Sunday, July 5, 2015

“The Answer to Unanswered Prayer” (2 Corinthians 12:2-10)

Text:  2 Corinthians 12:2-10

But now that we’re at it, I may as well bring up the matter of visions and revelations that God gave me. For instance, I know a man who, fourteen years ago, was seized by Christ and swept in ecstasy to the heights of heaven. I really don’t know if this took place in the body or out of it; only God knows. I also know that this man was hijacked into paradise—again, whether in or out of the body, I don’t know; God knows. There he heard the unspeakable spoken, but was forbidden to tell what he heard. This is the man I want to talk about. But about myself, I’m not saying another word apart from the humiliations.

If I had a mind to brag a little, I could probably do it without looking ridiculous, and I’d still be speaking plain truth all the way. But I’ll spare you. I don’t want anyone imagining me as anything other than the fool you’d encounter if you saw me on the street or heard me talk.

 Because of the extravagance of those revelations, and so I wouldn’t get a big head, I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in constant touch with my limitations. Satan’s angel did his best to get me down; what he in fact did was push me to my knees. No danger then of walking around high and mighty! At first I didn’t think of it as a gift, and begged God to remove it. Three times I did that, and then he told me,
My grace is enough; it’s all you need.

My strength comes into its own in your weakness.
Once I heard that, I was glad to let it happen. I quit focusing on the handicap and began appreciating the gift. It was a case of Christ’s strength moving in on my weakness. Now I take limitations in stride, and with good cheer, these limitations that cut me down to size—abuse, accidents, opposition, bad

Quote:  “…most of the time, all you have is the moment, and the imperfect love of the people around you.”—Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies:  Some Thoughts on Faith
“The Answer to Unanswered Prayer”

Are any of you familiar with the cartoon strip “Cathy”?  It was released in 1976 and ran through 2010.  Cathy is the creation of Cathy Guisewite, and, according to Wikipedia, “features a young woman who struggles with the four basic guilt groups:  food, love, family, and work.”

What I remember is that about this time every year Cathy would enter a women’s clothing store, select a bathing suit, stand before a mirror and gasp; “horrors” she’d say.  What she had been hiding behind loose clothing wasn’t very pretty, but she could live with the denial until spring, when she grabbed a bathing suit and stood before a mirror.  Mirrors don’t lie.

I want to talk about denial for a minute.  Denial is a defense mechanism.  If you're in denial, you're trying to protect yourself by refusing to accept the truth about something that's happening in your life. The bright side of denial is that it gives us a little time to adjust to a challenging situation.  The dark side of denial is that it prevents us from dealing with painful or stressful issues that remind us that we are vulnerable and also require action. 

 Cathy didn’t want to do the work of wearing a bikini well but she wanted the results of wearing a bikini well.  Her dilemma was this—if she didn’t have a bathing suit she missed out on all of the summer fun at the pool and the beach.  If she DID suit up, well, she wasn’t perfect.  How did Cathy resolve her dilemma?  Most of the time she’d hand the bathing suit back to the clerk and then make a promise to her self to lose ten pounds by next spring…so she could have a life.

This past week was a little painful for Central Christian Church.  We invited someone from our national church organization to look through our statistics and tell us what she saw. 
She held a mirror up to us, and we were sad.

Our median age is 70 years old.

We average 33 persons in worship.

Our congregational membership is about 69 persons.

Only fifty percent of our budget is raised through pledges.  A congregation should be receiving 67% of their income from pledges.

Our sanctuary can hold up to 150 persons, which means we only use 20% of this room on Sunday mornings, but heat and cool 100%.  We could easily live in half of the upstairs, but we live, and heat, and cool 100% of the upstairs—the YMCA rents our basement.

When she asked, “What ministries do you have?”  We couldn’t list very many.  Disciple Women are talking about disbanding, and so is the Men’s group.  We have three senior high youth attending church camp this summer.  We still do Community Service but the list of service organizations we help is smaller. Our Moderator, Kelli Maxwell, has a plan for a community garden and for our congregation to get out of the building and get to know our neighborhood and community, but they haven’t quite taken off yet. 

And the list goes on….

Like Cathy, standing before a mirror with a flabby body dressed in a bikini, well, we gasped “horrors!”  We are so small and so old, and our incredibly lovely but large building feels like a moo- moo. 

The conclusion we jumped to?  If we could just find that magic cure and get more people in here—especially younger people—then we could have a life.  We could have a large worship service and a children’s program.  And then we moved to problem solving such as create and distribute more fliers and visit the pastors of other churches that are successful and find out what they are doing to attract more and younger people.  Because if we were just bigger and younger we could have a life, correct?

Here’s the question, “Is the gospel life best lived out by younger persons?  Is the gospel life best lived out by large churches?  Do buildings create the gospel life?”

You know what the gospel life is, don’t you?  I like the way Douglas John Hall defines gospel in his book Waiting for Gospel, “the Spirit of the LORD is upon me (us)…to bring the good news to the poor, heal the broken-hearted, preach deliverance to captives, bring recovery of sight to the blind and set at liberty all that are bruised.  Gospel is not a set of beliefs, it is an event.  Gospel is not something we do, it is something done unto us. “ The same Spirit that moved over chaos and created the universe moves over you, and me; us.  It is seismic.  It transforms people into doers of justice, sources of mercy, people of prayer, dreamers, and visionaries—CHRIST! 

