Friday, September 07, 2007

"Coming to the End" a sermon on Psalm 139

I asked and received permission from Frank to post this sermon. I read it after I had read the Friday Five for today and I thought it was fitting.

The title is "Coming to the End"

Frank Fisher
Interim Pastor
First Presbyterian of Bushnell, IL


Brother Oscar Romero
Oblate of St. Benedict's Abbey
Bartonville, IL

Lowell Striker tells a story
about a monastery in Europe
It was located in splendid isolation,
perched high on a cliff
several hundred feet in the air.
The only way to reach the monastery
was to be suspended in a basket
which was pulled to the top by several monks
who pulled and tugged
with all their strength.

the ride up the steep cliff in that basket
was terrifying.
One tourist
got exceedingly nervous about half-way up
as he noticed that the rope
by which he was suspended
was old and frayed.
With a trembling voice he asked the monk
who was riding with him in the basket
how often they changed the rope.
The monk thought for a moment
and answered brusquely,
"Whenever it breaks."

Each of us experiences times
when we feel
our rope is about to break.
They're times
when the various parts of our lives
pull at us
until we feel stretched to the snapping point.
There are also times,
of course,
when we feel we actually have snapped.
In those times
we feel overwhelmed and abandoned.
At those times
we may especially feel
we've been abandoned by God.

For me,
this last week
was one of those times
when I felt stretched;
stretched to way beyond
the snapping point.
I arrived back home on Sunday evening
to find Joan busily cleaning in the basement.
Now cleaning
is not one of our favorite things.
So I was a bit perplexed
by the idea of spending a three day weekend
in such a task.
the reason became all too apparent
when Joan showed me
the marks on our basement walls;
marks which showed how the Chicago sewers
had backed up
and filled our basement
with over a half foot of rain water
mixed with sewage.

That Labor Day
Joan and I spent laboring in the basement
was the high point of the week.
>From there on
it was all downhill.
Our washing machine went out.
We learned our ten year old Dodge
needed a new transmission
that would cost
approximately twice as much
as the car itself was worth.
My blood sugar
began an unexplained roller coaster ride
which left me feeling sick and exhausted.
And to top off the week
I had to suspend
one of my fire department subordinates
for two weeks.
This action
was followed by another of my subordinates
loudly declaring
that she shouldn't have to do the work
I'd assigned her.
By Wednesday evening
I was coming to the end of my rope.
I was depressed and exhausted.
it seemed,
that could possibly go wrong
was doing just that!
And despite the loving presence
of my family.
I was feeling completely alone
and abandoned.
On Wednesday evening
I retreated to our bedroom
to read the mail.
Among the normal piles
of bills and junk mail,
I found the latest issue
of Weavings magazine.
Weavings is a journal
of Christian spirituality.
Each issue
is built around a particular theme.
The latest theme
was entitled,
"The Mountain."

"Now this was really wonderful,"
I thought.
"In the midst feeling abandoned and alone
I've just received an account
of the high points
in the lives of other Christians!"
Quite honestly,
I wasn't too interested
in others high points at that moment.
And the magazine quickly found its way
to the bottom of the pile.

But for some reason,
it kept finding its way to the top.
or perhaps Someone
seemed to be pulling me
toward opening its covers.
After a short time of resistance
I found myself
sitting back,
and opening the magazine
only to find that the accounts of spiritual mountain tops
was accompanied by a single article
"Seeing God
in the Valley."

The article was the story of a pastor's encounter
with the story of Jeanne Guyon.
Madame Guyon
was a pre-reformation mystic
whose life
made my bad week
seem a delight by comparison.
At fifteen
she was forcibly married
to an invalid more than twice her age.
Her new husband
and her new mother-in-law,
made plain the fact
that they despised her.
They also hired a maid
who routinely beat her young mistress
with a hair brush.
The church
to which she turned for the faith to endure
eventually declared her a heretic
and imprisoned her
for twenty years.
Her brother
who was a priest,
tried to extort money from her.

