Sunday, February 11, 2018

“Through the Cracks” (2 Corinthians 4:3-6)

“Light” is a powerful metaphor within the Christian faith.  The word “light” occurs on the very first and last pages of the scriptures . . . and more than 250 times in between.  It was the first thing created when “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” (Genesis 1:3)  Light has always been seen as good . . . as the truth . . . as a virtue; whereas, darkness has been seen as the opposite of all that light represents.  The Christmas story is announced with “light”.  And, Jesus himself proclaims himself to be the “light” and available to all when he says: “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)

Thus it should come as no surprise that the Apostle Paul picks up on this metaphor of “light” when he is addressing the followers in Corinth.  In this second letter to the Corinthians there is a rift between Paul and his relationship with the church there.  It seems as if some members of the church had made strong attacks against Paul, but in his response he shows his deep longing for reconciliation and later shows great joy when that reconciliation is achieved.  But, in the beginning of the letter, he defends himself as one who preaches Jesus Christ as Lord while making himself a servant for Jesus’ sake.  It is here that he invokes the metaphor of “light”: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”  In the apostle’s mind and heart it is his calling . . . his ministry . . . to let the “light” shine so that all might see.

Who among us has not felt hurt and abandoned when unfair and untrue accusations have been thrown at us?  Have we not wanted to defend ourselves . . . have we not wanted to hurt those who have hurt us?  You bet we have; thus, it is, how remarkable Paul’s second letter is to the followers in Corinth in which he seeks reconciliation while still ministering to those who have hurt him.  It is out of his woundedness that Paul allows the “light” to shine out for others to see.

One of my favorite writers is Father Henri Nouwen.  The first book of his I ever read was The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society . . . I would recommend that everyone read this book.  In this book, and I simplify it here, Nouwen argues that ministry--real ministry--can only be achieved once we as followers of Jesus can accept the fact that we are all wounded.  Only after accepting the fact that we are wounded can we begin to help others . . . to ministers to others.  He writes: “Nobody escapes being wounded. We are all wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. The main question is not, 'How can we hide our wounds?' so we don't have to be embarrassed, but 'How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?' When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.”

Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians, is a wounded healer.

Nouwen suggests that we all must become wounded healers . . . like Paul . . . like Jesus.  That is how the “light” is shared . . . that is how the light gets in.  It gets in through the cracks.

In his song, Anthem, Leonard Cohen wrote these words:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

It is a song about hope in darkness.  Cohen, who did not like explaining his music, actually shared his thoughts about the meaning behind this song:  “The future is no excuse for an abdication of your own personal responsibilities towards yourself and your job and your love. “Ring the bells that still can ring”: they’re few and far between but you can find them.

This situation does not admit of solution of perfection. This is not the place where you make things perfect, neither in your marriage, nor in your work, nor anything, nor your love of God, nor your love of family or country. The thing is imperfect.

And worse, there is a crack in everything that you can put together: Physical objects, mental objects, constructions of any kind. But that’s where the light gets in, and that’s where the resurrection is and that’s where the return, that’s where the repentance is. It is with the confrontation, with the brokenness of things.”

Through our woundedness the “light” enters us . . . through our woundedness the “light” is shared.  Through the cracks.

We are all wounded.  We do not leave this life without having been wounded in some shape or form . . . physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually.  We all have our wounds.  All of us.  And, unfortunately we live in a society in which the wounded are considered less than perfect . . . not ideal . . . not the image we want others to see . . . seen as a weakness . . . something that is less than.  We see our woundedness as something to be ashamed of . . . something to be embarrassed about . . . something that we should hide from others.  And, when we do, the “light” cannot come in, nor can it go out.

The Apostle Paul recognized the strength of this fragileness, and it is through his wounds . . . the cracks in his life . . . that he best served Jesus.  If we go on beyond where we stopped in our reading this morning, I think we can see his recognition in this woundedness.  Paul writes in verses seven through ten: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.  We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.  We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be revealed in our body.”

