First Congregational Church
Sunday, June 10, 2018
Third Sunday after Pentecost (SCF Kids doing special music)
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:5
“Wits and Hopes”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
So Ole was sitting in the doctor's office waiting room, and said to himself every so often, "Boy, I hope I'm sick!” After about the fifth or sixth time, the receptionist couldn't stand it any longer, and asked, "Why in the world would you want to be sick?” Ole replied, "I'd hate to be well and feel like this.”
Then the other day, Seven was walking along a steep cliff when he accidentally got too close to the edge and fell. On the way down he grabbed a branch, which temporarily stopped his fall. He looked down and to his horror saw that the canyon fell straight down for more than a thousand feet.
He couldn't hang onto the branch forever, and there was no way for him to climb up the steep wall of the cliff. So Sven began yelling for help, hoping that someone passing by would hear him and lower a rope or something. HELP! HELP! Is anyone up there? "HELP!"
He yelled for a long time, but no one heard him. He was about to give up when he heard a voice. Sven, Sven. Can you hear me?"
“Jah, jah! I can hear you. I'm down here!"
"I can see you, Sven. Are you all right?"
"Jah, but who are you, and where are you?
"I am the Lord, Sven. I'm everywhere."
"De Lord? You mean, GOD?"
"God, please help me! I promise if, you'll get me down from here, I von’t ever sin again. I'll be a really good person. I'll serve You for the rest of my life."
"Easy on the promises, Sven. Let's get you off from there; then we can talk."
"I'll do anything, Lord. Yust tell me what to do."
"Okay. Let go of the branch.”
"I said, let go of the branch. Just trust Me. Let go."
There was a long silence. Finally Sven asked, “Is anyone else up there?"
Lois Malcolm, Professor of Systematic Theology at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, Minnesota once said something to the effect that: “Faith is not just about believing a doctrine that guarantees our ego’s immortal existence (say, about the resurrection). It does not even have to do with mystical experiences or out of body encounters, whether in this life or the next.
Rather, faith has to do with grace - God’s gift freely given for all - which always shifts our focus from self-interest to the interests of others. As this grace extends to more and more people through us, it increases thanksgiving that also overflows with this grace.” It made me think about a chocolate fountain, one level spilling into the next and the next - but of God’s grace, God’s love, God’s joy, God’s mercy.
I wonder, though, if sometimes our “faith” can feel a little beige or limp, our souls needing a drink of water, or a new view that occurs in a place we’ve not noticed before, or even a colorful reinterpretation of what we might already know.
Our scripture passage for this morning is written by the great and infamous Paul. I don’t know about any of you, but I’ve always imagined him as a version of Hugh Jackman or a dark-haired Grizzly Adams.
There is a document that didn’t make it into the New Testament called The Acts of Paul and Thecla from 150 A.D. That document described the great and infamous Paul as “not much to look at. ‘Bald-headed, bowlegged, strongly built, a man small in size with meeting eyebrows, with a rather large nose.’ The great Paul is said have quoted someone else who had actually seen him: ‘His letters are strong but his bodily presence is weak’. Except that he was a tent-builder, so weak in the sense we usually use it may not be so accurate. And as for bald-headed, he was apparently a fashion icon before his time.
And yet, this is the same guy who ends up being whipped 39 times on five different occasions, beaten three times, stoned with rocks, shipwrecked three times, sick on and off all his life and would speak, at one point, of a “thorn in the flesh.” This is the man that influenced Eugene Peterson’s version of our scripture for today.
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:5 The Message (MSG)
13-15 We’re not keeping this quiet, not on your life. Just like the psalmist who wrote, “I believed it, so I said it,” we say what we believe. And what we believe is that the One who raised up the Master Jesus will just as certainly raise us up with you, alive. Every detail works to your advantage and to God’s glory: more and more grace, more and more people, more and more praise!
16-18 So we’re not giving up. How could we! Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace. These hard times are small potatoes compared to the coming good times, the lavish celebration prepared for us. There’s far more here than meets the eye. The things we see now are here today, gone tomorrow. But the things we can’t see now will last forever.
