It is not an attitude of safety that led us to take a team of students from here to Peru last May to work with some of the poorest of the poor in Peru. It’s the middle of an economic global depression, giving is down across the board, travel is always a risk and the swine flu has arrived. People were thinking: are you sure you heard God right, to take a team of students to Peru? Apparently, the fundraising goal was reached and surpassed, children were ministered to, a well was dug that was not planned, people were loved, and construction was completed. None of it would have happen if we would have played it safe.
Let me introduce you to my friend, Caesar, from Peru. I’m sitting here between projects, waiting for the next assignment and he starts combing through my hair like a monkey looking for things in another monkey’s hair. He tells Analisa, our translator, that I am too young to have white hair and starts to yank them out for me. Yeah, thanks Caesar. Had we played it safe, I never would have met my little monkey friend!
This semester, we are exploring toxic attitudes in our lives, those things that work their way into our lives like deadly vines, that might be good but become so twisted and so distorted the attitude actually needs to be purged from our lives. Last Sunday we talked about toxic belief; if your beliefs, in particular about Jesus, are not lived out, they become toxic, something that does nothing to affect how you live your life. In the future we will explore toxic attitudes like self-centeredness, commitment-phobia and issues in relationships, dating and guy/girl differences. Vicky will actually join me for a few weeks because I still have things to learn about how girls work! And now there are two in my house.
Today, our toxic attitude is playing it safe. In the book The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe, Lucy asks Mr. & Mrs. Beaver about Aslan the Lion (the Christ figure in the book) “Is Aslan safe?” The response: “Safe?! Of course he isn’t safe! But he is good.” There are many ways we can play it safe with our Christianity and perpetuate the idea that God is not just safe but in fact very tame. We never tell anyone we follow Jesus for fear of being marked weird; playing it safe. We never step outside our comfort zone to help those who really need our help; playing it safe. We don’t do what we know in our hearts God is calling us to do; playing it safe. Our God is not an awesome God but a cowardly insurance agent instead.
Ironically, some college students are the most notorious risk-takers of all. Many college athletes will push their bodies beyond the breaking point, risking serious injury for a good season on the court or field. The risk factor can also go in a further toxic and dangerous direction. The risk can involve binge drinking, sometimes to the point of alcohol poisoning, leading to dangerous sexual behavior and reckless driving. Reckless driving usually does not even need alcohol to happen! I’m talking to a room of risk-takers but the risk goes into the wrong things, things that are not eternal and do not ultimately satisfy. Is there a different way to channel the risk better?
We need to develop a healthy attitude of risk and trouble-making because the life of following Jesus, the life of faith, has much more to do with risk than with safety. You can follow Jesus by being safe but I would argue that is one reason why churches all over, the one of which I am apart included, has lost members ever since it began in 1968. We talk about a God who is tame and does not ask much of us at all. We find in our story this morning that God in fact asked much from the Israelite people and urged them to take a huge risk to win the Promised Land. Most of the people did not want to do it.
The book of Numbers is one that many people flip past, because, let’s face it, there is a census of the Israelite people in it. Pages and pages of name after name that does not make for the best reading by any stretch. I think, though, it gives us a very practical take on what it means to be the people of God. Not only do we pray together and learn how to be the people of God together, God’s work includes organizational help in counting the people, making sure the resources get to the people that need them and make sure everyone is counted in the order. Accurate math is a godly profession as well!
In the midst of lists of people and supplies, we get some very powerful stories. Today our story is about the Israelites exploring the long-awaited Promised Land. Moses has led the people out of slavery in Egypt, across deserts and seas and through violent lands. Here is one possible route that they may have taken to orient us in the story. They have bickered and fought and wanted to go back into slavery because it was easier than this life. Finally the land is within sight and he sends scouts to explore the land and to put together a plan to take the land that God had promised the people so many years ago.
The people come back and the land is better than they even imagined. It is flowing with milk and honey, meaning it is great for their pastoral, as in pastures of animals, lifestyle with ample water. But there is a major problem: there is no way they can conquer it! The land is filled with giants! There are fortified cities, positions, and people way bigger and stronger than they are. You can bet there were people who wanted to go back to Egypt after hearing everyone say it is impossible.
