Sermon: Living Happily Ever After
Scripture: 1 Kings 2: 1-11; 2 Timothy (selected)
Date: August 30, 2015
I’m sure that many of you have seen on the news that an Indy Car racer was killed last week as the result of an accident in a race on Sunday. Given the incredible danger of the sport, deaths and serious injuries are really surprisingly rare. When I was a little boy, we lived about ½ mile from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. We lived so close that during the month of May we could hear the sound of the engines as they practiced every day for the big race. And on race day they were so loud it seemed like they were racing down our street. I remember in 1964, I was playing with some friends in the vacant lot near our house on Memorial Day, pretending our bikes were race cars, while the race was happening and suddenly things got quiet at the track and we looked in the direction of the track and saw a huge cloud of black smoke rising into the air and we knew that something terrible had happened. And sure enough there had been a wreck and two drivers had been killed. Most years, my family would go to the first day of qualifying instead of the race. My mom would pack a picnic lunch and we would go and sit in the stands on the first turn and watch the cars zoom past. After Karen and I were married, I introduced her to Indianapolis and for several years we would drive up and spend the night and go to the first day of qualifying. When Anna came along we would take her with us, and there were one or two years that we even took my mom and dad back with us. When we kids would race our bikes in the spare lot we would pretend to be our favorite driver and I would always choose to be Parnelli Jones. He was my favorite. I suppose I liked him because he won the race in 1963, which was the first year we lived in Speedway and the first year that I can remember knowing anything about the race. In 1967, Parnelli Jones introduced a new car to Indianapolis. It was a turbine powered car. It looked like it had an airplane jet engine strapped to the side of it and it sounded like it too. But it was faster then all the other cars. In fact, it was the fastest car that had ever run on that track up to that point in time. All during the month of May, that turbine car was the talk of Indianapolis. Parnelli Jones was the favorite to win the race. Some of the other drivers admitted that they could not compete with the turbine and unless something went wrong with the car, Jones would win the race handily. And Jones led the entire race. Nobody could catch him. Victory lane was prepared for the arrival of the turbine. The experts called it a revolution in motor racing. But with less than two laps to go, less than five of five hundred miles remaining something in the turbine broke and Jones was unable to finish the race. The next year, new rules limited the size and intake of the engines, making the turbine obsolete and today, what people remember about the Turbine was not the fast speeds it posted, but the fact that it could not finish the race. Now that wasn’t the first or last time that a driver lost the biggest race of all because they were unable to finish the last lap. In fact in the very first race in 1912, a man by the name of Ralph DePalma, led the entire race and when he began the last of the 200 laps, he was a full 8 laps ahead of the second place driver. But with a mile to go, his car stopped. And DePalma and his mechanic (the mechanics rode in the cars in those days) jumped out of the car and pushed it the last mile to the finish line. However, in the meantime, the second place driver caught up and passed DePalma and later DePalma was disqualified. Apparently pushing the car across the finish line doesn’t count. I thought about that the other day when I was watching a NASCAR race and with a couple of laps to go the first and second place cars ran out of gas, allowing a driver who thought he had no chance, to win simply because he was able to finish the race. In a race, it’s not so much how you start that’s important, it’s how you finish the race that counts. And isn’t that true in life also. Often times the quality of our life is defined, not by how we started, but how we end. It is important to finish well. In fact, I would be so bold to say that God’s desire for all of us, is that no matter what obstacles we face in the race of life, that we end well. That we all live happily ever after. Do you remember the story of the Olympic distance runner from England, Derek Redmond who was a favorite in the 400 meters but in a semifinal heat he ruptured a tendon in his leg and collapsed. But he was intent on finishing the race, so he tried to get up a couple of times and continue, but each time he collapsed again. His father was watching all of this from the stands and much to everyone’s amazement, he jumped over the wall and before anyone could stop him, ran to his son, helped him stand, and with his son leaning on him, they made their way to the finish line. “Let’s finish this together” the father said to his son. Finishing well is so important. And sometimes to do that we need our heavenly Father to help us up and to wrap His arms around us and say to us, “Let’s finish this together.”
