been some wondering about a song I might play given this morning’s sermon title
- “The Day After the Day After
Tomorrow.” Could it be REM’s “It’s The
End of the World as We Know It”? How
about Badfinger “Day After Day” or The Kinks, “Til the End of the Day”? What about Godspell, “Day by Day”?
The song that I played was the first
part of a song by Miles Davis entitled “Fall.”
The sermon title has nothing to do with the song, but it has a lot to do
with the sermon.
I was first diagnosed with chronic
ulcerative colitis when I was in college.
I was 21. Because people with
this disease are at a higher risk for colon cancer, I have my colon scoped
regularly, now annually. If a cancerous
polyp or even pre-cancerous polyp is discovered, it would probably mean surgery
to remove my colon. Over the years, we
have had a couple of scares. In 2001
when I went for my colonoscopy, the doctor could not even perform the procedure
because of the inflammation present. I
was referred to a specialist. It was
that summer, when I was not feeling all that spectacular, that I rediscovered
jazz. It was that fall, driving to a
retreat that this Miles Davis song penetrated my heart and stirred my
soul. It was a beautiful day and this
song was as bright as the sun and as colorful as the leaves.
Two years after that, the
medications I was on to control my inflammation just gave out. That was a scary time. A couple of years after I arrived here, my
colonoscopy revealed a suspicious polyp.
My doctor began to discuss with us potential surgical options. Thankfully, when the test results came back,
the polyp was non-cancerous.
I share this history not because it
is all that remarkable. Many of you have
had to confront more difficult medical issues.
While I have worried some about cancer, you have had to battle it. I tell the story because it is part of my
contact with and confrontation with the fragility of life, and with
mortality. I played the song because it
centers me, and I wanted that this morning, and because it reminds me that even
in the midst of dealing with fragility and mortality, there are moments when
awe, and beauty and wonder and mystery break through.
“Jesus said this to indicate the
kind of death he was to die.” Jesus had
been saying something about being lifted up from the earth. Part of this passage is Jesus confronting his
own mortality. We all confront
mortality. People die. Where is God?
My experience with death goes well
beyond the times I have had to think about colon cancer. Within my first six weeks as a pastor, at age
twenty-five, I officiated at three funerals – the first for a man who was about
the age I am right now. He had a brain tumor.
In my ministry I have officiated at services for, and helped families
deal with the death of children from months old, to a couple of years old, to
people over age 100. I have worked with
families where parents have lost children, where young children have lost a
mother or a father. I have worked with
two suicides, a thirteen year-old and a man in his seventies. The first question his sister asked me was if
her brother was in hell. I officiated at
the funeral of a young woman who was killed by her jealous ex-boyfriend in a
drunken rage. I have walked a lot in the
valley of the shadow of death. I look
around this morning and see many who have also walked in that valley. I look around and see places where people we
knew and loved sat on Sunday mornings past.
Where is God when people we love and
care about die? How is God with us at
First, I don’t think God plans our
time. I know some find comfort in that
thought, and I want to say that I could be wrong, but I don’t think God has all
our days mapped out, and that there is an appointed time when we will die. Too many heart-wrenching deaths that seem out
of time to me lead me to think this. I
have been helped in my thinking by my acquaintance, theologian Marjorie
Suchocki. In the chapter on prayers for
healing in her book In God’s Presence, she writes that prayers
for healing must take place in the full recognition of our mortality. We will all die; it is not a question of if,
but a question of when. The wonder is
that given our fragility, and all the illnesses we contract, all but one of
these illnesses are irreversible. (58)
So we pray for healing and “prayers for healing make a difference in
what kind of resources God can use as God faithfully touches us with impulses toward our good” (59). God does not know in advance which disease
will be our demise. God only knows when
some disease reaches a point of irreversibility. God does not know just how many days after
the day after tomorrow we may have, and God’s work is always toward healing
until healing as health is no longer possible.
