Saturday, August 13, 2011

Broken, But God Is Still With Us

(once again, some loose ramblings that will hopefully lead to a sermon this weekend)

Last week we started our third, and final series of the summer entitled, "Living Out". We started in June talking about living in accountable community while listening, hearing, and obeying God. We took time to investigate how God speaks, and the ways he might be listening to us, as well as the importance of acting on what God asks of us in accountable community so that 1) we don't act on an impulse that just plain crazy and 2) we have people to help us follow through with what we say we're going to do. This is the way we become a disciple, and the discipleship process is only completed when we begin discipling others ourselves.

In the second series, Living Up, we took four weeks to look at the nature of our relationship with God. We talked about sin as separating us from God and others, God's initiated effort to help us bridge the "sin gap" between him by making a "covenant" with us, and bridge the same gap with others by helping us understand our place in his "kingdom".

As we faithfully follow God's leading in a covenanted relationship with him, via following Jesus, these four weeks of "Living Out" are focused on bridging the gap between us and others as we live in "God's kingdom". Last week we looked at the question if God accomplishes what he wants in the lives of others by bestowing upon us prestige, power, and prosperity, or rather if He leads through our becoming a servant, broken but still faithful, ready to provide protection and possibilities for others. To understand this, we're looking at the life of Joseph, who, even though he was the recipient of his Father's preferential love - symbolized by Jacob giving him the famous "coat of many colors" - that God establishes a pattern we see again and again in the Old Testament, and then in the life Jesus, and the Apostles, of leading through our brokenness. Joseph, like us, is greatly loved, but at 17, clueless, prideful, and boastful, he sends his father into a funk, and antagonizes his brothers to the point that they use the symbol of "preferred love" - the colorful coat, now ripped up and covered with blood, proof of Joseph's supposed demise - to get rid of Joseph by selling him as a slave to Egyptian traders.

Eventually, we know that Joseph's continued faithfulness will eventually protect and provide for his family, his nation, and even his enemies. But Joseph is broken - deprived of his prestige, power, and prosperity - before he can be used by God to do his work. Such is the case with Israel, and the example left to us by Jesus, who emptied himself of his privileged position at the right of the Father, to come live with us. It's through his willingness to be like us, to point of suffering, rejection, and death, that Jesus, as a suffering servant, offers us a way back to God.

The way of brokenness and self-sacrifice on behalf of the Lord and others, is the way of Jesus. It is the way of his followers.

Brokenness and sacrifice don't sound all that great, does it? Every time I preach a sermon on this subject, if my Dad is present and listening, he always gets afterwards at lunch for sounding too much like a "debbie downer". He'd prefer I'd tell a nice story that will make you laugh, maybe make you cry, but in the end leave you with a sense of hope and optimism about you, yours, and this crazy 'ol planet we live on.

The strange thing though, is that a life of broken sacrificial faithfulness is, in the Kingdom of Heaven, not mutually exclusive to a fulfilling life. Joseph is a good example. Twice, after he finds himself in Egypt, cut off from his family and seemingly from his destiny, Joseph's life, even under less-than-ideal circumstances (he is a slave, for Pete's sake) is one that provides protection and possibilities for others. First in the house of Potipher, the captain of Pharaoh's palace guard, he proves himself so trustworthy and capable, that eventually takes over all of Potipher's "at-home" responsibilities. And then, after Potipher's wife can't convince Joseph to hop in the sack with her, in prison, once again he rises to a position of importance as chief jailor's right-hand man. Genesis 39:22, tells us that the chief jailer trusted Joseph so completely, that he had no worries cause he knew Joe would always come through... and all the while that also God remained with Joseph.

When our ego and pride are taken down a peg or two, or when we of our own volition decide to humble ourselves by offering up what we have to help others, it does, I think, two things.

First, we start to get a true accounting of who we are. Joseph who once spent his time lording his position in his father's household over his brothers, now finding himself at the very bottom of Potipher's household pecking order, changes his expectations and attitude. He discovers that he's good at a lot of different things, and when he used those gifts working hard and diligently, that he gets results. Joseph begins to discover that it wasn't because of who his father and mother are that made him a potential candidate for greatness, but rather it was through all the ways God had gifted him.

We all have some form of talent God has given us to use for his purposes. I'm in the season right now of many funerals. Among five funerals I've done since mid-July, last week I buried Ruth Wilcox, Phil's mother, and this week I'll be burying Skip Chiles. It was fascinating for me to sit and listen to all the ways Ruth and Skip's children described the talents their respective parents were endowed with by God, and all the interesting ways they used them in the interest of their family and friends. Ruth has to be the first woman in all of the years I've been doing this sort of thing, who was described as having great carpentry gifts, to the extent that she largely built the family's first house, and then radically reconstructed what became later the family home. The kids relayed a vivid story of Ruth's husband, Stubby, coming from from a week on the road as a trucker, to find the wall between the kitchen and the boys' bedroom, gone, and the boys now living in an attack which now had finished walls and a floor.

