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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Running on Empty

   2012-04-08 Easter Sermon (2012)
   James McTyre
   Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA)
   John 20:1-18

When I was young and reckless, I used to play a game with the fuel gauge in my car.
   The game was called, "How low can you go, and still go?"
   The gauge would get down to E, and I'd think, "Gonna have to buy gas pretty soon."
   The gauge would get down to the lower corner of the E, and I'd think, "Yup. Definitely gonna have to buy gas soon."
   The gauge would go past the E and disappear into the console.
   And I'd think, "Okayy. Time to fill up. Another 20 bucks, down the drain." 
   I do vividly remember the day I put 15.3 gallons in my 15 gallon tank.
   It's a thrill to see how far you can run on empty.
   A lot of us run on empty these days.
   When it costs $50 or more to fill up your tank, it's no surprise.
   You want to delay the swipe as long as possible.
   A lot of us run on empty.
   A lot of people are running on empty bank accounts.
   Some of us are running on empty health accounts.
   A lot of us are running on empty time accounts, or empty sleep accounts, or empty energy accounts.
   A lot of us are watching the gauges, or maybe pretending the gauges aren't there.
   Until someone sits you down and says, "You will go no more."
   Your doctor says, "You're not going."
   Your grades say, "You're not going."
   Your wife says, "You're definitely not going."
   Unless she says you best be going.
   But that's a different sermon.
   A lot of us these days are pushing it, stretching it, squeezing every little drop out of every little place until every little tank runs dry.
   How low can you go, and still go?
   It's a way of life.
   And so we learn to live on the edge of empty.
   We test the limits.
   We test the limits of our money.
   We test the limits of our time.
   We test the limits of people's patience.
   Because that's just how a lot of us live.
   It CAN be kind of exciting.
   The first couple of times, you think, "Victory!"
   You beat the bank.
   You beat the deadline.
   You beat the odds.
   But after a while it's exhausting.
   It's depressing.
   Because you never get away from empty.
   Where's empty?
   It's right there.
   You can see it.
   If you're constantly on the edge of empty, if the edge is where you're always running, if the threat of empty is always breathing down your neck?
   You will grow numb to it.
   You'll get so accustomed to it that you'll stop expecting more.
   No one's ever comfortable with the edge of empty.
   You just get to where you don't care.
   Do you know people who are teetering on the edge of empty?
   Are you tottering on the edge of empty, in more ways than you want to count?
   Maybe it's just me.
   But I look around our country, I look around at the world right now, and it seems everybody's waiting for the other shoe to fall.
   You know what I mean?
   We're all just one economic downturn, all just one natural disaster, one bad grade, one doctor's appointment away, from empty. 
   You're thinking, "Golly, preacher.
   "You're kinda bummin us out.
   "Didn't expect Easter to be such a downer." 
   Neither did the disciples. 
   Mary, Peter, John - they all stood on the edge of empty.
   Empty was where they ran.
   Running to and from the empty tomb.
   Easter was not what they expected.
   It was empty.
   When you look closely at Easter in the Bible, empty's what you find.
   In John, chapter 20, there's a lot of running on empty.
   There's a lot of running because of empty.  
   Mary comes to the tomb.
   It's empty.
   She RUNS to tell Peter and John.
   They RUN to the tomb.
   But, they're men.
   They RACE to the tomb.
   Not really.
   John gets there first.
   It's empty.
   Peter comes up.
   It's empty.
   He's a little OCD, so he goes inside to double-check.
   Still empty.
   Just like Mary said when she ran to them.
   Empty, empty, empty.
   Mary, Peter, John, running on it.
   Running because of it.
   Running from it.
   Running to it.
   It's not just the Easter scriptures.
   There's a lot of empty in the Bible.
   The people of God were always this close to it.
   The Israelites wandering in the wilderness.
   Their empty bellies not knowing where their next meal was coming from.
   "Moses! This place is empty.
   "Have you brought us out here to die?"
   In the Book of Ruth, Mother Naomi, who left the land of God says, "I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty."
   Job in his affliction says, "My soul is poured out."
   Paul writes how Christ Jesus himself, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard it as something to be exploited, but instead emptied himself.
   Empty runs through the Bible.
   The people of God are always on its edge.
   Even Jesus begins with empty.
   And yet emptiness is the last place on earth anyone wants to go.
   The fear of emptiness drives people from here, to there, to way over there.
   Peter and John, the #1 and #2 disciples, after they saw the empty tomb, left.
   Went home.
   Did they run?
   We don't know.
   But they sure didn't stick around.
   Does anyone else think that's strange disciple-behavior?
   Apparently they really, really didn't like the empty.
   Verse 10 says, "Then the disciples returned to their homes."
   The light of Easter almost blew out, right there.
   Now, press Pause.
   Because between verses 10 and 11, something changes.
   Something happens.
   And it's really, really big.
   Verse 10 says, "Then the disciples returned to their homes."
   History turns. Right there.
   If you have a Bible open, take a pencil and draw a big black line between the word "homes" and the little number eleven.
   It's OK. The preacher said to.