It is through our wounds . . . our cracks . . . that God has most often come into our lives; and, it is through our wounds, our cracks, that we have most often allowed the “light” to shine out to others.  It is in our woundedness that ministry takes places within ourselves and with others . . . in the brokenness of things.

Jesus gave to us a simple command . . . to love the Lord completely, and to love others as we love ourselves.  We probably do a pretty good job with the first part of this command, and we probably need to work on the second part a little harder.  And, in order to do that, we have to learn to love ourselves . . . to love ourselves for who we are . . . wounds and all.  If we can learn to love ourselves for who we are--wounds and all, we can begin to love others for who they are.  If we can do this, then we can let the “light” shine through us for others to see.

There is strength in our wounds . . . in our cracks.  Jesus showed us the way.  Thus it is that we should realize that “there is a crack, a crack in everything . . . that is how the light gets in” . . . and, how the light is shared.  Amen. 

Sunday, February 4, 2018

“Hidden in Plain Sight” (Isaiah 40:21-31)

During the time of the prophet Isaiah, especially during the Babylonian Exile, that the Israelites had a pretty low opinion of themselves . . . after all, they had pretty much run amuck of God’s desires, had been stomped into the ground by the Babylonians who destroyed everything and exiled them from their homeland, and now they were captives in a strange land thinking that God had given up on them.  They were crushed . . . and, they were without hope.  So crushed and without hope they could not even cry out to God . . . a God that they could not see beyond the punishment that had been dealt them.  They were giving up on God.

Yet, Isaiah preached to them that God would set them free and return them to their homeland . . . over and over again, he preached this message to them.  The people had a difficult time believing him.  In their situation, God was nowhere to be seen . . . or so they thought.

Isaiah did not care too much for this short selling of God.  He is in disbelief that the people are drowning in their hopelessness.  He just cannot believe it.  He prods the people with his words: “Do you not know?  Have you not heard?  Has it not been told you from the beginning?  Have you not understood since the earth was founded?”  The prophet wants the people to understand . . . God hasn’t gone anywhere.  God has always been there . . . from the very beginning . . . God is with the people.  God is the all-everything . . . the supreme being and creator of all things and people . . . the caretaker of it all.  God is there.  He urges the people to quit their complaining . . . to quit their hopelessness . . . to quit throwing pity parties.  And, he urges them to believe and embrace the God that surrounds them like the air that they breathe . . . for in God, all things are possible . . . even freedom and returning home.  But, you have got to believe.

Well, it is difficult to believe when it feels like the only luck you’ve ever had was bad luck.  The Israelites were definitely down in the dumps . . . paying the price for their sinfulness, and thinking that God sure didn’t have the time or energy for such a broken people.  That old song about bad luck from Hee Haw was probably their theme song.  You remember that song?

Gloom, despair, and agony on me
Deep, dark depression, excessive misery
If it weren't for bad luck, I'd have no luck at all
Gloom, despair, and agony on me

I imagine that we have all been down in that dump at some point in our lives.  Wallowing in the darkness of our own hopelessness and despair . . . feeling lost . . . feeling forgotten . . . not even a blip on God’s screen.  So low that we forget.  We forget whose we are . . . we are the children of God.  We are loved.  We are desired and wanted.  We are never alone. God is with us . . . always with us.

It’s hard to remember that when life is pounding us senseless.

That is why the prophet Isaiah harped on this fact to the Israelites held captive in Babylon.  He cries out to them, and to us: “Do you not know?  Have you not heard?  The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth, He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.”  He wants the people to believe!  He wants them to believe that God will take care of them.  If they believe, they will find strength . . . strength to endure anything . . . even exile in a strange and foreign land.  With God they can endure anything.


Because, says Isaiah, “He gives strength to the weary and increases in the power of the weak.  Even youth grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.  They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”

So it is with us, if we believe.