I listened too to Skip's family talk about what a tremendous caregiver Skip was. He cared for his parents, in-laws, wife, and a number friends as their lives wound down. He cared, until his death, for his son Carl. Carl was born with Downs Syndrome the same year I was born, 1969. Skip not only took care of Carl in terms of day-to-day family living, but was used his skills as an education provider and administrator by serving on the board of Marimor Industries. Skip, and a number of saints who I've been honored to meet and know in this community, were a part of a small, but determined group that were intent on giving those with disabilities of all kinds opportunities and hope that had previously not been afforded to them.

A woman who was good with a hammer, and a man who was an outstanding care-giver. It defies the stereotypes and expectations I suppose, but the natural gifts both these good folks carried inside them, bloomed under less than ideal circumstances. But it is through those experiences of brokenness and sacrifice they helped moved those they loved, and even those they didn't really know, forward. It is when we serve that we truly begin to discover what we are capable of.

Second, as we discover all of these blessings, we find out just how good God is. Both Potipher and his household, as well as the chief jailer and all the inmates at the prison, experienced God's goodness through Joseph's faithfulness. And even when Potipher's wife throws Joseph under the bus, he still never goes into a shell of self-pity, wallowing, anger, and dismay. Instead he continues to understand God as good because God has authored so many good things inside of him.

In fact, we witness just how much Joseph has grown and matured, even under difficult circumstances, as a servant in Potipher's house. As he discovers who he is and who God is, he begins to understand the demands of living in faithful obedience. The self-absorbed teenager, now confronted with the opportunity to take advantage of his place in his master's house, stands instead on greater principles than his own personal satisfaction and enjoyment. God, Joseph begins to understand, demands honesty, integrity, and humility, even when standing on these principles can cost us dearly. The bottom prisoner in a penal system has to be an even more daunting and depressing prospect than being the bottom slave in a household. But Joseph sticks to his guns, because God's good work isn't just accomplished through the gifts He's given us, but the through the character he desires us to impart through those actions. It may cost us to do the right thing, but as we discover the God who authored our gifts and talents, we discover what he's made of, and those things - integrity, honest, character, justice, grace, mercy, peace, and love - are the only things that really matter and survive.

So yes, the Christian life is a life of brokenness and self-sacrifice, but it is by no means joyless and empty. It leads, rather, to greater understanding of ourselves, the Lord, and the betterment of those around us - some whom we love and others who make it difficult for us to love. If you think about those who have blessed you greatly, how much better has your life been made through their sacrifice and brokenness on your behalf? Of what quality do you consider those who sacrificed greatly so you could stand where you are today? Did they seem broken and alone, or did they possess a strength and dignity that radiated beyond themselves to those around them?

In our tradition as Methodists, the we use different language to describe the Christian life. Instead of calling it the "way of brokenness and sacrifice", we sum up this life with three simple rules. They are in fact, the General Rules of our community:

1) Do no harm.
2) Do good.
3) Stay in love with God.

If you want to find a truly Christian person, living a Christian life in an imperfect world, you could easily sum them up as someone who does no harm, does good, and stays in love with God.

I know that this has been the case for me. Those who I look up to the most are those who do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God. Dr. and Mrs. Becker. Pat and Helen Price. Gerald Goodwin. Gene King. Stan and Betty Weller. Don Johnson. Melva Mumma. The list of saints from our little community here at Shawnee Community who have made an imprint on me were all people who in their own way, as they sought to faithfully follow Jesus, did their best not to harm others (and were quick to admit their fault when they did), did good whatever way they were able, and found new ways to stay in love with God.

I remember stories at his funeral of patience treated by Dr. Becker when they had no money to pay his fee. I remember Pat Price ripping a group of teens for playing instruments too loud in a worship service, and then the next Tuesday at their rehearsal apologize with a pizza and some root beer. I can remember Gene King lovingly explaining to us all what it was like to be a person of faith and carry the memories of what being a soldier in Korea demanded of him. I remember Gerald Goodwin working crazy hours to crack a case as a detective to bring someone to justice, and then stand in a hot kitchen with Buzz Alder to get the hot dogs and chicken sandwiches ready for sale to support missions, and all on no sleep. I can remember Stan Weller taking money out of his pocket to install pluming for a woman who had none as he suffered the heat of the South Carolina day and a group of teenagers less than a third his age. I can still see Helen Price, in her seventies, willing to do an intense Bible study and then go on an Emmaus walk because she wanted to stay in love with God, and pass it on to others.

Do no harm. Do good. Stay in love with God. This is the way God calls us to begin to repair damage sin has done in our relationships and in our world. And it's accomplished by people who have, through own their own brokenness, and then personal sacrifice, understand that they have been called by God for this work. A God who remains ever faithful, and teaches us that faithfulness as we seek in our lives to not do harm, do good, and intentionally stay in love with God, regardless of our circumstances. This is the way that leads to riches and treasure that cannot be stored on earth, but are only multiplied in the Kingdom of Heaven, now and forever.

Joseph discovers that the character that the Lord forms in him while he uses the gifts he's received for God's glory is what will sustain him as he offers himself to be used to save Egypt, his family, and all the known world. But he learns that character as a slave and a prisoner. Not exactly the education or work experience we would think of for producing servant leaders that bring justice and peace into the world, is it?