Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Help!

Sermon Delivered 10/21/12
Job 38:1-7, (34-41)
Psalm 34:17-22
2 Corinthians 4:5-12
Mark 10:46-52

“Help!” The old man yelled as he ran through a cartoon facade of the drab streets of London until he came upon four lads in a yellow submarine. Then he said, “H is for Hurry. E is for Urgent. L is for Love Me, and P is for P-P-Please! Help!” And so begins The Yellow Submarine, one of the first music videos ever created. It was the story of a refugee from a magical land called Pepperland seeking help from another land because his had been taken over by those terrible, despicable Blue Meanies.

Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever felt so deeply in need that you were even willing to bend the English language into a phonetic that matched your purpose? “E is for Urgent?” That is the sound of an animal in a corner.

That is the sound Job made prior to today’s reading when he said, “I would lay my case before God, and fill my mouth with arguments.” God’s response of, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding” is not intended to dismiss Job altogether. Instead it is just like I say to my kids from time to time, “Let’s remember who the parent is here.”

God’s comments are not about control or power, they are about perspective. God has the larger picture in mind. Job’s argument is not irrational, but it is consumed with need and self preservation. God preserves and restores Job, but not because he earned it. God did it because God is God. God is merciful. God is providential, and God is just.

The Psalmist reminds us of these very same characteristics of God. The Psalmist also reminds us that we will never be without affliction. Indeed, “many are the afflictions of the righteous.” We don’t like to hear that. We do like to hear that “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.” But we don’t like to realize that we are the ones in need of salvation. We don’t like to ask for help.

But lest we deny our condition of vulnerability or decide that it is the result of an angry God or personal failure – let’s not forget the words of Paul to the church in Corinth. “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”

He goes on to say, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.”

The part about not being crushed or destroyed is nice, but carrying around death – not so much. Kahlil Gibran once wrote, “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.” Yet – sometimes – we all feel that the problem is not in the depth of our cups as much as it is in the cracks. “We are afflicted but not crushed.” We are cracked pots. But I would still contend that the cracks in our pots and our cups are the means for someone else’s blessing.

And so, what may seem like a very justifiable cause for anxiety and sadness is actually a place of blessing and great joy! Some things we simply cannot fix. In fact, sometimes our experience of God is made stronger by our limitations. I am not simply telling you to make lemonade from life’s lemons. I am telling you that our history and our present cultural landscape are littered with testimonies from surfers surviving shark attacks, quadriplegics learning to paint, men and women born with deformities, and soldiers returning from war with less flesh and more of a knowledge of God!

These people are not so incredible – but their belief in God is. God did not heal a single one of them, but God restored them. God transformed them. And I have never met a person of deep, transformative faith that has not – at some point – begged for the mercy of God.

I do not believe that God is only merciful if you beg. I do not believe that God wants or needs you to suffer. What I do believe is that sometimes we need it. What I do believe is that those of us who consider ourselves to be “The Church” often act like we need to keep Bartimaeus quiet. Yet the reality is that we are the ones in need of healing and restoration. We are the one’s who need to look to Jesus and cry out with all of our might, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Why is that, you might say? Is it because we are “sinners in the hands of an angry God”? No. It is because we are stuck on an escalator. That’s right. There’s a great little video I saw during a presentation at the last Presbytery meeting (I told you we have fun at PSL meetings). Two people are riding an escalator to the third floor of a mall.

The escalator stops, and rather than walking up the two people become irrational and begin to scream for help. People are walking by outside with no concern. Finally a repair man begins to ride the escalator to the second floor, and then the same thing happens to him. I think that is like the church in some ways.

When we expect a young preacher to draw in new people who will put money in the plates and allow us to keep being us, we are stuck on an escalator. When we intentionally neglect some relationships in favor of others, we are stuck on an escalator. When we forget how to care about those who don’t seem to care about us, we are stuck on an escalator. When we decide that being a place where we gather with a particular group of people we already feel connected to is all that we need to be, we are stuck on an escalator.

Now – before you get ready to run me out of here – I want you to remember two things. The first is that the Church – the Body of Christ – is much more complex than any simple illustration. The second is that the key word in all of that critique is the word, “when.”

When we realize that we are a people who are created and gathered to bless each other and through that become a blessing to the world around us, we don’t even need the escalator.

When I hear a young family say that they felt called to join the church after hearing the openness and faithfulness of the elder members of the Sunday School class – and when I meet with a family from the other side of the world who has come to join because they find community here – I hear Jesus looking at our stuck escalator saying, “Go; your faith has made you well.”

When I hear the Stewardship Committee’s call to greater faithfulness through financial commitment I hear Paul say that we are “struck down, but not destroyed.” Even so, I do need to be clear about something. Chuck has done an incredible job of presenting the opportunity of faithful giving and the positive direction that our congregation is headed in. Now, there are two myths I want to dispel. The first myth is that the positive direction of the church is my doing. First and foremost, we are a community of believers. Along with that is the fact that the one and only savior of the church is Jesus Christ. God is doing a new thing here, and it is because we are crying out to Jesus together.

The second thing I want to be clear about is the fact that our budget is supported by two items that are hallmarks of a congregation in the later years of its life cycle. Those items are rental income and planned estate giving. Neither of these are bad for the church, but when legacy giving and rental income become primary sources of funding a budget – it is usually a sign of decline. This is based on data collected over the last ten years of churches that have closed.

So, what do we do about it? Obviously we must all consider our contributions closely. Not just financially, but personally and relationally. It does not matter what we put in the plate if we do not put it in our hearts to follow Jesus. Beyond that, I believe that we must remain open to what the Spirit is calling us to become. We are not the church that we once were. We are not ever going to be the church of the 1950’s again. It is only through our yearning for transformation – individually and corporately – that we will ever become transformed. These words cut both ways, and it scares me sometimes to think of what God might do to me.

It scares me to think of what I might see when God removes my blindness. Yet I place my hope and my trust in this community of faith. I place my hope and my trust in the vision God has given us to be “A Place to Experience, Explore, and Express the Love of God.” And because this is just such a place, it means that when we leave here the place goes with us. When we leave this place we remain the church. I once heard it said that we do not simply go to church – because we are the church.

And we are “persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.” [2 Corinthians 4:9-11]

May it be so with me. May it be so with you. And to God be the glory, both now and always. Amen.
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