But God’s plan was that Abraham, who was 100 years old, and Sarah, who was 90, would have their own natural biological child. Which they did, and they named him Isaac. And so God fulfilled his promise to give Abraham a son, and to make Abraham the father of a great nation.

Before Isaac was born, Abraham was on a journey with God, living a nomadic existence. Abraham, the Bible tells us, would eventually have great herds and flocks, and a large extended family and entourage that accompanied him. And of course, because they were in the desert and wilderness a lot, they always needed to be able to find water.

So, on one occasion Abraham had dug wells to provide water for his family and flocks. The king of the region, Abimelech, had servants who seized the wells Abraham had dug, claiming them as their own. At an opportune moment, Abraham confronted King Abimelech. Abimelech had already asked Abraham to deal fairly with him because his had noticed that God was taking care of Abraham.

Abraham made a deal with Abimelech. Abraham presented 7 sheep to Abimelech, and said to him, “By receiving these 7 sheep, you are acknowledging that I dug this well, and that it is mine.” Abimelech said, “Fine” and Abraham named the well Beersheba, which means “oath well.”

Now probably 50 or so years passed, and Abraham died. Isaac is now a grown man, and his wife Rebekah is the love of his life. But, a famine grips the land where they are living, and Isaac turns to the King of Gerar, Abimelech, just as his father Abraham has done. The King, perhaps remembering the encounter with Isaac’s father, invites Isaac to stay in Gerar rather than go down to Egypt.

Isaac settles down in Gerar, just like his father Abraham did, and re-digs the wells that his father Abraham had dug, and names the wells the same names that Abraham had used.

The story ends just like the story of Abraham’s wells ended: after having a squabble with some of the shepherds under Abimelech’s rule, they finally come to an agreement that Isaac can use the well he names Rehoboth. After that, Isaac repeats the action of his father Abraham — he goes up to Beersheba and worships God.

The Lesson of the Wells

So, this morning, on this Father’s Day, I’d like for us to focus for just a moment on what lessons we can learn from these stories about digging and re-digging wells. There are three main thoughts I want you to take home with you on this Father’s Day.

First, from our fathers, both biological and spiritual, we can learn important life lessons. I am sure that Abraham shared the story of how God had called him from the Ur of Chaldees, had promised to make him the father of a great nation, and of the story of how Isaac had been born to a couple most thought too old to have children.

I am sure that Abraham told Isaac the story of how one day God called on Abraham to take Isaac, who then was perhaps 10 years old or so, to Mount Moriah to sacrifice him. Of course, human sacrifice – even child sacrifice – was fairly common in that era. But I am sure that Abraham also told Isaac that he wondered at the command of God. Isaac was Abraham’s only hope for the fulfillment of God’s promise. If there was no Isaac, Abraham would not be a father, and could not become the father of a great nation. So, it must have all seemed very strange to Abraham.

However, I am also sure that Abraham told Isaac that story, and then told him how in the moment that Abraham lifted the knife to plunge it into Isaac’s chest, that God provided a ram as a substitute. Of course, Isaac was there, and I am sure relived those moments as Abraham retold the story.

Those wells that Abraham dug provided the water that made it possible for Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, their family, their servants, and their flocks to survive. That water from those wells that Abraham had dug were the source of life in an environment of death. Without that water, no one and nothing of Abraham’s would have survived.

Those wells symbolize, not just water, but all that Abraham had done in obedience to God, and all that God had done in providing for and protecting Abraham.

The digging of those wells required planning, effort, and concern and love for others. And just like Abraham’s obedience to God, those wells symbolized the ways in which Abraham sought to care for his family.

I am sure that if I asked you today, “What wells did your father dig that were examples to you of his care and love?” you could come up with many examples. The point is that what our fathers have done, whether they are our biological or spiritual fathers, in order to care for us is as important as it was for Abraham to dig the wells to provide water.

The second point I want to make today is this: We need to keep those examples alive, to re-dig those wells, so they can be a source of life to others.

