MESSAGE: “Keys Forged by Trouble”
Text: John 14:1-14
Liturgist Text: Acts 7:55-60
Purpose: the purpose of this message is to trust God to open the door of life with the key shaped by lessons of trial.
My grandfather was a Congregational pastor who lived his retirement years at Havenwood in Concord, NH. During the 1970s, he served Havenwood residents as chaplain, while simultaneously caring for my grandmother who suffered medical challenges until her death in 1981. During the 1980s, Grandpa sustained assaults to his own health, including angina and stroke until his passing in 1990.
I was browsing through his book of vesper services one day and came upon one which was titled ‘Making Assets of Your Liabilities.’ His central point was stated in a succinct metaphor: “Often crippling circumstances which close and lock our doors of life actually shape the key that opens them.” If you ever feel imprisoned by life circumstances (and during this pandemic, who among us does not?), then I invite you to join me in a sermonic search for deliverance: the key which opens the door to spiritual joy and wholeness with God.
Where do we begin? We could begin with the familiar phrases that people condense the Bible into for everyday postage stamp use: ‘God is love,’ ‘Now abide faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love,’ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and strength,’ ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ ‘Love your enemies,’ ‘Love one another as I have loved you,’ ‘Love covers a multitude of evil,’ and of course, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only son.’ But this is the challenge. ‘Love’ is the most overused, misused, misunderstood and abused word in the English language.
Even in Bible study, we misunderstand what love is. On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus offered several statements of his love for his followers. Intuitively, Jesus knew they did not understand love, so he tipped them off with a prophecy of his own valentine for them, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one‘s life for one’s friends.”
I spoke with a veteran of the Korean Conflict one day who told me of a man he would never forget. The man was a South Korean soldier who fought alongside him. In the thick of conflict, a live grenade was hurled into the midst of the platoon. Everyone jumped for cover, but the Korean threw himself upon the grenade and absorbed most of the explosion with his own body. “I’ll never forget that heroic act,’ the veteran told me with tears in his eyes.
That is an extraordinary expression of love which mirrors Jesus’ selfless death on a cross, but our obsession with such accounts gives the impression that Christianity is more about death than life. If love is the greatest virtue, and the best expression of love is laying down one’s life for another, then we are tempted to develop a martyr complex—people who feed pride by denying ourselves for others. We feel we need to do more, help more, feed more, rescue more, witness more, pray more, empathize more, listen better, lest we be judged ‘less than committed.’ Unless we become martyrs like Stephen in our reading from Acts, we can’t be sure our discipleship is real enough.
Love becomes a cross to bear. We tell ourselves to buck-up. We speculate that our troubles must be the result of sin, maybe our own, perhaps the sin of another, perhaps the systemic sin of our generation. Depression takes hold and we find ourselves on a perpetual Via Dolorosa. We stumble under the weight of our cross. The shadow of the past reverberates, “Gotcha, gotcha, gotcha.” The burden of the present tells us to ‘tie a knot and hang on.’ The forboding of the future predicts a lifetime of ‘more of the same.’
What we need is a theology of fun! We need to hear the rest of the story: “Christ the Lord is risen today! Alleluia!” Yes, Jesus loved us so much that he died for our sins, but he is not dead now! The Bible is a blueprint for life, not death. The kingdom of God is among us…here…now. It is a promise of heaven, but not just of heaven. Remember the Lord’s Prayer? “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on EARTH as it is in heaven.” The promise is for earth, too.
In the chapter following Jesus’ assurance that ‘he goes to prepare a place for us,’ he tells his disciples, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” Jesus wants us to be joyful! Perhaps some of us moaned to see snow yesterday on the eve of Mother’s Day, but what if the snowflake which fell from the sky was directed to a toddler’s tongue so that God could hear her delighted giggle? Maybe God made beach sand for castle-making. Maybe God has given us more to laugh about than to cry about if we peek for a moment through God’s splendid kaleidoscope!
Maybe, dare we admit, lessons born from trouble itself forge the key which opens the door to spiritual wholeness and joy. Is it possible that our liabilities are precisely the things which make our lives meaningful? Can ‘living the burdened life with integrity and hope’ be the best offering we can give to the God who made us wonderful, the Savior who redeemed us with his very life, and the Holy Spirit who intercedes for us every moment of every day and night?
Stephen C. Neill, a Scottish Anglican missionary to India, put it this way: “If God really rules the world, why does God allow things like earthquakes, floods and epidemics to happen? This old question has often been put in the form: ‘If God cannot stop such things, he is not Almighty; if he could stop them and does not, he is not good.’ But the fact is that the question has been put in quite the wrong way. The right question is: ‘Why did God choose to make a dangerous world?’ If God made the world and human beings for a purpose, that purpose must be one which can be achieved only in a world in which life for all of us will always be short and dangerous; there seem to be lessons that we can learn only through danger and suffering.”
The space in which our world currently finds itself is precarious. On one hand, we are fearful of contagion; on the other, fearful of economic shipwreck. We are fatigued of treading water in the depths of ‘sheltering in place.’ We are frustrated that we cannot reach out and hug our grandchildren. We are grieving for loved ones we have lost, without benefit of memorial celebrations; and we are worried for loved ones who are sick. We are tired of wearing masks and not being able to do what we want to do. We are tired of working too hard or not being able to work. We do not want to accept a new normal. We want it like it was. We are hurting, and want God to notice. More than that, we want God do something about it—to make it go away and return the default setting.
Grieving releases a flood of emotion, but eventually the water settles to a place of “It is as it is, so now, what comes next?” (pause) In that moment of acceptance, a key of character, forged by faith and perseverance, opens a door for miracle to emerge.
When Jesus embraced the cross, he did not give up everything. He retained that which he valued most in himself: dignity, honesty, obedience to God’s will. He took his greatest liability, the scandal of the cross, and catapulted into his greatest asset: the ability and right to redeem the world of God’s own making. We, too, can offer our brokenness to God. Then when we step up to the door which trouble has locked, we will have in our hand a key, perfectly designed, to unlock and open the door to wholeness and joy.
Life is given to those who give life. Healing is given to those who heal. Joy is given to those who share joy. And love is given to those who love. Instead of grieving what we can’t do, let us learn what there is to celebrate. Not a world that has in it nothing but good, but a world that is good, while having much in it that is bad. Not a life that knows no darkness, but a life in which even those who walk in darkness have seen a great light. Not a God who gives us everything we want, but a God who gives us everything we have, and offers all that is needed to grow up full-size into the disciples of Jesus we were meant to be for the transformation of the world. How cool is that?