Sunday, January 26, 2014

Broken Open

Sermon preached January 26, 2014

Texts: Matthew 4:12-23

            “Love Hurts” Roy Orbison
            “Love Hurts” Nazareth
            If you are a fan of Roy Orbison and his song, “Love Hurts” you may be disappointed by the remake of the song that was done in the mid-1970s by a band named “Nazareth.”  If you thought that “Nazareth” might be a religious band, you would really have been disappointed.
            Such disappointments would probably be short-lived.  We can weather these kind of disappointments easily enough.  Life is full of little disappointments.
            But not every disappointment is little.  Life is also marked by deeper disappointments, saddnesses, even traumas.  Sometimes love hurts.
            Last Sunday was the Sunday of the Martin Luther King, Jr. birthday, but this morning I want to tell you a bit of his story.  Dr. King arrived in Montgomery in September, 1954.  He was a young pastor, assuming his first regular pulpit, still working on a Ph. D. at Methodist-related Boston University.  When he went to Montgomery, he had no intention of leading a social protest.  He intended to serve a congregation as his father and grandfather had, and perhaps someday become a college president.
             Fifteen months after his arrival, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus.  A group of local clergy and church leaders formed the Montgomery Improvement Association to organize a bus boycott.  Martin, the newest and youngest clergy, became the reluctant president of the association.  There were twists and turns, arrests and threats in the coming weeks.
            After one stint in jail, late at night, King received a phone call.  The caller told him to leave Montgomery in the next few days.  He was seized with fear.  In his book Stride Toward Freedom, King reflected on that night: 

I was ready to give up.  With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward.  In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God.  With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud.

The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory.  ‘I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right.  But now I am afraid.  The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they, too, will falter.  I am at the end of my powers.  I have nothing left.  I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.’

At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before.  It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying, “Stand up for justice, stand up for the truth; and God will be at your side forever.”  Almost at once, my fears began to go.  My uncertainty disappeared.  I was ready to face anything.