This is exactly what Isaac did. Isaac followed the example of his father Abraham. He found refuge with the same king, in the same country, that his father Abraham had. And, Isaac re-opened the wells his father Abraham had dug for the same reason — to provide life-giving water to his family, his flocks, and for his crops.

In our changeable society, we tend not to value that which has gone before us like we once did. Tradition is often used in a derogatory manner, as in “let’s get rid of that old tradition and do something new.” Well, sometimes we do need to do something new, but not all the time.

If we do not value those who have gone before us, we miss the lesson of the wells and the example of our fathers. Debbie and I are watching a series about the life of John Adams, second president of the United States. What was glossed over in the history of our nation that we studied in school was the difficulty in establishing this nation as a free and independent country.

John Adams was convinced that the colonies must become independent. Others were not so convinced, and after much wrangling, and great disagreement and dissent, all thirteen colonies finally came together to declare independence from England. But many, like Adams, paid a high price for their convictions.

In Chinese culture, ancestors are revered. So much so, that the ancient practice of cleaning the bones of the dead ancestors was, and in some places still is practiced. Ancestors were believed to have made the lives of their descendants possible, and were thought to still be important in living a good and happy life.

While we don’t want to adopt Chinese ancestor worship, we do need to pay attention to the examples our forefathers, and mothers, have set for us. All tradition isn’t bad. If, for instance, we paid attention to the theological struggles of the early church, and learned from them, we wouldn’t continue to make the very same theological mistakes today.

When Isaac re-opened the wells his father Abraham had dug, he did it for very practical reasons, I imagine. First, the wells had been dug once, and so re-opening them wouldn’t be as hard as starting over.

Secondly, Isaac knew that if he dug where his father Abraham had dug, he would hit water. The water was still there, where Abraham his father had first found it. Re-digging those wells meant that the water would be there, and it would be available sooner that if they started from scratch.

Finally, when Isaac re-dug those wells, he knew the struggle he might have. Sure enough, 50 years later, Abimelech’s servants also tried to take Isaac’s wells, just as they had his father’s. But, Isaac had the experience of Abraham to inform his own experience. When Isaac was successful in not only opening, but laying claim to the well at Rehoboth, he followed the example of his father Abraham and acknowledged God’s role in providing for him.

However, Isaac not only dug the wells, but named them the same names that Abraham called them. My final point is that we need to not only re-open our fathers’ wells, we need to call them by the same names.

Now, here we’re sort of on our own because with a couple of exceptions, we don’t know the names of Abraham’s wells. But let’s extend our metaphor and assume that the names of the wells are the attributes and values of Abraham that we need to re-open for ourselves.

We could take Abraham’s example of good stewardship and reopen that well. After all, God blessed Abraham with flocks and family, and Abraham was blessed beyond his wildest imagination by God. But that’s not the most important well.

If we had to pick one well, one name, to re-dig then that well would be the well of faith. Over and over again, the Bible says, “Abraham believed God.”

Listen to Hebrews 11 from a completely different era, probably over 2,000 years after Abraham lived.

8 By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance,obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. 9 By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11 And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she[b] considered him faithful who had made the promise. 12 And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.

13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. 14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

17 By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, 18 even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.”[c] 19 Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.

If there is any well we need to re-open today, it is the well of faith. Abraham’s great gift to Isaac, to his offspring, to the first century church, and to us today is the example of faith. Abraham believed God when God called him out of paganism into obedience. Abraham believed God when God promised to make him the father of a great nation. Abraham believed God when God promised to make him, not only the father of a great nation, but the father of one little boy. Abraham believed God when God asked for that boy’s life back as a sacrifice. The writer of Hebrews tells us that Abraham reasoned that if he killed Isaac, that God could bring Isaac back from the dead, which is what would have had to happen for Abraham to have grandchildren, and great grandchildren, and to become the father of a great nation.

So, on this Father’s Day, let’s remember that our fathers have dug some wells that we still need. Let’s re-open the well of faith particularly, because it is at that well that we find living water.

