Sunday’s sermon: The Gift of Getting Lost

dark woods getting lost

Texts used – 1 Samuel 3:1-10; Luke 15:1-10

  • About 15 years ago, Universal Studios came out with a fantastic movie called “Bruce Almighty.”[1]
    • Basic storyline:
      • Jim Carey = Bruce, a reporter at a local news station who’s tired of doing the “fluff” pieces → wants more recognition and notoriety that comes with being an anchorman
      • Bruce’s girlfriend, Grace (Jennifer Aniston) = tries to get him to stop and smell the roses sometimes – enjoy life and have faith instead of being focused on himself all the time
      • One day, Bruce has pretty much the worst day ever. He’s fired. He gets beat up. His beautiful, vintage sports car gets damaged. He gets in a fight with Grace. His dog refuses to house train. All bad. All the time. Bruce finds himself in the Dark Wood for sure.
        • Read scene descr. from Elnes’ book[2]
  • Friends, we cannot deny that we feel lost like Bruce sometimes.
    • Lost among the distractions of the world around us
    • Lost among our own ambitions and desires
    • Lost among relationships (healthy or otherwise)
    • Lost … just plain lost. And we don’t like feeling lost, especially when we’re in the midst of the Dark Wood. Being lost makes us feel helpless, stressed out, and shatteringly vulnerable. Whether we’re speaking metaphorically or whether we’re literally behind the wheel of our car and unsure of which way to turn, being lost is a profoundly unsettling experience. But we also cannot deny that part of life is getting lost. The road of life is not a straight, easy, simple road. It’s winding and hilly and full of challenging things like blind corners and unexpected detours. → sometimes getting lost is how we figure out that we’re in the Dark Wood in the first place – we think we know exactly where we’re going and how we’re going to get there … until suddenly we look up and realize we have no idea how we got where we are or how to go elsewhere
      • Reminder: Dark Wood = times of challenge and struggle in our lives → spending the summer exploring the many unexpected blessings we can find in the midst of the Dark Wood using Eric Elnes’ book Gifts of the Dark Woods: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers)[3]
        • Talked about how uncertainty leads us to trust
        • Talked about how emptiness reminds us to make space for God
        • Last week: talked about being led by those thunderstruck moments – flashes and reverberations of God in our lives
  • Today, we’re going to be talking about what a gift and a blessing it can be to actually get lost.
    • Elnes holds up both the uncomfortableness and the necessity of getting lost: Our journey through life is never a straight one, even if we are paying attention to our sweet-spot moments. The path zigzags. … We would probably be fine with all these twists and turns, more or less, if someone issued us a printed itinerary. But God seems to have forgotten about the itinerary. Instead, at each point where the journey needs to make a turn, we start to feel increasingly lost. In my own journey, this feeling of being lost prompts me to pay more careful attention to the signals that the Holy Spirit sends me. I pray and meditate longer and with greater attention.[4] → Sometimes, we need to figure out that we have no idea what we’re doing or where we are to discern where God is calling us to go. Taking us out of the ensconced-ness of our comfort zones makes us open our eyes in ways that we never expected … sometimes in ways that we never wanted to have to open them in the first place. But it’s only when our eyes have been unexpectedly opened in this way that we can finally begin to see those flashes of God that lead us along our new path.
  • Situation that Samuel finds himself in in our OT reading
    • Reminder of who Samuel is: Samuel’s mother, Hannah, was desperate for a child → husband had 2 wives and the other wife had children while Hannah didn’t, so she would taunt Hannah mercilessly → Hannah went to the temple to sacrifice and pray → of 1 Sam: She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. She made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.”[5] → Eli the priest saw Hannah weeping and praying and eventually blessed her and her prayers → Hannah becomes pregnant and gives birth to Samuel → when Samuel is 3 yrs. old, she brings him to live in the temple to fulfill her promise to God – text: For this child I prayed; and the Lord has granted me the petition that I made to him. Therefore I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives, he is given to the Lord.[6]
    • And so in our text for today, we find Samuel as a young boy living in the temple and serving Eli, the priest. – text: Now the boy Samuel was serving the Lord under Eli. The Lord’s word was rare at that time, and visions weren’t widely known.[7] → “The Lord’s word was rare at that time, and visions weren’t widely known.” Into this haziness, into this unknownness, into this Dark Wood of a time and place for the people of Israel, God begins to speak to Samuel. But Samuel doesn’t recognize God’s voice. Samuel doesn’t recognize God’s call. So he’s a little bit lost.
      • Text: Now Samuel didn’t yet know the Lord, and the Lord’s word hadn’t yet been revealed to him.[8]
      • God calls Samuel once → Samuel thinks it’s Eli calling him and runs to his side → Eli tells Samuel to go lie down
      • God calls Samuel again → Samuel again runs to Eli’s side → Eli again tells Samuel to go lie down → I think we can imagine Eli getting a little frustrated at this point. He’s old. He can’t see anymore. He’s basically trying to take an afternoon nap. And this overanxious boy keeps running into his room, waking him up, and asking him what he wants when he never called for the kid in the first place!
      • God calls Samuel a 3rd time → Samuel again runs to Eli’s side → And this time, Eli finally tumbles to what’s going on. – text: Then Eli realized that it was the Lord who was calling the boy. So Eli said to Samuel, “Go and lie down. If he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down where he’d been. Then the Lord came and stood there, calling just as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” Samuel said, “Speak. Your servant is listening.”[9] → At first, Samuel is very thoroughly in the dark. He’s lost. He has no idea what’s going on. And in that lostness – in that disorientation – he’s open to suggestion. He thinks he knows what’s happening. He thinks he knows the way. He’s certain that Eli must be calling him because he can’t imagine another option. And yet that other path is there. Even before he’s aware of it, God is literally calling him to that path.
        • Elnes highlights a small but very important detail in Samuel’s story – Eli’s instruction: If he calls you, say, “Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.” → Samuel’s response when God’s calls the 3rd time: “Speak. Your servant is listening.” → “Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.” “Speak. Your servant is listening.”
          • Elnes: Samuel repeats every word but one. He says, “Speak, for your servant is listening,” but leaves out the word Lord. This is classic Hebrew narrative technique indicating that Samuel still had his doubts. Yet despite his doubts about where the intuition was coming from, Samuel’s heart is indeed open, and he is rewarded for continuing to listen.[10]
  • Even when we don’t know it, even when we can’t feel it, even when we don’t even think to expect it, God is with us in the midst of our lostness. → NT passage this morning = all about lostness and the joy of finding
    • Part of a chapter in Luke all about lostness
      • Today’s text = parable of the lost sheep and parable of the lost coin
      • Just after today’s text = parable of the lost son (prodigal son)
    • Telling of these parables is (not surprisingly) precipitated by grumbling and judgment on the part of the Pharisees – text: All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”[11]
      • Addresses an important distinction → You see, one of the reasons that we can sometimes feel like we’re lost is because we don’t feel worthy to be found. We think that this time, we’ve screwed up too big, too hard, too profoundly. We think that whatever it is we’ve done takes us too deeply into those Dark Woods to ever be worth looking for let alone being found. The Pharisees thought that the people gathering around Jesus – those horrible tax collectors and (gulp) sinners!! – were beyond deserving to be found. And yet, through the parables that he tells, Jesus makes two things abundantly clear:
        • 1st = God is so determined to find these lost ones that leaving them lost doesn’t even cross God’s mind – text: Suppose someone among you had one hundred sheep and lost one of them. Wouldn’t he leave the other ninety-nine in the pasture and search for the lost one until he finds it? … Or what woman, if she owns ten silver coins and loses one of them, won’t light a lamp and sweep the house, searching her home carefully until she finds it?[12] → Jesus makes it common sense. Of course you would track down the lost sheep. Of course you would hunt for your lost coin. You don’t just leave precious things lost. And neither does God.
        • Leads to 2nd thing Jesus makes clear = these lost ones are indeed precious to God – text: When he finds [the lost sheep], he is thrilled and places it on his shoulders. When he arrives home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost sheep.” In the same way, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who changes both heart and life than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to change their hearts and lives.[13] → In their lostness and in being found, these people are more precious to God than any other. And friends, at one point or another in our lives, we are all “these people.”
          • Elnes: When it comes to finding our place in this world, mistakes don’t matter nearly as much to God as they do to us, provided they’re our own mistakes. We tend to make the most serious mistakes when we’re trying to be someone else.[14]
  • When we are lost, it gives God the opportunity to find us, to sweep us up and remind us that we are treasured, that we were missed, that we are worth seeking. And it gives God the opportunity to direct us once again – to set our feet back on the path, to redirect our gaze, to reorient us and show us the way we should go. But we have to be open to that leading – not only open to the idea of it but open to listening and watching for it.
    • Guidance of God is not always flashy and Hollywood-worthy and obvious – Elnes asks an important question: I wonder how many of us miss the Spirit calling us into great and wonderful work (or offering powerful help in a time of crisis) simply because we expect the signs to be more clear and for God to act with more supernatural bravado?[15] → If we think about last week when we talked about the gift of being thunderstruck, this sort of goes hand-in-hand with that idea. Sometimes, the leadings and direction of the Holy Spirit are those bright, hard-to-miss lightning flashes that illuminate the path in front of us. But sometimes – most times! – God is much more subtle than that. The Holy Spirit nudges and whispers far more often than she shoves and hollers. And it will happen not just once but over and over and over again.
      • Elnes: People who find and live into their calling rarely do so without getting lost first. Yet since there are no straight or clear paths in the Dark Wood of life, they do not cease to get lost after once being found. Rather, those who embrace life in the Dark Wood gradually learn that the regular experience of getting lost is one of the most important gifts we can receive.[16] So friends, let’s get lost. Amen.