In these times in our lives when we feel lost and hopeless, God is not hidden from us . . . and, nor are we hidden from God.  It might feel like it, but we are not hidden from God, nor is God hidden from us.  It feels like that because we have become unbalance in our lives and in our hearts . . . we are spinning out of control . . . and, the darkness seems to be blotting out our sight.  Everything becomes a blur.  And yet, God is with us . . . God is around us like the air we breathe.  We only have to believe to see.

Isaiah points this out while trying to convince the people of God’s presence.  He tells them that God is “right there” . . . right there in plain sight.  He points to the starry skies: “Lift your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these?  He who brings out the starry host one by one, and calls them each by name.  Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.”  So is God’s love for them . . . they are numbered, named, loved, and desired.

I shouldn’t have to point out to any of you of the evidence of God living where we do . . . God’s beauty is all around us . . . the mountains, the streams, the wide-open sky, the heavenly stars . . . God is all around us in the beautiful creation of where we live.  It is there for the seeing . . . hidden in plain sight.  Nor should I have to point out, as you glance around this sanctuary . . . as you look at your fellow sojourners--your brothers and sisters in faith . . . that God is here in this place.  In a kind word, a gentle hug, in the soaring voice of song, in the prayers that are shared . . . God is there for the seeing . . . hidden in plain sight.

God is all around us.  God is with us in the good times . . . and, in the bad times.  God is in the light, and in the darkness.  God is with us . . . and, God has always been with us.  The proof of God always with us can be found in the scriptures we read . . . in the words of the saints . . . in the songs that we sing.  They all proclaim that God is with us.

God is with us . . . all we have to do is to believe.  Believe and trust.  The more that we believe and trust in God, the more that God’s presence is revealed to us.  God has always been with us.  Isn’t that what we discover when we come out of the darkness of our hopelessness and despair . . . God was always with us.

Isaiah reminds us: “Do you not know?  Have you not heard?  The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth, He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.  He gives strength to the weary and increases in the power of the weak.  Even youth grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.  They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”

Believe and rest in the assurance that God is with you.  Amen.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

“When God Defies Our Faith” (Jonah 3:1-10)

I imagine everyone knows the story about Jonah being swallowed by a great big fish or whale . . . learned that way back in Sunday school.  But, there is a whole lot more to the Jonah story, and, as Paul Harvey used to say, “Now for the rest of the story.”

The story begins with God telling Jonah to go to Nineveh to preach to people because they needed a change of heart.  Jonah tells God, “No!”   Jonah has his reasons for telling God “no”.  His primary reason being that the people of Nineveh are Assyrians . . . dreaded and despised enemies of Israel.  Jonah pretty much hates the Assyrians.  Yet, God insists that Jonah go and preach to the Assyrians to change their hearts or be wiped out.

Not wanting to do this, Jonah runs away . . . runs to the nearest boat heading as far away from God as he can get.  Jonah doesn’t understand that you can run, but you can never get away from God.  Soon the boat encounters a violent storm . . . so violent that the sailors begin to fear that the boat will sink and they will all die.  They begin to throw cargo overboard in hopes of keeping the boat afloat . . . then they begin throwing over everything not nailed down.  Nothing stops the storm.  Realizing what is happening, Jonah tells the scared sailors to throw him overboard . . . and, they do.  The storms stops.

While floating in the sea, Jonah is gobbled up by a great fish.  He would sit inside of that fish for three days and three nights.  Now, being inside of a fish provides a person a whole lot of time to do some thinking . . . to do some praying.  That’s what Jonah did . . . he thought and prayed . . . thought and prayed about his situation.  Finally he came to the conclusion that he had to do what God was asking him to do.  And, God heard his prayers.  As the writer of the story tells us . . . “And the Lord commanded the fish and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.” 