 

Podcast: Everything Is Made New

In 2 Corinthians 5:6-17, the Apostle Paul reminds the church in Corinth that one day each of them will have to stand before the judgment seat of Christ. In other words, it does matter how we live our lives in this world. While faith in Christ secures our eternal destiny, just as it did Paul’s, how we live determines our reward when we enter the presence of God. But we do not have to live our lives in our own strength, for if we are “in Christ” we made new by the power of Christ. Our lives are lived for others, in ways that are pleasing to Christ now and in eternity. Here’s the link to my sermon titled, Everything Is Made New.

Baccalaureate Sermon: Standing Out From the Crowd

Last Thursday night I was asked to deliver the baccalaureate sermon at Hargrave Military Academy. About 340 seventh through twelfth graders are enrolled at Hargrave, and all were present for this last convocation of the school year. Here’s the message I shared with them.

Standing Out From The Crowd

Numbers 13:1-3, 26-33 NIV
The Lord said to Moses, 2 “Send some men to explore the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites. From each ancestral tribe send one of its leaders.”
3 So at the Lord’s command Moses sent them out from the Desert of Paran. All of them were leaders of the Israelites.

26 They came back to Moses and Aaron and the whole Israelite community at Kadesh in the Desert of Paran. There they reported to them and to the whole assembly and showed them the fruit of the land. 27 They gave Moses this account: “We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is its fruit. 28 But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large. We even saw descendants of Anak there.29 The Amalekites live in the Negev; the Hittites, Jebusites and Amorites live in the hill country;and the Canaanites live near the sea and along the Jordan. ”

30 Then Caleb silenced the people before Moses and said, “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.”

31 But the men who had gone up with him said, “We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are.” 32 And they spread among the Israelites a bad report about the land they had explored. They said, “The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. 33 We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.”

The Origin of Baccalaureate

It’s great to see you here tonight. Of course, you didn’t really have a choice about whether or not you were going to come tonight, but I’m still glad to see you. And, if it makes you feel any better, the original baccalaureate sermon was delivered in Latin…by the students who were graduating!

So, that should help you feel a little better about having to be here tonight. You just had to show up, unlike the kids at Oxford in 1432, when the baccalaureate sermon was thought to have originated.

Baccalaureate is made up of two Latin words — bacca, which means bachelor; and, laureate, which means laurels. The idea was that candidates for the bachelor’s degree would present laurels, or accolades of thanksgiving and gratitude, for the four years of learning required to finish college.

Tonight, rather than have all of you speak to us in Latin,  all you have to do is listen to me in English, so this shouldn’t be too hard for either of us.

An Old Testament Story with a Contemporary Point

The story that was read just a moment ago is from that beloved Old Testament book, Numbers. I’m sure you’ve spent many hours reading the book of Numbers and can quote entire passages from memory. Actually, believe it or not, lots of people think the Book of Numbers is a little boring. Well, maybe not math majors, but everybody else.

Anyway, the Book of Numbers is also called “In The Wilderness” in the Hebrew Bible, which makes a lot more sense. That’s actually where we pick up the story that was just read a moment ago. Here’s the scene:

This happened about 3,500 years ago. The nation of Israel — sometimes called “the children of Israel” because literally they were all descended from Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel — had just escaped from Egypt. In Egypt, they were slaves whose job was to make bricks for Pharaoh’s construction projects. Not great work, by any estimation, and Pharaoh liked the idea of free labor, so he was reluctant to let the Israelites leave.

But God chose Moses to confront Pharaoh, and after Pharaoh and the whole country of Egypt suffered 10 plagues, like swarms of locusts, rivers turning to blood, frogs everywhere, and so on, Pharaoh finally relented and let them go.

Now, fast forward a few months at least. The Israelites, which are somewhere between 300,000 and 2-million depending on who’s counting, have made their way to the land that God has promised to give them. That’s why it’s called The Promised Land. And you thought senior Bible was hard!

So, now they’re camping close to the land of Canaan. But before they go over, they decide it’s a good idea to do some recon. So, God tells Moses to select one man from every tribe — there were 12 tribes — and send them on a recon mission to spy out the land.