[1] “Bruce Almighty,” distr. by Universal Pictures, released May 2003.

[2] Eric Elnes. Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers). (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), 86-87.

[3] Eric Elnes. Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers). (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press), 2015.

[4] Elnes, 84-85.

[5] 1 Sam 1:10-11 (NRSV).

[6] 1 Sam 1:27-28 (NRSV).

[7] 1 Sam 3:1.

[8] 1 Sam 3:7.

[9] 1 Sam 3:8c-10.

[10] Elnes, 98.

[11] Lk 15:1-2.

[12] Lk 15:4, 8.

[13] Lk 15:5-7.

[14] Elnes, 99.

[15] Elnes, 98.

[16] Elnes, 83-84.

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Sunday’s sermon: The Gift of Being Thunderstruck

thunder and lightning

Texts used – Job 36:26-37:7; Mark 4:35-41

  • When we were little, our parents told us all sorts of things about thunder and lightning to make it seem less scary, right? → favorite examples
    • Thunder & lightning = God taking pictures
      • Thunder = sound of the shutter
      • Lightning = flash
    • Thunder & lightning = music
      • Thunder = drums
      • Lightning = cymbal crashes
    • Probably most classic: thunder & lightning = God and the angels bowling
      • Thunder = bowling balls and pins
      • Lightning = celebration
    • To little kids, the thunder and lightning can feel scary because thunder and lightning are so much bigger than we are! And they seem to come out of nowhere. And they’re unpredictable. You never know when and where they’re going to strike or how powerful they’re going to be.
  • Throughout the summer, we’ve been walking through the Dark Wood using Eric Elnes’ book, Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers)[1]
    • Talked about what the Dark Wood is → those moment of challenge and struggle in our lives
    • Talked about the first two gifts
      • Uncertainty leads us to trust in God
      • Emptiness helps us remember to make room for God and the leading of the Holy Spirit
    • Today = talking about the gift of being thunderstruck → not really a phrase we use a whole lot anymore – “thunderstruck”: extreme shock and surprise (other synonyms: astonished, dumbfounded, speechless, flabbergasted)
      • Like the unpredictability of real thunder and lightning, moments that leave us thunderstruck feel like they come out of nowhere. They flash and crash and reverberate in our hearts and souls long after the actual moment has passed, leaving us wondering and pondering and questioning and seeking.
        • Elnes’ approaches this idea through the interpretation lens of the Ancient Near East: The Dark Wood is that inner terrain you negotiate more through intuition, imagination, and indirect ways of knowing than through direct perception. In every mythology in the Ancient Near East, the elements of lightning and thunder are depicted in similar fashion: as instruments for conveying the voice of the highest deity. … When the ancients spoke of the deity flashing lightning and chasing it with claps of thunder, they meant that the voice of the divine often comes through momentary flashes of intuition or awareness that trigger sensations that reverberate within us like rolling thunder.[2]
          • Thunder and lightning are wholly other – something completely outside of us and different from us but also something that affects us when present no matter what → If you are awake, you cannot escape the sound of thunder or the flash of the lightning. Heck, if the thunder and lightning are powerful enough, they can even jolt us out of deep sleep, can’t they?
          • Encounters with God and the revelations that come from those encounters are the same: wholly other and completely outside of us but that affects us no matter what
  • Hear this understanding of God speaking in our OT passage this morning
    • Background
      • Basic story of Job: Job is a man who was “honest, a person of absolute integrity; he feared God and avoided evil.”[3] → blessed with many things (family, wealth, health & well-being) → catches the attention of Satan who says to God, “The only reason this Job guy worships you is because things have gone so well for him. If things were going poorly, he would turn his back on you.” → God’s response: “Look, all he has is within your power; only don’t stretch out your hand against him.”[4] → all sorts of terrible things happen to Job and he loses everything: family, wealth, health, even home → his 3 friends (Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar) and his wife tell him to curse and abandon God because his fortunes have turned so rapidly but Job refuses to do so
      • End of Job – enter Elihu
        • Description from earlier in text: Elihu son of Barachel the Buzite from the clan of Ram was angry, angry with Job because he considered himself more righteous than God. He was also angry with his three friends because they hadn’t found an answer but nevertheless thought Job wicked. Elihu had waited while Job spoke, for they were older than he. When Elihu saw that there had been no response in the speeches of the three men, he became very angry.[5] → The passage that we read today is part of Elihu’s speech to Job about how powerful and wholly other God is.
    • Today’s text – Elihu uses thunder/lightning language in reference to God over and over again:
      • Even if one perceives a spreading cloud and the thunder of his pavilion, look how he spreads lightning across is at covers the seabed[6]
      • [God] conceals lightning in his palms and orders it to its target. His thunder announces it[7]
      • Listen closely to the rumble of his voice, the roar issuing from his mouth. He looses it under the whole sky, his lightning on earth’s edges.[8]
      • All of these references speak to that awesome, soul-shaking, thunder-striking power that God has to shake up our lives – to intervene in ways that can be both subtle and sensational. Think about the varying ways that we observe thunder and lightning.
        • Thunder
          • Sometimes low and rolling – almost a background noise that you have to strain to hear
          • Sometimes a deafening crash that seems to come out of the blue (you know … those thunder claps that come crashing out of nowhere and make you jump)
          • Sometimes somewhere in between: start low and rolling and end up loud and attention-grabbing
        • Lightning
          • Sometimes soft flickers up in the clouds that you can only see if your attention is focused on the right place at the right time
          • Sometimes bright flashes – all you can see is the light itself (not sure where the lightning is … just see the after effect)
          • Sometimes one of those big, bright, powerful bolts that streaks from the clouds to the ground
