Sermon preached January 25, 2015
Texts: Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Mark 1:14-20
Warren Zevon, “Lawyers, Guns and Money” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lP5Xv7QqXiM
Later in the song, as the story of this person’s troubles continues, the singer will sing, “Send lawyers, guns and money… [life] has hit the fan.” He uses a more crude term, one not appropriate for this morning.
Lawyers, guns and money. Some of you have met with Val Walker from the Minnesota United Methodist Foundation. Thank you for taking time to do that so Val can make a good recommendation to our church council about a capital campaign. When I met with Val, she told me that if we move forward, I will need to preach a couple of times about this, so why not today. “Lawyers, guns and money” sounds like a good capital campaign sermon, doesn’t it? I hope you know that I am kidding!
But life does hit the fan. Things go awry. Good plans fall apart. Unforeseen events derail us.
Most people acknowledge this. How can you deny that things can go wobbly? Then comes the response of some. When the going gets tough, the tough get going – and who doesn’t want to be among the tough? Or we hear, “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.” Who doesn’t want to make something delicious in life? I do appreciate the de-motivation take on some of these – “When the going gets tough, the smart left a long time ago.” “When life hands you lemons, make a glass of orange juice and leave everybody wondering how you did that.” A little quirky humor is one way I try and make some lemonade in life.
Sure that making lemonade advice is good advice sometimes. Life isn’t perfect and if we wait for it to be so, we will be waiting a long time. However, I also think that this advice can be superficial. Life is more difficult and challenging, bewildering and painful than the lemonade advice perhaps acknowledges. Last Sunday we prayed for a woman named Lavonne, a friend to some here in this congregation. We prayed for her as she was in the final stages of her life. Lavonne was a 59 year old woman who had pancreatic cancer. She died that day. Before she died, Lavonne touched many lives after her diagnosis, including some in this congregation. Somehow cute sayings about lemons and lemonade don’t quite capture this life situation. This week Marcus Borg died. Dr. Borg was a New Testament scholar whose work has been of help to many who struggled with deep questions even as they were drawn to the God of Jesus Christ. Borg helped many to see Christianity in new ways. In the words found toward the close of his final book, Convictions, Borg wrote: What’s the Christian life all about? It’s about loving God and loving what God loves. It’s about becoming passionate about God and participating in God’s passion for a different kind of world. (231) In reading some of the articles about Borg’s death, these words were written even as he struggled with his health. There is more here than making lemonade out of lemons.
Life is more difficult and challenging, bewildering and painful than the neat phrase about making lemonade out of lemons captures. We experience deep disappointments – some relational, some occupational, some maybe even spiritual.
So where is God in the midst of our struggles, difficulties, bewilderments and pain? I think of the powerful passage from Elie Wiesel’s book Night. Elie Wiesel spent time in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, which was liberated seventy years ago this week (January 27, 1945). Wiesel writes about the concentration camp experience in Night. In the passage I want to share with you, three prisoners are hanged, including a young boy who was accused of participating in a sabotage plot.
“Long live liberty!” shouted the two men. But the boy was silent. “Where is merciful God, where is He?” someone behind me was asking. At the signal, the three chairs were tipped over. Total silence in the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting…. Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish. But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing… And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes. And we were forced to look at him at close range…. Behind me, I heard the same man asking: “For God’s sake, where is God?” And from within me, I heard a voice answer: “Where He is? This is where – hanging here from this gallows…” (64-65)
Where is God? God is with us. God is with us in the midst of our pain and bewilderment and discouragement and disappointment. God is with us to embrace us. God is with us to help get us through. God is with us, and with God’s presence, we may even grow and change through the difficulties of life. There is something deeper here than being tough and making lemonade, but at the same time, this is a word of hope. With God, not only might we make it through life’s most difficult times, but we might even enlarge our hearts and grow our souls. Marcus Borg writes about going through a time of intense doubt about Christian faith. “My doubts about whether I really believed in God were a source of deep anxiety” (Convictions, 29). Borg drifted away from faith all together until he took a religion class in college and found intellectual passion and a revived Christian faith. Elie Wiesel, survivor of Auschwitz, in a more recent book reflects on his life following emergency heart surgery, a surgery that may have marked the end of his life, but did not. Reflecting on all his life, he writes, “And so, the patient that I am, more charitable, repeats, “Since God is, He is to be found in the questions as well as in the answers.” (Open Heart, 69). On the next page, Wiesel writes about his grandson, Elijah. “Grandpa, you know that I love you, and I see you are in pain. Tell me: If I loved you more, would you be in less pain?” I am convinced God at that moment is smiling as He contemplates His creation (70). Coming through crisis, Wiesel encounters God in new ways. In a book on church leadership I just finished this week while sitting at O’Hare airport, I read: “it is precisely in the moments of crisis, despair, disorganization, and fear that God’s Spirit forms new community in the Bible” (Dwight Zscheile, The Agile Church, 128).
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time. Jonah had been through a lot – a stormy voyage, a few days in the belly of a big fish, being barfed up on shore. God was with Jonah, and the word of the Lord came to him a second time. This time, when he followed the leading of the Spirit, something happened. The people of Nineveh turned from their evil ways.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the good news of God. After John was arrested. We often miss the human element of Jesus. Here the person who baptized him, who at some point was probably teacher, mentor and friend, he is arrested. It is after this crisis that Jesus ministry begins.
This past Monday, in our social hall, I listened as Vernon Jordan spoke to the gathered MLK breakfast crowd in the Twin Cities. The speech was simulcast here. Jordan, a long-time civil rights leader spoke about the world today, and how he thought some things would make Martin Luther King, Jr. cry tears of joy and some would make him cry tears of sorrow. Jordan shared that he still had an audacious faith, and that arose in part from moments of crisis and pain. Jordan shared a story about May 1980 when he was in Fort Wayne, Indiana and was shot. He told those listening that he received many good wishes, but one that stood out among others was a telegram from George Wallace, former segregationist governor of Alabama. It read, in part, “I am praying for your complete recovery.” Recovered from his wounds, a year later, Jordan traveled to Alabama for a civil rights ceremony. At that event, Governor George Wallace who himself was partially paralyzed and used a wheelchair as a result of an assassination attempt in 1972, was present. The Governor’s wheelchair was brought to the stage, and Wallace asked Jordan for a favor. He asked him for a hug. Jordan said he wrapped his arms around "the villain of Selma, a mean old racist who once stood at the schoolhouse door to keep black people out." Out of crisis, a deepened faith in the possibility for change.
On any given Sunday, I don’t know all the disappointments, discouragements, bewilderments, pain that you all may be experiencing. I may know some, but certainly not all. Over time, I have learned a deep respect for people’s pain. I can never see myself saying, “when life hands you lemons, make lemonade.” Yet there is good news to be shared nonetheless. It needs to be shared in a way that genuinely respects human pain, disappointment, discouragement, and bewilderment. There is good news. God is with us. God is with us again and again and again, and the word of the Lord comes to us again and again and again. God is with us, and we can make it. God is with us, and we may even grow as we grapple with our disappointments, discouragements, bewilderments and pain. There is good news. When life hits the fan, as it sometimes does, God does not send lawyers, guns and money. God arrives – embracing us, calling us. Amen.