JANUARY 31, 2010


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            Jean Nidetch was overweight as a child, she was overweight in high school, and despite numerous diet regimens, her waistline kept expanding throughout her twenties and thirties. 

            In 1961, at age 38, Jean started a diet sponsored by the New York City Department of Health.  After 10 weeks she was 20 pounds lighter, but starting to lose motivation.  She realized that she needed someone to talk to for support.

            Since she couldn't get her pals to make the trek with her to Manhattan to sign up for the official health department regimen, she brought the "science" of the program to their living rooms in Queens.  Jean and her friends would help one another to lose weight together.   Nidetch's idea was simple: Losing weight requires a combination of dieting and peer support.  She held weekly meetings with weight check-ins to promote accountability, coupled with honest, supportive conversation about the struggles, setbacks, and victories over losing weight.

            Eventually, Nidetch, who'd lost seventy-two pounds, rented office space and started leading groups all across New York City.  In 1963 she incorporated.  As of 2007, Weight Watchers International had retail sales of over $4 billion from licenses, franchisees, membership fees, exercise programs, cookbooks, portion-controlled food products, and a magazine.  Nidetch retired in 1984.  As the company's current CEO notes, "Though the science of weight loss has evolved over the years, the core of Jean's program—support and accountability—has remained constant."

            If the bible tells us anything at all, it tells us that we are in this together.  We are not to go it alone.  We are to help one along the journey, and as we have seen thus far in this One Anothering sermon series, that help includes loving one another, praying for one another, caring for one another, and bearing one another’s burdens.  Today we add another ingredient to our recipe for Christian community.  According to the bible, we are also to encourage and build up one another.  It couldn’t be any clearer.  The Apostle Paul in his first letter to the Thessalonians writes,


            Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing. 


            One of my lesser flaws is that I hate going to the gas station and filling up the tank of my car.  Thankfully, I have a little gauge that tells me how many miles I can go before I will run out of gas. I will ride that down until the car has about 50 miles left before I take it home and switch cars with Trudy.  We also had a propane gas barbecue grill, and I hated taking that propane tank in to fill it up so much, that we had MUD come out and run a natural gas line to the barbecue, so I wouldn’t have to take that tank in to get refilled.

            Cars and grills, however, aren't the only things that have fuel tanks.  People have them, too.  Everybody we know has a fuel tank, and it's in their inner being, in their spirit.  We can also read their gauge.  All we have to do is look them in the eye.  Some eyes have fire in them; some are just glazed over.  Look at their shoulders: some people are walking with shoulders squared and straight; some are all hunched over.  Look at their gait: some people walk with energy; some people are just kind of trudging along.

            We all have a fuel tank, and some people fill our tank.  They breathe life into us.  They remind us of how good God is.  They call us to be all we can be.  When we're with them, our anxiety goes down, and our sense of hope and trust goes up.

            Gregory of Nyssa, one of the early church fathers in the fourth century, painted a beautiful picture of these tank-filler people. This is what he writes:


            At horse races, the spectators intent on victory shout to their favorites in the contest. From the balcony they incite the rider to keener effort, urging the horses on while leaning forward and flailing the air with their outstretched hand instead of a whip. With that picture in mind, he says: "I seem to be doing the same thing myself. Most valued friend and brother, while you are competing admirably in a divine race, straining constantly for the prize of the heavenly calling, I exhort, urge, and encourage you vigorously.”


            In other words, Gregory of Nyssa is saying, "I'm up in the stands.  I'm watching you run the race, and I'm cheering you on.  This is your life.  This is your race.  God is with you, so don't stop.  Keep running the race."  Some people do that for us.  They're what we would call our balcony people.  When we're with them, they fill our tank.

            Then we have other people in our lives, who—when we're not looking—stick a hose in our tank, take a deep breath, and start siphoning the fuel out.  They drain us of life.  They are basement people, because they bring us down.  These people are joy challenged, dream squashing, and fault finding.  We're called to love them, but we've got to guard our hearts against them.  And, honestly, there's a basement person inside all of us - at times we can bring others down - but that's not God's plan for us.

            God’s plan for us is to become balcony people.  How can I say such a thing?  I can say it because encouragement is a major theme in the New Testament?  The words "to encourage" appear over a hundred times in the New Testament.  Over one hundred times, and today we are going to look at the patron saint of encouragement, the patron saint of balcony people, a guy named Barnabas.

            We meet him for the first time in the fourth chapter of the book of Acts, the thirty-sixty verse.  Here's how his story starts: 


            There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means the “son of encouragement”).  He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money , and laid it at the apostles‘ feet. 


            Note the nickname ... son of encouragement.  Joseph/Barnabas was a Levite.  Levites were a tribe of Israel, and they served as assistants to the priests, think of the Catholic church today and laypeople who help with the Mass.  But Barnabas, even though a Levite, could not assist the priests because he was from Cyprus, which meant he hadn't been born in Israel.  He was a Hellenist—a name given to Israelites born overseas - and Hellenists were regarded as foreigners.  They did not speak Aramaic, they spoke Greek, and they were considered to have picked up Gentile ways.  There was a lot of hostility between native-born Israelites and the Hellenists.  Because of the tension, Barnabas wasn't allowed to serve in the temple like his people, the Levites, normally were allowed.