        • When God breaks into our lives in ways that leave us thunderstruck, it can be in ways that are big and showy and impossible to ignore like a giant thunder clap or a fierce bolt of lightning but also in ways that build up like rolling thunder and flash as quick as lightning and are gone again. But no matter how they come, those moments leave us struck – struck by God’s presence with us and struck by revelation.
          • Revelation could be something God is calling us to do
          • Revelation could be something God is calling us to be
          • Revelation could be somewhere God is calling us to go
          • Whatever it is, those thunderstruck moments reveal God’s will to us in ways that we cannot ignore sort of the way a flash of lightning in the dark can light up a previously-unseen path in the middle of a Dark Wood.
    • Elnes: While you may be able to identify times when you’ve experienced flashes of insight, you may find the thunder easier to locate. In an actual storm you may miss the lightning entirely. It is brief, soundless, and often comes from a distant place. But even quiet thunder is hard to miss. Even if you overlook or forget the inner realization that triggers your inner thunder, the ongoing reverberations caused by the lightning sometimes last for years. I cannot remember the specific moment when I first realized that I wanted to marry [my wife], for instance, but the reverberations have continued to thunder for twenty-six years.[9]
  • See this flash of revelation in our NT passage this morning (another Jesus/disciples/boat/crappy weather story)
    • Storyline: Jesus has spent another long day teaching and preaching, both to the disciples and to a large crowd by the side of the sea → end of the day, Jesus tells the disciples that they’re going to cross to the other side of the sea/lake (way to remove themselves from the crowds) → exhausted Jesus falls asleep in the back of the boat on the way across → giant storm blows up (“Gale-force winds arose, and waves crashed against the boat so that the boat was swamped”[10] → fearing for their lives, disciples wake Jesus rather dramatically – “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re drowning?”[11] → Jesus silences the storm, then silences the disciples – “He got up and gave orders to the wind, and he said to the lake, “Silence! Be still!” The wind settled down and there was a great calm. Jesus asked [the disciples], ‘Why are you frightened? Don’t you have faith yet?’”[12] → disciples are indeed thunderstruck – “Overcome with awe, they said to each other, ‘Who then is this? Even the wind and the sea obey him!’”[13]
    • In this passage, the disciples experience a flash of brilliant, soul-shaking, world-altering revelation that continues to roll and thunder within them long after that initial moment has passed. Their lives are inarguably altered after this encounter. They literally watched Jesus calm a raging storm and a roiling sea with his voice. He spoke, and the winds and the waves ceased. There’s no way they could go back to “business as usual” after that! But there are a couple of important things that we have to notice about this interaction.
      • First: comes from a place of discomfort – disciples in the boat are basically in a life-or-death situation → Now, not every revelation has to come in such an extreme moment of life or death, but are revelations that come in times of comfort and calm and contentment ever really going to effectively grab our attention? Probably not. When things are going well, we have no reason to be looking for something better, something brighter, something more … because we’re happy with the way things are.
        • To stick with our analogy: thunder and lightning don’t appear out of nowhere on a beautiful, sunny day → they are always found in the midst of a storm
        • Greatest revelations are often found in the midst of turmoil
      • Also notice: disciples don’t come away from this revelation with all the answers → They don’t come away saying, “Oh my gosh, this Jesus guy that we’ve been traveling with must be the Son of God sent into the world to bring us God’s love and salvation. Thanks be to God!” Even after this pretty striking revelation, they don’t have the whole picture. But they do have greater insight. They have a small piece of the puzzle. Their viewpoint has been shifted by what they have seen and heard and experienced. And it’s that experience that matters more than having all the answers.
  • Elnes speaks of the necessity of this nature being fleeting (describes those thunder and lightning moments of revelation as “liquid joy”): I would lose those feelings of liquid joy many times … But every time I would lose it, it would circle back again, with growing intensity. … [These sweet spot moments] act like crumbs in the Dark Wood of life that indicate the direction of my particular path ahead.[14] → So while a few weeks ago we talked about how the uncertainty of the path through the Dark Wood is a blessing in that it teaches us to trust God, these moments of being thunderstruck – these flash moments of revelation and the reverberation that resonates in our souls long afterward – are gifts of reassurance in the face of all that scares us in the Dark Wood.
    • Moments themselves can be jarring – can be unexpected, can reveal things we didn’t even know were there (blessings or obstacles) – but they can also be flashes that reassure us we are going in the right direction → find that reassurance in the frequency: Do we keep hearing the thunder and seeing flashes of lightning?
      • Disciples as an e.g. → If Jesus had never ever done another miraculous thing, they may have brushed off that experience in the boat as just a coincidence. Just one of those crazy things. Maybe they would have thought they themselves were going crazy! But through his healings, his teachings, his miracles, and finally through his resurrection, Jesus continued to give the disciples flashing glimpses of his true identity and the Kingdom of God that reverberated within their hearts and minds long after the moment itself had passed.
  • And how can we identify those thunderstruck moments?
    • Elnes: We must always ask ourselves a question I once heard author Phyllis Tickle ask: “Was that the Holy Spirit talking or the pizza I just ate?” … One of the hallmarks of authentic spiritual experience is that it continues to repeat itself – like thunder and lightning in a good storm – long after the pizza is gone.[15] → So friends, as we wander through this Dark Wood together, let us keep our eyes and our ears and our souls poised for those thunderstruck moments – those flashes of God in our midst. Amen.

