Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Bearing light in the darkness, proclaiming redemption in the face of suffering . . .

     In one of those rare moments when I got to look ahead at the readings and sort of plan our conversation for the next few weeks, I had planned to preach this week on Jesus’ power over the supernatural.  We have been in a set of Matthew’s readings which force us to answer the question Who is this Jesus?  Matthew, of course, reminds us that Jesus claims to be the Messiah through his feeding of the 5000 men, besides women and children, with five loaves and two fish.  Jesus also claims to be God through His command over the elements of the earth, as demonstrated by His and Peter’s walking on water in the midst of the wind.  This week, I had intended to focus on Jesus’ overpowering command over the supernatural.  Three years ago, the last time this reading came up in the lectionary, I had focused on the woman’s correct knowledge concerning Jesus and His mission.  This time, I had intended to point out the dismissive nature with which He deals with the demon possessing her daughter.  No prayer, no conversation with the demon—He tells her it will be as she wishes, and the demon leaves her daughter.
     The problem with plans, of course, is that life sometimes gets in the way.  I may have a good idea, but you and those around us may need me to focus on another teaching in our readings.  As you all picked up from Facebook and no doubt gleaned because many of you are smart, the conversations around church this week were related to the death of Robin Williams.  Those of you around the church during the week realize that we serve a large number of addicts, some of whom are trying to control one addiction through the use of other substances.  Many of you also realize that we serve a number of mental ill individuals in our effort to bring the light of Christ into our community.  What many of you do not know, or perhaps choose to ignore in polite company, is the number of people whom we serve whose lives have been touched by suicide.  I know that, as I shared my ministry with those seeking God in the tragedies of their lives last week, they were certainly surprised by the number of “good Christians” whose lives had been touched by suicide.  
     Before I get to that point in my conversations, though, I need to do a bit of groundwork for you.  I am unyielding in my belief and proclamation that God redeems all things.  Naturally, I believe that because He claims it in Scripture, but I must say I have seen far too many redemptions of lives and events and evils in the world ever to accept that His promise is not true.  I say that, though, unabashedly and determinedly aware that God never trivializes our suffering.  The pain that we experience is real.  The hurt that we endure is real.  Nothing infuriates me more than flipping through the television channels or radio and seeing or hearing some preacher tell Christians that all their problems will go away if they will just worship Jesus.  That message is false.  That message is a lie.  And it takes most new Christians very little time to discover that suffering continues after we call upon the Lord.  If I asked for a show of hands, how many of us would claim that we are struggling with questions of disease and death?  How many are suffering with questions of provisions?  How many of us are struggling with questions of relationship?  How many of us wonder, because of those sufferings, whether we have been forgotten by God?  It is part of our human condition that we equate our current circumstances with how we think God sees us.  Heck, the book of Job was inspired specifically to teach us that such is not the case, just as this story in Genesis reminds us that God redeems our suffering.  He does not wash it away, He does not make it disappear; He simply promises that He will use our suffering for good and His glory.
     Place yourself in Joseph’s position in this narrative.  Joseph has been betrayed by his brothers and sold into slavery.  He has been stripped of his favorite gift from his father Jacob.  He has been carried into Egypt and sold to a master.  He has the iron collar to chafe his skin and remind him while sleeping and awake that his life is not his own.  He has been forced to do all kinds of menial tasks.  For his faithfulness to God and his master in refusing to have sex with his mistress, was he rewarded?  Nope.  He was imprisoned again.  We forget the ANE assumption that what happened here on earth reflected the heavenly or celestial battles.  Were Yahweh strong enough, and were Joseph faithful enough, Joseph would have been delivered out of the hands of those who serve Ra.  The longer he persisted in his claims about Yahweh, the more the Egyptians would have teased him.  He has no hope of ever seeing his family.  That is some of the psychological and physical and emotional background of Joseph.