            We'd expect him to be kind of sour about this, but he's a balcony person, and he becomes a part of this new community.  In fact, he is the first recorded donor in this new community of Jesus.  He sees a need, and he says to himself, “I've got some property; I could sell some of my stuff to help people out,” and when the text says he put the money at the apostles' feet, Barnabas was saying, “You know what to do with it better than I.  I’m not attaching any strings to this gift—you don't have to build a building with my name on it.  Just use it to bless people.”

            As a result of his financial gift, the disciples say to each other, “Joseph is just not an adequate name for this guy, so we're going to give him a new name.  We're going to call him Barnabas—’son of encouragement,’ balcony boy.”  So he got his “nickname,” “son of encouragement” because of the encouraging financial gift he gave to the newly found church.  And that nickname characterized his entire life.

            You know, generosity does that.  When we are generous with our money, with our time, with our interest in others, with our faith and trust in others, that is an encouragement to others.  Do we want to be encouragers?  Then, cultivate a generous spirit, a generous spirit in all of life.

            Secondly, Barnabas was a balcony person not only because of his generosity, but also because he showed grace to others.    Let me explain.

            After his big financial gift, Barnabas disappears, and the next time we see him is in the ninth chapter of Acts, alongside a man named Saul who had been terrorizing Jesus' followers.  Saul had been breathing out murderous threats and finding men and women to take as prisoners, and then Paul met the risen Christ.  Paul repented and trusted Jesus, but he had a problem.  When Saul/Paul came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him.  They could not believe he was really a disciple.  He had murdered their friend Stephen, and he had threatened, persecuted, imprisoned, and killed their husbands, wives, brothers, and sisters.  How do they know his conversion is for real—that he's not faking it just to get inside and damage them even more? Nobody wanted to touch him with a ten-foot pole.  This is the guy that's been dragging them off to prison!  So the disciples say, "I'm not going to touch him!"  But then they get an idea: “Let's get Barney to try it.  Barney will like anybody!”

            So they sent Barnabas to check out Saul.  Balcony people give us this wonderful gift: they believe we can change with God's help.  They do not let who we were yesterday limit who we might be today or tomorrow.  This is a fabulous gift.  Barnabas was willing to take a risk on Paul.  He became his friend and got to know him, and then he went to his brothers and sisters and said, “Look at the change in his life.  Look at what happened between him and God.  Look at how he's devoting his life to the gospel.  Take it from me: this man can be trusted!”

            Because Barnabas said Paul could be trusted, the disciples embraced Paul.  Paul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord.   What would have happened to Paul if he had not had Barnabas? His acceptance into the Jesus community is because of one balcony person who gave him this wonderful gift of starting over.  We, too, can do that for somebody. 

            Of course, my favorite example of this comes a few years later.  Let me read the story.  Acts 15:36.


            After some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Come, let us return and visit the believers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.”  Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark.  But Paul decided not to take with them one who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not accompanied them in the work.  The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus.  But Paul chose Silas and set out, the believers commending him to the grace of the Lord.


            Let me offer some background.  On their first missionary journey Paul and Barnabas took with them a young man, John Mark.  John Mark, unfortunately, got homesick and bailed on Paul and Barnabas.  Barnabas, seeing the best in people, and wanting to bring out the best in John Mark, suggests they give him another chance.  Paul balks, and a big argument ensues, and I can just imagine Barnabas saying to Paul, “Hey pal, you remember in Jerusalem when nobody would touch you with a ten-foot pole because you had done awful things?  Who was it that gave you a second chance?  Now you're going to tell me that you're not going to give a second chance to John Mark?”

            Well, Paul didn’t give him another chance, at least not at that moment.  But he did later.  In the last letter Paul would write, he says to Timothy, "Only Luke is with me.  Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is helpful in my ministry" (II Timothy 4:11).  Barnabas saw something in Mark that turned out to be right all along.

            By the way, this is the same Mark who write one of the Gospels.  Most scholars think that the Gospel of Mark was the first one written, and that both Matthew and Luke used it as they were writing their Gospels.  What if Barnabas had given up on Mark?  But balcony people stand with you when you fall.

            Have you ever thought about what you want folks to say at your funeral?  Can you imagine what Barnabas's funeral must have been like?  A man gets up to speak, and everybody nudges each other, because it's the Apostle Paul.  He's famous.  He says, “I persecuted the church.  I put followers of Jesus to death and in prison.  Nobody trusted me.  No one would touch me.  But then Barnabas came along, put his arm around me, and he said, ‘I'll vouch for him.’ I stand before you today because of Barnabas.”

            Then John Mark gets up. He's older now, and people agin nudge each other because he’s a famous writer.  He wrote a gospel, and he says, “The truth about me is, I was a quitter.  I had run away from Jesus and ministry, but Barnabas wouldn't give up on me.  He saw something in me—I don't know what—and he took me under his wing and said, ‘I'll vouch for him.’  I'm here today because of a man named Barnabas.”

            Then an old widow stands up.  Nobody nudges anybody else, because she's not famous.  She says, “I lost everything when my husband died. I had no income.  I had young children.  I didn't know if I'd make it.  And then Barnabas came along, and he quietly sold his own property so that I could have something to live on, so that I could feed my children.  I'm here today because of Barnabas.”

            That's a kingdom funeral.  That's the funeral of a man who never tried to be great, but just tried to call out greatness in others. 

            Encourage and build up one another.