   This is a monstrous turning point.
   Verse 10 ends saying, "returned to their homes."
   And then everything changes.
   Verse 11 says these three words:
   The great disciples get this close to empty, and then go home.
   But. Mary. Stood.
   That changes everything.
   It's the start of a whole new reality.
   Verse 11 goes on: "But Mary stood, weeping, outside the tomb."
   Mary stands, Mary endures, the emptiness.
   It's awful.
   It makes her cry.
   But. Mary. Stood.
   And then it goes on to the next step.
   It says, "As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb."
   And then, the next step.
   "And she saw two angels in white."
   They ask her, "Woman, why are you weeping?"
   You mean they don't know?
   You mean they don't see?
   What's wrong with you angels?
   Don't you know she's weeping because... IT'S EMPTY??"
   "Empty" is a gauge.
   We all watch gauges.
   We watch the gauges that tell us how much fuel's in our tank.
   We check the bank account.
   We pull up the portfolio.
   We keep an eye on our grades.
   We go to the doctor to get our numbers.
   How great would it be if we had a spiritual gauge?
   If you could go to the church website, lay your hands on the computer, and get a readout from a "Faith-O-Meter."
   Well, let's see.
   Your Bible reading is at 23% capacity.
   Little room for improvement, there.
   Good news is that your praying's at 63%.
   Unfortunately, your drinkin' and cussin's off the scale.
   Which gives you a Composite Faith Index (a CFI) of....
   If only our nerds would come up with that.
   Then we could set goals.
   And we could compare ourselves to see who gets there first.
   Just like Peter and John.
   Well, sort of.
   And at the end of the year, the church could give an award for "Most Improved CFI."
   Give it to the person who went the fastest from below the E in Empty to "Just Divinely Full." 
   The problem with gauging faith is that practically no one ever thinks they have enough.
   And then the moment you think you're full of it, so does everyone else.
   If you'd asked Mother Teresa if she needed more faith.
   Of course she would have said yes.
   You ask Billy Graham, does he need more faith.
   Of course he'll say yes.
   You ask even... Tim Tebow.
   Of course he'll say he needs more faith.
   He plays for the Jets.
   That's the problem with faith.
   The more you have, the more you know you need more.
   Even the best disciples needed more.
   So, how are you and I ever going to feel faithful enough?
   How can you ever be at spiritual peace?
   When is your faith ever on Full? 
   Here's what that critical break between verses 10 and 11 tells us about that.
   The disciples who raced.
   The disciples who went running to empty, and skirted only for a minute on the edge of empty.
   Those disciples - as faithful as they were - did not find Jesus.
   The ones who went so fast to see the empty.
   The ones who turned around and left to go home because they wouldn't stand still by the emptiness.
   They did not see Jesus.
   Only Mary saw.
   The one who stood.
   The one who lingered.
   Mary was the one who saw Jesus.
   And even then, she got it wrong.
   She thought he was the gardener.
   But then he spoke her name and she came to herself.
   Mary stood.
   Mary lingered.
   Mary saw.
   And history turned.
   How's your personal history turning these days?
   The more I listen to what's going on in people's lives, the more I hear the same complaint.
   Everything's chaotic.
   Everything's changing.
   Way too quickly.
   When I get together with other pastors, I hear them saying things like, "Nobody commits anymore.
   "People change churches at the drop of a hat."
   And I sympathize, but I also want to ask, "What do you expect?"
   Everyone's running on empty.
   When you're like Peter and John, when your constant habit is running up to the edge of empty, and then running somewhere else?
   When you bounce from crisis to crisis?
   When your heart and your spirit get accustomed to chaos?
   What else could anyone expect?
   In fact, we've come up with words to make ourselves feel special.
   We don't say, "I'm scared of emptiness."
   We say, "I'm multitasking."
   Sounds so much better than, "I'm confused and superficial."
   We're NOT pretending to listen while we check text messages; we're background processing.
   We like to think we're so advanced that it's a new phenomenon.
   Are you kidding me?
   People have been bouncing off the edge of emptiness for two thousand years, and more.
   The emptiness scares us.
   So we bounce from one place to another.
   Bounce from one empty activity to another.
   Bounce from one empty savior to another.
   Until we wear out our souls.
   Looking for peace and rest and hope by running ourselves ragged.
   That makes no sense.
   There's got to be a better way. 
   And yes, the Bible tells us.
   There is a better way.
   There's Easter.
   You want Easter to be a saving event in your life this year?
   Draw that line between verse 10 and verse 11.
   Stand yourself on Mary's side of the line.
   You want Easter to really matter this year?
   Tell the world, "No."
   Stand. With. Mary.
   Was Mary's faith meter higher than the others?
   Who knows?
   Was she less scared by the empty tomb?
   Doubt it.
   But Mary stood.
   Mary wasn't only faithful.
   Mary was counter-cultural.
   When everyone else was giving up and going home, Mary stood.
   She stayed.
   She lingered.
   Even though the emptiness made her weep.
   I think we're on the edge of something similar today.
   I believe the Christian Church - whether you're Presbyterian or some other flavor –
   I believe the Christian Church is hearing a new call to an old Holy Spirit.
