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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Sermon for Sunday, August 26


Strong in the Broken Places
John 6:56-69
 A Sermon Preached at Centenary United Methodist Church
Richmond, VA
August 26, 2012

 
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 God’s love made real in the brokenness of Jesus’ body and the spilling of the blood is a constant reminder that it is in the circumstances of brokenness where find God’s presence most real.

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 It’s a relief for some of us to come to the end of this long series of Gospel readings and sermons on John 6.  What more could be said about the deeper meaning of the feeding of a crowd of over 5000 by Jesus with a few loaves and fish?  What more is there to reflect on besides the reminder of God’s provision for us with daily bread like the manna God provided the children of Israel in the wilderness?  What more can be said about the eucharistic imagery or the offer Jesus makes to each of us to be the true bread of life?

I think that there may yet be one more thing.  It’s not quite as explicit as some of these other themes, but it’s a truth that has gotten my attention.  Perhaps it’s why I found myself drawn to want to think more deeply and prayerfully about this passage.    If there is any validity in this hunch, then perhaps it explains, at least partially, why  the people reacted to this teaching as they did when it was all spoken, compiled, and handed on from community to community.

 At the end of it all, at the end of the miracle and the offer of Jesus that anyone who eats the bread he could provide, bread of his flesh, and the true drink of his blood, many people simply cannot receive the gift.  Yes, the imagery may have been too bold and graphic.  It could have been that people did misunderstand the references to eating flesh and drinking blood.  It could have been that people simply could not comprehend God’s intimate, life-giving presence being transmitted to them through the life and words of an ordinary human being.  John reports, “When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’”  John notes that many of the Jewish leaders found Jesus’ words offensive.  Others who’d been attracted by the miracle left.  At this point, Jesus is aware, John says, that one of his own would betray him.  “Because of this teaching many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him,” John says.

 Was there anything else?  I might be wrong, but I think the offense of Jesus’ words was not just about the jarring physical imagery or even the announcement that God was present in a unique life-giving way in Jesus.  Yes that was part of it.  I think that part of the offense for some of the hearers came in the vision of God Jesus presented.  For Jesus’ claim is that God’s presence was coming to the world not through worldly success, fame, or military greatness.  It was being offered to people through human brokenness.  It was not a body strengthened and sculpted through vigorous exercise or performance enhancing drugs, but a broken body, a weakened body, a defeated body that was offered as the key to life.  It was not blood shed in the pursuit of worldly power or domination or even an act of defiant revolution, but blood shed because of deep love.  Jesus body and blood were signs of brokenness rather than strength, defeat rather than victory.  That was offensive to those who wanted an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent God who could send Caesar’s armies running in fear.  And I expect that that kind of God, a God who comes to us in humility, a God who allows his chosen representative to be killed rather than to kill, is still offensive to many of us.

 But some of us need to be reminded that is through this God we know in Jesus who does not shun the broken places of our world or our lives, that we ourselves can discover healing and life and power. 

 It was the Greek philosophers who influenced early Christian theology who stressed God’s distance from the world and made Christians wonder if God could really have suffered in Jesus, since suffering involves change, and change is not something people in the ancient world could associate with the mental image of deity they cherished.

 But one of the central and most mysterious claims of the biblical story is that God suffered in Jesus, that God is not too far removed to suffer with us.

 When I was in college at Oral Roberts University, theology majors had to write a Senior Paper.  Now you might think that the only things people could study there were how to speak in tongues, perform miracles of healing, develop television ministries, or articulate pre-millennial pre-tribulation dispensational theology.  But there was in fact a remarkable spirit of openness and at the time I was there a strong United Methodist presence.  I’ll admit I was a little wary when I told my professors what I wanted to write about.  I wanted to write about Jurgen Moltmann.  Moltmann was a hot topic in those days with his theology of hope.  His theology was a unique blend of influences ranging from Martin Luther, his teacher Karl Barth, other theologians of hope like Wolfhart Pannenberg and Johann Baptiste Metz, the prophets of the Old Testament, and an atheistic philosopher influenced by Marxism named Ernst Bloch.  Moltmann has continued to write prolifically and I suppose many would consider him one of the four or five most influential theologians of the twentieth century.

 Moltmann was shaped by the suffering of World War II and the great theological questions that arose from the holocaust.  One of his most important books is entitled The Crucified God.  And one of the main problems Moltmann wrestles with in that book is how to understand the suffering of God.  Patripassianism, the idea that God the father, the first person of the trinity could suffer, was regarded in some quarters as a theological mistake if not a heresy.  But Moltmann believed that in all the awful events of the twentieth century, in Jesus Christ, God had suffered with humanity, not abandoning us to our evil devices, trying reach out to us to redeem us in the worst of human circumstances.  In other words his view of the atonement was not anything like that many people reject because in envisioning God the Father offering up God the Son as a sacrifice for sin that resembles some form of cosmic child abuse.  Rather, Moltmann argued that on the cross, God himself enters humanity’s godforsakenness and takes the suffering of the world into Godself. 

