Blessed

 A Sermon for February 24, 2013, The Second Sunday of Lent, Matthew 9:18-26 and Luke 13:31-35

                One of my top five favorite films celebrated it’s 25th a few months ago, the romantic-comedy-adventure flick, The Princess Bride[1]. A modest box-office success turned cult classic, the movie is immensely popular among people of all ages and is eminently quotable.

             There are so many great scenes and one-liners in the story, but my favorite is not—as you might guess—the sword fighter Inigo Montoya’s delicious declaration of revenge against the six-fingered man who killed his father. Nor is it the Impressive Clergyman who, during the wedding of Prince Humperdinck, is unable to pronounce his “R’s” and “L’s” when talking about “twu wuv” and “mawage.” [2]

The Dread Pirate Roberts (Cary Elwes) from "The Princess Bride" 1987.
The Dread Pirate Roberts (Cary Elwes) from “The Princess Bride” 1987.

            The moment of The Princess Bride that actually sticks out for me, more often than not, is when the heroine Buttercup is in the clutches of the Dread Pirate Roberts. She is pining for her beloved Wesley whom she believes was killed by her captor. The Dread Pirate Roberts, a mysterious man clad in a black mask and outfit, explains in an arrogant tone that he has to dispose his prisoners or folks will think he’s gone soft. Upon hearing these words, Buttercup screams: “You mock my pain!” And the Dread Pirate Roberts bluntly responds: “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”

Life is pain—the most serious line in the entire movie and one of the deepest and truest sayings ever uttered in history. 

             Suffering is ingrained in the human condition, a significant part of reality that can never be completely avoided in one’s lifetime. We dread the misery and yet are also inexplicably drawn to it because suffering is so familiar, so much a measure of who we are as flesh and blood people.  We are avid consumers of stories of pain and heartache, especially the ones that permeate every aspect of pop culture: chart-busting country songs by Taylor Swift and Darius Rucker; critically acclaimed TV shows like The Good Wife, The Walking Dead and Downton Abbey; Oscar-nominated movies for best picture such as Argo, Les Miserables, Lincoln and Silver Linings Playbook; and best-selling novels by Nicholas Sparks and Gillian Flynn.

              And then, of course, there is The Holy Bible. Printed in more than 6,000 languages and distributed to billions of people for centuries, this sacred book of the Christian faith is brimming with some form of suffering on nearly every page, like this story from the Gospel of Matthew 9:18-26:

While he was saying these things to them, suddenly a leader of the synagoguecame in and knelt before him, saying, ‘My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.’ And Jesus got up and followed him, with his disciples. Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak, for she said to herself, ‘If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.’ Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, ‘Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And instantly the woman was made well. When Jesus came to the leader’s house and saw the flute players and the crowd making a commotion, he said, ‘Go away; for the girl is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. But when the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl got up.And the report of this spread throughout that district.[3]

"Loved Ones Mourn Teen" from The Birmingham Post-Herald, Wednesday Dec. 29, 1999
“Loved Ones Mourn Teen” from The Birmingham Post-Herald, Wednesday Dec. 29, 1999

A desire to not ignore the plight of the suffering and to be fully present with them (just as Jesus was) stirred within me while working on a story for The Birmingham Post-Herald in December 1999, the week after Christmas.

             Jamelle Grace, 16, had spent most of a Monday helping move furniture into the home of his older brother Warren Grace Jr. Hoping to do more work the next day, Jamelle stayed overnight at his brother’s.  About 12:30 am, as Jamelle lay sleeping on the living room couch, someone kicked in the front door and began shooting. Warren and a cousin who lived in the house were able to escape without much harm. But Jamelle was killed instantly.