When that time comes, God welcomes
the dying person into new life beyond this life. I remember the first time I ever heard the
ending of the statement of faith of The United Church of Canada. I thought that this was a beautiful statement
of faith. “In life, in death, in life
beyond death, God is with us. We are not
alone. Thanks be to God.” God receives each of our perishing lives into
God’s own life in ways that ultimately shade off into mystery. God receives our lives when we die, and there
is new life. I think of the lovely image
offered by Alfred North Whitehead, the image of God as “a tender care that
nothing be lost” (Process and Reality, 525). We hear
such trust in Jesus’ words in John.
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just
a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” We trust that in death God takes the grain of
our lives and makes it part of something beautiful in a tender care that
nothing be lost.
I also believe God is with us when
we face the death of a loved one giving us the grace of remembering. In one of the prayers I frequently use at
memorial services there is thanksgiving to God for that of the person who has
died, “which lives and grows in each of us.”
We are so created by God that we have the wonderful ability to carry
other people inside of us. Many, many
times I have quoted the poet May Sarton, “the people we love are built into
In the face of death, God is also
with us to bring new life. When we
grieve, God shares our grief and seeks to bring us new life. When we cry in sorrow, God shares our tears,
and seeks to bring us new life. When his
twenty-five year-old died in a mountain climbing accident, the theologian
Nicholas Wolterstorff penned a moving book, Lament for a Son, in which he describes something of this new life God
seeks to bring in the midst of sorrow and grief.
believe in Christ’s rising and death’s dying is also to live with the power and
the challenge to rise up now from all our dark graves of suffering love. If sympathy for the world’s wounds is not
enlarged by our anguish, if love for those around us is not expanded, if
gratitude for what is good does not flame up, if insight is not deepened, if
commitment to what is important is not strengthened, if aching for a new day is
not intensified, if hope is weakened and faith diminished, if from the
experience of death comes nothing good, then death has won. (92) Such new life is not easy, and we are always
marked by the pain of the death of those we loved. Yet new life is possible. The grain of wheat falls into the earth, and
something new emerges. As hard as it can
be some days, with God there is always the day after the day after tomorrow.
But I cannot leave this passage from
John without also recognizing that it is saying something not just about how
God can be with us as we confront death in the literal sense. Jesus speaks using an image, a metaphor, and
that image says something about our lives beyond our confrontation with
mortality and death.
In our lives, change itself can be a
kind of dying, but change is also the path to new life. Sometimes in order to be the kind of people
we want to be and God invites us to be, we need to let go of old habits, old
patterns of living that get in the way of being more loving and caring and concerned. Such letting go requires a kind of dying and
a kind of faith that on the other side there is new life. Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth
and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Faith is, itself, a giving of ourselves to
something bigger – to love, to compassion, to justice, to a world not yet fully
here or fully born. Every moment used is
a kind of death, the death of that moment.
Will we use our moments in ways that plant fruitful seeds for God’s
dream for the world?
breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the
spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer,
filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come,
it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to
buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies
alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it
stops. (A. Bartlett Giamatti, from "The
Green Fields of the Mind ") Former
baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti penned those words about baseball. They are also about life. It breaks your heart. Life will break our hearts some times, and
never more than when we lose someone close to us to death. God is with us – in life, in death, in life
beyond death. God is with us to comfort
us. God is with us as tenderness that
nothing be lost. God is with us as the
grace of remembering. God is with us to
give us the courage of the soft heart, for the only alternative to a heart that
cannot break is a hard heart, and that is not the way of life. And God is about life, and about new life -
about sympathy for the world’s wounds being enlarged, about expanding love for
those around us, about gratitude for what is good flaming up, about deepened
insight, about strengthening commitment to what is important, about aching for
a new day, about faith and hope and love, about beauty, wonder and awe breaking
through even when life is feels fragile, about using our lives for something
In life, in death, in life beyond
death, God is with us. We are not alone
– today, and tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, and the day after the day
after tomorrow. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Following up on that song, I found
out that there are quizzes on the internet to determine how big a loser you may
be. I have no intention of telling you
how I scored.
really don’t want to talk about being a “loser.” Most of the time, it is not a helpful
category for talking about human lives.
