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Sermon for July 12, 2009

Running on Empty
1 Peter 2:21; 1 Peter 4:1-13

I once read about a woman who described her prayer life as glorious. She was constantly aware of God living in her. She loved to spend days locked alone in her room, enjoying the presence of God. She felt joy, peace, and a certainty that God would never leave her. One day, her comfortable life in Christ exploded. She lost the secure feelings she had about her faith. She lost the sense of God’s presence and felt dead to God’s influence. It seemed that God had vanished like last night’s dream. The only thing she thought about was her sin: how she must have been doing everything wrong; how she had forever lost her clean, joyous life with Christ. After a very long period of dryness and emptiness, she suddenly found Jesus again. Or maybe Christ found her. She had a profound experience of Christ’s loving presence. But she soon found herself complaining, “Lord, where were you when all those foul images tortured my mind?” Christ said to her, “All during your temptation, I have remained with you in the depths of your heart. Otherwise you could not have overcome them.” At that moment of realization, the woman was able to let go of her old concept of the presence of God. She realized Christ’s presence was something deeper and holier than she could imagine or feel. The woman’s name was Catherine of Sienna. She died in the year 1380. History reminds us that Catherine of Sienna was a woman who devoted herself to prayer, a nurse who undertook to alleviate the suffering of the poor and the sick; an activist; a reformer of Church and society who took a strong stand on the issues affecting her world and who never hesitated “to speak truth to power.” We remember her as an adviser and counselor who always made time for troubled and uncertain persons who told her their problems.

I tell this story because I think many of us have something in common with Catherine’s story. I’ve heard variations on it over the years. Someone will come to me and say,

• “Matt, I’m a Christian. I have faith – it’s not lost. It’s just that God seems so distant. My prayers seem hollow. The ways in which I used to approach God aren’t working anymore, but I don’t have a new way to do it yet. I feel kind of lost.”
• I’ve heard others say, “I see all kinds of problems around me, and when I pray the situations don’t change. Maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m not praying the right way. Maybe I don’t have enough faith. Where is God right now?”

Maybe you have felt this way: like a new way of being in God’s presence is coming but you don’t know what it looks like, or sounds like. So you wait. And you feel empty. Your faith feels like it’s sagging. Your prayers seem ineffective. The old words and the old ways of doing Christianity aren’t working, but a different way of encountering Christ has not yet emerged.

In each of our live we can probably remember periods of fervor when we could almost touch the goodness of God. Bible studies, prayer meetings, retreats, and worship times were important. It was pleasant to think about a God. It was comforting to speak to God. Perhaps all this has changed. Some may feel that they have lost Christ and fear he will never return. So, as night closes around, we ask, “God, where are you now when I’m running on empty?”

Perhaps we can take comfort in knowing that this is a path that many have walked before. The longed for growth in faith is not far away. God’s love and mercy have not abandoned us. Clouds may shroud us in darkness, but even if we can’t see it, God’s bright light still shines. The period of darkness is actually the beginning of a deeper life faith. It’s a spiritual process that brings us to a deeper understanding of Christ’s presence. Allow me to explain the process as I understand it.

It begins when we are thrown off guard. We see or hear something that has the power to make us question where we stand with God. September 11 had the power to throw many off guard. So does any death or tragedy or act of violence. Raising children or learning to be in relationships can also throw us off guard. We want to find ways to express our faith in these circumstances, but we no longer have adequate ways to do it.

Out of this experience comes an opportunity for connection with God. Nothing says that our moments of vulnerability have to end up with a connection with God. For instance, how many times have see ourselves or others turn to someone other than Christ in a moment of spiritual pain? No matter where we turn, though, God is there, reaching out to us to connect our lives to God’s eternal life. At that moment of realization, we get a glimpse–a murmur--of what God wants from our lives.

The process doesn’t stop there, though. The next part of the process of renewal is turning away from authorities. So often we try to be Christians according to someone else’s expectations. The extreme form of this is legalism. Legalism happens when an authority tells us that real Christians don’t behave a certain way. Real Christians don’t dance, don’t smoke, don’t swear. Real Christians don’t drive ugly cars. Real Christians don’t show pain, don’t doubt, don’t waver. We let others mold us, usually with negative rules: “Don’t do that!” When we are young in faith, this can be a positive thing. It sets up boundaries. Unfortunately, many of us get stuck there, afraid to question, afraid to step out and try something new within the Christian tradition. We want more, but are paralyzed. We become afraid of what someone with authority will think of us. Or, we fear what we will become if we follow that inner still-small voice that calls us to something deeper.

Finding a new authority has to do with asking ourselves if we worship God, or someone else’s experience of God? Do we worship God, or someone’s idea of God? I have relied on what other’s say about how to follow Christ, but what is Jesus Christ, the Lord of the conscience, asking of me. What is God asking of me -- not family or friends, not religious traditions or theological concepts, but God?

You know, Jesus went through his own darkness. We can only begin to understand the depths of pain and loneliness that Jesus experienced when he hung on a cross and cried, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” Betrayed. Abandoned. Mocked. Killed. The death of Jesus was what it took to shake humanity out of its comfortable patterns. Suffering and pain are part of our spiritual growth. This is what Peter is getting at in our NT reading. Peter does not say, “Jesus suffered so you don’t have to.” Peter really says, “Jesus suffered so you will know that it can be done.” He says that the suffering of Jesus frees us to love. Christ’s suffering is our healing. But the healing only comes as we suffer through the spiritual process of allowing God to strip away the old so that he can clothe us with the new.

The good news is that something awesome is coming, if you are open and ready. On the other side of the cross and the grave is resurrection. Jesus is not afraid of your woundedness. He understands it. He reaches out and touches it. Where is God when we are running on empty? God says, “All during your temptation, I have remained with you in the depths of your heart. Otherwise you could not have overcome them.”

How do we participate in the wounds of Christ? We do it by suffering with Christ, knowing that the offer of something new is coming. When life gets hard, don’t give into the temptation of thinking that God is gone. No, you are going through the same kind of suffering that Jesus did. And glory is just around the corner.

Sources:
• Brennen Manning, The Signature of Jesus, revised edition (Oregon: Multnomah, 1996), 137-158.
• Jack Clark Robinson, “Franciscan Spirituality” (1996), www.franciscans.com/docs/oef_crtaik.html.
• Richard Rohr, OFM, “Grieving as Sacred Space”, Sojourners Magazine (January February 2002).
• Catherine of Sienna, Reformer and Spiritual Teacher 29 April 1380 , http://elvis.rowan.edu/~kilroy/JEK/04/29.html

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