[1] Eric Elnes. Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers). (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press), 2015.

[2] Elnes, 66, 67-68.

[3] Job 1:1.

[4] Job 1:12.

[5] Job 32:2-5.

[6] Job 36:29.

[7] Job 36:32-33a.

[8] Job 7:2-3.

[9] Elnes, 68.

[10] Mk 4:37.

[11] Mk 4:38.

[12] Mk 4:39-40.

[13] Mk 4:41.

[14] Elnes, 76.

[15] Elnes, 71.

Sunday’s sermon: The Gift of Emptiness

empty hands

Texts used – Psalm 81:6-16; Matthew 16:24-28

  • Today, we continue our summer sermon series through the Dark Wood.
    • Reminder: Dark Wood = moments of challenge and difficulty in our lives that lead to some of our most precious revelations from God → places when we unexpectedly and undeniably encounter God
    • Using book Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers) by Eric Elnes[1]
    • First week: talked about what the Dark Wood is
    • Last week: tackled 1st gift – uncertainty → talked about how uncertainty actually invites and encourages one of the most important aspects of our relationship with God: trust
    • Today: talking about 2nd gift – emptiness → Before we go any further, let’s take a moment for a point of clarification because let’s be honest, there are a lot of different ways that we can feel empty, aren’t there?
      • Loneliness can feel empty
      • Grief can feel empty
      • Depression can feel empty
      • Anxiety can feel empty
      • And I have no doubt that God does indeed sit with us in those difficult, empty-feeling places in our lives, weeping with us when we weep, carrying us when we need to be carried, sheltering us when we need to be sheltered. In the face of those kinds of emptiness, it is best to seek out someone else – someone you can talk to, cry with, pray with, and most importantly, be safe with. But the kind of emptiness that Elnes addresses in this book – the kind of emptiness that we’ll be talking about this morning – is a different kind of emptiness. It’s more intentional emptiness. This one may be better titled “the gift of being emptied.” There’s a purposefulness about it – a choice to empty oneself out.
        • Elnes’ description of “emptiness” (starts with a poem by Rūmī): “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, / there is a field. I’ll meet you there. / When the soul lies down in that grass, / the world is too full to talk about. / Ideas, language, even the phrase each other / doesn’t make any sense.” The Dark Wood gift of emptiness brings us straight to this place beyond notions of wrongdoing and rightdoing. It’s not a place beyond morality. Rather, it’s where our fractured humanity finds its most intimate connection to divinity and an astonishing fullness is discovered within our deepest emptiness.[2] → It’s about getting out of our own way – clearing away all the clutter and chaos of life so that we can listen for the leading of the Holy Spirit uninterrupted, undistracted, and unencumbered.
  • That’s why the passage that we read from Matthew’s gospel is so perfect for today.
    • Probably one of the more challenging Scriptures to wrestle with – text: Then Jesus said to his disciples, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will find them.[3] → This is a hard Scripture passage, right? These words of Jesus are challenging, especially to the comfortable, Western-world lives that we live, aren’t they? “Lose my life to find my life?” What does that mean?
      • Many interpretations and iterations of this in Christianity throughout the centuries
        • Desert fathers and mothers of the early church à Christian hermits and ascetics (those who practices severe self-discipline and abstention from basically everything) who lived in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria in the 3rd C.E.
          • E.g.s – Anthony the Great, Athanasius of Alexandria, and Theodora of Alexandria
        • Various monastic order in the Catholic church that practice denials of different kinds → vows of poverty, silence, obedience, etc. all aimed at this idea of “saying no” to oneself in order to listen better for God
        • Tackled by Protestant thinkers and theologians as well – Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Self-denial means knowing only Christ, and no longer oneself. It means seeing only Christ, who goes ahead of us, and no longer the path that is too difficult for us. Again, self-denial is saying only: He goes ahead of us; hold fast to him.[4] → This is the version of emptiness that Elnes identifies as a gift of the Dark Wood. In those Dark Wood moments, feelings of inadequacy, of not measuring up, of failure and incompetence, feelings that tell us we’re not enough force us to encounter our emptiness. But then, instead of letting that emptiness to define us, we turn it around. We use that emptiness, morphing it into an emptiness that involves us deliberately letting go of all those things that pull our attention away from God and the stirrings of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
          • Distractions
          • Worries
          • Fears
          • Busy work
          • Faults
          • Insecurities
          • Mistakes
          • Excuses
    • What if that’s how we read Jesus’ words in this Matthew passage? – text (modified): Then Jesus said to his disciples, “All who want to come after me must say no to their worries … their fears … their insecurities … their fears … their excuses, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to come after me must say no to the mistakes … the failures … the wrong turns that hold them back, take up their cross, and follow me.”
      • Elnes: No amount of success, brilliance, or published works exempt you from insecurity and failure, even when you are walking squarely on your life’s path. … Imagine what it would be like to be free – free not of your faults but your fear of them. This is precisely what the Dark Wood gift of emptiness brings.[5]
  • OT reading this morning reminds us that God is there to fill our emptiness no matter what
    • Ps addresses those Dark Wood moments: I lifted the burden off your shoulders; your hands are free of the brick basket! In distress you cried out, so I rescued you. I answered you in the secret thunder.[6]
    • Ps speaks uniquely to moment in which God’s people refused to empty themselves and make room for God: My people wouldn’t listen to my voice. Israel simply wasn’t agreeable toward me. So I sent them off to follow their willful hearts; they followed their own advice. How I wish my people would listen to me! How I wish Israel would walk in my ways![7] → Even after all that they had been through – slavery in Egypt, the first Passover when God spared the lives of all those who listened to God’s instruction through Moses, their exodus from Egypt in which they were guided by God both day and night, God saving them and obliterating Pharaoh’s army at the Red Sea … even after all of that, the Israelites refused to fully empty themselves in the wilderness and follow God. “They followed their own advice.”
      • Heb. is pretty clear: “stubborn hearts” “walk in their counsel/plan” → popular saying is “Let go and let God” … but how often do we actually allow ourselves to do that? Let go and let God? How often do we embrace and embody that intentional emptying to make room for God?
    • Ps also hears God explicitly saying “I will fill your emptiness!”: I am the Lord your God, who brought you up from Egypt’s land. Open your mouth wide – I will fill it up! … How I wish my people would listen to me! How I wish Israel would walk in my ways! Then I would subdue their enemies in a second; I would turn my hand against their foes. Those who hate the Lord would grovel before me, and their doom would last forever! But I would feed you with the finest wheat. I would satisfy you with honey from the rock.[8] → God promises protection. God promises to nurture and fill and even indulge the people with the finest wheat and honey if only they would let go of the things that pull their attention and devotion away from God.
      • Highlights what makes the Israelites’ 40-yr. journey in the wilderness such a perfect e.g.
        • Israelites refused to follow God – refused to empty themselves and make that space to listen for and follow God
        • Consequence: made it to the doorstep of the Promised Land, then wandered around in the wilderness for 40 yrs. “follow[ing] their willful hearts,” as the psalm put it
        • But even in the midst of all that wandering – even in the midst of those 40 yrs. of Dark Wood moments – God didn’t leave the Israelites alone. And in our own Dark Wood moments, we are not alone either. Even when we are feeling our emptiest – especially when we are feeling our emptiest! – God is with us.
  • I want you to look up front this morning. We have two crucial symbols of just how powerful it can be to empty ourselves in order for God to fill us up.
    • 1st symbol is there every Sunday = the cross → Elnes: For Christians, one of the greatest symbols of the Dark Wood gift of emptiness is the Cross. Here we find the emptiness of the heavens merging with the emptiness of a human body. At their intersection we hear the emptiest and most human of all cries on the lips of Jesus, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In that great and terrible moment of emptiness, not even Jesus could find God. Yet for the last two thousand years, Christians have insisted that the Cross is not the end of the story, but the beginning of a new one. Why? Not because Jesus found God as he stared from the Cross into the vast emptiness of the heavens, but because from within this Great Emptiness God found Jesus. The message could not be more profound: If you yearn to find God, get empty! Let God find you.[9] → Again, it’s about the intentionality of the emptiness. It’s about recognizing that our own strength, smarts, structures, and selves are not enough to navigate our way through this life alone. It’s about recognizing our need – our deepest, most emptying need – and giving that need to God, not so that God can take it away or put a Band-Aid on it, but so that God can fill it up.
    • Brings us to 2nd symbol = communion → Whenever we gather at this table, we are offering up our emptiness to God and asking to be filled up again – filled up in body and spirit, in heart and mind and strength. We fill our bodies with the bread and the wine or the juice, and we fill our souls with the presence and reassurance and love of God in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. So as we prepare for this glorious feast, let me encourage you wholeheartedly, friends: Let’s get empty. Amen.