     Yet, what has happened.  Joseph’s work has been blessed.  When he is put in charge of the prison, what happens?  When he manages his master’s household, what happens?  God has been blessing his work, making him very valuable to his owner.  Eventually, his ability to interpret dreams is brought to Pharaoh.  It is a circuitous route to be sure.  A servant has to get up the courage to offer to the king of the world’s superpower of the day that he knows a slave who can interpret dreams.  Yet he does.  And Joseph is brought before Pharaoh.  Pharaoh has a dream that he wants interpreted.  All his magicians and advisers have been unable or unwilling to interpret the dream for Pharaoh.  The last thing Joseph wants, no doubt, is to present bad news to the Pharaoh.  What will he do to me if I tell him its meaning?  Yet, Joseph interprets the dream as God tells him.  Pharaoh recognizes the truth of Joseph’s interpretation and the courage it took to share it.  Pharaoh makes Joseph the keeper of his kingdom and the one in charge of his household.  To Joseph is given the unique responsibility of educating the princes as well as the preservation of the kingdom in the time of famine.  And, through God’s blessing, Joseph excels at both.
     Joseph is so good at the latter responsibility that people outside Egypt hear that Egypt has grain.  Jacob, Joseph’s father, sends his other sons to Egypt to buy grain.  As we might expect, Joseph torments his brothers.  He sets them up to look like thieves so that Benjamin will have to be brought to him.  All of this leads us to today’s reading.  Joseph could no longer control himself in front of everyone.  He sent them all away and revealed himself to his brothers.  Can you imagine their fear?  We sold him into slavery and now he has power of life and death over us and our families?  “Do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.”  Joseph understands how his suffering has been used to God’s glory and the welfare of His people.  Did God want Joseph enslaved?  Of course not.  Did God want Joseph to feel isolated, abandoned, and whatever other emotions coursed through his heart and mind over those years?  Absolutely not.  But the same God who controls the supernatural through a simple word is powerful enough to work what is meant for evil to His glory.  That’s why when I pray over many of you during the Healing Service, I ask that you be given eyes to see and ears to hear and hearts to understand how your suffering serves Him, absent the healing miracle for which we pray.  When people come in to ask why there is suffering in their life, I am always quick to remind them that we have been baptized into Jesus’ death and Resurrection.  We ought not be too surprised when God allows us to bear the burden of the Suffering Servant.  Hear carefully: God mourns with us when we suffer.  He only wants good things for us.  But when we are faced with the consequences of our sins or the sins of others, He is able to see us through.  Better than that, He can use what is meant for evil for good.
     Robin Williams’ death, I think, is a famous example of that process.  The visits this week came in two waves.  The initial wave of people seeking me out wanted to know if there was any hope for them.  Either they had contemplated suicide or been forced to face it by a loved one.  Many, as you might expect, had dealt with mental illness and addiction, mirroring the life they were hearing described on television.  The second group were the ones shocked and surprised to find out that Robin Williams was, by all accounts, an Episcopalian like us.  It is one thing to be suicidal, but how can a good Christian be suicidal?  How can a good Christian turn to something other than God to ease the pain?  How can a Christian community find hope in the midst of such tragedy, where the famous one rejected God and embraced the consequences of a mortal sin?  And if the rich and famous cannot deal with life, how can we?  As you can tell, there were a lot of underlying discussions.  People had heard at church that Williams was condemned because of his suicide.  People had heard discussed that he really wasn’t a good Christian because he continued to stumble so often in his life.  I did a ton of remedial work.  Specifically, though, I reminded them how our understanding of mental illness and addiction has changed over the years.  In the case of addictions, the brain is often altered.  Biochemically speaking, there are often measurable changes.  That’s why sufferers go through the problems of withdrawal.  The brain and the body physically crave the substances.
