Presented at Sudbury (MA) Memorial Church, UCC on October 14, 2012.
Scriptures: Job 23:1-9, 16-17; Mark 10:17-31
A youtube video of the sermon…
The most painful day of my life was Friday, May 4th, 1991. In the week leading up to that dark day, everything in my life had exploded – marriage, job, finances – a perfect storm. I felt the only way out was to escape from it all, I needed peace, I needed help.
So, I bundled myself and my then two year old daughter into my car, to escape for a time to safety in Chicago and figure out what to do. As I drove along, the darkness and turmoil within me was echoed by the magnificent, terrible thunderhead I saw ahead of us as we descended down Minnesota’s bluffs to cross the Mississippi River. It was huge: threatening, dark, turbulent; yet before it was the most beautiful, intense, double rainbow I’d ever seen: brilliant against the angry blackness ahead as the late afternoon sun sank behind us.
We caught up with that storm just after the sun set, and it was the worst storm I’ve ever experienced. Rain was coming down so hard that my windshield wipers were bending under the force of the water. I crept along the highway, my headlights struggling to pierce the stormy darkness, hoping to find refuge, somewhere. But we were alone: no one else was challenging the storm that night.
The only bright spot was Elizabeth, sitting in her booster seat beside me. She contentedly nibbled on her cookie and quietly gazed out at the storm, watching the wind-driven rain hitting the windows, the lightening flash, and listening to the thunder boom as we crept along.
Suddenly, a lightening bolt hit right next to me, not more than 20 feet away. I was looking right at the spot where that jagged streak hit the ground. I saw burning grass kicked up where it hit. There was an incredible flash and deafening boom.
I was terrified.
As I sat there trying to recover, shakily gripping the wheel, my little girl turned to me and said “Do it again, Daddy!”
Before we go any further, let’s pray…
Lord God, we ask that your Holy Spirit fill each and every one of us here this morning. Open the scriptures before us, and help me clearly communicate what you intend here today. Enable your gospel to come alive within each and every one of us, driving all darkness from our hearts. We rejoice in this chance to encounter new revelations and a deeper understanding of your unconditional, living, infinite love; and we ask that we be amazed and transformed by it. Help us to embody your love, and to live it, in all that we do, think, speak, and are. In Jesus Name, Amen.
Everything I owned, everything I’d struggled to build: home, career, family, was on the line, about to be lost. I didn’t know where to turn. I had lost all hope. Everything was about to be taken away by forces and events over which I had no control. I had come to the end of myself.
The Rich Young Man in this morning’s reading from Mark had reached a similar impasse. Yes, he had money, possessions, power; and he was clearly a man devoted to his faith; but he knew, he knew, that all of this was not enough. He knew that ultimately it didn’t matter how much wealth he had, or how devoted a believer he was. If it did, if any of it guaranteed him a place in the Kingdom to come, why would he have bothered going to this prophet Jesus, humbling himself, and asking “Teacher, what must I do to gain life in the world to come?”
He knew something as missing. He knew that all he had accomplished and accumulated didn’t matter one bit. He believed there must be something more, something that would give him certainty and control over his fate.
But, what was it? He didn’t have an answer. He didn’t know where to turn. Like this man from so long ago I didn’t have the answers, I only knew that everything I held dear was going to be lost. He had not yet encountered the storm ahead of him, but he knew it was coming, even as he fled from the darkness behind him. He had come to the end of himself as he knelt in the dust at Jesus’ feet.
Jesus knew this man was sincere, and loved him, responding to his question saying “Son, there is still one thing you have not done.”
Aha! The answer! The key this man knew he needed was about to be revealed. Finally! I imagine him looking into Jesus’ face, rising a little from his knees; eager, relieved – there really was an answer. He was not doomed. There was something he could do to escape from his darkness.
And Jesus continued, saying “Go now, sell everything you have and give the proceeds to the poor so that you will have treasure in heaven. After that, come, follow me.”
We all know this story. We all know the interpretation. We all know that Jesus was telling this young man, and us, that possessions, power and wealth do not matter. We cannot buy our way into heaven, we cannot achieve eternal life through our own efforts and strength.
This young man’s possessions and accomplishments were a stumbling block. Deep down he knew this, which is why he was there in the first place. Even so, he could not let them go, he wanted a different answer. Jesus didn’t give him one.
We all know this, and believe it. Or do we? Do we really believe what Jesus is teaching us here?
I didn’t. I’d been following a path similar to that of this young man – education, church, career, family, house. I’d done all the right things, I’d worked hard to accomplish them, I was sincere in my faith. But, like this young man, I had come to the end of myself. I had nowhere else to turn. I couldn’t do what needed to be done. Jesus merely stated the obvious to this man: get rid of the stumbling blocks, get rid of the stuff you already know you don’t need and come, follow me, I love you.
Those words of wisdom from my daughter’s mouth revealed to me that same lesson in a flash: “Do it Again, Daddy!”
Well, I couldn’t do that again, I knew that – I hadn’t done it in the first place! Come to think of it, it was only through God’s grace that this man had accumulated all that he had, it wasn’t his own efforts that had done it in the first place, and he knew that. Like me, he was running from one storm, seeking an answer in his own strength, doomed only to find that another storm awaited him.
As my daughter said those words, I remembered the brilliant rainbow we’d seen a short time before as I’d fled from one fear-filled storm into the next. I remembered God’s promise to Noah in the book of Genesis, the promise, signified by the rainbow, that God would never again seek to destroy Creation. God promised to be there for us, always.
And so, I smiled at my young daughter through my pain and fear, and said “Not now Little Bun, maybe later.” And with that smile I was healed. For the first time in a long time, I was at peace, no longer afraid, even though the storm still raged around us.
Something had changed within me. God knew I couldn’t do it. God knew I’d come to the end of myself, and I finally knew that God was there all the time.
In my mind, fear – fear of loss, fear of failure, fear of losing control – fears we all have – had magnified the challenges and issues I was facing to become like a huge storm in my spirit. Fear and anxiety had overcome me, as happens to all of us at times.
In our Hebrew Bible reading this morning, Job has already lost everything but his life, he says he cannot see God and is demanding an explanation from God for all he has been through. Later, in chapter 38, God speaks “out of the storm” to answer Job. Ultimately, Job has a revelation, saying “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.” Job learns, firsthand, that God is there, and that God cares. God is no longer the distant and unapproachable deity Job had only heard about; Job sees God, and in that moment of revelation, he responds to what God is offering. God’s love becomes real and tangible to Job.
Echoing the experience of Job, our reading from Mark says: “Jesus looked at the Young Man, saw that he was sincere, and responded out of his love for him.” But sadly, the Rich Young Man could not find it within himself to accept that which had also been offered to Job, the price was too high.
And that Love is what matters to me. I had been looking to have things restored on my own terms. I had to let go of the conviction that what I had, and had built in this world, mattered. I was not willing to let go of what I had, to gain what was to come. God’s love had been something I heard about, not something that was within me. It took the childlike faith of my daughter to help me see.
The writer of the following Psalm knew this, too:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his names sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Let’s stop there for a second: God was with David. God restored his soul. God enabled him to have the peace and rest he needed, despite entering the valley of the shadow of death, a valley we have all experienced, and will again.
David then goes on to say…
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Just like the stories of Job and of Jesus and the Rich Young Man, Psalm 23 teaches us that no matter how bad it gets, God will always be there for us, and will never give up on us.
That’s the revelation that saved me from the storm: the peace I needed, the help I so desperately wanted, had been right there all along. I only needed to accept it. There was nothing that I needed to escape from!
Copyright (c) 2012, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that gives my full name and provides a link back to this site).