Instead, I want to talk about something related – how we, as humans can
mess things up. Sometimes when we mess
things up, we feel like we are losers.
we mess things up simply by making mistakes.
Recently I ran into a clergy acquaintance of mine. As we were chatting, he mentioned that his
father had died last summer. I said I
was so sorry, and that I did not remember hearing that. Turns out I had sent him an e-mail conveying
my condolences. I felt like singing a
chorus of ‘I’m a Loser.” We all make
mistakes, though I hope this one was not hurtful.
our mistakes are not making silly choices or being forgetful, sometimes they
involve choices between two good things.
Life choices are not always between good options and bad ones. Some of the challenging choices in life are
between two good options – perhaps between educational choices, or vocational
choices. We make a choice that is not a
bad choice, but later may feel like we should have made the other choice. We feel like we may have messed up.
here is kind of an embarrassing mistake from my childhood. I was filling something out that asked about
my favorite actress. I had not really
thought about that much. I knew more
actors than actresses, but I saw the name Sophia Loren in the newspaper, so put
her name down. It was kind of an
embarrassing choice for an elementary student.
Sophia Loren was as much a sex symbol as an actress then. However, she has also said some wise things,
among them, “Mistakes are part of the dues one pays for living a full life.”
are part of the dues one pays for living a full life, and we can live with some
of the embarrassment that may accompany our mistakes. While at times we may regret making one good
choice over another, we typically live with the good choices we make.
is another kind of messing up, though, that is more problematic. It is our ability to take what is whole and
break it, to take what is good and misuse it, our abilities to be mean or
petty. We mess things up by our failure
to see our own messes, and by turning away from the hurts of the world.
Spufford, in his wonderfully titled book Apologetic: why, despite
everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense, writes
insightfully about the human tendency to mess things up. He does so using a slightly more colorful
word. What we’re talking about here is not just our tendency to lurch and
stumble and screw up by accident, our passive role as agents of entropy. It’s our active inclination to break stuff,
“stuff” here including moods, promises, relationships we care about, and our
own well-being and other people’s, as well as material objects whose high gloss
positively seems to invite a big fat scratch. (27) We are
truly cruel as well as truly tender, truly loving and at the same time truly
likely to take a quick nasty little pleasure in wasting or breaking love,
scorching it knowingly up as the fuel for some hotter or more exciting feeling
Marjorie Suchocki, an acquaintance of mine, also writes in powerful ways about
our capacity for messing up. She says
that as humans we have natural capacities for sustaining ourselves, defending
ourselves, and for relating to others. These natural instincts to sustain ourselves
and defend ourselves are not sinful, but they can easily turn into instruments
whereby we contribute unnecessarily to the ill-being of others…. The very openness that invites relation also
makes us vulnerable, and sometimes we try to close ourselves off in protection.
(In God’s Presence, 71)
don’t mean to pile on here, but one more theologian on the human condition and
our ability to mess up, Barbara Brown Taylor.
We really are free to make
disastrous decisions. Our choices really
do have consequences…. Deep down in human existence, there is an experience of
being cut off from life. (Speaking of Sin, 47, 62). Her book is called, Speaking of Sin.
prefer to speak of messing up because the idea of “sin” has so often been used
in sinful ways, creating shame, holding it as power over someone. The fact, however, is that we mess up.
was leading a youth group on a work trip in Arkansas. We were at a camp that worked with physically
and mentally challenged children. Our
tasks were primarily maintenance. There
was a camp counselor there who worked with our group, and at times, I felt he
interfered too much with how the adults I had brought were trying to work with
our group. I was upset and was talking
with some of the adult chaperones when I noticed this young man out of the
corner of my eye. He probably heard my
frustration with him. I should have
handled the situation differently. I still
feel the wrong I did to him. Remember
that strong feeling memory bank I told you I have?