[1] Eric Elnes. Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers). (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press), 2015.

[2] Elnes, 41-42.

[3] Mt 16:24-25.

[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer. “Why Self-Denial? Discipleship and the Cross” found on The Plough: https://www.plough.com/en/topics/faith/discipleship/why-self-denial.

[5] Elnes, 45.

[6] Ps 81:6-7.

[7] Ps 81:11-13.

[8] Ps 81:10, 13-16.

[9] Elnes, 61.

Sunday’s sermon: The Gift of Uncertainty

uncertainty

Texts used – John 5:1-15 and 1 Corinthians 13:8-13

  • Last week, we entered into a summer journey together – a journey into the Dark Wood. → journey guided by book: Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers) by Eric Elnes[1]
    • Last week: What is the Dark Wood? → 2 sides to it
      • Dark Wood = places of challenge, places of struggle, places of insecurity in our lives
      • ALSO Dark Wood = place of growth, place of strength, place of revelation → place where heaven and earth come closer together, place where we meet God in soul-sparking, path-altering, life-changing ways
    • But what we learned last week is that those life-changing ways are not always the ways that we would ideally choose. They’re not always easy. They’re not always smooth. They’re not always well-lit, well-paved, well-traveled paths. Sometimes they’re hard and scary and rough and uncertain. Sometimes they’re Dark Wood paths.
      • Doesn’t mean God isn’t traveling with us along the path
      • Doesn’t mean there isn’t something powerful to be learned from the journey
      • Just means that some of the blessings – in fact, some of the greatest blessings – we receive from those Dark Wood journeys are incognito blessings … blessings disguised as experiences we would rather avoid
        • Elnes’ 7 blessings in disguise: gift of …
          • Uncertainty
          • Emptiness
          • Being thunderstruck
          • Getting lost
          • Temptation
          • Disappearing
          • Misfits
        • Going to spend one Sunday on each of those blessings and wrap up with a “where we go from here” at the end
    • So today we’re going to talk about that first blessing: the gift of uncertainty. Now before we go any further, I have to share something with you. When I was in seminary, one of the things that my preaching professor told us that really stuck with me – probably what stuck with me the most – is that if you’re not preaching a sermon that you yourself need to hear, you shouldn’t be preaching it. And I’ll tell you what, friends … this is definitely a sermon that I need to hear in my own life because personally, I do not do well with uncertainty. Ask my husband! J So let’s settle into the uncomfortableness of this idea of sacred uncertainty together.
  • First need to talk about what uncertainty is/means in this context → start by figuring out how we get into the Dark Wood in the first place
    • Elnes: From the moment you realize that there is more to life than meets the eye, and that you are as much a mystery to yourself as to anyone else, and that the mystery that is you longs more than anything else to connect with the mystery of God, you have entered the Dark Wood. What keeps you in the Dark Wood is a developing sense of God’s presence in the darkness.[2] → So in a way, uncertainty is what brings us into the Dark Wood to begin with. We’re uncertain of how we should go about being in this world. Who am I? What’s my place? Where’s God calling me to go and be and do? Where do I find God in the world around me? In asking these questions, we find ourselves in the Dark Wood – a place of searching and seeking, of inquiry and investigation, a place of possibility and pursuit.
    • Uncertainty not only drags us into the Dark Wood but also follows us as we travel along – Elnes: These experiences, or “touches” of the Holy Spirit, have a way of exciting and perhaps terrifying you at the same time. The excitement comes from the sense that they are inviting you to a place, or a life, that is far more wonderful that you have imagined. The terror comes from that very realization. You haven’t imagined it. … Since you hadn’t been planning on heading in this particular direction, you feel woefully ill prepared for the journey.[3] → I cannot begin to tell you how this last part speaks to my soul: “The terror comes from that very realization. You haven’t imagined it. … Since you hadn’t been planning on heading in this particular direction, you feel woefully ill prepared for the journey.” Yeah. I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned once or twice that I’m a type A, planner, list-maker, box-checker kind of person. And this is exactly why this gift of uncertainty is such a challenge for me personally. I like to know …
      • What to bring
      • What to expect
      • Where I’m going
      • How to get there: point A to point B, not point A to G to F to 7 to 3.2 to Z to B
      • But the truth is that God rarely works simply from point A to point B. From our standpoint, God is unpredictable. God is unrestrainable. God is fierce and breath-taking and wild. God is God, and I am not, so I will not always understand the way that God is moving and leading and nudging and teaching me.
        • At the beginning of 1 Cor, Paul: The foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.[4]
        • See this later on in that same letter in our NT reading this morning – text: We know in part and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, what is partial will be brought to an end. … Now we see a reflection in a mirror; then we will see face-to-face. Now I know partially, but then I will know completely in the same way that I have been completely known.[5]
          • Do not know fully yet
          • Do not understand fully yet
          • But that doesn’t mean that we cannot be fully known by the One who created us, and it doesn’t mean that we cannot follow fully yet. → gets to the heart of the matter: gift of uncertainty in the Dark Wood is all about learning to trust
            • Walking in that dark without hesitation or fear – all comes down to trust
            • Elnes points out that, counter to what we may instinctually think, this is the reason uncertainty is so important to a strong and healthy faith: Religion does a disservice when it seeks to remove uncertainty from life. … The fact of the matter is that life is messy, and no amount of doctrine or dogma changes this. Faith built upon certainty is a house of cards that falls apart when the “unshakable foundation” shifts even slightly.[6] → It’s like trying to hold sand in your hands. The tighter you hold your hands and squeeze, the more sand will escape between your fingers. But the looser and more open your hands are, the more sand you can hold. When it comes to faith and belief, the tighter and more certain we try to be about everything, the more we lose a hold of. But the more flexible and vulnerable we are, the more we are open to receiving from God because in that openness is an acknowledgment that God’s love and grace are enough to cover even our deepest and most troubling uncertainties.
              • Elnes: Paul understood that love thrives in uncertainty – not the kind of uncertainty that increases chaos, but the kind that develops trust.[7]
  • Get an interesting illustration of this in our Gospel story this morning
    • Breakdown:
      • Jesus and the disciples are at the festival in Jerusalem
      • In the city = healing pool called Bethsaida
        • Description: giant shallow pool surrounded by amphitheater of sorts → belief was that, when the water was stirred up, the first person to enter the water received miraculous healing
      • Jesus encounters man “who had been sick for 38 years[8]
      • Jesus heals the man
      • Pharisees become incensed when the see the man healed because it is the Sabbath and, of course, healing on the Sabbath is work and work on the Sabbath is against the law
      • Man eventually points Jesus out to the Pharisees as the man who healed him
    • The basic outline of this short story is frankly not all that that different from most of the other healing stories scattered throughout all four gospels. However, there is something completed and critically unique about this story. Let me read part of it again, and maybe you’ll catch it. – text: A certain man was there [at the pool] who had been sick for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying here, knowing that he had already been there a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I don’t have anyone who can put me in the water when it is stirred up. When I’m trying to get to it, someone else has gotten in ahead of me.” Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” Immediately the man was well, and he picked up his mat and walked.[9] → Every other time throughout the gospels, when Jesus asks someone, “Do you want to get well?”, they respond with some form of “Yes!” But this man in our reading today does not. He is the only man in all the healing stories in all the gospels that doesn’t actually want to be healed!
      • Elnes: No, this man has no interest in being healed. After all, he’s making a good living. He’s got the respect of his peers. His social, religious, and economic world revolves around the pool. His life is defined by his limitations. To heal this man would be to disrupt everything he knows and has become accustomed to in this world. It would take away his certainty.[10] → If this man truly wanted to get into the pool – if he had been desperately crying out and pleading those around to help him – someone would have gotten him into that water sometime in those 38 years. Acts of kindness and charity like that are spiritually cherished in the Jewish tradition. They’re called mitzvahs – good deeds done from religious duty. Someone in those 38 years would have acted with mercy and made sure that this man made it into the healing, restorative water. Unless, of course, he didn’t actually want to get in. You see, it was easier for this man to trust in his own ability to provide and in others’ generosity than it was so trust in the uncertain miracle of God’s healing. And yet Jesus found him there. Jesus spoke to him there. Jesus broke through his uncertainty and provided undeniable healing. Because God wants us to be able to find the best version of ourselves, no matter what’s in the way … even if what’s in the way is, in fact, ourselves.
        • Elnes: Why does Jesus bother healing this man who doesn’t want to be healed in the first place? Probably for the same reason the Holy Spirit keeps pushing all of us “into places we wouldn’t necessarily go ourselves.” Jesus knows that the human soul is terrifically buoyant. Its yearning is for the freedom that comes from answering the Spirit’s call. Shackled by our fears and excuses for very long, the soul inevitably revolts and seeks to break free. When it wins the revolt, we may find ourselves in places we wouldn’t necessarily go ourselves, but we also find that we are terrifically OK with that.[11] → The gift of uncertainty in the Dark Wood is all about a gentle, necessary, and persistent shove from the Holy Spirit. All we have to do … and all that we have to do … is trust. Amen.

[1] Eric Elnes. Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers). (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press), 2015.

[2] Elnes, 24.

[3] Elnes, 24.

[4] 1 Cor 1:25.

[5] 1 Cor 13:9-10, 12.

[6] Elnes, 25.

[7] Elnes, 28.

[8] Jn 5:5 (emphasis added).

[9] Jn 5:5-9.

[10] Elnes, 33.

[11] Elnes, 34.

