The text employed for this homily is the Suffering Servant text of Isaiah 53
Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? 2For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground;he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. 3He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering* and acquainted with infirmity;and as one from whom others hide their faces* he was despised, and we held him of no account. 4Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases;yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. 5But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities;upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.
I read recently the great fear that has most of Hollywood quaking in their collective boots – High Definition Television. The picture is so clear, so vivid, that the mirage of Hollywood perfection is exposed for the sham that it is and people whose projected image looks one way through traditional television – with filters and fuzzy resolution – have every pore - every “flaw” on display for all to see – the more the resolution, the sharper the image, the greater clarity to see people for who they really are. Whether it’s one actresses bad nose job, or another actor’s hairpiece – or just the amount of “make-up” some have to wear to keep up with their image – it is a frightening thing - In a world where physical beauty and image is everything – HD could well be the Hollywood stars’ kryptonite.
I don’t blame these folks – their livelihood is dependant upon a projected image – and we, the culture, obviously expect that. We pay for it, we emulate it, we have made an industry out of knowing who is doing what with whom and when. Truth is, we’re not sure we want to see these folks for who they really are. In the magic of movies and television – our actors pretend to be someone they are not. And we willingly suspend our disbelief and go along for the ride.
When the flaws turn from the external to the internal – things start getting a little dicey. When that happens to people in the spotlight, our star gazing become voyeurism as someone spins out of control in front of the public eye. With that may come sadness for what we observe – but also a little relief that there is no great audience looking in at us when we’re the one who is spinning.
We’re now beginning the home stretch of this series of sermons on Parker Palmer’s book, Let Your Life Speak. Last week we learned something about what happens in life when the way we’re on closes. So conditioned are we to keep on knocking on the doors of life that have closed that we forget to turn round to see the rest of the world that God has opened for us to pursue, to live, and to discover our Divine vocation – that life we are to live in which our God-inspired deep joys intersect with the deep needs of the world around us. Palmer reminds us that when way closes – rest assured, way will open – maybe not in the way we expect (and you can probably count on that) – but way will open. God will make a way. But will you take it?
But then there’s this – just because way has closed and way will open once, it doesn’t mean that’s it. We’re good. We’ve had our quota of what we hoped for being dashed only to find a new reality to embrace. Way closes in life again and again and again.
Sometimes the toll such a thing exacts on the spirit is something we can manage – and other times it knocks us to our knees leaving us unsure we’ll ever get up again. – a bruised spirit is a painful and debilitating thing.
You know of what I speak –
- unexpected death;
- loss of professional and vocational identity;
- victimization at the hands of the powerful;
- death of your lifelong dream;
- irreparably fractured relationships.
Like a shot to the spiritual solar plexus; these things leave us heaving for breath and believing we’re unable to draw in the breathe of God.
In Palmer’s story – he acknowledges with great vulnerability the crippling depression that resulted when way closed down for him. The stuff of his story is revealing and I commend it to you for your reading – but we need not read of someone else’s journey through the dark nights of their souls –
We know this dark place. Some of us have been in it, including yours truly, and some of us may be languishing there now.
As people of God, the Church, we have a tendency to place so much value on the Mountain top experiences of the spiritual life. It is as if we make such experiences the requisite encounters with God bringing validation that we’ve made it. If we know Jesus,
- we won't be down
- we won’t be blue,
- we won’t wonder what this journey is all about,
- we won’t question,
- we’ll be sure we have nothing in common with the Psalmist whom Jesus himself quoted from the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.”
- we’ll just “smile, be happy, “ and, in the words of Monty Python – “Always look on the bright side of life,”
Well, if that’s the Christian illusion you want to live with – if that’s the projected image you want to claim like a Hollywood superstar – that’s fine – but it’ll cost you. Because life has a way of clarifying Truth despite our efforts to hide Truth. Like HD for the soul, we can run, but we can’t hide.
Too much of religion is based on such foolishness – negating the reality of life where we live it. The places where we fall all the way down – those rock bottom, wilderness wandering – valleys of the shadow of death – these are the places from which healing emerges.
And if I read Palmer right, while he might agree that we might find God on the Mountaintop experiences, we only really know God through the sufferings of our living. For it is there that God dwells, seeks to heal, and sets us forth to serve.
Palmer reflects upon his friend, Henri Nouwen and his seminal work The Wounded Healer,
"After all my attempts to articulate the predicament of contemporaryNow hear me, we're not being asked to suffer someone else's pain. We're not being asked to take on the wounds of Christ as as our own.
humanity, the necessity to articulate the predicament of the ministers
themselves became most important. For ministers are called to
recognize the sufferings of their time in their own hearts and to make that
recognition the starting point of their service."
We don’t need to take on the wounds of Christ for the world. We need to own our own wounds through which the reality of the God who heals is made known. In fact, you can’t really and truly know the One who sets you free until you own exactly what it is that enslaves you. From that - we know where ministry to and with the broken of the world emerges - for we, ourselves are broken.
Finding God through our pain – our wounds. May not sound joyful, but it is real, it is deep – it is that Tillichian “ground of our being” – and for any and all of us free-falling into the chasm of spiritual uncertainty, hear me – stop looking upward hoping against hope that God might swoop down from the heavens and spare you this hell you’re going through – when God is already standing in the deepest part of your deepest valley waiting to catch you and guide you back home.
A few days ago I got a call from my mother. It came about 10 o’clock in the evening, pretty late for her to call and usually in that black out period in which I’m not interested in hearing the phone ring at all. And, if it does, it means something has happened. We were talking a bit about Jack’s upcoming birthday party, and then she tells me of Brian. Brian, a friend of mine from the age of 4-6. He and his brother Craig lived just across the field from our house in Charlotte, Tennessee. Loretta and Roy, Brian’s parents, great people, who helped raise me in those days while dad was going to Vandy to seminary, serving as pastor to 5 churches. Just my sister and me in those days, although Jimmy arrived while we were there. I saw Loretta and Roy a little over a year ago when they attended my parents’ 50th anniversary party. Hadn’t seen them in over 35 years. In my life, they are confined to a particular time and place – and no real transcendent relationship unrestrained by the itinerancy – that thing we preacher’s families struggle with.
Mom wanted me to know that their son, Brian, someone I have not seen since the very early 1970’s, had died. He was 42. And then she said, “your father and I are going to the funeral.” I said, “o.k.,” and then she said it again in a way that said to me, “we know this pain – this pain of losing a child - and we’ve got to go.”
A resonant pain in someone else that moves you into action – sounds like the beginning of life – the beginning of ministry.
No image to project – no pain to protect – just the trust that comes from one’s own pain that is healing pushing us into the company of those who hurt.
Palmer closed this chapter with a poem he wrote called Harrowing as do I this homily -
The plow has savaged this sweet field
Misshapen clods of earth kicked up
Rocks and twisted roots exposed to view
Last year’s growth demolished by the blade
I have plowed my life this way
Turned over a whole history
Looking for the roots of what went wrong
Until my face is ravaged,
Enough, The job is done.
Whatever’s been uprooted, let it be
Seedbed for the growing that’s to come
I plowed to unearth last
The farmer plows to plant a greening season.