In the passage that we read from Kings, David is trying to finish well. His incredible life is nearly done. Along the way he had been a shepherd boy, a giant slayer, a revolutionary, a king, a sinner, a poet, a military man and a great leader. He had established himself among the people of Israel as the ideal king and even today, some 3000 years later, many of the Jewish people look for a Messiah, a Savior that would come from David’s lineage. Of course, Christians believe that Messiah has already come in Jesus Christ, who was of David’s lineage. And now, after all of that, he was concerned about ending well. And so, an old man now, he offered these words of counsel to his son and successor, Solomon. “I am about to go the way of the earth” he says, “so, my son, it’s time to prove that you’re a man. Keep the charge of the Lord your God.” As I have been thinking about the fact that this is the last Sunday of “active” ministry (I hate that term) for two of our pastors, Don Cutter and Lowell Langefeld, who are re-retiring, I have been doing a lot of thinking about what it looks like to end well. It seems to me that they are our modern day examples of what David was saying to Solomon. And as I was reading these words of David to his son, I remembered that night more than thirty years ago now, when I was ordained as a minister in the United Methodist Church. I’m sure Lowell was there, probably thinking I can’t believe we’re ordaining Mark Girard. I have shared before, the preacher at that service was one of the greatest preachers I have ever heard, Bishop Kenneth Goodsen. Bishop Goodsen had just recently retired and I remember him saying that he had “fought retirement with every fiber of his being”. But then in talking to those of us who were just starting in ministry, for whom retirement seemed like a lifetime away, he used the words of Paul to his young protege Timothy whom he considered his son in the faith, just before he was forced into permanent retirement in a Roman prison. Like David, Paul was an old man. And it was from a jail cell in Rome, he wrote these words: “Timothy, my son, keep what has been entrusted to your care.” It was Paul’s desire to end well.
I have never forgotten Bishop Goodsen’s words to me as I began my ministry and I have tried throughout my ministry to “keep” what he entrusted to me that night. And so as I read, David’s words and recalled Paul’s words to Timothy, and thought about Pastors Lowell and Don, and the fact that my own retirement is only a few years away now, that distant lifetime of that June night in 1982 now seeming not that long ago really, I was filled all over again with a profound awareness of the faith that has been passed from one generation to the next for thousands of years, and is now entrusted to my care and yours. A whole lot of ministry and wisdom and devotion and experience are retiring here today. And so as I was reflecting on retirement and ending well, I thought it might be a good time to remind one another of the words that both David and Paul left for their “children”. Because I think that both of these incredible old men, and I mean David and Paul when I say old and not Lowell and Don, really had a broader constituency in mind. Their words are words to be embraced by the ages by people of faith.
And so first, they tell us to be strong. David says to Solomon: be strong and prove yourself a man. And Paul echoes these words when he writes: You, therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. Both David and Paul knew what strength it took to be people of faith in a world that was often hostile toward that faith. David had endured great personal tragedy in his life. The death of one son and the betrayal of another. Paul had been beaten and stoned and shipwrecked and frequently run out of town and now was facing his own death at the hands of the Romans. Both of them deserved to end well and be heard. Sometimes it takes great strength to be people of faith. Both Lowell and Don have been strong people of faith throughout their lives. And their witness among us for these years should collectively remind us that not only does it take great individual strength to remain faithful but it takes great strength to be a vital church in the world in which we live. In preparing for this message I read an article about the first Indianapolis 500 race and in that article the writer made this interesting observation. He wrote:
Ralph DePalma could not have imagined that to finish the Indianapolis 500, he would need to get out of his car and push the dead weight vehicle across the finish line using his own power and strength. The car was supposed to provide forward progress on its own. It was an automobile. Self-propelled. (But) this is often how we approach life. We expect life to carry us along. We think that life is a stream upon which we flow and go. We think that life carries us, we don’t carry life.
And in those times, we can look at our way of life and just talk about how blessed we are. But there are times when the waters get rough, and things breakdown. And we need to be strong. That’s certainly true in the church. In the course of their ministry, there have been times I’m sure when both Lowell and Don have felt the need to get out and push the church towards the desired finish. And there are significant challenges ahead even for a wonderful church like St. Luke as we figure out how to compensate for the holes in our ministry that these two have filled so well. It’s going to be hard to say goodbye to the kind of leadership that these two have provided for us on a day to day basis for the last several years. It will be hard as a church to adjust to doing things differently, especially in the area of Pastoral Care. Change is inevitable. But change itself is neither good or bad. It’s what we do with the changes that define us. As a church we’ll need to be strong. But I have no doubt that we are up to it, just as David knew that Solomon was up to it, and Paul knew that Timothy would be strong in the faith. There are so many times in scripture that God counseled his chosen ones to be strong.
Being people of faith, being the church, requires strength, often time strength that is greater than we think we possess. One writer says this:
Our sphere of influence may be in the home where we are raising the next generation. It may be in the community where we volunteer to make the world a better place. It may be in the office, or at school. But all of the positions, some great, some small, (where faith is lived out) require strength. It requires a willingness to admit mistakes. It requires believing in something.