   Because I believe people are beginning to see through the superficial.
   They're sick and tired of RUNNING from empty TO empty.
   I believe the church, like Mary, is and has always been called to be radically counter-cultural.
   You know, in this culture, you can get your supper by driving through a fast food restaurant.
   You can get cash by driving through an ATM.
   But you will never get faith by driving past a church.
   And I'll say this, too.
   You also can't get faith by dropping by church for an hour, or in today's case, about an hour and a half, and then going back home.
   That's what Peter and John did.
   And they were not the ones who saw Jesus.
   Mary did the radically counter-cultural act of standing and facing her fear.
   She was the one who saw him.
   So, how does that happen in a church?
   I think, like Jesus, it's always kind of a surprise.
   The greatest compliment this church ever gets is when a person stands up during the sharing of concerns and celebrations and says, "I didn't expect."
   The greatest compliment this church ever gets is when someone stands up and says, "I didn't expect so many people to care."
   "I didn't expect a hot meal."
   "I didn't expect you people to come to the hospital."
   "I didn't expect you'd send me a card that said you're praying for me when I just disappeared."
   Why is that such a great compliment?
   Because the act of faith and hope was totally unexpected.
   Given the world today, it was radically counter-cultural.
   It's so totally surprising for anyone to stand still at the edge of someone else's emptiness.
   And not run away. 
   And you know the other amazing thing?
   It's precisely then when the church stumbles into Jesus.
   We think it's the gardener, or the person who's tending trouble.
   But, surprise.
   It's him.
   If you're here today, and if that's a little unusual, please let me say this to you.
   Good for you.
   You're actually kind of getting it.
   Because Easter is supposed to be radically unusual.
   If you don't feel particularly close to the church –
   and by that I mean the people around you –
   if they seem unusual or a little scary –
   then you're an astute judge of character.
   Because, we all feel unusual.
   We all feel scared.
   Because there's too much emptiness in the world.
   There's too much emptiness in our souls.
   If coming to be with church is new and a little uncomfortable, it's not because of you.
   And it's not the other people, either.
   It's because everyone's uncomfortable standing in one spot and looking empty in the eye.
   So if it's unusual for you to be with church, good.
   My invitation to you is to stick around.
   Let me invite you to be radical.
   Get to know these other church-people beyond a comfortably superficial level.
   That's my invitation to anyone for whom church is something new.
   And here's my Easter challenge to everybody here today.
   It's this.
   Find a way to gauge your faith.
   Find a way to become aware of your faith, its presence or its absence,
   so it's not something you think about only on Sunday, or on Easter.
   And so, to help you, here's another little game you can play in your car.
   I came up with this while I was sitting in one-lane traffic on northbound Alcoa Highway.
   The nice thing about rock slides is they give you time to be like Mary.
   Here's the challenge.
   Everbody's car has a gas gauge.
   And everybody looks at their gas gauge.
   Some of us check it all the time.
   It's a sign of maturity.
   And a sign that you fear being the one who blocks traffic more than it already is.
   Everybody has a gas gauge, so try this.
   Pretend your gas gauge is your Faith Gauge.
   E still stands for Empty.
   E means your faith is either Empty or about to disappear under the console.
   OK. Now.
   Pretend the F stands not just for "Full" but for Faith-Full.
   Full of faith.
   So, when you look at your gas gauge, think of it as your faith gauge.
   Ask yourself, "Is it right?"
   Is it accurate? Or totally wrong?
   Are you feeling like your faith is running on empty?
   Or, do you feel like if you had any more faith you'd sitting on the right hand of God?
   I know it's not a perfect tool.
   A lot of times your gas gauge may show the opposite of how your internal faith gauge is reading.
   That's OK.
   The point is not to align your spirit with your car.
   Some people would like that.
   But that's not the point.
   The point is to get something to remind you, pretty much at least once every day, to check your faith.
   To think about your faith.
   To ask how much you have.
   To consider how much you need, not just to get by, but to get where you need to be.
   On good days.
   And on days when the emptiness is too much to stand. 
   If you're too young or too old to drive, find another gauge.
   Like the battery level on your iPod.
   Or the charge left on your cell phone.
   The point is to find something to remind you.
   To remind you that you need faith.
   To remind you that empty's always there, and it shouldn't be a surprise. 
   Empty can be dealt with.
   And then, after you have your reading.
   Instead of congratulating yourself on how faithful you are, find a radical way to fill the emptiness that's still showing.
   Stand with someone who can only see the empty.
   Ask them really simple and obvious questions, like, "Woman, why are you crying?"
   That's really all the angels did.
   But it got Mary moving again.
   And when she did move away from the emptiness, she was filled with the spirit of the risen Christ.
   And she went to the people who missed him.
   She stood with them.
   And she told them about the risen Lord. 
   I want to challenge you all, from today until next Easter, to do that, too.
   Be like Mary.
   Stand with Mary.
   Stand with people on the edge of empty.
   Together, may you stumble into Jesus.
   May your faith gauge be filled.
   And may you stop running on empty.