 He explained his thinking like this: 

 When God becomes man in Jesus of Nazareth, he not only enters into the finitude of man, but in his death on the cross also enters into the situation of man’s godforsakenness…He humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and godforsaken can experience communion with him.”[1]

 To explain his understanding of the atonement, Moltmann shares the story of Elie Wiesel recounted in Weisel’s book Night.   Standing in a crowd being forced to watch the hanging of an angel-faced child at Auschwitz, Wiesel heard someone ask, “For God’s sake, where is God?” “And from within me, I heard a voice answer,” Wiesel writes, “‘Where is He? This is where—hanging here from this gallows.’”[2]

Reflecting on Wiesel’s statement, Moltmann writes,

“If that is to be taken seriously, it must also be said that, like the cross of Christ, even Auschwitz is in God himself. Even Auschwitz is taken up into the grief of the Father, the surrender of the Son and the power of the Spirit…As Paul says in I Cor. 15, only with the resurrection of the dead, the murdered and the gassed, only with the healing of those in despair who bear lifelong wounds, only with the abolition of all rule and authority, only with the annihilation of death will the Son hand over the kingdom to the Father. Then God will turn his sorrow into eternal joy…God in Auschwitz and Auschwitz in the crucified God—that is the basis for a real hope which both embraces and overcomes the world, and the ground for a love which is stronger than death and can sustain death.”[3]

As I was thinking back to discovering those words many years ago, I realized that there are many questions I have about God, many days the questions outnumber any sense of having answers.  But there is one thing I believe more strongly with each passing day—God does not abandon us in our godforsaknness.  God does not abandon us in our darkness, in our suffering.  Rather God goes to those places, meets us there, refusing ever to forsake us.  God is present in the broken places, the dark places of human existence.  That is I believe what the message of the cross is finally about if it is about anything.  The broken flesh and shed blood of Jesus is a powerful reminder of that truth.

Believing this makes a profound difference in the way we look at our own brokenness.  Believing God is with us even in the most difficult godforsaken circumstances gives us courage and strength that is, I believe, explicable in no other way.

Some of you will remember the story of Joni Erackson Toda.  She was in a diving accident at the age of 17 which left her a quadripalegic.  After two long years of rehabilitation, she emerged with skills she’d never had and a new determination to help other people.  She learned how to paint with a brush between her teeth.  Her high detail fine art paintings and prints are sought after and collected.  She has written 70 books and received awards so numerous they would take several pages to list.    She is also a singer and songwriter.  One of her songs is entitled : “When Pretty Things Get Broken.”  Here are the words:

My life was just like china, a lovely thing to me,
Full of porcelain promises of all that I might be.
But fragile things do slip and fall as ev'rybody knows,
And when my vase came crashing down those tears began to flow.

But don't we all cry when pretty things get broken?
Don't we all sigh at such an awful loss?
Jesus will dry those tears as He has spoken
'Cause He was the One broken on the cross.

But Jesus is the Porcelain Prince.
His promises won't break.
His holy Word holds fast and sure.
His love no one can shake.

So if your life is shattered by sorrow, pain or sin,
His healing love will reach right down and make you whole again.[4]

 Christ meets us in the broken places giving us strength we never knew we had. 

 That strength in life’s broken places isn’t just given to a few who go on to become highly publicized examples.  It happens anywhere Christ is allowed to be present in those broken and painful places of life.

 It was Saturday night before my first Sunday in a new appointment.  I had a call that a woman had committed suicide.  I rushed to the home—a beautiful farm in a valley surrounded by mountains.  I didn’t know anyone.  There must have been fifty people there, family, friends trying to comfort the husband.  The police were still there collecting evidence and doing their work.  I met the man that night.  It was awkward to say the least.  I learned that this was not the only tragedy this family had known.  Twenty years before the couple’s youngest son had been hit by a car crossing a busy highway and killed.   His wife, like him, still grieved that loss, but he thought she’d been doing better.  He said that morning had been one of the best mornings they’d shared together.  They’d had breakfast, talked of hopes and dreams they had for the future.  He’d gone down to the barn to do some chores, waiting for his wife to join him.  She never came.  He was concerned.  He went to the house and found her lying in the yard with a gunshot wound.  You can imagine how horrible that was for him to absorb.

 Well, we got through the first Sunday, and we began planning a funeral.  Through that process, I got to know the new widower better.  I went by on a somewhat regular basis for awhile to check on him.   Not long before this tragedy, he’d taken a new job working for a large construction firms.  He was extraordinarily talented as a builder and contractor and very well respected. 

 I’ll be honest with you.  I really wondered if he was ever going to be able to dig out of the deep hole he was in.  Sometimes when I stopped by the shades would be drawn.  He didn’t feel like getting out, eating. 

 But slowly some things started to change.  People from the church kept calling and going by.  The family had become somewhat inactive before this event and many of the people really didn’t know them well.  His sisters and mother kept going by taking food.   And he started coming back to church--hardly ever missed a Sunday.  It was hard.  And he began to look better and occasionally smile.  He got reconnected to the church and instead of becoming bitter and angry because of the terrible suffering he and his wife had endured, he got reconnected to his faith.   He went to counseling, realizing he needed help.

 Within a year or so he took the risk of dating again.  And within two years he was leading a remodeling project of the sanctuary.  He joined a men’s group on a mission trip. And the next year he was leading the trip.  And I heard from him not long ago and he was ready to remarry.  I didn’t know how such pain could be healed, how such brokenness could be overcome.  But the truth is, through his family, his friends, and the church, God met him right there.  God did not abandon or forsake him, though he felt that that was exactly what had happened. 

 And that is the good news we all need to hear.  The God we know in Jesus is not above being broken, bruised, and bloodied by the pain human beings bear.  And it is in that brokenness signified by Christ’s body and blood that we are reminded we are never alone.  It is in that brokenness that we are made whole. 

 On the days I am not sure what I believe, I remind myself that I believe that.  And remembering that I believe that,  I realize that if that is where and how God meets us, that God is calling us to meet him there—in those places and people who are being stretched, strained and broken by life’s difficulties.  It’s in those places we discover just how great, good, and powerful God really is!

 

        [1] J├╝rgen Moltmann, The Crucified God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 276.
 
         [2] Elie Wiesel, Night, Bantam, 1982, pp. 75-6.
 
         [3] Moltmann, p. 278.
 
         [4] http://restorationheart.blogspot.com/2008/08/when-pretty-things-get-broken.html

 

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