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High-tension Wire

Sermon
Sermons On The Second Readings
Series I, Cycle C
A two-lane state highway bisects the little town of Hemingford in western Nebraska. Highway 2 is not one-sixteenth as congested as I-80 before a Big Red football game. Nevertheless, the highway is busy.

In that part of the state, prairie winds often throw the sound of an approaching vehicle. This makes it difficult for a person who does not see to determine by ear the approximate distance and speed of the vehicle.

On their own, early in the first week home after training school, Dee and Leader Dog Dolley prepared to cross Highway 2. Her hand on the handle of the dog guide's harness, the woman said the "Forward" command at the curb. This position rendered the dog guide the responsibility for the woman's life.

Just as they reached the crown of the road, Dee heard a vehicle approaching with considerable speed from her right. The direction of the wind had blocked its voice until the farm truck was almost upon them.

Too scared to rush forward but unable yet to entrust full control to her dog guide, she returned responsibility to herself. She did not give the new dog guide a chance to do its work. She dropped the harness and held only the dog's leash. "Around! Around!" she shouted. Pivoting on square, they raced back to the curb.

The woman dropped to the ground. She wrapped her arms around the dog. "I'm sorry. I won't do that again," she said. "Now let's do this over. This time, Dolley, you be in charge."

Her task was to trust her dog guide with her life. The time to start trusting was now. Otherwise, she might as well turn in the dog guide along with her freedom.

One evening not long afterward, it was the dog's turn to be spooked. Apparently not seeing well in the twilight, Dolley refused to pass by a large garbage container set out near a sidewalk they had traveled over only hours before.

The dog guide, also, had to overcome fear before she could carry out her work. Dee worked her repeatedly from the cross curb. Each time, they crept closer to the refuse container. After each attempt, she praised the dog for being brave until the grand rejoicing when Dolley passed by the container without hesitation. Having seen each other's vulnerability and shared each other's humiliation, the dog guide and the woman began what would become a decade of trusting and assisting each other. Each refused to give up on the other because of shortcomings. They gained enough internal strength to proceed with the quiet, intelligent confidence of a mature guide dog team.

Honesty of working together to avoid being overcome by fear builds any team, not just a dog guide team. With or without a disability, discouragement occurs with the day-to-day of living. Standing firm brings the steadiness of spirit that allows us to concentrate on making progress. Considerable gaining of heart happens whenever we adopt an attitude of determination. We meet with decision whatever changes come into our lives.

At times, blindness is like the benign center line of a highway that suddenly becomes a high-tension wire. It takes both the dog guide and the human being working together to neutralize the threat of adverse conditions.

Strength also requires gaining the capacity to show our fear to those whom we trust. When it comes to fear, everyone has a choice. When life scares us, we can curl into a ball like a poked slug, or we can give a good stretch and proceed forward.

Every time a person with faulty or absent sight steps outdoors, that step requires having made the choice of courage over fear. Every time any person with a special need moves beyond the known or the comfortable, there is opportunity to meet courage. At the rise of each day, first thing, make a choice. We either meet the morning with apprehension or greet it with courage.

From time to time, a blind person who uses an assist dog is asked if it is not a humiliating sign of weakness to be led around by a dog. The response of choice is not that of degradation but of freedom. This tethering is not an affront. It is an honor.

Courage in any circumstance never comes with ease, but a courageous spirit is contagious. By the time you and I know courage, we also know humiliation and vulnerability. Vulnerability is somewhat self-imposed by the limiting or handicapping dimensions of a disability. Humiliation is somewhat other-imposed by attitudes of society in general and by those specific persons who contribute to feeling that one is a lesser person.

Again, humiliation and vulnerability are not exclusive to those with physical disability. Any special need of body, relationship, economics, or spirit can spawn similar trouble. Courage can nullify feelings of humiliation and vulnerability here, too.

By living the day-to-day of our lives as Christians, we stage a study in the quiet tenacity of persistent courage. Vulnerability is also part of the "body of our humiliation" of which Paul speaks in verse 21. This vulnerability speaks of our lack of capacity to give in to temptation, to the negative energy of others, or to anything else that distracts us from the goal of being strong in faith.

Paul has a way of needling us into the reality of how we live out this faith. The troublesome "we/they" dichotomy of being a Christian dissolves. The familiar holier-than-thou attitude disappears when we acknowledge that within each of us live at least a few undesirable "they" elements. We are as vulnerable to these humiliations of body and spirit as the most artless Christian or any other member of the human family.

Paul offers an antidote of courage for us, as he does for the people of the church in Philippi. He shows considerable passion for these early Christians. He addresses them with warmth, as people "whom I love and long for, my joy and crown ... my beloved" (from v. 1). His goal for them is to avoid defeating the higher ends to which a Christian aspires by stumbling over lesser focus "on earthly things" (v. 19b).

Special to each of us is an extensive list of these "earthly things" that compete for our energy. Paul says this god "is the belly" (v. 20). Furthermore, in addition to ignoring the negative dimensions of such a life, we have fun engaging in many activities of the belly. When earthly things prevail, we waste on this negative stuff the positive effort we might have expended on standing firm. Let us, Paul might say, decide upon what we plan to stay focused.

Addressing the Philippian church with the earnestness of intimacy, the apostle urges these folk to "stand firm in the Lord" (v. 1). Standing firm is difficult. Standing firm requires that we contact the core of courage available within us, and that requires having enough self-compassion to give ourselves a chance.

Speak not only of isolated incidents of courageous action. Even a hearty burst of courage will dissipate after its moment. Our need for courage is ongoing. Courage is a chosen way, an attitude of response. Stand firm.

Despite all effort to plant ourselves with resolve and to refuse to compromise, we still need something beyond ourselves. While our standing firm seems a solitary thing, it needs grounding in our relationship with God.

When the prairie winds of the soul threaten to skew our perception, we must keep in mind that one from another realm keeps our direction steady. One who knows the Lenten struggle of courage and who quells the taste of fear stands with us, stands ready, and stands steady. We call this one Christ.

Paul says, "Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us" (v. 17). Let us seek our models and mentors, those from history and those in our present surroundings. Among these models of single-minded persistence are Paul and Christ.

Paul's call to us is to stand firm, but stand firm in Christ. As we see throughout Lent and Holy Week, Christ will let nothing deflect him from his course or garble his purpose. The transforming capacity of Christ which awakens our capacity of transformation is our saving grace. This is the holy glue that adheres hope to purpose.

When our faith grows fragile, God, we need someone stronger to urge us forward. Bring into our hearts the living models of those who have been faithful to you.

When we lose hold of hope, God, we need a measure of courage. Send us renewal of hope in whatever traditional or unparalleled form will stir our boldness.

Remind us always that Christ is Christ. Amen.

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