Everyone but one person: Caleb. But Caleb tried to quiet the people as they stood before Moses. “Let’s go at once to take the land,” he said. “We can certainly conquer it” (Numbers 13:30). Caleb was one of the few people who believed they could do it. God promised them years before that God would give them this land and he was not going to give up on God. Everyone else on the scouting team does however and spread (gossip) the majority report, the bad one, that there are giants and there is no way they could take it.
And here we have it: a choice to play it safe or take a risk. In this case, God is encouraging and urging the risk. God promised the Israelites the land and promised God would be with them in all that they do. There is no reason for them to fear unless they did not ultimately trust God would be with them and live up to the promises God made. You can bet Caleb endured some ancient peer pressure to join the majority report and get off this bandwagon of taking the land.
Being a follower of God and in particular Jesus has always carried with it some kind of counter-cultural element. I’m not talking about this very basic “yes I believe in Jesus but that is as far as it goes pop culture” Christianity but the “reorder my life because I live it” Christianity. From simply believing in God, that is not popular in some circles, to spending your spring break working with poor folks in Mexico to keeping standards like not having sex before you are married (I just saw a report this last week that 93% of young adults engage in some kind of sex before marriage so, yeah, making that commitment is REALLY counter-cultural), following Jesus can make you stick out like a sore thumb!
This morning, how is God asking you to be like Caleb? What kind of risk is God asking you to take today? Maybe you don’t believe any of this stuff at all but are curious so check out one of the many group offered. Maybe God is asking you to simply be honest and authentic that, yes, you indeed do follow Jesus. Maybe you run with a team or a group that doesn’t consider it cool and you simply say I do. You don’t stand on the street with a bullhorn calling other people to follow you but simply become honest and authentic about who you are. I dare say being honest and authentic wins more people to Jesus than all the bullhorns you could ever put together.
Maybe God wants you to take the next step in your faith. God might be calling you to join a small group (not even a ministry group!), here on campus or in the community at large. Maybe God wants you to take a risk to take one of these trips you’ve heard so much about to see the world and to grow outside your own comfort zone. As we share in communion in just a few minutes, take a few minutes to pray and to reflect on what risk God wants you to take this year.
The rest of the story is rather depressing. The people do not enter the land; the majority report wins. God in fact says they cannot enter the land for 40 years, the time it takes the stubborn and resistant generation to die off. Can you imagine the regrets that would have been shared during those decades? “You know, Caleb was right; at least it certainly would have been better to try to take the land than simply to not try at all and sit around in the desert just waiting to die for 40 years! Imagine the pain of being so close you can see and taste the good thing that God has promised you for years and then you simply reject it out of hand.
What would it have been like to be the last person from that generation with everyone just waiting for you to die? By the way, Caleb did get to enter the land because he was willing to take the risk and faithful to God’s promises.
Students, as you are deciding majors, minors and career paths, Caleb’s story has a word to say about regrets and the path not chosen. Please do not choose a career path simply because you will make lots of money to get lots of stuff. You need to choose a career because you are passionate about the work! When I was deciding what to major in at college, some people gave me that advice to work with computers because it is a huge field, you will make lots of money, and have a safe career. There is that word again. While yes computers and I tend to speak the same language, my passion was not there. I worked for a time in high school for a computer company and I was bored out of my mind. I was making great money but it simply was not my first love. I quit after working there for a few months. Now, I am using computers in my first love where I am called by God to be, a pastor in the United Methodist Church.
According to one study of 1500 people, 1245 people took a job because they wanted to make money which leaves only 255 folks that took a job because they loved the work. Decades later, they found 101 of those people had become millionaires. Guess how many were from the first group? One. Only one person from the first group and 100 from the second. Playing it safe can make for a stable but mind-numbing and boring career; taking a risk can lead to a life of enjoyment and satisfaction beyond any kind of monetary reward.
The life of a Jesus follower involves healthy risk-taking and we should not be afraid to take some risks when it comes to our careers as well. Rhonda, what do we call healthy risk-taking? Entrepreneurship! Exactly. We have an entire field of study here that is essentially how to take risks in a responsible and healthy way, to meet the needs of people in new, exciting, creative and innovative ways.
May we be a people not afraid to take the risks when God comes calls. May we fully live the good and exciting and adventurous life that God has in store for all of us. Let’s join together and decree the risky adventurous faith that God has called us to follow found in the Apostle’s Creed.