     Similarly, though, those who suffer from mental illness are not themselves always.  Often, something in the brain is not functioning as it was intended or it  is getting its wires “crossed.”  We want so badly to apply reason to the, by definition, unreasonable, but we cannot.  Why does he refuse to take his meds?  Why does she act that way sometimes?  And the Lord knows we are far more accepting of those who suffer from cancer than we are those who suffer from mental illness.  Survive cancer or or some other physical ailment and you can wear it like a badge of honor.  Make it through another day dealing with mental illness or addiction and . . . well, we won’t talk about that outside the support groups.  That’s why I love the anniversary cheers that come out of the Parish Hall each day.  In no way, shape, or form did our Lord intend for Robin Williams to suffer.  He is a good God who wanted only the best for Him.  I have no doubt, just as He did at the tomb of Lazarus, He weeps over the death of another of his sheep, a sheep who had been given the charism of making people laugh yet who had difficulty finding joy in his own circumstance.  Yet look at the national discussion this past week.  People have learned that even the rich and famous can suffer from mental illness.  Amazingly, even someone who could make us laugh as hard as he did can be living with pain and suffering to which we normal folks can relate.  The stigma associated with those two demons which plagued him are just a little less dark today, and we won’t even get into the discussion of addressing the behavior of the trolls on social media.  In the midst of this death, we can see glimmers of redemption.  And, if media reports are correct and he is an Episcopalian, some pastor somewhere will be offering the reminder to his family that, even at the grave, we make our Alleluias!  If he was a Christian, then we will likely one day be laughing at his antics in the Holy city.  We may not understand, we may not see the big picture, but we know that, in the end, God wins and that we will be glorified with Him!  I did not start this week expecting to preach the Gospel into so many lives affected by suicide, yet, God has been present powerfully, reminding those speaking with me, of His amazing Grace and His amazing power.
     And, unless you think God cares only for the lives and deaths of the rich and famous, I have used every one of your stories about the suicides in your lives this week.  I cannot tell you how their perception of us has changed this week, simply because I had walked this path with so many of you.  It may come as no surprise to most of you that we have a certain reputation among those whom we serve in His name.  It sure surprised them that so many of us had dealt with those issues which plagued Mr. Williams.  It gave many of them hope that you and I had found the comfort of the Holy Spirit in the midst of our tragedies.  Better still, we were not afraid to share our journeys, our fears, and His answers.
     Finally, in a lead up to these discussions, I had been thinking recently of Pat.  When the stone mason was here a few weeks ago asking about those whose names he was inscribing, we were talking how God had redeemed many of those loves and deaths on many levels.  But I found myself chuckling.  One of my best stories, I told him, was not being inscribed as his body was interred at the Arsenal.  I told him how the palliative care nurse finally could not take it any more and asked Pat if he knew he was dying.  Pat responded with a typical “Of course I know.”  She followed his answer up with a “then how can you be so . . . calm” response.  Pat was drugged a bit and within days of the end, so he asked her to ask his priest when she saw him next.  The priest would be able to explain it fully, without falling asleep from exhaustion.
     Unknowingly, I walked in later that day.  She shared her impressions of Pat and the conversation I just related.  So I shared with her Pat’s faith in our Lord Christ.  Unlike far too many nowadays, she knew the Gospel.  She confessed that her parents had made her go to church and Sunday School when she was young.  But the moment she moved out of the house on her own, she quit going.  She reflected a bit wistfully that she missed those times.  They were young, they believed they were loved, and things always had a way of working out, “you know?”  I nodded.  She missed those days.  
     It is not often that you all give me alley oops, but Pat’s life as he faced death sure had.  What made the opportunity even better from my perspective was that I was dealing with a young nurse who would, if her career continued along this path, be dealing with death and dying and families for many years to come.  I pointed that fact out to her, not to scare her, but to open her eyes to the life she had chosen or been called.  If this all that there is, I told her, then she was in for a world of despair and hopelessness.  She would, I had no doubt, long for the Pats as patients.  But more than that, I reminded her that one day, were she lucky, she would find herself in the same position as her patients.  How would she answer those questions of meaning and love for herself?  That is when, as they say, it got real.
