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No Thanks, Hippomenes

August 15, 2016

“No Thanks, Hippomenes” Hebrews 11:29-12:4 © 8.14.16 Ordinary 20C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

The last thing she wanted was to be married. Rather than put up with a husband, Atalanta preferred to spend her days at the gym or dress in camo and go hunting with a bow or a gun whatever was in season. Besides, she was so busy with her guide business and product endorsement ads that she had no time for a relationship, even if she desired one.

Still, guys couldn’t resist her. Her Facebook inbox was always full; she was constantly deleting text messages from her many admirers. She had hundreds of followers on Twitter. Finally, besieged by so many offers of marriage, she decided to stage an event to deal with all the annoying men clamoring for her hand. The word went out on a special website and through the other usual channels that Atalanta would marry the man who could beat her in a footrace. The losers, however, would suffer death at her hand. One of the cable networks would be there making the whole thing into a reality special.

Young male arrogance and bravado being what they are, especially when ramped up by raging testosterone, lust, and energy drinks, there were plenty of competitors, even given the consequences of losing. Of course, they all got left in the dust, and they all died.

One competitor got lost on the way to the track, since, like so many of us men, he was unwilling to ask for directions. His name was Hippomenes, and he knew he needed help if he were going to go on the date from hell and survive. So he prayed to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, to give him an edge. Three golden apples would do the trick, she told the desperate young man; just throw them off the path, and Atalanta wouldn’t be able to resist them.

Sure enough, the distractions worked. And Atalanta, being a woman of honor, kept her promise, even though her opponent cheated. She and Hippomenes were married. They later met a rather terrible fate together, but that’s another story.

We might say today that Atalanta was not true to her personal mission and values. She allowed what the late Stephen Covey called the “urgent and unimportant” to make her lose focus on her goal, namely, staying single. In other words, other people—Hippomenes and Aphrodite—set the agenda for Atalanta’s life. Hers is the literally classic case of the costly consequences of becoming distracted.

Today, the ghost of Hippomenes, going by different names, still races alongside us, trying to lure us away from the path toward our goal. His golden apples are inscribed “past,” “present,” and “future.” And they can quickly morph into golden calves, changing from mere distractions into deadly idols, as distraction becomes destruction. And when we dance around them, our sin is not eating, drinking, and rising up to play, but inappropriate and/or unproductive focus. That would be any thought, attitude, action or word that keeps us from running faithfully and well the race set before us. Anything that turns our attention aside from the goal of becoming like Jesus, who has already crossed the finish line and waits to welcome us as his victorious people.

If the shining orb that attracts us is the past, maybe we think the present has little worthwhile to offer. Like the minister who told a presbytery in the 1990s that there had been nothing written worth reading since 1958. Or perhaps we say that the solutions to present problems are found in a return to old practices. Like the former Sunday school teacher in Kentucky who told me many times that the problem with the church today was that children no longer memorized the Shorter Catechism. Could be we believe our own past, our upbringing, is the standard by which all truth and practice should be measured. Yes, the answers we seek may be in our corporate or personal past. But they may not. Or we might need to reach even deeper into the past than the nineteenth or the seventeenth century and reclaim ancient wisdom and ways. The apple labeled “yesterday” is marvelously beautiful and attractive. So it takes a great deal of discernment to know whether we’re still on the path, having simply noted the beauty of the sphere shining in the brush, or whether we’re now into the woods and standing there admiring this pretty thing in our hand, oblivious to the race going on a few yards away.

Or maybe we aren’t so much attracted to the past as to the present. There the apples come in at least three varieties: the Trendy, the Proper Wording, and the Hot Button.

Those who are attracted by the powerfully pointed beam coming from the Trendy stray from the path to get it because those who possess this fruit enjoy the benefits of the latest technology and hottest bands in their Sunday services. Their pastor’s books are bestsellers at Wal-Mart and on Amazon. Of course, that’s in the dominant evangelical church. In the old mainline, now offline, churches, our love of the Trendy comes from the knowledge of the latest lightly baptized management and analytical techniques it promises its owners.