Now these were young guys, strong fellows, who were fit and strong. We know that because they bring back some of the fruit of the land. One cluster of grapes is so large that it takes two guys to carry it back strung on a branch between them.

So, when they get back to camp, everybody is excited. The 12 spies show everyone the grapes, the pomegranates, and other fruit they brought back. Then, the chairman of the committee of spies gives his report.

We don’t know who it is who gives the report, but he says, “Moses, you’re exactly right. The land you sent us to is great! Lots of produce, fertile land, great for growing crops and raising cattle and sheep. But there’s only one small problem. Other people already live there. And, they’re bigger than we are. They’re so big, we looked like grasshoppers compared to them. So, unfortunately, we can’t take the land because they’ll kill us.”  That is more or less what he said.

However, Caleb and Joshua don’t agree. Caleb speaks up and says, “Wait a minute. He’s right — this is a great land, no doubt about that. But he’s wrong about going in. We can do it. God promised it to us, and God will give it to us. We ought to go ahead!”

So, this is something of a democracy already, or at least they think it is. Ten-to-two, majority rule, nobody is moving into Canaan, grapes or not.

Not only that, but that night everybody in the camp, all 600,000 – 2,000,000 of them, starts complaining. “We should have stayed in Egypt,” some said. Others said, “Moses has brought us out here in the desert to die. We ought to go back to Egypt.” They even talk about stoning Moses and his brother to death and picking a new leader to take them back to Egypt.

Now remember Egypt is where God delivered them from. Egypt is where they were slaves. Egypt is where Pharaoh declared that all their boy babies should be killed to keep the Hebrews from rising up and overthrowing Pharaoh.

God has about all he can take, and all of a sudden, the glory of God fills the place. God says to Moses, “I’m tired of this. Has everyone forgotten all the miracles I did in Egypt to get them out?”

God says, “I’m going to spare their lives, but none of them who did not believe are going to see the Promised Land.”

So, for the next 40-years, until that unbelieving generation died, the nation of Israel wandered in the wilderness. Joshua and Caleb, the two original spies who believed God, finally led the people of Israel into the Promised Land and took it for their own.

Standing Out From The Crowd

The obvious point of this story is that the majority can be wrong. The ten spies who did not want to try to enter the Promised Land were wrong. Just because you’re in the majority, doesn’t make you right. The history of our own country tells that story. “The majority rules” may work in politics, but often in life it is those in the minority, people like Joshua and Caleb, who are in the right.

In a couple of days you’re going to graduate. You’ve worked hard for your diploma, and I congratulate you on your accomplishment. But this is only the beginning as you pass from this institution learning to other institutions higher learning. So, this is only one chapter in your life story.

The lesson I want you to take away tonight is that faith gives us the courage to stand up for what is right, to chart a different course, to make the lives of others better, to change the world.

But you don’t do that by going along to get along. You don’t change the world by doing what everyone else has done. You don’t make the lives of others better by simply preserving the status quo.

The Monkey Experiment

Let me tell you a story I think you’ll find interesting. In 1967, an experiment was published in the periodical, Progress in Primatology. In that experiment, researchers took 5 monkeys and placed them in a room with a banana hanging from the ceiling, and a ladder placed under the banana.

Apparently it is true that monkeys like bananas, so when the first monkey attempted to climb the ladder to get the banana and eat it, he was sprayed with cold water. Not only was he sprayed, but the other 4 monkeys were sprayed with cold water as well.

Monkeys apparently dislike being sprayed with cold water more than they like bananas, and so when the monkeys stopped trying to retrieve the banana, the researchers replaced one of the monkeys with a new monkey.

Now this new monkey sees the banana, and guess what, he immediately starts to climb the ladder. Only before he can get past the first step, the other monkeys jump on him, and beat him up. Of course, the new monkey doesn’t know why he’s being beat up, because he’s never been sprayed, but he quickly learns not to go for the banana.

Once the new monkey has learned his lesson, the researchers replaced another one of the original monkeys with another new monkey. Guess what happens? The new monkey goes for the banana, and the other monkeys jump on him and beat him up. Only this time, the first new monkey also joins in beating up the second new monkey. He doesn’t know why, but he’s quick to do what all the other monkeys are doing.