              Later that Tuesday evening, I visited the home of Jamelle’s dad Warren Grace Sr. so I could write a front-page feature story about the tragedy and its impact on the family.  Sitting next to the father on the sofa, I heard wonderful stories about “a good kid” who loved building model airplanes, and cars, enjoyed music, had a pet snake named Polo and was looking forward to getting his driver’s license. Warren Sr.’s eyes welled with tears as he spoke about his son. Instinctively, I put down my pad and pen and placed my hand on his shoulder.  You will be in my thoughts and prayers, I told him.  A half hour later, I thanked Warren Sr., for talking to me about Jamelle. And then I left for the office to bang out an article for the next day’s newspaper. In that moment, I discovered that I’d prefer to hold the hand of someone who is suffering instead of simply writing their story and moving on to the next article to fill up space in the newspaper. Thus, a call to be an ordained minister began to emerge and in mid summer of 2002, nearly three years after that visit with the Grace family, I entered seminary.

                In the decade that has followed, I’ve witnessed more pain and suffering in full-time ministry than the numerous deadly crimes and accidents that I covered for the newspaper.  There are so many folks in this congregation and other churches who are experiencing profound brokenness and heartache in their lives (most of which doesn’t make it on most prayer chains because of reasonable requests for confidentiality). 

               On top of personal agony, there is immense suffering in the community, nation and world around us. We observe others dealing with an immense amount of pain on a regular basis whenever we enter the office or go to school or walk down a city street or flip on the TV or browse social media from our smart phones: divorce, illness, poverty, hunger, starvation, oppression, pollution, slavery, abuse, murder, war, fraud, drug and alcohol addictions, estranged relationships, death of a loved one, loss of a job.

               Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who helped bring an end apartheid in South Africa, says: “In the universe we inhabit, there will always be suffering. Suffering is often how we grow, especially how we grow emotionally, spiritually and morally. That is, when we let the suffering ennoble us and not embitter us.”[4]

               It’s important to note that neither Tutu nor I are suggesting that God causes suffering so that we as human beings can learn a life lesson. God doesn’t move us around like chess pieces or randomly inflict harm on some but not on others.  And God doesn’t doll out pain as a punishment for our sins.

             A lot of suffering in this world is actually caused by human choice, not by a hateful and vengeful God.  If someone is slapping around their girlfriend or sexually abusing a child or bullying another kid at school, it is not God’s will that the victims should suffer such horrendous torture and pain. If someone is born into a third-world country rife with war and famine, it is not God’s will that the person should suffer such appalling injustice.

            And incredible phenomenon like disease, earthquakes and storms—which is largely out of our hands—are ordinary occurrences, not God’s unleashing of destructive forces on those deemed to be unworthy of love and grace.

"Drops Like Stars: A Few Thoughts on Creativity and Suffering" by Rob Bell
“Drops Like Stars: A Few Thoughts on Creativity and Suffering” by Rob Bell

Regardless of the cause, whether nature or human beings, suffering is here to stay.  We have no other choice but to bear it, to try to alleviate it some in the lives of ourselves and others through selfless acts of love, and to grow from it—to be emboldened and not embittered by it. In his book Drops Like Stars[5], pastor and theologian Rob Bell puts it this way:

We are going to suffer. And it is going to shape us. Somehow. We will become bitter or better, closed or open, more ignorant or more aware. (We will become) more or less tuned in to the thousands of gifts we are surrounded with every single moment of every single day.

 A few pages later, Bell recalls a novel he read in which a theologian visits a sculptor in her studio. The theologian offers elegant and complicated ideas about God, suffering and life. But the sculptor offers a different and simpler perspective:

No matter how much the mess and distortion make you want to despair, you can’t abandon the work because you’re chained to the bloody thing. It’s absolutely woven into your soul and you know you can never rest until you’ve brought truth out of all the distortion and beauty out of all the mess—but it’s agony, agony, agony—while simultaneously being the most wonderful and rewarding experience in the world—and that’s the creative process which so few people understand…You can’t create without waste and mess and sheer undiluted slog. You can’t create without pain. It’s all part of the process.