     I wish I could stand before you today and speak of a glorious harvest.  I wish I could stand before you today and tell you that Pat’s death definitely led to rejoicing in heaven because God used it to reach a lost sheep.  The truth is I cannot.  There was a lot of water under her bridge.  Adults in her life had acted hypocritically.  She had made some unwise choices in her life.  She found herself wondering whether God still loved her despite herself.  God knows the boys and men in her life sure did not love her the way she craved, the way He does.  I could offer her that reassurance, but I could not make her choose to claim Him once again.  That decision we have to make for ourselves.  But as the stone mason said, I sure tilled that earth.  I worked the water and manure into the ground for a glorious harvest, just as I had with him.  It is hard to be reminded of God’s love and not be enthused to do the work He has given us to do.  Like me, he sure hopes she found Him.  Can you imagine her work, Pastor?  She is literally walking through the valley of the shadow of death day in and day out.  Can you imagine the hope His light in her life would bring to those folks?  Why, yes, as a matter of fact, I can.
     I have been a bit long-winded this morning.  I would like to say I am sorry, except I am not.  In the case of mental illness and addiction, we have far too much inculturation to overcome.  If I preached a simple “You all have suffered or have loved ones who have suffered from mental illness, addiction, and suicide, now go preach and teach hope!” you would quickly be overcome by the world.  Many of you consider yourselves just normal folks, nobody special.  After a challenge or three, many of you would hear that voice speaking to you instead of His.  Brothers and sisters, all of you who have been touched by those demons that plagued Robin Williams are the perfect spokespeople for God at this time.  You know the frustrations, the hurt, the pain, the anger, the shame, the silence, and the loss.  Those experiences have uniquely prepared each one of you to speak His peace, His life, and His love into those who are now suffering.  And the ongoing discussions about Robin Williams in our workplaces, our recreational spots, our meals with friends and colleagues, with all those whom God has placed in our lives provides us with an opportunity to speak into the shadows and darkness of their lives.  Best of all, we have been given the words of life, the words of hope, and the words of love.  Each of us gathered here can speak, not as some willy-nilly book smart professional, but as one who has lived what they are living, as one who has lived and survived.  Those of us who have contemplated suicide are the best to speak into that darkness.  Those of us who have struggled with addiction are perfect for speaking into the lives of those suffering the same.  Those of us who have struggled with mental illness are wonderful for reminding others that they do no suffer alone, they need not suffer in silence.  And all of us, all of us gathered here, know multiple people affected by mental illness, by addiction, and by suicide.  All of us.  As such, we are uniquely equipped to speak into society’s silence, to remind people of the needed care and love, and to remind others who are touch by these ills that neither are they alone.  Our Lord came that such evils might be redeemed.  Our Lord came that they might know He loves them, redeemed them, and has glorious plans for each one of them!  It is our job to remind them of His purpose for them, to walk through the shadows with them, to provide shoulders to cry on, and to join with them in moments of success and joy.  In other words, as a nation of priests in His eternal kingdom, it is our calling to help shepherd them to the Great Shepherd.
     Watching you, I see the squirms.  I understand that you are loathe to share such stories with me, let alone those with whom you worship, and even less alone with strangers.  Here’s the thing, though: in the Church we speak of fellowship.  We speak of that holy mystery where different people come together in singleness of mind and uniqueness of purpose under the Lordship of Christ.  You and I, by virtue of our sufferings, already have a unique fellowship with all those who suffer similarly.  Why would we ever not want to bring them into this fellowship, this fellowship that we share with the prophets, the Apostles, the martyrs, the matriarchs, the patriarchs, and all the other normal people just like us, through whom God has always chosen to act in salvation history?  Why would we ever be reticent to share that wonderful inheritance?