Sunday’s sermon: Finding Ourselves in the Dark Woods

Gifts of the Dark Wood

Texts used – Psalm 139; Matthew 14:22-30; 16:13-18a

  • The world of fiction has long since taught us that deep, dark woods are something to be avoided – something to be feared.
    • Fairy tales
      • Hansel and Gretel lose their way in a deep, dark woods and end up on the dinner menu at the witch’s house
      • Beauty and the Beast – Beast’s castle is buried deep in a dark wood
      • Prolific composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim even composed an entire musical about all the formidable and terrible goings-on in the dark woods: Into the Woods → a handful of the most recognizable fairy tale characters (Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Jack/beanstalk, etc.) meet within the depths of the deep, dark woods as they try to avoid the pitfalls of their own stories
    • Epic stories
      • The Forbidden Forest in Harry Potter books is clearly a dark and dangerous place … otherwise, J.K. Rowling wouldn’t have called it “The Forbidden Forest,” right? → home to fearsome beasts (volatile centaurs, giant spiders, etc.)
      • Deep, dark woods are never a good place in Tolkien’s Middle Earth → both Mirkwood (Hobbit) and the Forest of Fangorn (Lord of the Rings) bring menace and danger at every twist and turn
        • Tolkien’s dark woods = such a thorough presence of evil that they basically end up being characters in and of themselves
    • Classic literature
      • Wizard of Oz: Dorothy runs into all sorts of trouble as she tries to make her way through the dark woods
      • Beginning of Dante’s Inferno: “In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in a Dark Wood where the true way was wholly lost.” → analysis: In Dante’s understanding, the Dark Wood is a place of confusion, emptiness, and stumbling that is entered because of our sin and is inhabited by strange and terrifying denizens.”[1]
  • Over and over and over again, we’ve been told that the deep, dark woods are a bad thing. They are scary. They are uncertain. They are dangerous. Don’t go there! But what if that advice is wrong? What if those deep, dark woods that we encounter in our lives are actually our places of deepest, most profound growth and learning? What if those deep, dark woods are where God and the leadings of the Holy Spirit are most clearly revealed to us? → idea that we’re going to spend the summer exploring with the help of a book: Gifts of the Dark Wood by Eric Elnes[2]
    • Each chapter (and, subsequently, each summer sermon) explores different gifts that we find in those “dark wood” moments in our lives … gifts that don’t necessarily strike us as gifts at first glance.
      • E.g.s – next week: “The Gift of Uncertainty,” my favorite: “The Gift of Misfits”
    • Today: tackle the idea of the dark wood
      • What is it?
      • Why is it?
      • How do we find ourselves in it?
      • Where is God in it?
  • At its core, the Dark Wood – as understood in literature and as presented in the book – is a place in which we are confronted with the unexpected and, at least on the surface, the undesired.
    • Can see this in the titles of the various chapters – The Gift of …
      • Uncertainty
      • Emptiness
      • Being Thunderstruck
      • Getting Lost
      • Temptation
      • Disappearing
      • Misfits
      • When we’re honest with ourselves, none of these things sound appealing to us, right? Nobody wants to live in uncertainty. Nobody likes getting lost. Nobody likes wrestling with temptation or feeling empty. And yet, that’s the reality of life, isn’t it? We do find ourselves in those places.
        • Disciples find themselves in one of those places in our NT reading this morning – text: Meanwhile, the boat, fighting a strong headwind, was being battered by the waves and was already far away from land. Very early in the morning [Jesus] came to his disciples, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified and said, “It’s a ghost!” They were so frightened they screamed.[3]  unmitigated fear, immediate danger, and definite uncertainty … Dark Wood
        • Peter especially finds himself in a “dark woods” place – text: Peter replied, “Lord, if it’s you, order me to come to you on the water.” And Jesus said, “Come.” Then Peter got out of the boat and was walking on the water toward Jesus. But when Peter saw the strong wind, he became frightened. As he began to sink, he shouted, “Lord, rescue me!”[4]  Peter thought he had it all wrapped up. He was pure confidence. “Lord, if it’s you, order me to come to you on the water.” In his mind: “I’ve got this. No sweat. I’m strong enough … brave enough … secure enough to handle this.” But then things get uncertain and scary and dangerous and dark … and Peter starts to go down. Surely not the experience he anticipated when he swung his legs up and over the side of that boat.
  • Because of the prevalence of this story – it’s probably one of the most familiar stories out of the gospels – and because of the inevitability of those “dark woods” places in all of our lives, Christians have been wrestling with the idea and theology of them for centuries, and not all of them have come to the conclusion that dark woods are places and experiences to avoid.
    • Elnes: Another side of the tradition, represented especially by the ancient Christian mystics, understood struggle not as punishment for sin, but as the central context in which revelation takes place. … All of them insisted that the Dark Wood is a place where one receives strange and wondrous gifts whose value vastly exceeds whatever hardships are encountered there. The Dark Wood is where you meet God.[5]  Let’s look back at our gospel story. At the very beginning, Jesus “made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead to the other side of the lake while he dismissed the crowds.”[6] Then he goes off on his own for a while. We don’t know how long Jesus intended to stay up on that mountain praying by himself. We don’t know when he intended to join the disciples. All we know is that, when they encounter rough waters in the middle of the lake and are in trouble – when they find themselves in that frightening, “dark woods” place – Jesus comes to them. Jesus … Emmanuel … “God With Us” comes to them on the water, joining them in that place where they least expected him to be.
      • Blowing their minds
      • Shattering their expectations
      • Stretching their faith
      • Expanding their understanding
      • And Jesus comes to them not because they’ve got it all together and are expertly navigating those waves on their own but exactly because they are in a time and place when everything seems to be falling apart. – Elnes: The mystics taught that in the Dark Wood you discover who you are and what your life is about, flaws and all. … In the Dark Wood you bring all your shortcomings with you, not in order to purge them or be judged by them, but to embrace them in such a way that your struggles contribute meaningfully to the central conversation God is inviting you to have with life.[7]  It’s about recognizing and embracing those struggling places – those “dark woods” – for what they are: places where we are desperate for God to show up, not in the ways that we expect or in the ways that we want but in the way that we most deeply, truly need God. Because it is often in those moment that we find our truest strengths, our greatest gifts, and our deepest reassurances.
  • Our OT reading for this morning, Ps 139, gets not at the “how” or the “what” of Dark Woods this morning but the “why” of God finding us in and amongst the shadowy tangles.
    • Text: Lord, you have examined me. You know me. You know when I sit down and when I stand up. Even from far away, you comprehend my plans. You study my traveling and resting. You are thoroughly familiar with all my ways. There isn’t a word on my tongue, Lord, that you don’t already know completely. You surround me – front and back. You put your hand on me. … You are the one who created my innermost parts; you knit me together while I was still in my mother’s womb. I give thanks to you that I was marvelously set apart. Your works are wonderful – I know that very well. My bones weren’t hidden from you when I was being put together in a secret place, when I was being woven together in the deep parts of the earth. … Examine me, God! Look at my heart! Put me to the test! Know my anxious thoughts! Look to see if there is any idolatrous way in me, then lead on the eternal path![8]  reassurance that God knows us – all the parts of us, up and down, sideways and slant-ways, good and bad and ugly, and everything in between – and that God still chooses us, still love us, still claims us
      • Means that God desires to be present with us, especially in those “dark woods” places when we feel most lost, most empty, most vulnerable, most in need
  • BUT … we have to be willing to receive God in those moments. We say that we are. Few prayers are prayed more frequently and fervently than those uttered in “dark woods” moments. “God, help me! God, be with me! God, guide me!” But when it comes down to it, we have to be willing to not only say we’re asking for God’s guidance but to actually follow that guidance.
    • Said it before, say it again  the most dangerous prayer you can pray is one we pray every single Sunday: “Thy will be done”
    • Elnes gets to the crux of the matter: I do know that when it comes to making decisions that truly affect my life’s path – or the path of others – the Holy Spirit always has an opinion. But do I listen? … If there is a will, the Spirit makes a way. And the Spirit’s way is frequently unexpected. Part of what it means to seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance in life’s Dark Wood is to learn how to rearrange the seating arrangement at your inner dinner table on a daily basis in order to hear the Spirit’s quiet, unassuming whispers.[9]
      • When we’re in those “dark woods” moments, what we want is for the Spirit to lead us out as quickly and painlessly as possible. “Take me into the sun again. Put my feet on the easy path – the one that’s smooth and flat and straight. Remove these obstacles that block the way so I can keep going the way I’m ” What we don’t expect is for the Spirit to lead us deeper into the woods, deeper into the dark. But sometimes that’s the way we need to go in order to find the best version of “us” that God intended us to be from Day 1.
        • Journey can look like struggling
        • Journey can look like aimless wandering
        • Journey can look like failure
        • Elnes: Failure can indicate that something is going right, not wrong.[10] – see that in our Gospel story  Peter sank. Like a rock … like a big, dumb rock. Pretty obvious failure, right?
          • End of today’s reading: Now when Jesus came to the area of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Human One is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.” He said, “And what about you? Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Then Jesus replied, “Happy are you, Simon son of Jonah, because no human has shown this to you. Rather my Father who is in heaven has shown you. I tell you that you are Peter. And I’ll build my church on this rock.”[11]  Would Peter have been so sure in this response if he hadn’t had his “dark woods” experience of sinking in the middle of the lake and being rescued by Jesus? We can’t be sure, but an experience like that certainly had to have been formative in his belief and trust in the man that he was following – this Jesus character, this Messiah, this Son of the living God.
  • So as uncomfortable, as undesirable, as unintentional as they might be, who knows what we might find out – about God and about ourselves – in those “dark woods” places in our lives? Where is the Spirit trying to lead you? Where is your path taking you? Where have you been reluctant to follow? We can ask the same questions to ourselves as this congregation as well. But more important than asking the questions is having the boldness and the courage to step out along that path and follow. So into the Dark Wood we go. Amen.

[1] Eric Elnes. Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers). (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), 6.

[2] Eric Elnes. Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers).

[3] Mt 14:24-26.

[4] Mt 14:28-30.

[5] Elnes, 6.

[6] Mt 14:22.

[7] Elnes, 6, 7.

[8] Ps 139:1-5, 13-15, 23-24.

[9] Elnes, 16-17, 20-21.

[10] Elnes, 21.

[11] Mt 16:13-18a.

