Over the next few weeks during March Madness, the annual single-elimination tournament for college basketball, commentators, coaches, and players will use phrases normally meant for other settings. We’ll hear how teams are “under fire,” how teammates are the type you “want to go to war with,” and even how they “sacrifice their bodies” or “prove to be courageous.” Of course, none of this is life or death; it’s basketball, a game that is highly entertaining to watch but which is far from the fields of war.
This is just one of the great examples of how we as a society have lost sight of what words mean, of what is really at stake in our lives. It’s how we get to calling people we’ve never met our “friends” on Facebook, or pay $5 for an overpriced cup of coffee. Of course, it’s not my intent to bludgeon culture today – I merely want us to get back to looking at what words really mean. And today’s word is “courage.”
So, how do you define courage? When you think of a courageous act or a courageous person, who comes to mind?
I’ve always believed that courage was doing the right thing (not just thinking about doing the right thing) when others weren’t willing to, like a fish swimming against the current, or firefighters running into a burning building when others were running away. But I wanted to “flesh out” what courage was so I polled some friends on how they would define courage – or to give an example.
One woman talked about giving up her kidney to an unknown donor. She said she hadn’t been able to save a beloved friend but had decided that her kidney would be put to use saving someone else.
One friend told me how as an EMT trainee he had watched a Virginia Beach firefighter cover a woman with his turnout coat as she lay next to her car after an accident. They were working to immobilize her and stop some bleeding as her car caught on fire. They were told that the car could explode at any second, but the firefighter stayed right there until it was safe to move her.
Another friend shared how becoming a dad was the most courageous thing that he’d ever done.
A missionary from our church shared how she had given up a good job and a comfortable life to follow a call to a long-term, volunteer mission.
My friend Cammie shared that she had once chased bank robbers! They even shot at her van! She said after the fact, she thought it was stupid – but that she would probably do it again! I wouldn’t say it was courage, it just felt like the right thing to do. (I would call it courage.)
Another friend said they’d seen true courage watching someone care for their dying spouse.
Someone pointed out the bravery of giving up one’s sons to adoption when the life they would’ve been condemned to would’ve been lacking necessary resources and care.
Virginia Tech basketball coach Buzz Williams says that courage is learning to hang on when you want to let go.
Someone pointed out the man who stood in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square in 1989 as the most courageous person they could think of.
Courage looks different in different people, but we know it when we see it.
In our scripture today, we hear about Esther’s courage. She gets the credit – the book is named after her of course! But the courage begins with her cousin Mortdecai’s reminder that with great power comes great responsibility, a la Uncle Ben sharing wisdom with young Peter Parker. But instead of donning a red and blue suit, Esther walks into the court room of the king like Nehemiah did, and demands rescue for her people.
Years later, Jesus will arrive at the courtroom if the king, that is the Temple, and recognize on the first Palm Sunday that things are not quite right, that there is injustice, that people are being humiliated and persecuted for worship. Jesus will of course put an end to it by driving out those who are charging exorbitant fees to people too poor to pay for sacrifices. Jesus will pay the ultimate cost.
Paul echoed the words of God to Joshua when he wrote in I Corinthians 16:13-14 to the church in Corinth to “Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong. Do everything in love.”
That’s a side of courage I think that is growing in my understanding: That courage and love must go hand in hand.
Sometimes, we need to be courageous for ourselves because change needs to happen. But when we’re willing to be courageous for someone else? That’s life-definining.
As we approach Easter, I’m reminded that Jesus went to the cross for us; that Jesus died on the cross for us; that Jesus rose again for us.
So, Church, I ask you today, what is God calling you to be courageous about? What about your own life must you face up to? What has God put on your heart that you must do for someone else?
Is it holding someone’s hand while they die?
Is it kicking the addiction that has gripped your body for a lifetime?
Is it standing up to the bully at work or school or neighborhood or home so that someone else might live without fear?
Is it facing the situation in your past that you’ve never quite let go of?
Is it confronting the individual – or protesting the system?
Is it taking on some form of injustice where someone else doesn’t have enough?
In one of my favorite movies of all time, Pay it Forward, a little boy proposes a civics project where he will do three things for three people who can’t do it for themselves.
First, he welcomes in a stranger, a homeless man.
Second, he challenges his mother on her alcoholism, and helps her toward sobriety.
Third, he stands up to the bullies who are hassling his friend.
Fair warning: the little boy makes sacrifices to follow through on what he believes to be his call to arms, his moments of courage.
That’s the thing about kids — kids are bold – and a little crazy.
Rob Bell wrote in How to Be Here, ““When we’re young and we want something, we do whatever it takes… Somewhere along the way in becoming adults, it’s easy to lose this potent mix of exploration and determination. We settle. We decide this is as good as it gets. We comfort ourselves with, It could be worse. If your life isn’t what it could be, if you know there’s more, if you know you could fly higher, then it’s time to start building a ramp.”
Courage costs something but it’s also AWESOME. The alternative is living in fear, in mediocrity, in self-doubt, in “what could have been.”
For Esther, for Jesus, for us… life is too short to live in that other world, playing it safe, but ultimately scared.
To be disciples of the One who loved us enough to send His son to die on the cross, we must boldly go where others fail to go, where others sees problems and excuses, we must see freedom and hope.
I believe that to be courageous, we must not only pursue freedom and hope for ourselves, but pursue it for others. In how we spend our money. In how we live our lives. In how we vote. In the words we say.
Sometimes, courage is speaking up, and sometimes it’s being silent. But courage comes from God – who promised to be with us NO MATTER WHAT.
Hear these words from God through Isaiah the prophet to his people (Isaiah 43:1-7):
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior;
Since you are precious and honored in my sight,
and because I love you,
Do not be afraid, for I am with you.”
Go boldly, friends. It’s what Jesus would do.