And the Proper Wording offers its benefits as well. Like precision. A step-by-step guide on how to do anything in the church. Exclusion of other viewpoints so that uncertainty is removed. And best of all, the banishment of doubt as to whether you’re doing all things decently and in order.

The Hot Button, though, is the most exciting of these three. Just holding it in your hand gets your blood pumping. You gain the ability to make long speeches condemning in the names of Jesus and Calvin or whoever your hero is the moral decay of the church and the culture. In addition, you can identify with crystal clarity those to blame and encourage action against them, all the while never for a moment being aware of your own failings.

But all these contemporary apple varieties have the same worm in them. Whatever they promise, they in fact disconnect us from our neighbors, on behalf of whom we run this race. And they detach us from our best purpose, given to us and modeled for us by Jesus.

So the past and present may keep us from running faithfully and well the race before us. But so might the future. When we moved into our home in Starkville a little over fourteen years ago, there was a large holly at the corner of the front porch. We let it go for a time, but then decided it needed some reduction and shaping up. We had allowed it to get so big I had to climb a ladder in order to do the trimming. At one point, I was trying to position the ladder, which was proving very uncooperative and getting caught in the lower branches of the tree. My eyes were on the top of the ladder and not where I was putting my feet, as usual. I’m extremely clumsy—always have been—so my foot got stuck in the plastic extension coming off the front downspout. It took Susan and me (mostly Susan!) what seemed an eternity to extract me.

I was focused on the future task of cutting branches and paid the consequences in the present. So accomplishing my objective was actually delayed.

The congregation and/or denomination concerned with its survival above all else is focused obsessively on the future. If we get stuck, if our projects keep being dead on arrival and endlessly delayed, it may be that our worry over tomorrow has actually debilitated us. Our Lord’s call is to undertake mission in the here and now, to look at the world around us and see where he is leading us now, to be aware of our neighbor’s needs today, not to get caught up in what-ifs, bogging down in endless new plans for survival. As an elder in a failing, conflicted church told his session, which was fighting about many internal issues: “You know, if ya’ll would just do the Lord’s work, all this would take care of itself.” Or as that very Lord said, “the ones who try to save their lives will lose them, but those who lose them for my sake will find them.” And, “seek first the kingdom, and all these things will be added to you.”

So what was, what is, and what is to come can and do distract us from our calling, our focus, our best effort. But thanks be to God the past, present, and future can also be, and they are, powerful lenses that focus our attention on what God is doing among us and in us.

The past sharpens our focus by giving us hope. The collective experience of the saints through the ages around the world testifies to the faithfulness of God. But we need not look to the history books for examples that will help us. I once heard a wonderful question asked of two ministers coming into a presbytery. Each was encouraged to name his “personal saints.” Who, then, are our personal saints whose example and focus in the face of distraction now give us hope that we can do the same? Who are the corporate saints of this congregation? We can readily think of names. Remembrance of the past and the perseverance and preservation of the saints can alleviate our fear and thus make room for love, which casts out fear.

But if God is at work in the past through the experience of the saints, he is also active right now. I want to mention two signs I see that God’s Spirit is moving in the present. On this Sunday when we highlight the contributions of college students, I particularly think of the dedicated service they render. Let me note for your information first that our campus ministries these days are branded as “UKirk.” UKirk Ole Miss has gone to Haiti the past few years during spring break. The students stay in a village in the poverty-stricken nation and work with a school, a church, and a clinic run by a doctor who has formed a partnership with First Church in Oxford. The young men and women have to contribute $300 of their own money toward the cost of the trip and raise the remainder of the financial support. The rest of the year, the students volunteer for local community service projects, like their effort last semester to collect canned food for the local food bank, with a challenge to other SEC schools to do the same. Their reports are one of the few bright spots in our presbytery meetings these days. They are a reminder that in the midst of all the ugliness of lawsuits, church departures, financial cutbacks, and general malaise, mission to our neighbors in the name of Christ still happens.