Once the second monkey has learned his lesson, the researchers replace a third monkey, then the fourth, and finally all five monkeys and been replaced. None of the monkeys tried to get the banana anymore, but they didn’t know why. None of the new monkeys had been sprayed, so they didn’t know the history of why going for the banana was dangerous. All of them simply gave up, and they didn’t know why.

Back To Egypt or Into The Promised Land?

My point is this: You can be like the monkeys who kept others from even trying to get the banana because you’re afraid of the consequences. Fear of failure is a paralyzing fear that keeps many from even attempting to do something new.

In other words, you decide if you want to go back to Egypt, or if you want to enter the Promised Land.

If you think you want to go to the Promised Land, there will be a lot of folks who will say you can’t. That you’ll fail. That there are too many obstacles out there. That no one has ever done that before.

But if you listen to the voice of God, the voice that says to you, “I haven’t brought you this far to fail. I love you and have a great plan for your life,” then you’ll do what others said can’t be done. You’ll succeed where others see only failure. You will find God’s plan for your life, not for someone else’s, and you will do what God is calling you to do.

That’s what Father Greg Boyle did. After serving for two years as the associate pastor at Dolores Mission in Los Angeles, California, Father Greg became the pastor. In 1986, Los Angeles was considered the gang capital of the United States, and Father Greg’s neighborhood was ground zero. There were 10 gangs consisting of over 10,000 members in Father Greg’s community.

But, against the advice of others, Father Greg decided that somebody ought to love those gang members with what he called “boundless compassion.” So, Dolores Mission opened its doors to gang members.

At first, the gang members just used the church as a place to hang out. Father Greg didn’t mind that so much. He figured if they were at the church, they weren’t somewhere else causing trouble. But so many kids had been kicked out of public schools for gang activity, that Father Greg started an alternative school for gang members. Their first principal lasted one day.

But eventually things settled down. Father Greg stayed busy brokering peace deals between rival gangs, while also running the school. But what the neighborhood really needed was jobs, he thought. Even small time drug dealers weren’t going to give up their livelihood if they had nothing to replace it.

Gradually, Father G, or “G” as most gang members call him, started finding jobs for kids who had left their gangs. G got some doctors involved who were willing to remove gang tattoos, making job applicants more appealing to potential employers. Gradually, Father Greg’s “Jobs for the Future” program began to pay off. Dozens of gang members, more than they could handle came to Dolores Mission looking for work.

So, Father Greg started Homeboy Bakery, taking over an abandoned bakery in the neighborhood. Eventually, Homeboy Bakery spun off Homegirl Cafe, where former gang girls worked as waitresses. More businesses were created, and a kind of conglomerate, Homeboy Industries was formed as the umbrella organization.

Today, Homeboy Industries has helped thousands of LA county gang members leave the gang life, and start a new life. With that kind of story, you’d think everyone would have supported Father Greg. But Father Greg had his own “back to Egypt” committee working against him, too.

When they first started working with gang members, Father Greg encountered lots of opposition from citizens in Los Angeles who believed helping any gang member would only encourage more gang activity. After Father Greg wrote an editorial for the LA Times, the offices of Homeboy Industries received several death threats, and a couple of bomb threats.

Of course, looking back, Father Greg’s story is a success, and Homeboy Industries has become a model for the country in gang intervention. But if Father Greg had listened to those who were sure he would fail, to those who were convinced that gang members couldn’t change, then there would be no Homeboy Industries today.

So tonight, as you anticipate graduation, as you face your future, I want you to know that you can find God’s plan for your life. You can be what God is calling you to be. But it will not always be easy. Not everyone will support you. Some might even try to discourage you from following the dream that God gives to you.

When that happens, just remember Caleb and Joshua. Their’s are the only names we remember from that story. They believed God had something for them to do. They believed that they could stand out from the crowd. You can, too. That’s my prayer for you tonight. May God bless you and guide you.