No greater news
A sermon preached by Pastor Ken Carrothers on July 21, 2019.
I was introduced to a Stephen Crane poem this week that I would like to share with you.
A man said to the universe: “Sir, I exist!” “However,” replied the universe, “The fact has not created in me A sense of obligation.”[i]
On one hand, this is a funny poem. I imagine a man standing out in a field somewhere, head tilted to the sky, fists shaking, and shouting out to the universe that he exists and should be recognized. On the other hand, there is nothing funny about the poem at all. It is actually quite tragic. It is a poem about a man in desperate need of acceptance. A man who needs to feel that his existence is recognized. A man who needs to feel that he has meaning and purpose in the grand scheme of things. He is seeking recognition, or at the very least to be acknowledged by the universe around him.
I don’t know if you have ever been moved to yell at the universe, but I suspect each of us have sought to be recognized at some point. I say this because we live in a cruel world and when we are under great stress, challenge or suffering, it is quite natural to feel alone. We cry out for help and yet none seems to come. The experience can leave us feeling abandoned by God.
In truth we live our life caught between the promises we read about in the bible and the reality of our own situation. Human suffering is a baffling experience that tests the faith of the believer to the core. It is why it the go to subject matter when someone wants to argue God’s existence. “How can an all-powerful and loving God allow…” and you fill in the blank. It is an argument that has been heard repeatedly throughout history.
And while our reading today doesn’t fully answer the question, it does offer a sense of hope and promise so we might live in the ambiguity. For whatever reason, suffering does exist in this world of ours and no one is exempt from it, including those who believe Jesus as their lord and savior. Diseases still come to our bodies and those of our loved ones. Friends still betray us and those we love. And temptation not only lurks around every corner, but we find there are times when we cannot resist it and therefore succumb.
Evil exists even beyond the personal stories. Governments perpetrate Holocausts and genocides. Grand institutions crush the many for the benefit of the few. Leaders care for their own interests rather than those whom they were elected to provide for. Heroes don’t always prevail and sometimes the villain wins.
Trouble and difficulty will come. Just as sure as the air you breathe, each of us will encounter and experience serious bumps in our road. And yet our reading for today offers hope for that time when trouble does rear its head — which of course it will.
The reading reminds us that it is a misconception that God’s goal is simply for us to experience only sunshine, rainbows and puppy dog kisses in this life. God’s concern is not to pamper us by attending to our every whim and desire. Rather, God is infinitely more concerned with walking alongside us through the pain, challenge and suffering that we are certain to experience.
In our reading for today, Jesus is referred to as “the pioneer of (our) salvation” being made “perfect through sufferings.”[ii] A pioneer is one who ventures into the unclaimed, uncharted territory of suffering and means to settle. Therefore, it is in the uncharted territory of suffering where we have the best opportunity to experience the pioneer of our faith — Jesus.
The writer of Hebrews is seeking to make sure we understand God’s complete identification with the human experience, including suffering, through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. After all, Jesus didn’t lean through the doorway of heaven to beckon us to come closer, nor did he come to live among us without being touched and moved by us.
It was after being moved with pity that Jesus healed the leper in the Gospel of Mark.[iii] In John’s Gospel Jesus wept when he heard his friend Lazarus had died.[iv] And remember that when Jesus prayed in Gethsemane he asked for God if there was another way.[v] He too put his trust in God. Jesus is in every sense one of us and therefore is not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters.
Truly being our sibling means that he must share in our bitterest defeat. Since he is the author of salvation, he must face our greatest enemy. In order to share in all, Jesus too must face death. And in this, he was completely and utterly faithful. Jesus died. Which for us is perhaps the strongest and most compelling piece of our reading today.
The avoidance of death has simply become a part of the American life. Silence, denial and avoidance have become the major tools of the carefully manipulated American way of death. Death is no longer a part of God’s purpose, but instead is a problem solved by those who most deal with it — doctors, funeral directors, lawyers and yes, even clergy.