I remember trying
to help our son as he was trying to connect with some boys in the
neighborhood. I offered advice – do
this, not that – until finally he just said, “Maybe I should just be someone
else.” My advice had really stomped on
his spirit. I had been insensitive. I still feel that moment.
is God when we mess up – either deliberately by our attention or by our inattention? So from our Scripture reading for this
morning the answer is pretty simple and straightforward. We mess up, God sends snakes and we die. Amen – time for the offering and benediction.
really need to read this passage with a metaphoric mind. That’s how the gospel writer reads it. The Numbers story is about humans messing
up. Freedom is hard. The people were thinking that at least as
slaves there were regular meals. Here
they had no food. Or, I guess there was
food, but it was not very good food. Not
every step on the road to freedom is an easy one, and the people wanted to turn
back. They were snakebit before any
snakes even arrive on the scene in the story.
That’s like us, we are snakebit, but we are the ones who stuck our hand
in the adder’s den.
are snakebit, but healing comes. Healing
comes through looking at a snake.
Somehow healing happens when we truly see our capacity to be
snakebit. The gospel writer in John uses
this frankly weird and frightening story to make sense of Jesus, and God’s love
expressed in Jesus. In Jesus’s death on
the cross we see something of the capacity of human’s to mess up big time. The imperial powers don’t want anyone messing
with their rule. Religious authorities
can crush creativity. Jesus dies, he
gets lifted up. Then we find those
beautiful words from John. For God so loved the world the he gave his
only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have
eternal life. Indeed, God did not send
the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might
be saved through him.
is about healing. In Greek and Latin
there are similar words for healing and salvation. God’s love is a healing love, a love that
heals through the wreckage. That is not
always easy healing. We need to see the
snake, need to see our own ability to mess things up. I have come to think that the idea of forgive
and forget is mostly b.s. bogus
sensibility. Forgiveness is in not
really in forgetting, it is in how we remember, how it is we look at the snake,
at the wreckage. My favorite definition
of forgiveness remains that of Jack Kornfield, a Buddhist and a therapist. “Forgiveness means giving up all hope of a
better past.” (The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace, 25).
is about healing love. How is this God
of healing love with us when we mess up?
is with us as forgiveness. Forgiveness
is about new beginnings. It is not about
forgetting the past, it is about re-weaving it into our lives. If I could take back some of the hurtful
comments I have made in my life, if I could remove those moments when I stepped
on somebody’s spirit, if I could change those times when I wasn’t sensitive
enough to others and to the world, I would.
I cannot. Forgiveness is giving
up all hope of a better past. It is
making our way through and learning from the messes we have made and trying to
do better with the help of God and in community with others. Henri Nouwen wrote about “living through” our
wounds and discovering they will not destroy us. When we wrong others, we also wound
ourselves, and we need to live through it by the grace of God, and in God’s
grace, we can discover, in Nouwen’s words, “your heart is greater than your
wounds” (Henri Nouwen: writings selected by Robert Jonas, 40).
is also with us as the courage to say “I’m sorry,” and that takes a fair amount
of courage in our culture where accepting that one has done wrong seems
anathema. So “Happy Days,” the
television show was not necessarily a theological gold mine, but I remember one
episode where “Fonzie” tried to say he was “wrong” and could not. It was an archetypal moment in our culture. How often do we hear apologies phrased, “I’m
sorry if someone was hurt or offended…” which seem to imply that the problem is
in the sensitivities of others and not with one’s own actions. When we mess up, God is with us as courage to
say we are sorry.
her analysis of the human situation, Marjorie Suchocki writes, We are such creatures that it is probably
not possible for us not to sin, given the fragility of human existence (71). Yet God is with us. God does not abandon us to the poisonous
snakes of our own making. God is healing
love. God is forgiveness. God is courage. We can make fewer and less harmful messes,
even if we cannot completely avoid messing up.
God as healing love does not want us to live in constant fear that we
might mess up. Maybe God is a little
like Sophia Loren, “mistakes are part of the price we pay for living a full
life.” God’s intention is life, is
healing, is wholeness. God wants us to
live with both sensitivity and adventure.
