Read 2 Corinthians 4:5-12
Of all the heroes of our Faith in the Bible I’ve really struggled most with some writings of the Apostle Paul. Needless to say, some small portions of his letters to the church have been filled with theological rhetoric that has given the Fundamentalist church and many Evangelical Christians permission to hurl homophobic slurs and behave in very un-Christian ways toward the LGBTQ community. I’ve resisted preaching on Paul’s letters, and have tried very hard to make sense of his teachings. I studied him in seminary, wrote academic papers on his life, and listened to professors who spent their entire careers interpreting Paul’s writings. And I don’t want to be one of those folks that just throws the baby out with the bathwater…just because it stinks a little or because it doesn’t make sense or seem useful to me.
So you can imagine that I was pretty surprised as I was choosing our scripture texts for our Pentecost sermon series, that it seemed the Holy Spirit was drawing me to embrace Paul’s letters to the churches in Rome and Corinth. I expected that Paul’s letters could provide some insight. But when questions and confusion showered over me this week after the tragic loss of our friend and brother, Alan Edwards, I began to know why. The Spirit was working even when I couldn’t understand it. And the Spirit had a gift for me deep in the emptiness of my grief and loss. In this search for understanding, I started to understand Paul a bit better. Paul’s words today have given me comfort and care. Paul’s words in our scripture text this morning have given me hope. This week I connected to Paul in a way I had never before. And in this experience I found an unexpected gift.
Our video clips this morning are just a small snippet of what Paul experienced at the end of his life. He interpreted the experience of Jesus in a radically different way. Even as he was taken to a lonely spot just outside Rome and murdered by a Roman sword, he was giving testament to the fullness of life in Christ. Paul was a martyr for his faith. But it was not the final fate of Paul's life that makes his message so relevant. It was that long road, strewn with adversity that made him a real hero. He not only suffered a lifetime of hatred by people when he became a Christian; he suffered years of rejection by the Christians he joined before they would even half-trust him. He had to survive adversities that would have destroyed a lesser person.
In Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth, he catalogues his experiences of adversity. He writes that he was "Overworked, scourged, imprisoned and many times face to face with death. Five times he was whipped with 39 lashes, 3 times he was beaten with rods, once he was stoned and 3 times shipwrecked, and 24 hours adrift at sea. Constant danger on the road: danger from robbers, danger from rivers, danger from fellow countrymen and danger from foreigners...I have toiled (he said) and drudged, I have gone without sleep, hungry and thirsty and suffered from cold and exposure." And Paul was a long way from being imprisoned in Rome when he wrote that.
I suppose the line that best describes Paul's life of adversity comes from the 4th chapter of II Corinthians. Paul writes (I am paraphrasing): "We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; we are perplexed but not in despair; we are persecuted, but not abandoned; we are struck down, but not destroyed." It was not so much this last act in his life that made Paul a hero, as it was the long road that led him there. He could have quit any time! He was knocked down, but not knocked out.
We have all been there! We all have had some earth shattering, significant event to suddenly open a trap door to the basement of our souls, and all the dragons we thought we had slain, and all of the ghosts we thought we had chained and all the pain we thought we had dealt with ~ come floating back to engulf and enrage and undo us.
All of us come at some time to the edge of things, where we are met by a sense of the inescapable. Down deep we know that major tragedies are inevitable. Every day we see people who are managing some slow-moving tragedy in their lives. We see people who cannot find work, who cannot make the next rent payment and whose children have gone astray. Just add your own nagging problem to the list. The list is endless.
Some days survival is an achievement. And in every life there is some failure and defeat - moral, spiritual, financial - you name it. It is there. But no matter how strong we may be, we do not survive adversity alone. There are other people whose strength flow into our troubled lives like a transfusion. No person ever saves themselves by themself. We are ultimately saved by others, if we are saved at all. When Jesus hung dying on the cross, old enemies came by to gloat and to taunt him. They wagged their heads and mocked him, saying, "He saved others (but) he cannot save himself." (Matthew 27:42a) Did they not know that God was saving them at that very moment? That the life of Jesus was God’s gift to humanity? And God saves us through the kind words, the encouragement, the sacrifice and heroic deeds of others.
Alan was one of those heroes. He was a part of our community and one that showed light in darkness. The news of his tragic death was horrifying for us. "Oh God!" we cried out. We could not express the words of grief and anguish we felt over the tragic and brutal death of one we hold so close to our hearts. We asked why? Why has Alan been taken from us? Why must the good endure pain and suffering? Where are you, God, in this tragedy? Help us to understand. Help us to make sense of this. Help us to grieve. Help us to mourn. Help us to heal. Help us to forgive. Help us God. But somehow the words felt empty. We were consumed by this feeling of emptiness that seemed to overwhelm us.