It requires that we be strong. No matter what is weighing us down, it cannot begin to match the strength of God. Be strong, is the first word that David and Paul share with those who will come after them. And where will that strength come from. Both are sure that such strength comes only from God.
And then secondly, David and Paul admonish their “sons” to have courage. Paul says to Timothy, God has not given us a spirit of fear (some translations say a spirit of timidity), but of power and love and a sound mind. When God calls Joshua into ministry, He says to him: Be courageous, be very courageous, be courageous. He repeats the word courageous three times and in Biblical language, repeating something three times says this is absolute truth. To be people of faith in today’s world, to be the church, we must have great courage. Now sometimes we confuse courage with a lack of fear. But I prefer the definition of courage which says it is “the drive to go on even when we are afraid.” Mark Twain once said that “Courage is not the absence of fear. It is acting in spite of it.” God often calls people of faith to some scary places. I can’t imagine how many times in their ministries Don and Lowell have found themselves in some uncomfortable, even scary situations. And so it is with the ministry of the church. And without courage the church can sometimes become paralyzed out of fear. Often times it’s the fear of failure that binds us. Or the fear of the unknown. And so we don’t keep moving forward. I remember having a conversation with a District Superintendent about the church I was serving at the time and he said to me, “This is a church without fear.” But I think perhaps he meant that it was a courageous church, a church that was willing to take risks to advance the Kingdom of God. I love it that one of the values that St. Luke shares is the understanding that vital, life changing ministry requires the willingness to take some risks. St. Luke is a courageous church. Willing to step out in faith. We’re doing that even now with a new ministry in the downtown area of Lexington, ministering to young adults who have essentially dropped out of church for one reason or another. We don’t know if it will be successful, but we do know that God is calling us to try. So even as we go through this time of transition, we will continue on an exciting path. We are not always clear which way to go but courage does not say that we act only when the way is clear. One writer says this: Courage can’t see around corners, but goes around them anyway. We can’t always see the way ahead in our faith journey, but as a church we must keep moving forward, sometimes into the unknown. Have courage. Surely part of the witness that Pastor Lowell and Pastor Don have given us is a legacy of courageous ministry.
And then the final word that David and Paul share with their “children” and so with us is the most important. Be faithful. David says to Solomon – “keep the charge of the Lord your God, walk in His ways, keep his commandments and statutes.” Because what David and Paul had both learned was that strength and courage comes only from and through faith in God. When Paul says to Timothy that he is to keep what has been entrusted to your care, it is this faith that he has in mind. In the end, even when his strength is failing and perhaps his courage is waning, Paul is able to finish well. Because he writes: I have kept the faith. So finally there is laid up for me that Crown of Righteousness. In other words he has ended well and now faces that place of happily ever after. Max Lucado writes this of Paul’s words to Timothy:
I have kept the faith. They have taken everything else. They have taken His freedom – he’s locked in a Roman prison.
They have taken his possessions – he hasn’t even a shawl to keep him warm.
They have taken his churches – he will not see them again.
They have taken his future – he is sentenced to die.
What do you have left, Paul?
What do you have left to show for your life?
Had you stayed a Jew in Jerusalem, you’d have a seat of status and a house of retirement. Had you been more compromising, less courageous, you might have gone unnoticed by the Romans. Had you been less passionate, you might have pastored a church and stayed in one city. But you were too convinced to compromise – too convicted to stay home.
And now with the verdict rendered and the end in sight, what do you have left?
The old apostle leans forward with eyes on fire and say, “I have kept the faith.” In the end it cost him everything. For in the end, all he had was his faith. But then in the end, his faith was all he needed.
And because of that Paul ended well. He lived happily ever after. And so did David. Their lives had been far from perfect, but they had ended well. Now certainly, just because they are re-retiring from their official roles in the church, does not mean that the ministries of Lowell and Don, are ending. As long as they are among us, teaching and living their faith in our midst, they will continue to minister to us. But even so, Paul’s words to Timothy, and David’s words to Solomon, should constantly be in the mind and heart of all of us who are their spiritual descendants. Because more than just words to these individuals, they are surely words for us in the church. Be strong. Have courage. And above all, keep the faith. Keep that which has been entrusted to you. We are thankful to Don and Lowell for living lives of strength and courage and faith among us. This phase of your ministry has ended well and now you begin a new phase. Well done, good and faithful servants. Thanks for all you’ve done to build up the church of Jesus Christ collectively and our lives individually. Because of your presence among us, we all have a much greater possibility of “living happily ever after.”