Sunday’s sermon: The Greatest April Fool’s Joke Ever

Easter April Fools

Texts used – Mark 16:1-8; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

  • Christ is Risen, He is Risen indeed! Alleluia! Happy Easter! No sermon today! [PAUSE] April Fools’!! (Hey, my other option for an April Fool’s joke this morning was to fake labor, so count your blessings, people!) Yes, today is Easter: a day to celebrate Christ’s resurrection and God’s triumph over death for all time – an empty tomb, a risen Lord, and a gospel quite literally come alive. And yes, today is also April Fool’s day: a day to celebrate laughter and fun and good-natured pranks – silly jokes, fool’s errands, and a little frivolity. And I have to tell you that these two holidays landing on the same day – which hasn’t happened in more than 60 years – was just too good an opportunity to pass up. Because while they may seem unrelated on the surface, Easter and April Fools’ Day have a lot more in common than we may think.
  • History of April Fools’ Day = somewhat uncertain
    • Some think it started in France back in the late 1500s when the date of New Year’s was moved from Apr. 1 to Jan. 1 → those who were slow to hear about/pick up on the change were teased about being foolish that they were still celebrating the new year on the wrong date
    • Could also be linked to ancient Roman festival of Hilaria celebrated at the end of Mar. during which people dressed up in disguises
    • Started growing in popularity in England/Scotland back in the 1700s with typical practical jokes and pranks
      • E.g., Scotland: “Gowkie Day” for “gowk” = cuckoo or a fool – people are sent on phony, fool’s errands
  • And if we really think about it, our gospel passage this morning reads more like an April Fools’ tale than anything.
    • Basic outline
      • Women head to Jesus’ tomb after the Sabbath to anoint his dead body with the culturally-appropriate spices
      • Get to what was supposed to be a sealed tomb only to find that giant stone at the entrance rolled away
      • Enter the tomb → find a “young man” in a white robe who tells them, “Don’t be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He isn’t here. Look, here’s the place where they laid him. Go, tell his disciples, especially Peter, that he is going ahead of you into Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you.”[1]
      • Women’s response: Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.[2]  → And friends, as far as scholars can tell, that is where Mark originally ended his gospel! No tender, sunrise reunion in the garden. No joyful declaration of a risen Christ to the disciples. No appearance of the resurrected Jesus whatsoever. It’s an ending that is as immediate and abrupt as the rest of Mark’s storytelling and delivery throughout the rest of the gospel. The women are terrified. They run. And they tell … no one.
        • In Bible: 3 separate endings to the gospel of Mark
          • 1st and most ancient (therefore most authentic) = where we ended our reading today
          • “The Shorter Ending of Mark”: They promptly reported all of the young man’s instructions to those who were with Peter. Afterward, through the work of his disciples, Jesus sent out, from the east to the west, the sacred and undying message of eternal salvation.
            • Pretty clearly a later addition to the gospel → doesn’t match the rest of Mark in either writing style or understanding of who Jesus is
            • Sort of a “just kidding” ending: “They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid … EXCEPT THAT they promptly reported all of the young man’s instructions to those who were with Peter.” → definitely feels like an “April Fools’!” sort of ending
          • “The Longer Ending of Mark” = 9 more verses that speak of the resurrected Jesus appearing to Mary, then to two more disciples “as they were walking into the country” (sound like the road to Emmaus, anyone?), then to the rest of the disciples, and finally finishes with a sending commandment: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the good news to every creature.”[3]  → Scholars agree that this longer ending was probably written and added sometime during the 2nd century – more than 100 yrs. after the gospel itself was written – because it draws on themes and stories from some of the other gospels.
    • In truth, the ending of Mark’s gospel reads a lot like an April Fools’ story: a young man in a white robe sending these poor, stunned, frightened women on a fool’s errand to spread the news about a resurrected Rabbi that no one has even seen! Of course they’re going to run away! Of course they’re going to keep their mouths shut and not tell anyone! Why would anyone believe their wholly implausible tale? They probably didn’t even believe it themselves right away … and they were there!
  • But the foolishness of Easter goes beyond the absurd and incredulous nature of the events of that morning. Of course we now believe this unbelievable tale because it is the basis of our faith – that God resurrected Christ from the dead in order to bring us new and everlasting life through the gift of grace. But the whole premise of that is foolishness as well, isn’t it? Death is supposed to be permanent, undeniable, “written in stone.” And yet, on that first Easter morning, death did not have the last word. God stole the punchline away from an eternity of darkness and uncertainty, instead offering grace upon grace and a place in the eternal Kingdom. God offered light in the face of darkness. God offered hope. God offered resurrection.
    • Back in Feb., when Ash Wed. also fell on Valentine’s Day, began monthly newsletter article with definition of “irony”: a state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often amusing as a result → By this definition, I think we could call the whole idea of resurrection and the whole Easter story irony in the extreme! A resurrected Jesus is definitely an event deliberately contrary to what was expected, and is, frankly, pretty darn amusing.
    • Paul proclaims this in our NT passage for today – just how foolish faith is and yet how God works wonders in even the most inconceivable foolishness: The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved. It is written in Scripture: I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will reject the intelligence of the intelligent. Where are the wise? Where are the legal experts? Where are today’s debaters? Hasn’t God made the wisdom of the world foolish? In God’s wisdom, he determined that the world wouldn’t come to know him through its wisdom. Instead, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of preaching. Jews ask for signs, and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, which is a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. But to those who are called – both Jews and Greeks – Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom. This is because the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.[4]
      • Additional, later endings of Mark’s gospel = perfect illustrations of this → human “wisdom” trying to come up with a better ending to the story … as if God’s ending wasn’t good enough
        • Scholar: The story of Jesus does not end with his death. God has done something new, something unheard of to this point. The crucified one is now the risen one, but risen to a new life, rather than simply to more of the same life. … A sense of incompleteness to the story clearly reflects the truth that it is God who is at work. God is not done with the Christian community yet.[5]
    • Sometimes – often times! – we as humans take ourselves too seriously. We look for the downfall and the destruction and the signs of death all around us – in our relationships, in our jobs, in our society, in our environment, in everything! – but we forget that we are not the be-all-end-all. We forget that our knowledge, our understanding, our “wisdom” pales in comparison to that of the God who created us – that even God’s foolishness is wiser than our very wisest moments, even God’s weakness is stronger than our strongest days. We forget that God is indeed a resurrection God – a God who was not and is not finished yet in this world. And in the face of that unbelievable and yet undeniable truth, we forget to keep our eyes and our expectations open to those flashes of God still at work in the world and the people around us.
      • Resurrection = perfect example of this → God took something as final and cold and barren as death and turned it on its head with the resurrection
        • Resurrection = filled with light
        • Resurrection = dynamic (energy and movement and commotion)
        • Resurrection = not the end of the story but a whole new beginning
  • And having Easter – this day of ultimate resurrection, the day in which God triumphed over sin and death for all time – having this high holy day land on April Fool’s Day, a day of practical jokes and hoaxes, is all too poignant. The tomb that was supposed to contain the broken body of the conquered and humiliated Teacher instead contained only empty grave clothes. Not even the greatest ironic writers and satirists today could have come up with a more staggering, more meaningful, more emphatic twist.
    • Also why having our Gospel reading on this Easter morning be Mark’s strange and seemingly-incomplete end to Jesus’ story is so perfect – scholar: The words with which Mark ends – [“Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid”] – are the necessary beginning point for any Easter proclamation. They express awe at what God has done in this life and death of Jesus. … [The women’s] silence is not a failed or inadequate response. Silence is a wholly appropriate response, because the women’s silence creates a space for the voice and presence of God to resound. … The women’s restraint and Mark’s parallel restraint in recounting the Easter story combine to allow a moment of holy awe for the reader of the Gospel.[6]  → So on this day, let us celebrate the ultimate, awe-inspiring, faith-forming foolishness of the resurrection. Let us bask in the unbridled joy of a Savior who has pulled the ultimate prank on death. Let us recognize the holy and the sacred in the midst of the absurd and the unpredictable. And let us be open to the possibility and grace of unexpected endings because in those moments of apparent imperfection, God is truly doing something new. Alleluia! Amen.

[1] Mk 16:6-7.

[2] Mk 16:8.

[3] Mk 16:15.

[4] 1 Cor 1:18-25

[5] Nelson Rivera. “Mark 16:1-8 – Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: Mark. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 532, 534.

[6] Gail R. O’Day. “Easter Vigil – Mark 16:1-8 – Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, vol. 2. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 355, 357.