I like the way the prophet Ezekiel describes gospel in the OLD TESTAMENT, Chapter 36:26---“26 I'll give you a new heart, put a new spirit in you. I'll remove the stone heart from your body and replace it with a heart that's God-willed, not self-willed. 27 I'll put my Spirit in you and make it possible for you to do what I tell you and live by my commands.”

Again I ask you—do we have to be young church to experience the gospel?  Do we have to be a large church—with a youth group and a choir—to be visited by the Holy Spirit of God—and yield to its direction?

You see, the problem isn’t that God has left the building.  The problem is that we are feeling less than; we are feeling sorry for ourselves.  We are measuring ourselves against our past and we are coming out losers.  And we won’t touch the building, we won’t become better stewards of what we have--- because we think our past is coming back; we think our youth and our numbers are coming back.  Isn’t that what we lift our hands to heaven for, praying…”God give us more people.  God give us children.  Give us all of those things that make us happy disciples.”   Which means our faith isn’t in the ever-present Spirit of God.  Our faith is in numbers, youth, and money…our memories, our past…our human assurances.
My husband serves the Joliet Christian Church.  When he met them seven years ago there were 14 persons in worship.  Now they often have 24 persons in worship.  They are so excited.  If they could have 33 persons in worship and 69 persons participating in the life of the church, like we do, well, they’d be huge.

When Jesus moved into the mission of God—loving, lifting, feeding, healing, suffering for and with…he chose 12 persons.  Twelve persons to love the world into a better place. 

Understand what I am saying?  We’ve got to get out from underneath our past and we’ve got to get out from underneath our miss-placed since of power.  We cannot control anything.  We cannot make our children be church with us but we’ve tried.  We experimented with paying young persons to be a part of us, but it didn’t work. Thank God it didn’t work! And all we are doing right now is throwing money at our general fund and renew thy church fund, and it’s not working either.  We can’t buy youth and we can’t buy participation.    We are vulnerable.
In our lesson from 2 Corinthians Paul says vulnerability is good.  It keeps us on our toes.  It keeps us looking at God, the source of real power, and keeps us from looking at ourselves, the source of human assurances.  He didn’t court vulnerability, however, so he says don’t give him credit for being a super holy person.

What he courted was a God who would take away his affliction, whatever it is.  Many scholars think Paul was burdened with epilepsy, but we really don’t know.  All we know is that something had him and he really, really didn’t want it.  So he begged God all of the time to take his pain away.   What he encountered instead was a God who told him, “I use your affliction to keep you close to me.  The answer to unanswered prayer is me. My grace is sufficient.”  THIS is grace; not grace as approval but grace as the very real presence of our very real God showing up in our very real, very imperfect lives.

Could that be true for us as church, perhaps, that God uses our current size and age to keep us close to God? If God threw more money and people at us, would that make us gospel people---people leaning in to hear who God is asking us to love and serve in this time and place in 2015---or would we experience the opposite—would we be satisfied, comfortable—and therefore full of ourselves?

A couple of years ago I was leading worship when I was overcome by something someone had said to me.  Her words “snuck in.”  A member of our church who has since left our fellowship said, “You were supposed to bring us children, young people.”  As I broke the bread and lifted the cup I felt tears welling up in my eyes.  I looked out at the congregation, the thirty or so gathered, and I thought to myself, “Dana, you are a failure as a pastor.”  But knowing I had to hold safe space for the congregation in worship and that I had to be very professional, I fought back the tears.  But the words were still there. My heart was so heavy…when these words came to me, “Dana, if you had managed to pack the house in the first year you were here, you would have thought that you had done that.”

We learn humility through humiliation.

Through his weakness, not his strength, Paul discovered that God is love and love shows up with a word that’s trustworthy.  The work of the church is to listen for God’s word offered through the mighty Holy Spirit of God; to discover what our purpose is today in the larger purpose of God’s restoring the creation.  Yesterday it was worship and Sunday School and youth groups and fellowship groups.  Today it is, well, have we asked?  It doesn’t take money, or a young heart, or a building, or a large worship service, or a coffee fellowship hour to ask God what our purpose is—it takes a sincere heart.

Sincerity with God, I have learned, is the result of running out of me—so I could run INTO God.  It’s only when we truly realize that we have no power that we reach out to who does have power—and do what God wants, not what we want.  Sincerity is hard work—it takes a very disciplined heart to hear the word of God.  God speaks softly, and quickly; God speaks through earthly messengers and dreams.
What the Apostle Paul wants to know is if we are up to the task…will we trade telling God what we want for asking God what God wants…will we trade denial for reality…will we let go of our past for God’s company in the present?  Will we be open to gospel?

Prayer:  Amazing God, as the church calendar moves from Easter to Pentecost, the season when we celebrate the Spirit-fueled faith community, help us to move from self-pity to empowerment—we are not small in your eyes, or old, or poor—we are yours—you have your eye on us and our neighborhood—your Spirit is bearing down—wondering—if we’ll ask you what we can do you for you?  Gracious God, what can we do for you? Amen.

(This sermon was preached by Reverend Dana Keener at Billings Central Christian Church on May 24, 2015.)

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