The other reason I believe God is active in the present is that there are still people who inspire us by their example. We don’t have to look far from home for such folk of any generation, but today, since we’re highlighting young adults, let me share with you the story of Kate Foster. According to a news report I saw, she started gymnastics when she was six years old, but at age 11, she started feeling sick. Kate was diagnosed with leukemia. The chemo wiped out her immune system, and she got infections which eventually resulted in the amputation of her left leg. Of course, when she heard she had to lose her leg, she was devastated. “I actually told them no,” she says. “They were not going to take off my leg…. Then I came to my senses. I knew, and my family knew, that it was my leg or my life.”

The gymnastics she loved seemed impossible then, but her coach said she was willing to try with Kate. Back at the gym on her 13th birthday, Kate started with conditioning and strength training. Once fitted with a prosthetic, she started working on events again.

Now a senior in high school, she competes with able-bodied gymnasts on bars and beam. The rules are not changed for her benefit, and that’s how Kate likes it. Her dad says: “She’s the epitome of ‘It doesn’t matter what bump in the road you hit, you can still make things work.’” Cancer-free now, Kate wants to be doctor, bringing her experiences to the field and repaying the doctors who saved her life by helping others. Plenty of people find her story inspiring. A video of her routine from last January has now been viewed on Facebook more than five million times (http://www.cnn.com/2016/08/04/health/turning-points-kate-foster/ ).

But if past and present focus our attention on the work of God, so does the future. I say that because I believe the Creator inspires the human imagination for good. There is always more that God may do in us and through us.

Visionary investor Paul Allen is one of those in whom God is at work to move us into tomorrow, though Allen may not realize or acknowledge it. At the beginning of this century, this co-founder of Microsoft put up $25 million through his family foundation for a new radio telescope array in northern California. Its purpose is to search for regular pulses emanating from the vicinity of sun-like stars, pulses that would signal the presence of intelligent life. Late in the last decade, Allen said: “‘I’m someone who likes to invent what the future of science and technology looks like’” (Time, 10/22/07: 15; http://www.seti.org/seti-institute/project/details/fact-sheet ). His investment in imagination gets us asking questions about our identity and our connectedness. For people of faith, those are ultimately inquiries about the purpose of God.

But if an individual businessman is an agent of imagination, so also can or ought to be the Church, the worldwide  body of believers. Commenting on predictions about the future of religion, Professor Carol Zaleski writes: “my bets are on the religion of the past—not the ‘halfway house between belief and disbelief’ that [one philosopher] justly criticizes, but the ancient household of faith. When I’m feeling hopeful about the future, I imagine a revival of full-strength religious traditions, a consequent rebirth of the arts, literature, and culture, and a world in which people of all faiths make common cause against poverty, violence, broken families, and disease. When my thoughts run to future disasters, I imagine a global religious awakening in response” (“Prophets of Imagined Futures,” The Christian Century, 8.3.16: 35).

The common thread that runs through past, present, and future is how God works through specific, real people in a particular place and time. Like you. Like me. We and our neighbors face the challenges and distractions common to all humankind, as well as those unique to our chosen mission and our community of faith. But we all also have opportunities that arise from our gifts; the needs of our neighbors; and the unique energy, intelligence, imagination, and love that come from the combination of talents, viewpoints, and backgrounds in a particular place.

But if God has chosen to work through ordinary folk like you and me, he supremely, most effectively, and finally works in one person, namely, Jesus. The Author. The Finisher. The One Who Endures. The Victorious Runner. It is he that is and must be our one Focus; our Goal; the Image we gaze upon intently; the Icon that embodies our hopes, our destiny, our best purpose and intentions, our power, our potential, our past, our present, our future. He promises a glorious outcome to our struggles, a life with God beyond whatever may trouble us; challenge us; and yes, distract us.

So, no thanks, Hippomenes. we’ll take golden streets over golden apples any day.

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