Holy Work

Holy Work – July 30, 2017

Matthew 13:31-33

He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’

33 He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with* three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’

Romans 8:26-39

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes* with sighs too deep for words. 27And God,* who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit* intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.*

28 We know that all things work together for good* for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. 29For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.* 30And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

31 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.* 35Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’
37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans Chapter Eight:  One of the most beloved chapters in Scripture.  It gives such marvelous assurances.  It says things we all want to believe.

Oh.  It mentions predestination.  There’s a swamp I’m not going to wade through in a sermon.  Perhaps in a class we could put on our hip boots and take the tour.  Not in a sermon.

And I have a quarrel with the traditional translation but I think we can avoid that maze also.

There is something hidden in all this good news that we might miss.  To illustrate, consider the words about prayer.  You and I don’t know how to pray so the Spirit prays for us and God has a secret stethoscope by which he listens to our hearts.

Frankly, I believe all of that.  Believing all of that, I could excuse myself altogether from all attempts at prayer.  I could assume that God already knows all my needs and desires so I don’t have to talk to God.  I don’t need a relationship with God.  God has got it all covered.

You and I know that is not something Paul would teach.  Paul was a man of prayer who urged others in prayer.

Paul reminds us that we have a partner in prayer.  It is not all up to you or me.  God is on our side.  If we don’t express ourselves well, if we stumble, if we don’t get it exactly right, God will fill in the blanks.

It is our place to try to get it as right as we know how.  God will complete our prayers for us.

I take this as a clue that encourages me to think about this entire chapter in terms of a partnership.  So when I read that all things work together for good for those who are in Christ Jesus—I’m not thinking about God turning evil to good.  I am not thinking about God making everything right.

I am thinking about how you and I can become partners drawing something survivable, perhaps even good out of the evil, the pain and the loss that we all experience.

To that end I want to tell some stories.

Victor Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychologist.  During the years 1941-1944 he was moved between four concentration camps, including Auschwitz where his brother died and his mother was killed.

One of the things that kept Frankl going through this time was thoughts of his wife.  He hoped she was doing well and that he would see her again.

As he counselled other prisoners he discovered similar sources of strength.  To have time with a brother.  To not disappoint someone .

Frankl drew important conclusions from his experience.  He concluded that what made the difference between survival and giving up came down to one thing:  Meaning.  So long as Frankl and his fellows believed their suffering had meaning, they could endure.  What could not be endured was the possibility that there was no meaning which would allow their suffering to be redeemed.

In the midst of evil, in the midst of pain and loss, you and I; who are so prone to always be asking something of the world, can find that the world is asking something of us.  There is something for you to do.  We can become a part of the light shed on the darkness.

If you’re not sure of that, consider the situation of Rabbi Ronnie Cahana.  I heard his story on NPR during the Sunday morning TED talks.  His daughter, Kitra, tells this story and you can find it easily on the internet.

July 15, 2011 the Rabbi had a severe stroke that left him paralyzed from his toes to just beneath his eyes.  This condition is called “locked in” or “walled in” to describe a sharp mind disconnected from the body.  His doctors thought recovery was impossible.

Kitra walked into his hospital room and began reciting the alphabet—A, B, C… When the desired letter was reached the Rabbi would blink.  In that laborious fashion they communicated.

He told his daughter not to cry, that this experience was a blessing.  I will never tell you your pain is a blessing.  The Rabbi had his reasons for believing this.  He has a right to say so.  No one should tell a suffering person that their suffering is a good thing.

The Rabbi continued to see congregants in his hospital room.  They came to him for advice.  His daughter would recite the alphabet.  He continued to bless others and his hospital room became a temple.

I tell you these stories not only to suggest that you and I are partners in God’s process of drawing good out of all circumstances.  I also want you to notice something common to both of these stories.  In both stories the protagonists are focusing on others.

I will tell you this about myself:  When I was young I was attracted to the question Charles Dickens wrote for David Copperfield:  Will I be the hero of my own life?  It’s my life.  It’s about me.

It took me many years to learn that I had the wrong answer.  Paul gave you and me an example when he suggested:  not me but Christ in me.  For a few years now one of my mantras is, “It isn’t about me.  It’s about Jesus.”  And when it’s about Jesus it’s about the people Jesus loves, about the people God loves.

When you and I are experiencing pain and loss, when we are suffering, there is always this temptation to turn into ourselves.  Even to curl up and die.  There is a temptation to demand something of the world, to be healed, to bring back the dead, to do something for me.  I’m a good person.  I am owed this.

If we succumb to the temptation to make our lives about ourselves we will fail to see that at the very moment when we are demanding something of the world, the world is demanding something of us.

If we can open ourselves to others we can make the meaning and purpose through which God redeems our lives.  We participate in God’s work.  And what is that work?

Our Scripture reminds us of the great extravagance of God’s love.  It is a love you and I cannot escape.

On a visit to the Southern states, I stopped once for breakfast.  On the plate with my bacon and eggs was this glop of white grainy stuff.  I’m a San Diego boy, so I had to ask the waitress, “What is that?”  She said, “Them’s grits.”  “I didn’t order grits.”  “You don’t order grits.  Ya jis’ gits ‘em.”

You don’t order God’s love you just get it.  You get it in every green tree and every red ripe strawberry.  It comes on a cool breeze on a warm day.  In the laugh of children and the love of a mother.

But—and this is important:  Evil remains.  It is not all good.  You and I are partners with God to bring out what is good.  So hear this quote from Rabbi Cahama as he lay imprisoned:  “We live in a broken world and there is holy work to be done.”


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