God desires that we be sensitive to our ability to hurt and wound, and
yet that we also live with creativity and adventure. When we mess up, we look to God’s healing
love, and there we find forgiveness, courage, new beginnings, fullness of life. God
so loved, God so loves, that there is life, even amid our messes. Amen.
are pretty bouncy and positive songs and seem dramatically incongruous with the
Scripture reading. They are about as
jarring a contrast as the contrast we often feel between Jesus the gentle shepherd
of our souls and Jesus chasing money changers out of the temple with
chords. Let’s see if we can make some
Jackie Wilson said, “once I was downhearted, disappointment was my closest
friend.” Disappointment, feeling let
down. Who of us has not been there? Who of us might not be able to, at least
sometimes, sing with deep feeling, “Once I was downhearted, disappointment was
my closest friend”? We may be able to
sing it with deep feeling even if not as melodically as Jackie Wilson.
Disappointments. I am not speaking here of the kind of
difficult crises that we discussed last Sunday – when we can’t seem to find a
way forward. I am talking about some of
the littler hurts that happen in life. We are not at a seeming dead-end, but
feel let down by life. I am also not
going to talk today about how we might let ourselves down, that’s part of next
Disappointments. This weekend if we are Hermantown or Duluth
East hockey fans, we know about disappointment, though Superior hockey fans are
certainly not. A little over twenty
years ago, I graduated with my Ph.D. in religious studies from Southern
Methodist University. I had gone back to
school after serving for three years as a pastor in Roseau. Completing my Ph.D. was fulfilling a
significant aspiration, and another aspiration was to teach. I thought this was the direction my life
would take. I had two preliminary
interviews with schools, one a college and the other a theological seminary,
but never heard from them again. When it
became pretty clear that I would not be receiving a teaching offer, I contacted
my district superintendent here in Minnesota to say that I was open to be
appointed again as a church pastor.
There was some disappointment in that, but I remember feeling it most
acutely when talking with the other Ph.D. graduate from my program that
year. Simeon was from Nigeria and he and
I had done work together in our program, both of us focusing on Christian
ethics. Simeon was offered a
tenure-track position at Wake Forest, where he is still teaching. When he asked what I was going to do I told
him that I had been offered a pastorate in northern Minnesota. When he said, “Congratulations,” I remember
feeling the disappointment, not because of where I was going, but because part
of a dream was dying. I can still feel
it – I have a good feeling memory bank.
happens, even if we are sometimes counseled to keep a still upper lip. Anne Lamott, in her book Stitches
writes about that. If you were raised in the 1950s or 1960s, and grasped how scary the
world could be, in Birmingham, Vietnam and the house on the corner where the
daddy drank, you were diagnosed as being the overly sensitive child…. Also you worried about global starvation,
animals at the pound who didn’t get adopted, and smog. What a nut.
You looked at things too deeply, and you noticed things that not many
others could see, and this exasperated parents and teachers…. Any healthy half-awake person is occasionally
going to be pierced with a sense of the unfairness and the catastrophe of life
for ninety-five percent of the people on this earth. However, if you reacted,
or cried, or raised the subject at all, you were being a worrywart. (27-28) Anne Lamott was discovering that the world
could be disappointing, even disappointing about being disappointed.
was drawing near, and Jesus went to the Temple in Jerusalem. On arriving there, he could not help but take
note of people selling cattle, sheep and doves.
Rather than travel with your animal sacrifice, it might be easier to
purchase the animal at the site of the Temple.
Jesus could not help but notice people exchanging money. You see, the Romans issued coins, but these
were not acceptable in the Temple, so there were currency exchanges set
up. The sight of all this religious commerce
did not seem to please Jesus. He made a
whip of chords, and he drove them all out – money changers and cattle alike.
When Jesus was in
the Temple, engaging in this divine spring cleaning, the question that most
often gets asked, is, “Was Jesus angry?”
His actions suggest that perhaps he was.
