Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Sermon for May 23, 2010 / Pentecost

Sharing in Suffering, Sharing in Glory
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, “Abba, Father.” For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering. Romans 8:14-17
I’ve always worried that there is a fatal flaw in my life. If people see it, they won’t want to be near me. I will feel abandoned. People will reject me. Growing up, I concluded that dancing on the lips of an abyss can move a person from insignificance to importance. When edged between hope and despair, why not throw caution to the wind? I think that’s how I ended up perched atop the Granby Gorge.

The Granby Gorge was one of the most dangerous places in town when I grew up there. We all knew the stories about kids who dove into the gorge, broke their necks and never walked again; or unaware swimmers who jumped off the cliffs and got pulled into underground caves by the currents of the waterfall. I remembered the words of my father, who told me what he’d do to me if he ever caught me swimming at the Granby Gorge. Let’s just say it involved his foot connecting to my rear-end, followed by weeks of hard labor on our family woodpile.

So there I was, toes curled over the edge of the rocks, hands in the air, ready to perform a record-breaking cannonball to the cheers of my high school friends. One well-placed leap could put me in the pantheon of gorge jumpers. I’d have friends, and fame, and respect, and girls who liked to go out with risk-taking daredevils like me. Yes, I was about to have it all in one 30-foot jump. No more feelings of abandonment. No more snubs. I would be unique and special, and people would see me for who I really am.

I took a deep breath and looked to the left. I loosened my neck as the teens below started to chant. “Jump! Jump! Jump!” I looked to the right, and did a quick double take. There, watching the spectacle from the road, was my father in his Chevy Silverado half ton pickup. Let’s just say, I never jumped the Granby Gorge that day, but I learned a lot about splitting and piling wood.

I didn’t really want to jump the gorge. I really wanted to be popular and liked and accepted. I really wanted people to see something heroic, and intense, and mysterious about me. I wanted to be like The Most Interesting Man in the World, like in those Dos Equis commercials. “The police often question him just because they find him interesting. His blood smells like cologne. When he orders a salad, he gets the dressing right there on top of the salad, where it belongs . . . where there is no turning back. If he disagrees with you, it is because you are wrong. Dicing onions doesn’t make him cry . . . it only makes him stronger. He’s against cruelty to animals, but isn’t afraid to issue a stern warning. Who is this man of mystery? Matt Braddock!”

Much later I realized that those people cheering for me at the base of the gorge did not care about me. They just wanted to see me dive. They would use my obsessive need to belong for their own entertainment. This has happened a lot in my life. I misinterpret people’s support for care. I forget that people have veiled motives behind their behavior, just like I do. In the end I feel embarrassed. Used. Hurt. Betrayed. It is a kind of suffering -- a craving to be unique; a need to be needed; a desire to be desired. But life doesn’t always work that way.

Desire can be compared to fire. If we grasp at fire, what happens? Does it lead to happiness? If we say, “Look at this beautiful fire! Look at the beautiful colors! I love red and orange, and the sliver of greenish blue in the flames; they’re my favorite colors,” and then grasp it, we would find a certain amount of suffering entering the body, right? If we thought about the cause of our pain, we would discover it was the result of having grasped that fire.

One would think that we would then let the fire go. We’ve been burnt once. Let’s not let that happen again.

Now imagine that I don’t want to get burned, but I keep reaching for the fire. I know it will hurt. I know I will suffer. But I keep doing it anyway. Sounds crazy, but we do it all the time. Buddhists have a word for this kind of suffering. I think they are on to something. They call it attachment, or craving. Craving is like a fire that burns everything with which it comes into contact.

In the South of India, people used to catch monkeys in a very special way. Actually they let monkeys catch themselves. A hunter cuts a small hole in a coconut, just large enough for a monkey to put its hand in. Next, the hunter ties the coconut to a tree, and fills it with something sweet. The monkey smells the sweet, squeezes its hand into the coconut, grabs the sweet and finds that the fist does not fit through the hole. Here’s the trick. The last thing the monkey will think of is to let go of the sweet. The monkey holds itself prisoner. Nothing could be easier for a human who comes and catches it. Desires . . . attachments . . . cravings . . . they arise again and again. Trying to fulfill our desires is like reaching for an alluring treat and getting caught rather than letting go. It’s like reaching for the fire again. You get burned. This is life: full of suffering from our self-made pain. Humans tend to long for what they do not have, or to wish for their lives to be different than they are; they often fail to fully appreciate what they do have.