You know that wrenching feeling when something has ended that you didn’t want to see go? We were living through those feelings that week. And there is absolutely NO explanation for what happened to our friend and brother. The only thing we can know about our experience in life is that life changes. And in that change we sometimes experience darkness. Paul reminds us that “We are always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.” As the Message translation puts it, “What they did to Jesus, they do to us—trial and torture, mockery and murder; what Jesus did among them, he does in us—he lives! Our lives are at constant risk for Jesus’ sake, which makes Jesus’ life all the more evident in us.”
Death is at work in us. Always. Continuously. And when death arrives it is accompanied by a feeling of emptiness. Sometimes death is not a physical experience. Death comes from radical and even subtle change. This change may start in your outer circumstances, like the death of a dear friend of family member, a physical move or the end of a relationship. You may feel uncomfortable in your own skin. Your tendency might be to fill the empty space with concern, fear or confusion. You struggle to find the usual markers that provide some security, some sense of familiarity, some grounding. Instead it feels like you’ve entered a black hole that has sucked up anything you could normally count on to define yourself. And that black hole continues to suck the life out of you leaving you with a profound emptiness. What do you do with the feeling of emptiness? How might we receive this change and the accompanying emptiness as a gift?
Cry. When I’m in the midst of great change I often feel like crying. There’s no emotional content attached to it. It’s simply the experience of this vast “empty” space. In our message last week Paul writes that the Spirit intercedes for us through wordless groans. The Spirit inhabits our tears, translating our pain and suffering when words can’t express.
Surrender. Do you try and attach meaning to this change with an explanation for what you are experiencing? What if you surrendered to this emptiness without trying to explain it? Learning to stay in that emptiness takes practice. Meditation has been my most important spiritual discipline to learn and practice how. It takes time: repeated experiences of being in the void. I’ve learned that I have to give physical time to this emptiness. Because there is necessary space between ending and beginning. As something completes or ends in life, there is a void, a creative pause, before something new begins. And in this void are all the possibilities of the next moment in time are held. When you try to create an explanation for your experience, there is not space to receive what’s next. The need to define what you are feeling closes the door to the birth of something brand new. You cannot define what has not yet formed.
Breathe. Take a breath. Release it. Take another. The Holy Spirit is described as the wind by Jesus. In John 3 he says, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” When you get into the Greek behind that, the Greek word is pneuma, which again means "a current of air," "breath," or a "breeze, " and again by analogy, "a spirit." And then in John 20: "'Peace to you! As the Father sent me, I also send you.' And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said, 'Receive the Holy Spirit'"
At Creation God breathed over the waters. In the first chapter of Genesis it says that "The earth was without form and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. Then God said, 'Let there be light;' and there was light." The Hebrew word behind spirit is ruach, and it means "air in motion." It is the same word for "breath." It also means "life." And we were created with this same breath. In Genesis 2 it says, "And the Lord God formed humans out of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the human became a living being" Some translations call that "a living soul." It’s from the breath of God that we actually get our life.
And so now you get the linkage of how we were created. How we were created in the image of God is because of our breath, and it is because of the breath of God keeps coming into us. Keep returning to the breath and it will carry you through the void, allowing whatever is to begin. After all, the beginning is what comes next. There’s no need to rush it.
Reflect. Devote some dedicated time of prayer and meditation. It doesn’t need to be hours of quiet, perhaps only 15 minutes. Allow the questions to simmer within you. Let responses bubble up into your awareness. Notice new ways of thinking, of images or ideas that arise spontaneously. Pay attention to your dreams. Let it happen. Be aware. See where it leads you next. Let yourself savor this process of receiving from yourself. Don’t judge whatever comes up, just receive it. Make notes.
Share. You may want to share something from this process. Sharing is an important way to anchor an insight in your body. It leads you to deeper insight. It stimulates action. Share what moves you! Let others hear you at a deep and intimate level.
In the tragedies and adversities in life, we find ourselves in the deep woods where what is happening to us lies beyond our strength to change and our knowledge to understand. Our only hope is that the great God of the universe knows as much and cares as much as Jesus said. There are places in our lives in which we may doubt that. There are times in which we want very much to believe it. But, there finally comes a stage in our lives 8/ when all things will be clear. Rest in that truth.
Cry. Surrender. Breathe. Reflect. Share.
Paul says it well in 2 Corinthians 4:7, as he reflects on the tremendous reservoir of human power and potential: "It is clear," he wrote, "that the glorious power within must be from God. It is not our own." It is in that faith that we survive adversity.
Adapted from a sermon given by The Rev. Dr. Thomas Lane Butts on January 21, 1996. http://day1.org/916-the_university_of_adversity and resources at https://thebacajourney.com/allow-embrace-emptiness/