At the very least we know he was passionate, filled with zeal. Might his passion been fueled by deep
disappointment? Could Jesus have been
deeply disappointed by what he saw happening in this place he considered
sacred? Perhaps Jesus was something of
an overly sensitive person.
So where is God
when life lets us down, when we feel disappointed? I believe God is with us, so I prefer to turn
the question to “How is God with us when we feel disappointed, when life lets
us down?” Let me suggest three ways God
is with us when we are disappointed.
God might be with
us when what is disappointing needs changing.
The Temple grounds had deteriorated into some kind of tacky religious
marketplace, at least as Jesus saw it.
Something needed to be done so that the Temple could more clearly be the
house of worship and prayer it was intended to be. Disappointment fueled passion and passion
fueled courage to act.
I am not suggesting
that for every wrong we see, a reaction like that of Jesus is appropriate. But when we are disappointed by life, and
what is disappointing can be changed, God is with us to give us the courage to
create change. Perhaps it will be the
courage of Selma marchers disappointed that our country still was not getting
it right in its treatment of African-Americans.
Perhaps it will be the courage of Norwegian Muslims forming a peace
circle around the synagogue in Oslo following recent anti-Jewish violence in
Europe perpetrated in the name of radical Islam.
again, Anne Lamott. Most of us have figured out that we have to do what’s in front of us
and keep doing it. We clean up beaches
after oil spills. We rebuild whole towns
after hurricanes and tornadoes. We
return calls and library books. We get
people water. Some of us even pray. Every time we choose the good action or
response, the decent, the valuable, it builds, incrementally, to renewal,
resurrection, the place of newness, freedom, justice. The equation is: life, death, resurrection,
hope. The horror is real, and so you
make casseroles for your neighbor, organize an overseas clothing drive, and do
your laundry…. We live stitch by
stitch…. We do what we can as well, as
we can. (13-14)
disappoints us, when we feel let down, maybe what is disappointing can be
changed, and God is with us as the courage to create positive change.
Sometimes what is
letting us down cannot be changed, or sometimes that is not really the best
first question. We are disappointed,
feeling hurt, let down. God is with us
reminding us that we are not alone. God,
in Jesus, shares our disappointment, Jesus, who was disappointed more than once
himself. I still love the words of the
philosopher Alfred North Whitehead - God
is the great companion - the fellow-sufferer who understands. (Process
and Reality, 532) The theologian
Patricia Adams Farmer writes about losing the diamond from her wedding ring,
and then finding it almost hidden in the carpet. She writes about how this helps her think
about God. God knows when things fall out or fall down or fall apart. And God knows that precious things, like my
diamond, are not lost. They have fallen
onto the deep, soft places of God’s heart. (Embracing a Beautiful God,
45) We are also held in those deep, soft
places of God’s heart when life disappoints.
disappoints, lets us down, God is with us, sometimes as the courage to create
change, and sometimes as the fellow-suffer who understands, who holds us deeply
and softly. But as God holds us,
sometimes we can also learn and grow through our disappointment. A number of years ago, I discovered this
blessing for weddings by Robert Fulgham, you know, the “All I Really Needed to
Know I Learned in Kindgergarten” guy, and I use it from time to time. One of the lines of the blessing says, “May
your dreams come true, and when they don’t, may new ones arise.” Sometimes in the disappointment of old dreams
dying, new dreams arise that are wonderful.
I was disappointed, in a way, to be coming back to Minnesota following earning
my Ph.D. When I think of all the
experiences I have had in the churches I have pastored, of all the people I
have come to know and love, all that I have learned about myself – it’s o.k.
that a dream died. I have discovered new
dreams on the other side of disappointment.
