In July of 2014, in an article announcing he was going to return to play basketball with the Cleveland Cavaliers, LeBron James stated “In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have. I’m ready to accept the challenge. I’m coming home.” And last week, while I was on vacation in Ohio, the kid from Akron – my hometown – accomplished what he set out to do. He won a championship for the people of Northeast Ohio. The phrase “Nothing is given. Everything is earned.” was everywhere: on billboards, t-shirts, and bumper stickers. It perfectly describes the mindset of so many hard-working people in that area. And while the theologian in me wants to criticize it as not accounting for grace, the Akronite in me understands no one is going to hand you a championship simply because you show up. You have to earn it.
In this morning’s gospel reading we learn that Jesus has “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” That is an interesting phrase, isn’t it. Nothing will be given as he makes his way to the Cross. Everything will be earned. Jesus is determined. He is resolute and focused. He knows what it will cost. Everything about his life from this point forward – what he eats, where he sleeps, the path he walks, the words he speaks – will be intentional; done to get him to Jerusalem. His face is set. Have you ever known a person like this, a person with a singular focus in life? Have you ever had a mission like this yourself?
Jesus encounters three people on his way. The first wants to follow him. Jesus describes the cost: “You will have nowhere to lay your head” (You will never again have a place to call home). He invites the second person to follow him, but that person says he must first bury his father. “Let the dead bury the dead,” Jesus says. “Go now and proclaim the kingdom.” A third person promises to follow Jesus anywhere, but first wants to go home and say goodbye. “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
These three sayings, peppered with hyperbole, suggest that when it comes to responding to God, as with life itself, nothing is given, everything is earned. The path to success, the path to fruitfulness, the path to faithfulness is the path of hard work. No one can do it for you. You must do it yourself. If you never apply yourself you will never succeed. If you are not determined, you will not overcome. If you are not committed you will never accomplish anything of significance.
These are timeless lessons that speak to our faith as well as to our lives. You cannot have a rich spiritual life if you do not attend to prayer, to worship, and to learning, and to reflection. Your life cannot be a witness to others if you are not dedicated to being who God created you to be. You cannot be a blessing to others if you do not allow God to bless you.
In the weeks leading up to the Cavaliers winning the championship a second expression took hold among the people of Northeast Ohio: “All in!” It became the way to proclaim you are completely invested in the Cav’s team. And that is no small or easy thing to do for us who are Cleveland sports fans. We have endured so many heartaches and disappointments over the years. We have learned the hard way that the safest way forward is to keep yourself at arm’s length from your teams. They can’t break your heart if you don’t give it to them. “All in” exposes you. It makes you vulnerable. It opens you to the possibility of hurt. But it offers you something you will never get playing it safe: the reward of being in relationship with those beyond yourself.
In today’s Old Testament lesson we learn of Elisha, a farmer who becomes “all in”. Over the past few weeks we have been reading about the prophet Elijah and we have seen how for him nothing was given, everything was earned. Today he approaches Elisha and casts his cloak upon him; signaling to the plower he is now to be a prophet. How “all in” is Elisha? He slaughters his oxen, breaks up the wood of their yoke and plow, starts a fire, boils the meat, and gives it his neighbors to eat. Clearly he is not going back to plowing. He is “all in”.
When you called me in 2007 to serve as the rector of this parish, the stock market had crashed and the housing bubble had burst. The economy was in rough shape and everyone felt it. Many of you had to cut back and make sacrifices in all areas of your life. It impressed me greatly how every person here without fail made it a priority to maintain a commitment to giving to the church. If you had to scale back you did it with other charitable contributions, but not here. It is a sign you are “all in.”
We are only a few weeks into to our capital fund drive for kitchen renovation, but already it demonstrates what “all in” is all about. Gifts and pledges are closing in on our goal and we should be able to raise additional funds to handle the inevitable unforeseen expenses of a project like this one. Our slogan has been “Working Together We Can” and because you are “all in” “We Will!”
Here is my favorite little nugget from reading Vestry minutes this past week. It comes from the September 10, 1980 meeting:
John Cross reported that coffee expenses for the summer months were less. He suggested that the use of instant coffee be continued for a while to eliminate the wasted coffee that is always thrown away when coffee is made in the big coffee pot.
Now, to the uninitiated eye, this may seem to be trivial, like nit-picking, like focusing on the tree at the expense of the forest. It may hardly seem like the high call to put but your hand to the plow and not look back. But I see it as an example of what “all in” looks like. It recognizes that the principle work of the parish is to worship God. Hospitality – how we welcome people as they come to worship – is essential. Coffee makes people feel welcome. It is also a resource of which we are called to be good stewards. And Mr. Cross never would have thought about saving money on coffee if he didn’t care about the church. Sure, it is a small thing, but small things matter. You get this if you are “all in”. You get this if you know everything is earned.
And, by the way, this was recorded in the Vestry minutes seven months later:
Stanley Leicester reported that Folger’s, a new brand of coffee, was purchased and now [is] being served in the fellowship hall.
Apparently, the cheapest way is not always the best way, but this sounds like a theme for another sermon.
Cleveland is a different community today than it was just one week ago. We who are from there now refer to it with new pride as “Believeland.” Northeast Ohio has found a new faith in itself and what it can accomplish. People of all ages have a role model who demonstrates how hard work and commitment pay off.
Jesus was right: you can’t put your hand to the plow and look back. Elisha knew what he was doing: don’t even allow yourself to be distracted. In life, nothing is given. Everything is earned. Are you “all in”?