Three days later, the King house was bombed.  “Strangely enough,” wrote King, “I accepted the news calmly.  My religious experience a few nights before had given me the strength to face it.”
            Disappointment, discouragement, even trauma.  About a month before he was assassinated, King preached a sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta entitled “Unfulfilled Dreams.”  He preached about disappointment. 
            Oh this morning, if I can leave anything with you, let me urge you to be sure you have a strong boat of faith.  The winds are going to blow.  The storms of disappointment are coming.  The agonies and anguishes of life are coming….  It will be dark sometimes, and it will be dismal and trying, and tribulations will come.  But if you have faith in the God I’m talking about this morning, it doesn’t matter.  For you can stand up amid the storms.  A month later, Dr. King was dead.
            Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.  He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea.  We don’t know everything there is to know about the relationship between Jesus and John.  In Luke’s gospel they are related.  In all the gospels, Jesus comes to be baptized by John.  Jesus was, it seems, among those who learned from John.  The gospels, written well after the death of John and Jesus, and written to attest to Jesus, downplay the role of John, but it is easy to think that he may have been an important spiritual mentor for Jesus.
            John is arrested.  Might Jesus have experienced disappointment, discouragement, fear, a measure of trauma?  When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew.  He relocated.  It was then that he began his own distinct work.  From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
            Discouragement, disappointment, hurt, trauma.  It touches our lives.  One never recovers from being human, in the words of psychoanalyst Michael Eigen (frontpiece in Contact With the Depths).  The therapist Mark Epstein writes: Everyday life is so challenging….  Life, even normal life, is arduous, demanding, and ultimately threatening….  We are all traumatized by life, by its unpredictability, its randomness, its lack of regard for our feelings and the losses it brings.  Each in our own way, we suffer. The Trauma of Everyday Life, 17)
            Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.  He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea.  Jesus was touched here by disappointment, discouragement, hurt, a measure of trauma.
            Yet the story goes on.  There seems a trust that God has not abandoned him.  In fact, Jesus’s message is that the kingdom of God has come near.  And in the midst of his disappointment Jesus discovers his mission.  He is able to hear the call of God in his life even as he deals with disappointment, discouragement, difficulty.
            Gillian Rose, born September 20, 1947 (d. December 9, 1995) was a British scholar who worked in the fields of philosophy and sociology.  She was a talented academician who held a few academic positions in her career.  As part of her thinking into the Holocaust, Professor Rose was engaged by the Polish Commission for the Future of Auschwitz in 1990.  In 1993, Rose was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and fought a brave battle with the aggressive disease until she succumbed to it December 9, 1995 at the age of 48.  Born into a non-practicing Jewish family, Rose made a deathbed conversion to Christianity through the Anglican Church.
            In one of her final books, Love’s Work, Rose wrote: When something untoward happens, some trauma or damage, whether inflicted by the commissions or omissions of others, or some cosmic force, one makes the initially unwelcome event one’s own inner occupation….  In ill-health and in unhappy love, this is the hardest work: it requires taking in before letting be.
            God embraces us – small, fearful, disappointed, hurt, traumatized though we may feel.  God calls us – small, fearful, disappointed, hurt, traumatized though we may be, God calls us to be amazing in our own ways.
            God is with us to redeem the hurt, and in some ways this is among the most difficult topics I ever preach about.  Sure, sermons that touch politics or sexuality have the potential to invite more heat, but to speak and preach about human hurt, disappointment and trauma touches us deeply.  There is the danger that I may not seem to take your experience seriously enough.  I never would say, “God never gives you more than you can handle,” because some of us have experienced such daunting disappointment or hurtful trauma that such a statement makes little sense.  It also implies that God is o.k. at some level with all the disappointing things, the traumatic things that happen, and I don’t believe that.  God does not cause or allow all the hurt, disappointment, and trauma in the world, though I know there is some comfort in that idea.  God does not cause it all or allow it all, and we know God does not take all the difficulties of life away.
            What God offers is God’s presence and an invitation into newness of life where we are able to weave a rich tapestry of our experience, even our difficult experience.  God calls to us, even when we are hurting, and the call is to a richer life.  In the words of author Elizabeth Lesser, Over and over, we are broken on the shore of life….  The promise of being broken and the possibility of being opened are written into the contract of human life.  Certainly this tumultuous journey on the waves can be tiresome.  When the sea is rough, and when we are suffering, we may want to give up hope and give in to despair.  But brave pilgrims have gone before us.  They tell us to venture forth with faith and vision. (Broken Open, 273)
            Brave pilgrims have gone before us.  Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.  He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea.  Jesus is one of those brave pilgrims, and he promises to walk the way with us.
            Fosston, Minnesota is a small town along highway 2.  It has a United Methodist Church.  Years ago I was there as their district superintendent, to lead a church conference.  It was a cold November day, and I had left home early to make sure I arrived.  I was there early, and found a parking lot to rest and read.  I had this book with me, Traits of a Healthy Spirituality.  Sitting in my cold car, I read these words: we do not always get what we hope for.  Sometimes… we get more than we hoped for. (119)  I laughed.  A few years before that, I was finishing my Ph.D.  I had two initial interviews for teaching positions, and at that point in my life, that is what I thought I wanted to do.  I was disappointed when I never received a call for a second interview.  But at that moment in Fosston, there was something that helped redeem the hurt.  No, I was not teaching in Boston, but in a parking lot in Fosston.  Yet I was following God’s Spirit.  I was grateful for where life was taking me.

            Life disappoints.  Love hurts.  The world and our lives are filled with beauty and brokenness.  If we can face our hurts and traumas and disappointments honestly, and this is no easy task, if we can take it in, there is possibility for learning, for growth, for new life.  God is always there, embracing us in our pain.  God is always there in Jesus, calling us forward, inviting us to follow into new life.  Say “yes.”  Amen.

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