The same dynamic
can work for our church community. We
can learn and grow on the other side of disappointment. The leadership consultants and authors Ron
Heifetz and Marty Linsky have written, “Leadership can be understood, in part,
as about disappointing your own people at a rate they can absorb.” That can sound manipulative, but what they
are saying is that leaders sometimes need to disappoint if necessary changes
are to be made. I will never forget my
first summer here. One of the pressing
issues at the time was whether or not, when fall came, we would return to two
worship services, as was our pattern at that time. After carefully talking with any number of
church leaders and members, I made the decision that we would, indeed, return
to two worship services. I wrote my
reasons in the newsletter. The Sunday
following Dorothy Ottinger, bless her, came up to me after church and let me
know of her disappointment. “I thought
you were going to unite us,” she said.
Welcome to First UMC! Dorothy was
disappointed, as were some others, just as others were disappointed when later
we made the decision to have a single worship service. But I think we have learned and grown
together through all of this. We are a
better and stronger community because we have stuck around through some
I love how Nadia
Bolz-Weber, the really hip and cool Lutheran pastor of House for All Sinners
and Saints, writes about his in her book Pastrix. At new member classes she writes, she speaks
last, and says to those who have come: This
community will disappoint them. It’s a
matter of when, not if. We will let them
down or I’ll say something stupid and hurt their feelings. I then invite them on this side of their
inevitable disappointment to decide if they’ll stick around after it
happen. If they choose to leave when we
don’t meet their expectations, they won’t get to see how the grace of God can
come in and fill the holes left by our community’s failure, and that’s just too
beautiful and too real to miss. (54-55)
said, “Once, I was downhearted.
Disappointment was my closest friend.”
Sometimes that’s true. Life
disappoints, leaves us feeling let down.
God is with us as the courage to change.
God is with us, the great companion.
The hurt is real, and God is our fellow-sufferer. With God, though, on the other side of
disappointment, there can be another Temple, new life, new dreams, a kind of
grace that’s just too beautiful and too real to miss. Amen.
spring training began this week. For
those of us who really enjoy the sport, there is a measure of excitement and a
modicum of hope. The hope comes from
knowing that a game played on green fields is not long away.
other things, baseball has a rich history, and a rich history remarkable
athletes and of notable characters.
Among the best catchers to play baseball is also a man known for his
rather interesting phrases, Yogi Berra.
“Ninety percent of this game is half mental.” "I'm not going to buy my kids an
encyclopedia. Let them walk to school like I did." “Little League baseball is a very good thing
because it keeps the parents off the streets.”
“I never said most of the things I said.” Of course – “When you come to a fork in the
road, take it.”
you come to a fork in the road, take it.
What about when the road seems to come to a complete dead end, when
there seems no good way forward. Yogi
Berra was from St. Louis, and here is a St. Louis song that helps express what
hate to see that evening sun go down.
The singer laments lost love and the accompanying loneliness. We know something of that experience. I hate to see the evening sun go down. Friday morning I was at the doctor’s office
for my annual physical exam. Prior to
the exam the nurse takes your vital signs and asks some questions. One series of questions goes something like
this: Have you recently been feeling sad, depressed, lonely, hopeless. I have often thought of answering, “You mean
beyond what’s normal for the human condition?”
preparing for this morning, I entered “dead-end” into an internet search. Here were a couple of gems I discovered. “Aspirations – trying to remember what yours
once were helps pass the time on the commute to your dead end job.” It is meant to be funny, but some experience
it as too true. “Dead-end bolt: no one’s
getting in and no one’s getting out.”
That is also meant to be funny, but here are some stories about dead
ends that are heartbreaking.
I completed my Ph.D. in 1994 I returned to Minnesota and was appointed one of
the pastors in an experimental cooperative parish arrangement on the Iron
Range. There were two full-time pastors,
one half-time pastor, and a regular lay speaker who would staff seven
congregations. Within my first year
there I was asked to visit with a woman from one of the churches named
Audrey. Audrey was in her early
eighties. She was a widow with no
children and no relatives close by. She
had been a successful nurse and was a real leader in her congregation. Audrey was also a cancer survivor, but the
reason she had asked to visit with me and with the other full-time pastor in
the parish was that her cancer had returned.
