A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church of Prairie Village, Kansas. October 7, 2012. The fifth of a six week sermon series on The Marks of a Relevant Church.
* * *
Every so often, I find myself CONVICTED by a facebook post.
I know many of you don’t even use facebook, and that’s all right.
But for many of us, it is the water cooler of our age,
the place where we talk about
the party we went to last night
where we share pictures of our children’s successes and foibles
or sneak in a political one-liner, wish others happy birthday,
and laugh at a silly graphic or two.
Ok, true, there is so much fluff there most of the time
that this may not happen to you at all.
You might simply have a timeline full of lines like:
Dad wants blackberry cobbler instead of birthday cake!
hi ho, hi ho, its off to work I go.
or even a trite:
If God brings you to it, he will bring you through it….
I admit, sometimes I scan through it so quickly
that I don’t really pay much attention.
I mean, I like blackberry cobbler as much as the next guy,
but I’m not invited to her dad’s party
so it doesn’t matter all that much to me, does it?
But every so often, I read a post that causes me to STOP and PONDER
if only for a minute.
This week, that post, from my friend Mark, said this:
What keeps me sane, in all this mess,
is the recognition that what we are really called to do
is puncture holes in the despair of this age.
* * *
The worship planning schedule for this week
as we work through the remaining few weeks
of the “Marks of a Relevant Church”
gives us an opportunity to explore HOPE.
We live in a world where things fall apart.
Look closely, read between the lines of those facebook posts,
and you can see it:
We live in a world where things fall apart.
Dad’s birthday is coming, but he is so frail.
Where we work long hours
work hard to raise our children
worry constantly about our children
their grades or their friends or their
angst filled explorations of early-adulthood
Where we fill our weeks to the brim, with hardly a break to catch our breath
so that a flooded basement or broken waterheater
might just send us over the edge.
Where we wait…….for an eternity sometimes
for the diagnosis and the treatment plan
Where our friends are hurting
from debt or divorce or deeply buried memories that bubble up.
We live in a world where things fall apart.
And the relevant church, our church,
is called upon to look that world directly in the eye
and to say: take heart!
To puncture holes in the despair of our age.
* * *
Now how in the world do we do that?
The Apostle Paul knew about suffering and brokenness.
His entire ministry spoke to the brokenness of the human heart
and was a ministry of reconciliation of a broken community:
men and women
slaves and free
Jew and Gentile
and an effort to bring about a COMMUNITY
centered on HOPE
not to mention faith and love…
And in the reading before us today, Paul is writing to the Romans
in anticipation of visiting them someday to do the same.
He writes about how the creation, the whole creation,
has been groaning in travail, in labor pains…
Aching, yearning, longing to be set free from pain and suffering
what Paul calls “bondage to decay”
Paul talks about how God KNOWS our struggles,
KNOWS our difficulties,
and that the God in the Spirit even prays for us
interceding with sighs too deep for words.
That all things work together for good for those who love God.
* * *
It is a beautiful sentiment.
And one I hold strongly to, particularly in trying times.
I know many of us work day in and day out to make that a reality.
We cook for food kitchens and we collect clothes and we send resources
to broken and desolate places.
We sit with our friends, when their spouses have passed.
We pray for one another, offer moments of rest and leisure to each other.
And these things have a real and a tangible impact. They are so important.
But the world still falls apart, the center doesn’t hold.
As the Psalmist puts it, our souls are cast down.
We yearn for God, we ache for steadfast love.
And it is so easy, I think, to be right back at it,
praying with sighs too deep for words.
Wondering about the effectiveness of punching holes
in the despair of our age.
* * *
But I wonder, are we missing the bigger picture of what God is up to?
The. Rev. Jeremiah Wright tells the story[i] of a time he traveled to Cuba
to take part in a gathering of theologians from around the globe
meeting to honor the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Wright had been invited to deliver the sermon
at the worship service that concluded their week-long meeting.
The interesting part of this whole experience was the relationship
he formed with the translator assigned to assist him for the week.
Wright learned that this young woman had just made application
to the communist party in Cuba.
She did not grow up in the church—she was born after the blockade—
–She had never heard the story of Jesus.
She knew about Martin Luther King, from her studies.
She knew about Hegel, and Stalin, and Marx.
She knew about Trotsky—but she did NOT know about Jesus…
…So every time during that week they went anywhere,
he would sit beside her and tell her the story of Jesus.
Through the week, the translator began to pester him
for his sermon manuscript—so she could prepare.
And Wright said, “Okay…” and then he continued to tell her about Jesus.
The next day, she said, “I still need your manuscript”
and he just told her about Jesus.
Finally, the day before the service, the young translator insisted:
“I just MUST have your manuscript.”
Finally, that night, he gave her the manuscript.
He told her there were no complex theological words—so she could relax.
Though, he did add: “Now, during the sermon, I might say something
that is NOT on the paper.”
“Why?” she asked.
“Well,” Wright said, “what I am trying to do is serve the bread of heaven.
The world is hungry for the living bread.
And in trying to serve the bread of heaven,
God will sometimes give me something right out of the oven!”
And she looked at him funny….and he told her the story of Jesus.
* * *
During the service, Wright was down to his final point.
He was trying to explain that, to African Americans, on April 4, 1968,
when King fell dead on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis—
–it looked like the struggle for civil rights was OVER in this country.
The drum major for justice,
the one who taught non-violence,
the one who preached peace…was DEAD…it all seemed OVER.
But all he was getting was BLANK STARES
from his mostly non-North American audience.
They did not understand the context in which he was speaking.
BLANK STARES was all he was getting…
…when all of a sudden…some BREAD came out of the oven!
He turned to the translator and said “FAUST.”
She gave him this puzzled look.