Sunday’s sermon: Misplaced Treasure

misplaced treasure

Texts used – Psalm 36:5-11; Mark 14:1-16

  • Okay, so you may be saying to yourself this morning, “What is she doing? Doesn’t she realize she picked the wrong passage? Today is Palm Sunday. We’ve got our palm branches. Our bulletin cover is all about palms. We’ve sung our palm hymns. … So where is the Palm Sunday story – the adoring crowds, the preordained donkey colt, the shouted ‘Hosanna’s, the cloaks tossed on the road? What gives?” Well, friends, you would be right … in part. Yes, today is Palm Sunday. Today is the beginning of Holy Week – the beginning of our intentional march toward the cross with Jesus with the light of resurrection at the end of the tunnel.
    • Confession: Holy Week is my favorite time of the church year
      • Busiest time of the church year? For sure.
      • Also a time of deep contemplation
      • Time of wide variety of tactile, sensory-related experiences inextricably linked to our faith
        • Feel of the palm branches in your hands this morning
        • Smell and taste of the meal and the bread and juice on Maundy Thurs.
        • Visual impact of the progressive darkness as well as stark sounds during Good Fri. Tenebrae service
        • Sights and sounds of Easter morning – white paraments, color and brightness of the memorial garden, hymns of joy and praise
    • And yes, this is in part a shameless plug to try to get you to come to these various services this week. I know it’s a lot of church in one week … but each service, each story, each experience is so different. They all make up a piece of the Holy Week puzzle … which is exactly why we read the story that we did instead of the typical “Palm Sunday story” this morning – it’s a piece of the Holy Week puzzle.
      • Jesus had lots of different experiences between entering Jerusalem on a donkey that morning and being arrested by Pilate later in the week – very often, these other experiences get pushed aside to make way for the Holy Week stories we already know → But each of these different experiences sheds a different light on the week that Jesus was having – how he got to the cross, what he may have been thinking or feeling or praying in those days and hours leading up to that most horrible inevitable moment of death. So today, as we enter into this Holy Week journey together – the last leg of our Lenten journey – we’re going to take a look at a different piece of that Holy Week puzzle: the story most commonly known as “The Woman with the Alabaster Jar.”
  • Scripture sets the scene pretty well for us
    • First, gives us the climate in Jerusalem – text: It was two days before Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and legal experts through cunning tricks were searching for a way to arrest Jesus and kill him. But they agreed that it shouldn’t happen during the festival; otherwise, there would be an uproar among the people.[1]
      • Sets the timeline – 2 days before Passover = 2 days before Jesus celebrates the Last Supper in the upper room with his disciples (Maundy Thurs. for us)
      • Gives us some insight into the tone of the city
        • Joy and celebration of the Passover and the festival
        • Dark, ominous undertone of the chief priests and legal experts discussing and plotting how to best get rid of this Jesus rabble rouser once and for all → I imagine that, if this were a movie scene, the camera would be panning the crowd with light, fast-paced, happy music playing in the background, but when the camera focused in on the faces of the chief priests, that music would suddenly switch to a minor key, discordant and menacing – the kind that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
    • Briefly sets scene in terms of Jesus’ particular experience, too – text: Jesus was at Bethany visiting the house of Simon, who had a skin disease.[2]  → Now, this may be one quick sentence in the midst of this long story, but it tells us quite a lot.
      • Tells us that Jesus is once again eating with those whom he isn’t supposed to – namely, those who are unclean → Remember that at the time, many (if not all) diseases were considered some sort of punishment from God, either for something that you yourself had done or even some sin that you parents had committed. Those with diseases like Simon’s (other translations call him “Simon the Leper”) were considered unclean by the chief priests. The disease was outer evidence of their own inner sin, so they must remain apart from “good, honest, healthy folk.” And yet here Jesus is, not just having a simple conversation with this unclean man but sitting down and sharing his table – food, drink, ritual footwashing and other signs of peace. In the eyes of the Jewish leaders, this would have made Jesus unclean. He knew it. Simon knew it. The disciples knew it. But here he was anyway.
  • Story ramps up
    • Enter the woman with the alabaster jar → Now, this is one of those interesting times when, if we compare Mark’s version to the other versions of this story in both Matthew and Luke, their stories are quite different. Mark actually treats this woman much better than Matthew, Luke, or John in his retelling.
      • Other gospels – woman is cast in a sinful light (“woman of the city” → traditionally has been translated as a prostitute)
      • Other gospels – woman is obviously sinful because she is weeping as she anoints Jesus → washes his feet with her tears and dries them with her hair (truly scandalous actions in that time and that religious tradition)
      • But Mark tells us none of those things. Mark simply tells us that she came in, broke open the jar, and began anointing Jesus. Perhaps Mark, in all his quick storytelling and immediacy, is just trying to save words and time. Perhaps the details of exactly who she was weren’t as important to him. Or perhaps Mark was just a little less judgmental than his later gospel counterparts. We don’t know. But it’s an interesting element to the story.
    • In Mk’s version, it’s not the woman’s presence that is so problematic to the disciples but her actions – her wastefulness! – text: During dinner, a woman came in with a vase made of alabaster and containing very expensive perfume of pure nard. She broke open the vase and poured the perfume on [Jesus’] head. Some grew angry. They said to each other, “Why waste the perfume? This perfume could have been sold for almost a year’s pay and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her.[3]  → This is hard, because we cannot truly fault the disciples in this reaction. After all, they’ve spent the past 3 years traveling around with Jesus helping those who could not help themselves – healing people, casting out demons, spending time with those who had been cast out of “decent society” for one reason or another. They had heard Jesus’ teachings about how those who are poor and meek and humble will be blessed while those in power and wealth are in for a rough go of it. And yet here comes this woman with her insanely expensive jar filled with insanely expensive perfume, and she just dumps the whole darn thing over Jesus’ head! Truth, y’all, I might have been grumbling, too.
    • Jesus calls them out … not for their complaining and grumbling (like we might expect), but for their attitude … for their misinterpretation – text: Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you make trouble for her? She has done a good thing for me. You always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do something good for them. But you won’t always have me. She has done what she could. She has anointed my body ahead of time for burial. I tell you the truth that, wherever in the whole world the good news is announced, what she’s done will also be told in memory of her.”[4]  → Once again, as throughout most of Mark’s gospel, the disciples have utterly and completely missed the point.
      • Not the first time that Jesus mentions his death in this gospel → Jesus makes three separate announcements of his death earlier one (chs. 8-10) but the disciples failed to hear and understand
    • Goes on to set up the rest of the Holy Week story
      • Dissatisfaction with this interaction = last straw for Judas → goes to the chief priests to “give Jesus up to them” for money
      • Takes us to the day of Passover → Jesus’ instructions to the disciples for finding the upper room: “Go into the city. A man carrying a water jar will meet you. Follow him. Wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, ‘The teacher asks, Where is my guest room where I can eat the Passover meal with my disciples?’ He will show you a large room upstairs already furnished. Prepare for us there.”[5]
      • Final line that will get us into Maundy Thurs.: The disciples left, came into the city, found everything just as he had told them, and they prepared the Passover meal.[6]
  • But let’s back up a minute. In our story for today, Jesus is once again trying to drive the point home that he has very little time left with this group of followers. He’s trying to point out to them that they have placed the highest value on the wrong thing, on the material objects – the jar and the expensive perfume – as opposed to on the One in their presence, the Son of God, the Savior.
    • Scholar: The temptation [Jesus] cautions against is not the moralistic one of “neglecting the poor,” so much as it is the theological one of considering ourselves so rich as not to think we are in great need. Only the very rich can be so full of themselves as to afford the luxury of worrying about the stewardship of “costly ointment” when the abundance of God’s love is placed right before them.[7]  → The disciples are so concerned with the extravagance of the oil that they completely miss the extravagance of the love of God sitting right across the table from them. They have misplaced their treasure – putting stock in the physical, in the here-and-now, instead of in the holy.
      • Ps this morning reiterated for us just how truly precious the love of God is – text: But your loyal love, LORD, extends to the skies; your faithfulness reaches the clouds. Your righteousness is like the strongest mountains; your justice is like the deepest sea. LORD, you save both humans and animals. Your faithful love is priceless, God! Humanity finds refuge in the shadow of your wings. They feast on the bounty of your house; you let them drink from your river of pure joy. Within you is the spring of life. In your light, we see light.[8]  → “Your faithful love is priceless, God!” That is what this coming week – this Holy Week – is all about: God’s faithful love poured out for us through Jesus Christ: through the Last Supper, through his arrest and torture and death, through the power of his resurrection.
        • Heb. for “faithful love” = powerful word in the Hebrew language, rich with meaning[9]
          • Love that always involves interpersonal relationships – must involve more than one person (cannot have “faithful love” for your new car, for example)
          • Love that always entails practical action on behalf of another → dynamic love that moves and does
          • Love that endures → another translation “steadfast love” – love of covenant and lasting relationships, love that does not tarnish or fade away
          • This is the kind of love that Jesus is encouraging the disciples to recognize and treasure. This is the kind of love that Jesus is preparing himself to literally pour out for them … for you … for me … for all as he walks through his own Holy Week trials. This is the kind of love that God has for each and every one of us.
  • So as we approach this Holy Week this year, let us do so thinking about the treasures in our lives. What do they say about us? What do they reveal about our intentions, our priorities, our triumphs and our hidden sins? What “treasures” have we placed above God in our lives? What is Jesus calling us to examine or re-examine during our Holy Week journeys this year? [PAUSE] Amen.

[1] Mk 14:1-2.

[2] Mk 14:3a.

[3] Mk 14:3b-5.

[4] Mk 14: 6-9.

[5] Mk 14:13-15.

[6] Mk 14:16.

[7] Thomas W. Currie. “Mark 14:3-9 – Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospel: Mark. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 444.

[8] Ps 36:5-9.

[9] Will Kynes. “God’s Grace in the Old Testament: Considering the Hesed of the Lord” from Knowing & Doing: The C.S. Lewis Institute, summer 2010 edition. Accessed via http://www.cslewisinstitute.org/webfm_send/430 on Mar. 25, 2018.