To say someone died feels like taboo. Which is why we say, “passed away,” “gone from us,” “called home,” or any other phrase we can come up with to avoid saying “died.” We hide the reality of death with cosmetically prepared bodies and AstroTurf at the cemetery. And yet death still comes. Death is a reality we cannot avoid. And I wonder if our incessant need to try is somehow wrapped up in our fear of what comes after death.
It is the ultimate unknown. I realize that when we are young, death may seem remote and almost unreal. That is, until you hear someone your age dies — or someone you knew — or perhaps someone you loved. Then the stark reality of death hits you. And when it does, most of us are unprepared for the fear that grips us.
While I was a chaplain intern in a hospital I was called down to the emergency room. As I walked in I saw doctors working on a man who had just been brought in. One of the doctors came over to me and said, “this man’s wife and daughter are walking into the waiting room right now. God tell them he has died and then bring them back.” I was stunned. I walked into the waiting room and it wasn’t hard to see who they were. I went to them. I introduced myself and when they asked me how he was doing I couldn’t bring myself to tell them. Instead I said, “it doesn’t look good. Let’s go back.”
I can still hear their wails as they entered the room. It was awful and the day wasn’t over. There was a viewing room off to the side of the ER where families could go and pay their last respects to their loved one. Most families stayed for a ½ hour or 45 minutes at the top end. This family was still there six hours later.
Now by this time I had come to the point of acknowledging the death. I had stopped in on the family several times. On this last visit I brought some pamphlets about death and grieving. I sat next to the wife who was being comforted by a friend. I told the wife that I wanted to give her some materials that might help as she walked this new path now that her husband was dead. At this point the friend ripped the materials out of my hand, tossed them aside, and told her friend she didn’t need to think about that now. Which is fairly ironic when you consider that the man’s lifeless and dead body was laying right there in front of us.
But that is who we are. We are obsessed in our culture with keeping death as far away from us as possible. I did it at the start. The friend did it at the end. And I think the reason we engage this craziness is because there is no logic, no rhyme, no reason to the way the grim reaper takes its victims. And our inability to make any sense out of death only increases our fear.
But to that fear our reading presents us with the hope and promise that, because we bear this burden of mortality, Jesus, who came as one of us, made of flesh and blood, came not only to show us God’s unfailing love and abiding presence, but also specifically to bear our mortality. Jesus came to die and the purpose of his death was to destroy the one who has the power of death, the devil, and “(free) those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.”[vi] And that’s us. We are the ones afraid of death.
And yet through Jesus death and resurrection we are in fact freed from the bondage to the fear of death, because for us — for Christians — death is the not the end. Death is but another step in this life of faith in which we are never separated from the love of God through Christ Jesus our Lord.
For because Jesus walked the path he did through suffering and death, the writer of Hebrews assures us: “He is able.”[vii] He is able… to help those who are being tested. He is able…to save the children God gave him. He is able… to free those who are held in bondage by fear of death. He is able… to walk beside us in our own suffering and offer the words of empathy, “I know.”
We never need be in fear that when we cry out to God that we exist that God will respond by saying that creates no obligation on God’s part. For Jesus experienced hunger, grief, betrayal, loneliness, and even the fear of death, just as we all do. And by doing so, as we enter those places ourselves, we know and can be assured that we are not alone. For by overcoming suffering in his own earthly life, Jesus is now able to lead us through our own. And there is no greater news, nor love, than that. Amen.
[i] Stephen Crane, “A Man Said to the Universe,” found at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44049/a-man-said-to-the-universe on July 18, 2019.
[ii] Hebrews 2:10 (nrsv)
[iii] Mark 1:41 (nrsv)
[iv] John 11:35 (nrsv)
[v] Matthew 26:39 (nrsv)
[vi] Hebrews 2:15 (nrsv)
[vii] Hebrews 2:18 (nrsv)