When I was a teenager, a dear friend who was a member of my church’s youth group and a football player at my high school, Bonkey McCain, was killed in a drive-by shooting outside a local restaurant following a football game. Although Bonkey wasn’t the intended target, he took three bullets to the chest when the occupants of a passing car opened fire into the crowd of teens gathered in the parking lot.

                   The death shook up the church, the high school and the community, and it completely changed the life of Bonkey’s mother, Carmen. She was already known for going into urban communities at night to preach Jesus to gang members and drug pushers. But with the loss of Bonkey, she began a new crusade to combat gun violence and to be a voice for hundreds of moms whose kids were killed by a stray bullet during a drive-by.

 

"Here fight against violence hits home" from The Birmingham Post-Herald, Thursday April 13, 2000.
“Here fight against violence hits home” from The Birmingham Post-Herald, Thursday April 13, 2000.

And then several years later, in April 2000, another senseless act of violence struck Carmen’s life when her sister Anne was stabbed to death by Anne’s ex-husband.  I was doing my stint at the Post-Herald at the time so naturally I interviewed Carmen for the newspaper.  I remember her telling me that it was God’s strength that helped her through suffering:

I don’t stay laying in tears. You get up, dust yourself off and swing at the devil because he’s never going to stop coming…You have to instill with people that life must go on. Things are going to happen unforeseen; you can’t up and move away every time a tragedy occurs. You still have to carry the torch for other people to see…God always allows you to go through something so you can be a help to someone else. I know the force behind my message is pain.

                 Like the hemorrhaging woman and the sleeping girl in Matthew’s gospel, Carmen reached out to God in the midst of suffering. In doing so, she let the suffering embolden her and brazenly shape the pain into a message of non-violence. Carmen allowed suffering to make her more open and aware that there is a lot of work to be done in the name of God’s love. She courageously reflected the actions of Jesus who understood better than any of us that suffering can not slow down or even stop the work of God. Consider the following story from The Gospel of Luke 13:31-35:

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ He  said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox for me,‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’

              It’s remarkable isn’t it? Jesus is receiving death threats on the job and he shrugs it off as if it’s no big deal! In the words of Carmen McCain, Jesus tells the Pharisees that he’s going to pick himself up, dust himself off and keep swinging at the devil because he’s never going to stop coming!

                The fiery pronouncement quickly turns to a cry of lament as Jesus broods over the suffering that the city of Jerusalem endures at the hands of the Roman Empire and the people’s refusal of the prophets who come to rescue them.  Jesus, of course, is also ruminating over the suffering he must endure to save the whole lot of ‘em (and us for that matter). Jesus knows you can’t create without “waste and mess and sheer undiluted slog. You can’t create without pain. It’s all part of the process.”

               Jesus concludes that since the people of Jerusalem have chosen to be embittered by suffering, he must be shaped by the agony that will come in the form of mockery, beatings and a horrendous death on a cross. He must be shaped by the suffering so that he can use the anguish to reshape and redeem the world, making it whole once again.

            Therein lies, amid this Lenten season, the hope for humanity and the brokenness that all of creation suffers:

            Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”

 

Amen.


[1] The Princess Bride, directed by Rob Reiner. Screenplay by William Goldman, author of the book the film is based on. 20th Century Fox Films. 1987.

[2] During the first wedding I ever officiated (2006), I began the meditation by quoting the Impressive Clergyman. J

[3] New Revised Standard Version

[4] God Has A Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time by Desmond Tutu, Doubleday Publishing. 2006.

[5] Drops Like Stars: A Few Thoughts on Creativity and Suffering, Zondervan Publishing. 2009.

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1 thought on “Blessed”

  1. Dear Andy,
    It’s been a long time since I heard from you. I’m glad to hear you’re doing well and I’m so impressed that out of all that grief I experienced in 1999, something good came out of it all. I’m so glad to hear that you are ministering to our world and that Jamelle’s suffering and death had some impact on your decision to obey God’s call. Keep on preaching Andy.
    Yours in Christ,
    Warren Grace, Sr.
    warreng10@live.com

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