Sunday, October 12, 2014

“Beyond the Crisis—and Better” (Galatians 5:1, 13-25)

Fall--what a lovely season—do any of you like the color orange as much as I do?

Fall is misleading. Did you know that leaves are not naturally green? Leaves are naturally yellow, and red, and orange. When the leaf system starts producing chlorophyll, the leaves turn green. Green is their false self, we might say. In autumn, the leaves drop their mask and emerge as they really are.

Did you also know that decay is not the only activity going on in autumn? Fall is also the season when seeds are scattered, so that there will be new growth in the spring. A lovely little joy is hidden in plain sight.

In her song “Leaves Don’t Drop, They Just Let Go” singer Carrie Newcomer builds on this little joy hidden in plain sight when she writes:

Leaves don’t drop, they just let go,
And make a place for seeds to grow.
Every season brings a change,
A tree is what a seed contains,
To die and live is life’s refrain.

What Newcomer is singing about is that any event in our life is simply a moment to be received—including the ones we label “crisis” and “difficult” and even “sad.”

What I have observed is than an event gets labeled a crisis when we don’t choose the change that’s being offered; when change is thrust upon us like a divorce or the loss of a job and income. When you and I CHOOSE change we label the event an OPPORTUNITY. Either way change moves us along—hopefully. If we are SPIRITUALLY awake, or alert, we understand that there’s no end or even death, there’s only movement. In every event there is an invitation to let go of something—and take hold of something else---so that we can become GOD’S MORE.

Isn’t this the heart of the story of the resurrection of Jesus? In order to become God’s MORE for US, he had to let go of his life. Isn’t this what he teaches us? Jesus says, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” In order for us to become God’s MORE for the world, we have to first let go of our life on our terms; the “My Way”, the ego, and embrace life on God’s terms—deep listening through prayer and knowledge of the scriptures, and good works; justice for our neighbor. Second we eventually have to let go of our earthly bodies and relationships and move on to the next experience God has planned for us.

An image that might work for us this morning is that of the handle bars, which used to be a common sight on the playground. (photo) In order to play on this toy successfully, a child must create a rhythm whereby he and she releases one handlebar while at the same time reaches for the next, so that they move forward, or flow.

If the child becomes paralyzed by fear or doubt and doesn’t release his and her grip on the current handlebar, the momentum is lost and the handlebars are no longer in reach. The child is at a standstill; frozen. This is not how the game is supposed to be played—and frozen is no way for the human soul to live--even when life presents overwhelming obstacles.

What the Holy Spirit of God desires is a flow, a rhythm, a partnering, and letting go and a reaching for—which often is produced by a crisis. Jesus says in his sermon on the mount, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (NRSV) Read in The Message Version we hear, “You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lot what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.”

There’s a whole new world when we reach for the One most dear to us—a world where we shine from the inside out—as God tends to us—and the world gets improved upon—because we tend to it.

In order to enter this new world we cannot get hung up on the events in our daily life; both opportunity and crisis. We cannot be afraid of change—whether we choose it, or it chooses us.

Leaves don’t drop, they just let go,
And make a place for seeds to grow.
Every season brings a change,
A tree is what a seed contains,
To die and live is life’s refrain.

This coming Tuesday I am getting on an airplane and flying to Lexington, Kentucky, where my sister, Gene Carol, will pick me up and take me to see our mother. Her name is Dana Ruth Williams, and she’ll be 86 years old on Thursday.

My mother is someone I esteem as a “holy resilient.” (A term created by Presbyterian pastor and author Steve Doughty.) A holy resilient is someone who has managed to become God’s MORE in the face of difficult circumstances: MORE loving, generous and kind—anything on that list of spiritual gifts that the Apostle Paul refers to in his letter to the church at Galatia, which are Christ-like.

She has endured the depression, an abusive husband who died at sea, a divorce, single parenting, bankruptcy, poverty, a child with a severe, chronic mental illness, gossip, isolation, depression which required hospitalization, the prolonged decline and death of her second husband, the death of her sister, angioplasty, and her own declining health.

To know her is to know great kindness, encouragement, a strong will to live and a joy for life, patience, and faith. Seems like a contradiction, doesn’t it? Most people would say, “If this is the best God can do—I’m not interested.”

Another “holy resilient” I’ll call Beverly called me one day to talk about her recent trip to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. “I read a most interesting plaque,” she said to me, “About the percentage of Jews who managed to move beyond their tragic experience in the Nazi prison camps and embrace life, and become radiant persons---and the percentage of those who became the exact opposite—dark, closed, bitter.”

Beverly, who was diagnosed with a crippling chronic illness when her children were very, very young, and which has thrown her family into medical bankruptcy, asked me, “Why do you think that is?”

“Well,” I said to her, “Look at your own life. “Your mother struggled with a chronic mental illness and married many husbands who raped you and your sister repeatedly, and then she abandoned both of you at age 18. Your sister chose to medicated herself with alcohol and prescription drugs until she overdosed and died, and you, well you, you love God more and more each day—and radiate with wisdom, and grace, and generosity. What’s the difference between you and your sister?”

“Three things,” she answered me, “First, as a Christian I expect grace—I expect God to show up and help me. Second, I also participate in God’s healing—I read and know my Bible and reflect on what it has to say; I pray; I take responsibility in the church; I stretch. You know, you have to stand behind the current this and that in your life and ask, ‘What’s going on here? What’s God asking of me? What’s God reaching for in me?’ And third, I don’t expect healing overnight—it’s over YEARS.”

In his letter to the church at Galatia, Paul tells them that they can look forward to great changes in the hands of God—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, generosity, gentleness, and self-control. Quite the miracle, isn’t it? When we are aware of them, we are quite humbled, which means we are more apt to listen to God and love what God loves. However, if these gifts of the Spirit are eluding us, we are more apt to be dark, to be led by our egos, to close in on ourselves.

What we’re beginning to understand is that if we want to move through the crisis of our lives and into the grace and growth of God we need to look at 3 things:

*Do we expect grace? What would that look like?

*Do we participate in God’s healing? What would that look like?

*Do we expect healing over NIGHT, or over YEARS? What would expecting healing over YEARS to look like?

Closing Prayer: Help us, gracious God, to let go of the past and move into your future—to flow with life on your terms—to look for signs of you in our common life together—to partner with you in our healing—to have patience with the long haul of transformation. Amen.

(This sermon was preached on Sunday, October 5 at Central Christian Church in Billings, Montana by the Reverend Dana Keener.)

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