Sunday, November 07, 2010

How Emptiness Can Be Blessedness (All Saints Sunday)

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier today.]

Luke 6:20-31
He was a sophomore second-string quarterback at Boston College.* The son of a former NFL player, he had all sorts of talent. But, maybe because up to that point in his life everything had come so easily to him, he was, by most accounts, a so-so college player. Years later, he recalled, “...also...I didn’t work as hard as I needed because I think that gave me an out if I wasn’t successful...”

Then, during his second year of college, he went on a mission trip to Jamaica with a priest and sixteen classmates. First stop was a place called Riverton City, “a shanty-town built on a garbage dump near Jamaica’s capital city of Kingston...” There, the young quarterback saw poverty as he’d never seen it before. For several days, “he worked in a home for elderly lepers.” **

An article in the magazine, Sports Spectrum says, “He cleaned, scraped, then painted a bathroom in the home. In the evenings after a day’s work, he’d join the lepers for song and worship. It was then that [he] met George McVee, [a] man disfigured by leprosy. That first evening, [the college athlete] was the last to arrive and only one chair remained. It was next to McVee. “’I’m ashamed to say this, but it was hard to look at him,’” he remembered years later. “’I didn’t really want to sit next to him. His leprosy was so much worse than everyone else’s. They said it wasn’t contagious, but I was a kid. I didn’t know.'"

Once the young man was seated, McVee, who had lost his forearms, held a harmonica to his mouth with his remaining stumps. He played songs of praise to God. All around the room, accompanied by McVee’s harmonica, voices emanating from aged bodies being destroyed by leprosy joined together to worship God. “In between songs, McVee...[recited] long passages of Scripture and poems he had composed. One of his poems he called, ‘My Cup Runneth Over.’”

In his affliction and desperate poverty, McVee still regarded himself as a blessed man, all because of the God we know in Jesus Christ. The athlete from Boston College remembers: “’I’m saying to myself these people should be angry. What they were born into--poverty, poor health. What do they have to be happy about?...But in their eyes, it was the exact opposite. Their attitude was what my attitude should have been like.”

The young man saw a lot of other things on that trip to Jamaica. And the thing that struck him most was how faithful and how joyful the people he encountered in Jamaica were.

Shortly after his return to the States, the quarterback was stricken with Hepatitis A, which he probably contracted while in Jamaica. In the hospital for six days, he went from 215 to 185 pounds. As “he lay in the hospital, [jaundiced], waiting for his release” he wondered “about his future in football. ‘But I never really thought, “Why me?”’” he says. “’I thought, “This is nothing compared to what the lepers in Jamaica deal with.” And they had so much joy in their hearts because of the Lord, despite their circumstances.’”

It was then that sophomore Matt Hasselbeck, who would go on to play in Super Bowl 40 in 2006, “made a promise to God.” He first apologized to God for not being all that he could be and then told the Lord that in all departments of his life, he would always try his hardest. Second string, practice squad, also ran, whatever, he would always do his best.

Hasselbeck says that it was not only the moment that changed him as an athlete, but also the moment that changed him as a human being.

And it all happened because of the faith and joy he saw in people suffering from the worst poverty and disease, people the world would say had nothing. But Hasselbeck knew that the world was wrong: George McVee and the others he met had Jesus Christ!

Today’s Gospel lesson begins a section in Luke’s Gospel in which Jesus delivers what’s usually referred to as The Sermon on the Plain. It has a lot in common with the more famous Sermon on the Mount, found in the Gospel of Matthew. You’d expect to find similarities to appear in the two sermons; after all, Jesus was the preacher in both cases.

But I’ve sometimes wondered, why is the sermon in Matthew more quoted than the one in Luke? Both are equally beautiful and important. The sermon in Luke's gospel has the added asset of being the shorter and, in some ways, more elegant of the two.

But I think I know why the sermon in Matthew is quoted more often. You see, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” In our lesson today, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor.”

In today's lesson, Jesus is saying: Blessed are...
  • the George McVees, 
  • the elderly lepers in Jamaica, 
  • the homeless who sleep in Worthington Park,  just one block from this church building,
  • the destitute in Haiti, 
  • the orphans in Iraq and Afghanistan, 
  • the military veterans of America forced to live on the street. 
This is a jarring thought, this notion that those who have nothing of what the world values most are blessed by God.

We’d much rather quote Jesus’ words from Matthew and speak of ourselves as being poor in spirit. To be poor in spirit sounds less specific, like a description of people who are, well, just like know, ordinary.