While undergoing treatment for the cancer, Audrey’s kidneys had failed,
and now she was faced with the prospect of dialysis for the rest of her life,
something she was finding quite draining physically. She was thinking about her choices and wanted
someone to think with her, and pray with her.
my first couple of years here I had a woman come to my office. She had been driving most of the night from
someplace down south. She had grown up
in Duluth and had a sister here who she was on her way to visit, but she needed
to talk to a pastor. The woman was
married with a couple of children. Her
husband worked summers in Alaska as a fisherman. She had recently come to discover that he had
another family up there. Part of the
reason she wanted to talk with a pastor was that she had friend’s telling her
that her husband must never have really been God’s match for her, and that now
she could find that person.
recently had a conversation with a clergy friend of mine, someone not from
Minnesota or this area. We were simply
visiting when he said, “I don’t think I’ve told you about my wife, have I? “ I
had met his wife once before. “She is a
raging alcoholic and has run off with another man. When he found her too out of control, she
found yet another man to be with. I have
wondered if I could still function as a pastor.”
week, at the funeral for Tristan Seehus, the thirteen year-old boy who ended
his own life I pondered with those gathered: Where is God in all of this?
Where was God for Tristan? I
had to pose that question, and had to attempt a response. I
believe God’s voice was the whisper trying to help Tristan see some other way,
but it was a voice difficult to hear, seemingly drowned out by the white noise
is God when life hits those moments when there seems no good way forward, when
life seems on a permanent pause, when we confront what seem like dead-ends in
the road? This Lent we are asking,
“Where is God?” questions. My response
will always be that God is present, but it is important to ask, “How is God
present, and how does God see in fresh ways?”
God is always present, and there are things that seemingly God alone can
believe God is present in those difficult dead-end moments as that whisper that
is pointing a way forward. The whispered
voice of God can be drowned out by our noisy world, and even by the noise in
our lives, so we need to cultivate capacities to hear that voice. Yet God is always present, even when there
seems no way forward.
and Sarai were no longer a young married couple. They were not a young married couple when
they first heard the whisper of God to leave home and country (“Abram was
seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.” Genesis12:4) Sarai had not given birth to any children at
that point in their marriage, and now Abram is ninety-nine. The Lord appeared to Abram and said to him,
“I am God Almighty [El Shaddai]; walk
before me, and be blameless. And I will
make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly
numerous…. You shall be the ancestor of
a multitude of nations…. I will make you
exceedingly fruitful…. As for Sarai your
wife… I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her.
At this point, Abram may have
thought that God had rather forgotten anything about Sarai giving birth to a
son, or about making Abram the father of many.
Abram may have looked at himself and thought such things impossible. Sarai may have wanted to curl up with more
than a good book, but was he able? His
response to the whisper of God seems quite reasonable. The
Abram fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Can a child be born
to a man who is a hundred years old? Can
Sarah, who is ninety years old bear a child?” Imagine the chuckling at the kindergarten
round up? Whose great-grandparents are
God sees something. God doesn’t see
Abram, he sees Abraham, the ancestor of many.
God doesn’t see Sarai, he sees Sarah, a princess. In our lives, God does not just see what we
sometimes see in our own lives, especially when what we see are dead ends, God
sees in us new life, courage, resiliency. God sees who we are at our beautiful best.
called two pastors to her room to ask about her life and her choices. She was feeling that maybe life on dialysis
multiple times a week was not the life she wanted. Perhaps it would be o.k. not to continue
treatment and let go. To some of us,
that may seem like giving up. What I
think God may have seen was a woman of courage and determination who trusted
God in life and in death, and was not afraid to say that she had lived a good
life and now it was coming to an end.
Her decision need not be everyone’s decision, but it was a decision made
with courage and hope. She was able to
see something of who she was in God.
is with us. God is with us always. God is with us at those moments when we don’t
see much of a way forward. God is with
us, and God sees in every Abram an Abraham and in every Sarai and Sarah, even
when that seems laughable. In each of us
God sees a beautiful person capable of love and generosity and courage, and God
sees a way forward, and God invites us to see what God sees. Amen.