She looked down at her paper,
but he told her that this might be one of those times—
–so she turned away from her paper and toward him…to translate.
where Faust sold his soul to the devil—
–is captured in a painting that hangs in the National Gallery in London.
It shows Faust on one side of a chess board,
and the Devil on the other side.
Faust only has a pawn, a bishop, a king and a queen left.
The Devil has almost ALL his pieces left.
The title of the painting is “Checkmate.”
The Devil is grinning and leering, because there is no way out for Faust.
Faust is sweating and studying the board—
–wishing he had NOT made that deal!
Each day, as tourists go through the gallery, the tour guide
stops at each painting, explaining who the artist was,
when it was painted,
how it was done…
On and on they go, moving from painting to painting.
NO ONE noticed when, as one group moved to the next painting—
–ONE of the members of the group stayed there and studied “Checkmate.”
He kept pacing back and forth in front of the painting.
The group moved two paintings down,
three paintings down,
four paintings down—
–and this one tourist just stayed in front of that painting,
staring at the chessboard…
They had moved into the next room
and were TWO rooms down when suddenly
they heard his voice, BOOMING down those marble corridors,
hollering, at the top of his lungs:
“It’s a LIE!”
“It’s a LIE!—The King has another move!”
To the average eye—it looked like checkmate.
No one knew that in this group of tourists, however,
was this international chess champion from Russia.
To the master’s eye—he could see a move
that the ordinary player could not see!
Now remember, the young translator has been translating all this
to the audience, as Wright concluded:
“Well, the same thing happened on that night in April, 1968.
when King fell dead—it looked like “checkmate”
But just as it looked like it was ALL OVER—
–God yelled down from heaven—“It’s a LIE!”
“There is another move!”
And she translated that…
But Jeremiah Wright continued.
“But it gets better than that. On one Friday afternoon”—
(Now he had been telling her about Jesus all week…)
“On a hill outside of Jerusalem called Calvary,
when Jesus breathed his last—it looked like CHECKMATE.”
“All night Friday night—as he lay in the tomb—it looked like Checkmate”
(And she translated that…)
“All day Saturday—it looked like checkmate” (And she translated that…)
“All night Saturday night—it looked like checkmate.
But early on Sunday morning
booming down across the corridors of time
there came a cry from eternity, saying:
“It’s a LIE…It’s a LIE!
The King has another move!!!” (And she translated that…)
To people who think their life has no meaning,
people who think it’s all over—God has a word for you—
–The King of Kings and Lord of Lords ALWAYS has another move…
Well, at this point, people in that service were standing on their chairs
and shouting and crying out—
–except somewhere in the middle of all this—
–the preacher noticed…that no one was looking at him!
Everybody was waving handkerchiefs and pointing at the young translator.
Even after Wright stopped preaching—she kept right on talking!
She wasn’t translating his sermon anymore!
She had MET JESUS in the middle of that sermon
and was standing in that sanctuary—praising God for [hope]!
Through the foolishness of all our efforts—God stills saves people!
Still offers hope for the hopeless.
Still punctures the despair of this age with words of hope.
* * *
We might not see it all happening,
we might lose sight of God working behind the scenes
But I am convinced that
through our work as a church—big and small—
Through your love and care for one another
and your being a grace-filled presence in your daily lives…
that through THESE things: God is offering hope in abundance.
* * *
Today is world communion Sunday.
Today Christians from all over the world gather around the table
to celebrate the family we are knit into by the love and the grace of God.
Christians from wealthy America and rural Columbia
and dusty Congo and the streets of Cuba and in hidden corners of China.
Liberal and conservative,
of every color and creed and variety you can imagine.
All of them, hungry for the Bread of Life
to break through all of our despair with a word to us that
IT’s A LIE! THERE IS ANOTHER MOVE!
There is always another move, for the Lord of Life has come to tell us
that LOVE WILL WIN.
And to help us build communities where we can taste and see
that the Lord is Good,
so when that basement floods
or that diagnosis hits
or that kid finally gets an A on that spelling test
or we hear of hunger in our midst
WE…you and me…we can thumb our noses at the world
and tell them that it’s a lie
that there is INDEED another move.
* * *
Hope in the midst of despair. Assurance that our God prays for us
and is working to help us through Labor Pains
for the birth of a new heaven and a new earth
where pain and suffering will cease
and joy and grace will abound.
Someone from our worship committee, when advertising for this sermon series,
paired the subject themes with another word.
Whomever it was, good theologian he or she,
paired the word “Confidence” with today’s topic of Hope.
The root of that word CONFIDENCE means With-Faith, Con-Fidae
To have confidence means to walk with faith,
to carry faith into the struggles of our lives
to witness to the grace and love that we have in the one who invites us to the table.
To help shoulder the burdens of our neighbor,
so that we might make it through ourselves.
May we, as we seek to be a relevant church,
may we bear that hope in to the world
confident that there is yet another move
and find in our love for one another
a place where we can express our deep pain
and find comfort in the grace and love of friends.
[i] This story with particular emphasis on the experience of Rev. Jeremiah Wright is adapted with gratitude from a sermon preached on July 22, 2012 entitled “Another Move” by The Rev. Mark Ramsey at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Ashville, North Carolina. The underlying material on Faust has quite an extensive history,
going back as far as I can tell to with a popular version offered by Bishop Kenneth C. Ulmer. A lengthy history of some use of this story in other sermons is available at the blog post http://lmlk.wordpress.com/2007/09/07/checkmate/
(The picture above may be the one being referenced in Jeremiah Wright’s sermon: The Chess Players by Moritz Retzsch. This particular picture is taken from http://bentalk123.blogspot.com/2010/09/bishop-kenneth-ulmer-king-still-has-one.html)