In the face of all this
and more
Jeanne Guyon simply
and constantly,
opened her life to God.
She advised others to do what she did,
"abandon your whole existence,
giving it to God."
she declared,
was the way to connect to God.
She decided that everything
that happened to her
was from God,
and since it was from God,
it was exactly what she needed.
The pastor who wrote the article
she at first believed
Madame Guyon
to be
"a religious crackpot
who should have put her hands on her hips
and demanded justice."
But despite this,
she felt drawn to Guyon's works.
She decided to play
a game with herself.
In every situation,
she would pretend
that Guyon was right
and that even in the worst of things,
God was there.

I found myself more than a bit appalled
at Madame Guyon's calm acceptance of victim hood.
But I too
was intrigued
and I decided to play
the same game as the article's author.
In a matter of minutes
my entire attitude was transformed
and I became once again
fully aware of God's presence.
The place were I was at
still really smelled.
In the case of the basement
it even literally smelled.
But God was there
in the midst of the bad.
And I realized Madame Guyon's point.
If God is there
in the midst of the worst
then I would be ok.
For where God is,
life is;
even if one was at the point in life
that resembled a cross.

I was also drawn back once again
to today's psalter.
"Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven,
you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol,
you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, "Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,"
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you."

The psalmist knew
that no matter
where we are in our lives
God relentlessly pursues us.
Even if we feel separated
from God
and lost and alone,
God is there.
And perhaps
in the times we are most alone,
all we have to do
is to listen to the advice
Madame Guyon received from her first spiritual director
as he addressed her frantic search
for God's presence in her life.
he told her,
"you seek without
what you have within.
Accustom yourself
to seek God in your heart.
There you will find Him."

Another issue of Weavings
contains a story by David Griebner.
It's a story,
I think,
best describes how our God is there
even in the times of greatest pain,
simply waiting for us to recognize Her presence.
It's a story
"Between the Nails."

"He could hardly remember a day
when there wasn't at least some pain;
and this should come as no surprise.
For you see,
this man
and all his people
lived on a bed of nails.
As you might guess,
it was a rather prickly existence.
they had all gotten used to
the particular limitations of their world.
They accepted a certain amount of pain
and discomfort
as normal,
and they had developed clothing and footwear
that insulated them from largely the effect of the nails -
although some were better at ignoring the pain
than others.

Now for a long time our friend
accepted things as they were.
But then something in him began to grow restless,
and he became convinced that life
had to be more than just managed discomfort.
One day he decided something had to change
or he was going to take all his clothes off,
jump into the air,
and end it all.
As he pondered this choice,
he thought he heard something.

"Get small"
"What?" he said.
The words were out his mouth
before he had time to remember
he was alone.

"Get small."
There it was again.
A voice.
He was sure of it.
Sort of.
Something or someone
was talking to him.
And since he was out of other options at the moment
he decided to talk back.
"Who are you?"
"Get small."
"What do you want?"
"Get small."

Obviously he wasn't asking the right question.
He decided to address the advice directly.
"What do you mean,
'Get small'?"

"Get small."
Apparently this was all he was going to get,
and his next response
came mostly out of a sense of frustration.
"I can't get small," he said
through clenched teeth
used to gritting it out.
"I can make you small,"
the Voice said.

Well there it was then.
If he accepted that the Voice was real,
the only thing left to do
was to trust what the Voice had to say.
"All right," he said, "Make me small."

The first thing he noticed
was that his clothes got big.
Then the nails got big.
Then the space between the nails got big
and he found himself between the nails.
Then the space between the nails
got so big
that there was more space than nails.
Then there was so much space
that it seemed as if there were no nails at all.
Then he was surrounded by people.
They brought him clothes to wear
that were light and airy,
and wonderful food
that was as rich as the ground was smooth.
It was a strange feeling,
but it seemed like he had finally
come home.

Once a week
he and all the people between the nails
gathered together to sing.
They lifted their voices to the heavens
and sang with all their heart
the two words the Voice had taught them all.
"Get small,"
they sang."

"How weighty to me are your thoughts,
O God,"
the Psalmist wrote.
"How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them
--they are more than the sand;

I come to the end
--I am still with you."

At the very worst of times,
when we've come the end of our rope,
God is there.
God is there
in the very midst of our pain.
God is there
even when we can't feel God's presence.
God is there
screaming with us
when the nails of our life
become too much to bear.
And in the understanding of God's presence,
we find God is offering us
a life line.

To God alone be glory.

1 comment:

revabi said...

What a sermon.

what a gift he gave his congregation. Thanks for sharing this.

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