Reluctantly, Jonah did as he was asked to do.  He went to Nineveh to preach to the Assyrians to have a change a heart.  Now Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire . . . a huge city.  It takes three days to walk across the city.  In order for all the people of Nineveh to hear the message, Jonah would have to spend three days traversing the city.  Now, remember, I said Jonah was reluctant to do this task of delivering God’s ultimatum . . . the Assyrians would have 40 days, and if they did not change their hearts, God was going to wipe them out.  Thus it was that Jonah’s heart really wasn’t into the message he had to share, nor was he into its urgency.  He just figured half the effort was better than no effort . . . besides, if they won’t change their hearts, God would wipe them out. 

Jonah walks one day’s journey into the city, does a little half-hearted preaching, and calls it quits.  He figures he lived up to his end of the deal with God . . . and, that there was no way for the people to have a change of heart . . . God would wipe them out.  Jonah figures it is a win/win deal.

Surprisingly, the people have a change of heart.  Then God has a change of heart towards the people, and decides not to destroy the city.  God spares every last one of the people.  This really, really . . . I mean, really . . . angers Jonah.  Ticks him off.  Ticks him off so much that he lets God know his real feelings: “O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still home?  That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish.  I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”

Jonah is so angry with God for not wiping out the hated Assyrians . . . of doing what he wanted God to do . . . that he ends his prayer by telling God to take away his life because it was better than this.  He tells God: “O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”  Jonah wanted no part of this . . . he wanted the Assyrians dead.

I think Jonah had a problem with his faith.  I think that he truly thought that God would wipe out the people of Nineveh . . . after all, Jonah didn’t put a whole lot of effort into sharing God’s message with the people.  As far as Jonah was concerned, these people were not his people . . . they were not Jewish . . . they worshipped another god . . . they were a different race . . . they were enemies.  They were not God’s people as were the Jews.  As far as Jonah was concerned they were pretty worthless . . . that the world, and the Jews, would be better off without them.  God was on his side.  That is what he truly believed.

Well, that is where Jonah was wrong . . . and, where we are often wrong.  We are all the same people.  There is only one human family . . . one family created under God . . . period.  Whether it be the sailors on the boat, the Ninevites, or even Jonah . . . they are all God’s creation . . . God’s people.  It does not matter a person’s color or race, religion, education, wealth or lack of wealth, politics . . . they are all a part of God’s family.  Nothing can change that fact.

As the children of God we are each loved and cherished by the God who created us.  We are desired and wanted.  We are embraced by a God of love and grace . . . a God who constantly has a change a heart toward us despite our--at times--errant belief that we are the only children of God.  God wants us all.  The love and grace of God is bigger and more encompassing than we will ever understand . . . and, it is much bigger than our own faith.

God defies our faith.

We are living in divisive times . . . times in which there is a lot of disagreements and hostility.  Divisive times in our world . . . in our nation . . . wherever we live.  We hear it in our prayer requests each Sunday morning . . . prayers calling us to come together in peace, love, and understanding as one people.  And, this divisiveness scares us . . . more than a few times I have heard the statement that the “world is going to hell in a handbasket.”  Despite our prayers, nothing changes.

The human race continues to be stubborn in holding onto it various understandings that one race is better than another . . . that one country is better than another . . . that one person is better than another.  In that stubbornness we forget . . . we forget what our own scriptures tell us.  That we were all created in the image of God . . . that we are all the children of God . . . that we are family.  And, the scriptures tell us that it is God’s desire that the family be restored.

That is God’s will . . . and, who are we to go against God’s will?

A change of heart is needed.  This problem is not new to our generation or time . . . it has been around since the start of humanity.  As the human race, and certainly as a people of faith--as the followers of Jesus Christ, we must change our hearts of separation and division to reflect the heart of God.  God’s heart is open to all of God’s children . . . wide open to all people. 

We must remember that it is not our way, but God’s way that matters.  Jonah could never fully embrace this openness of God’s love and grace, even after God tried to explain it to him.  Jonah remained angry and defiant in thinking that God went against his faith.  But it was Jonah who defied God and God’s will.  Despite it all, God’s desire and will was fulfilled.

We are God’s people . . . each and every one of us created in God’s image.  Together we are the family of God . . . period.  Amen.