But when Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor,…blessed are the hungry….blessed are you who weep now,” it may make us feel left out. While all of us in this sanctuary have experienced or are experiencing adversities in life, few of us have known the yawning emptiness and grief that Matt Hasselback saw in George McVee and the lepers in Jamaica.

In fact, George McVee seems to be exactly the sort of person Jesus is describing in the first verses of today’s Gospel lesson.

But where exactly is the blessedness of poverty or disfiguring disease, in poverty or hunger or grief?

Matt Hasselbeck saw how even those experiencing the worst that life brings can be God’s blessed ones.

The people he met on that college mission trip were stripped of things that we all count as valuable, things like money, property, position, health.

But precisely because they lacked such things, these people turned to Jesus Christ and found...
  • a God Who loved them, 
  • a Friend Who would stand by them no matter what, 
  • a Lord Who would give them a peace that passes all understanding, 
  • a life that will never end. 
All people should be so poor, so destitute, so empty!

Jesus, of course, isn’t saying that only the poor, hungry, and grieving can have a relationship with Him.

Nor is he saying that folks like these aren’t sinners.

Salvation is still a matter of sinful human beings, in response to all that God has done for us in Jesus Christ, turning from our sin and trusting our whole lives to Jesus Christ.

That’s true whatever our circumstances in life.

But it also is true to say, that the poor, hungry, and grieving, though, have a much easier time knowing how much they need God!

When you’re cruising along in life with a full belly, cash in your bank account, and no troubles on the horizon, it’s easy to forget about God, easy to think you don’t need God. Life’s tragedies and difficulties can act as, in a wonderful phrase coined by C.S. Lewis, God’s trombones. It's hard to ignore trombones! And when adversities blare at us, they wake us up, showing us how much we need God after all.

So, where does that leave you and me, people who, by the mysteries of life and history find ourselves not living in places like Jamaica, Haiti, Sudan, Indonesia, Iraq, or the inner city of Columbus, people whose lives, though not untouched by difficulty, are still likelier easier than most of the people who have ever lived or who are living now?

We find the answer to that question in a verse that comes just before our Gospel lesson, one that sets the stage for it. It’s Luke 6:17, which you’ll find in the pew Bibles on page 592. This passage comes just after Jesus calls the twelve apostles, an event that happens up on a mountaintop after Jesus prays. It says:
And He came down with them and stood on a level place with a crowd of His disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea and Jerusalem, and from the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon, who came to hear Him and be healed of their diseases...***
Jesus could have stayed on the mountaintop, could have kept spending time with His Father in prayer. But He came to a level place, the place where all of us—rich and poor, hungry and full, happy and sad—live.

This same Jesus tells us today that those who are truly blessed—those who are His saints—are the ones who, filled with the certainty of a grace that loves us just as we are and is committed to helping us to become all that God made us to be, live in those same level places.

Saints aren’t exalted beings whose lives are spent in a series of mountaintop experiences.

Saints are ordinary sinners, just like us, who, through Jesus, have been filled with the power to live in life’s ordinary places and, when a need is made known to them, extend Christ’s hand of love to others.

Ann, our then two year old son Philip, and I were living in the almost-one bedroom cinder block apartments the seminary had originally built for single students, but which were then being used as housing for seminarians with a spouse and a child. We didn’t have two pennies to rub together. As the saying goes, "We had nothing and thought we were going to keep it."

Ann commuted by bus to a job that paid close to minimum wage at the downtown Columbus Lazarus store. One day, she accidentally left her purse on the bus. It contained a couple of credit cards, a few dollars in cash, and her driver’s license. We put a stop on the credit cards and Ann planned on calling the BMV the next day to start the process of getting a new license.

But then our phone rang. It was a woman who had found Ann’s purse. We later met her. She was neat in appearance, but elderly and, from the look of things, could have used what little cash was in the purse herself. She was an African-American woman who worked as a cleaning lady and was raising her great-grandson.

As she handed the purse over to Ann, we thanked her profusely. She smiled and said, “I just loves the Lord.”

Folks, that is a saint.

No airs.

No self congratulation.

Just a person who lived Jesus’ love.

A saint isn’t a person grimly trying to live up to the golden rule Jesus cites at the end of our lesson—“Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

They’re people so grateful to the God Who, in Christ, has come down to them, so filled with thankfulness for the undeserved blessings of God, that that the love commanded by the golden rule spills out of them every day…just because the Lord loves them and they loves the Lord.

May we ever be so thankful!

*The true story, extensively quoted, appeared in an issue of Sports Spectrum magazine three years ago.

**Leprosy, Hansen’s Disease, “can eventually cause a variety of skin problems, loss of feeling, and paralysis of the hands and feet.”

***This comes from the New King James Version translation.

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