I think this is what’s happening in the Upper Room on Pentecost. Here sit the followers of Jesus. They are afraid. They are afraid they will be found and persecuted, ridiculed, exposed, tortured, and killed. They are afraid they’ll be given the same treatment that the government gave to Jesus. They are confused. They are powerless. They are still attached to old behaviors and worn-out understandings, obsessed by the presence of Christ’s absence. They have never really understood what Jesus was teaching them about a new kingdom. So they tremble in secret, trapped. They live for their selves -- their safety, their protection, the comfort of their beliefs. And they suffer. They long for what they do not have: peace, harmony, safety, comfort, trust, belief, security.

In the book of Romans, Paul says that there are two ways to live and that the difference between these two ways is everything. Paul says that we can live, “according to the flesh,” or we can be, “led by the Spirit of God.” To live according to the flesh is to live with self at the center. My desire to be loved as an original man of mystery is a self-centered way of life. My impatience in the traffic jam is a self-centered thing. It is MY schedule that is supreme and MY destination that is most important. Everyone else on the road should yield to MY needs. Paul thinks that this self-centered way of living, this attachment to our obsessions, leads to slavery and death.

Paul says there is another way to live. There is a way to overcome suffering. For Christians, it happens when we stop living according to the flesh and begin to be led by the Spirit of God. This puts God and God’s interests at the center of our lives. Instead of reaching into flames and getting burned over and over, we allow the fire of the Spirit to come upon us and control our lives. If we look closely, we can see those tongues of flame resting on people around us. The Spirit is upon people who realize that craving does not make life better. They have a purpose beyond self-protection. They appreciate the world around them because it’s God’s world. They can enjoy it without unrealistically grasping at it. They can be part of God’s world and not try to control what it offers. They can be authentic selves among others and they seem to have what many of us long for: peace, harmony, safety, comfort, trust, belief, and security.

Instead of being burned by the flames of false attachment, we are ignited by the Spirit of God.

I once read a story about a church deacon. The pastor tried to get the deacon to open up and let the spirit of God lead her. The deacon concluded that there was one thing she could do. She could take the youth group to the old folk’s home. Once a month the youth group of this church went to the old folk’s home and put on a little church service for the people who lived there. Once she went with the youth group and she stood in the back of the room. The young people were performing and this old man rolled his chair over to where this deacon was standing, took hold of her hand and held it all during the service. The man did the same thing the next month, and the next month, and the next month, and the next month, and the next month. Then they went one Sunday afternoon and the man wasn’t there. The deacon asked the nurse in charge, “What happened to that man?” “Oh,” she said, “He’s near death. He’s just down the hall, the third room. Maybe you should go in and visit him. He’s unconscious, though.”

The deacon walked down and went into the room. You know how people are when they are just about gone and lying there? It was a horrible scene. The deacon went over and held the hand of the gentleman in the bed. She did not know what to do. Those moments are so awkward. Then, instinctively, led by the Spirit, she said a prayer. And when she said “Amen,” the old fellow squeezed her hand. The deacon was so moved by that squeeze, she began to weep. She shook a little. She tried to get out of the room. As she was leaving, she bumped into a woman who was coming into the room. The visitor said, “He’s been waiting for you. He said he did not want to die until Jesus came and held his hand. I tried to tell him that after death he would have a chance to meet Jesus and talk to Jesus and hold Jesus’ hand. But he said, ‘No. Once a month Jesus comes and holds my hand and I don’t want to leave until I have a chance to hold the hand of Jesus once more.’”

To be ignited by the Spirit may bring you into doing things as awesome as that. When you live in the Spirit, there’s something very important that God wants to do in you and through you. It might be just as simple as this: to go some place and to hold somebody’s hand and Jesus for somebody. That’s what Christ wants of us. Not just to have us believe in him, he wants us to be people who surrender to the Spirit, people who are transformed by the Spirit.

People are waiting for us to stop living for ourselves and to live in the Spirit. They are waiting for us to awaken them to their holiness and their giftedness. In the Spirit we move away from the attachments that trap us. We move from isolation to unity. We go from oppression to liberation. We are freed from insignificance and find importance. We recognize the failures and accept grace. We have shared in the suffering. Now it is time to share in the glory. We live in the Spirit, and allow God to transform our lives.

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