      And, let me forewarn you, just because you mean well, just because you respond faithfully, just because you are trying to live into the life of light that He has called you, don’t expect everyone’s circumstances to change dramatically or miraculously.  They might, or they might not.  In some of your cases, despite my faith and despite my professional training, I have still failed to reach you or your loved ones.  Our Lord came because many things, not just salvation, were beyond our understanding and our ability to fix.  You and I can do everything right from a human perspective, and still loved ones and strangers will suffer from addiction, still suffer from mental illness, and even consider suicide to be the only balm for their pain.  Faithfully responding to His call in our life in these issues does not guarantee a successful outcome, from a worldly perspective.  Faithfully responding, though, does remind us that all is in His hands and equips us to minster well to the family members of others.  More than once last week I found myself detailing my human failure as a pastor to two individuals who took their own life under my care.  You want to know what failure feels like?  Preach life and hope and bury someone who, by human measures, rejected your teaching and your preaching and took their own life.  But in those deep moments last week, I found His Spirit using those deaths even now.  Those in my office sobbed.  Heartwrenching, gut punching sobs.  Guilt.  Failure.  I should have done more.  Those contributed to the emotions being experienced.  And then, in the midst of their pain and anguish, it dawned on them: we really are normal people suffering through the same vicissitudes of life.  One of the guys commented he thought we were super saints until that very moment.  “I would never have guessed you all had the same closets with the same skeletons as us.”  So did Mr. Williams.
     By Thursday of this week, the angst of Robin William’s death had died down in this place.  The ripples from my conversations and their own with their pastors had a rippling, calming effect.  The 11th step in AA, as developed initially by Bill and Rev. Shoemaker — good Episcopalians, I might add — reminded them that they already knew what that they were hearing again.  God has promised.
     So here were are, reminded by our lectionary editors that God can redeem all things.  As all this shadow and darkness is swirling around in the world around us, and as we watch war on two continents and humanitarian crises on at least three, and as we watch natural disaster after natural disaster wreck havoc on those in the world around us, we are reminded that what humans intend for evil, God can use for good and His glory.  Oh, and the passage for us is specifically about slavery.  Ever feel like God is using a 2 x 4 to get His message across?
     Brothers and sisters, look around you.  You know the stories of addiction and of mental illness in your own lives and in the lives of those worshipping God with you today.  The world in which you have been given to preach life and hope is still struggling with the death of a beloved comedian and talented actor.  To the world, he seemed to have it all.  And still that was not enough to overcome his demons.  You have been forged, however, as iron is forged to be God’s mouthpiece in these discussions.  Unlike others in your workplaces, unlike others in your schools, unlike others with whom you socialize, you know the pain and the hurt and the doubt experienced by Mr. Williams and his loved ones.  Better still, you know the Healer to whom He turned.  Yes, it may look like failure right now.  Yes, it certainly seems tragic on this side of the grave.  But, we serve a God whose mercy is every bit as vast as His power, who promised never to abandon a sheep who sought Him, and who promised that, at the end, He and all those normal people whom He has called will be glorified!  I cannot encourage you enough, I cannot beg you enough, remember who you are and Who it is that calls you.
     Brothers and sisters, many in the world around us are living in darkness, living among the shadows.  The voice of our Lord’s enemy works hard to convince them they are unloved and alone.  We know better.  We have walked those paths with Him in our own lives.  We know that Jesus is the Messiah.  We know that He commands the very elements of earth.  We know that He commands even the demons with little more than a thought.  We know He has command of life over death.  Now, we have the opportunity to shine forth His light in the darkness around us.  While those in the world are groping, we have been glimpses of the healing He offers.  While those in the world struggle to find meaning and worth, we know the value and love with which He holds each individual.  While the world struggles with shame, we know He bears it gladly.  While those in the world struggle to find hope in the midst of pain and hurt and sadness, we know the redemption and hope that He offers.  This will not be easy work.  This will not be fun.  It will be cross-bearing.  But what is meant for evil, He will redeem for His glory and the welfare of all His people, just as He did for our Lord!


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