5 1-5 For instance, we know that when these bodies of ours are taken down like tents and folded away, they will be replaced by resurrection bodies in heaven—God-made, not handmade—and we’ll never have to relocate our “tents” again. Sometimes we can hardly wait to move—and so we cry out in frustration. Compared to what’s coming, living conditions around here seem like a stopover in an unfurnished shack, and we’re tired of it! We’ve been given a glimpse of the real thing, our true home, our resurrection bodies! The Spirit of God whets our appetite by giving us a taste of what’s ahead. He puts a little of heaven in our hearts so that we’ll never settle for less.
Thank you, Kelly. I don’t know if there was a part that popped out to you, but the one that did that to me was the one about “These hard times are small potatoes compared to the coming good times.”
The man who wrote our first hymn this morning, John Newton, most likely didn’t get to that perspective about small potatoes until he was at least middle-aged. Born in London in 1725, his mother died two weeks before his seventh birthday, his stern sea-captain father took him to sea when he was eleven, captured and forced to join the navy, and after trying to desert the navy, he received 96 lashings, and his rank was reduced to that of a common seaman.
As if all that were not enough, Following that disgrace and humiliation, Newton initially contemplated murdering the captain and committing suicide by throwing himself overboard. He recovered, both physically and mentally.
Knowing this much of his background, it makes sense that John Newton’s disposition was such that his crew mates so disliked him, they left him in West Africa with a slave-trader. That slave trader gave Newton to his wife, a west African Princess, who treated him like all her other slaves - despicably and horribly.
Three years later, at the grand age of 25, Newton had a spiritual awakening during a storm off the coast of Ireland. As he began to read the Bible, Newton began to understand small potato comparisons and that “A person may be at their wit’s end
but they can never be at their hope’s end while they have the presence of Christ.”
This understanding didn’t happen overnight, and in fact it was when he was in his mid-50s that John Newton completely left the slave business, publicly apologizing for his part in the suffering and deaths of innocent people.
The person who wrote our second him this morning, Joseph Scriven, was born over 100 years after John Newton, although Scriven was a native Canadian. If ever there was anyone who might have understood being at their wits end, it truly had to be Mr. Scriven. As a young man, he was deeply in love and looking forward to his wedding the next day. He waited for his bride on the opposite side of a bridge, and while traveling across the river, she fell off her horse and died in a tragic drowning accident. He fell in love again, and before their marriage, his new fiancé took part in a full immersion baptism service. Already battling consumption, his second fiancé developed pneumonia and died four months later.
Despite his grieving, Joseph Scriven understood wits and hopes and small potatoes, and cut wood for people who couldn’t afford it. In fact, it is said that he walked around with a buck saw and sawhorse and refused to work for people who could pay. It is not clear whether he wrote the words to our second hymn in light of his second fiancés death or that he was trying to bring comfort to his dying mother. What we do know, is that after publishing the poem anonymously, this hymn was often sung during the first and second world wars, sending off young recruits or memorializing those same young men when lost in battle. So the next time you hear a boring sermon, you can look up “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” and approach it with deeper appreciation for what it really says.
Hopefully, after the next few moments, you will be able to do that same thing with our last hymn this morning.
Fanny Crosby, born closer to Joseph Scriven than John Newton, became blind six weeks after her birth. For whatever reason, a doctor had put a mustard plaster on her eyes. For the rest of her 95 years, Fannie refused to let such an inconvenience stop her from not only working and supporting herself, but working through her handicap to strengthen her own faith and attitude, along with millions of people over the world and generations.
Before Fanny Crosby’s “tent” was taken down and folded away, she wrote over 500 gospel tunes and over 8000 poems and song lyrics. On top of all that, Fanny wrote over a thousand nonreligious songs, had four books of poetry and two best-selling autobiographies published.
Fannie once said, “I became a mother and knew a mother’s love, but the Angels came down and took my infant up to God.” At another point in her life, Fanny was visiting with her friend, Mrs. Knapp. A musician of sorts Mrs. Knapp played a melody for Fannie and asked her what did it say to her. After kneeling in prayer for a few moments Fanny rose and declared, “It says, ‘Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!’”
Sometimes, more than other times, we can be tempted to throw up our hands, burrow into a ball or wish to disappear into the wallpaper. Some days are hard and some times we can feel completely alone. And don’t get me wrong; I’m not trying to paint a picture for Negative Nelly here. But here’s the Good News: we are never alone. We have our wits, yes, we have our hopes, yes, and we most definitely have God’s Spirit weaving around us, being breathed into us, and God’s promise that one day, we will fully understand the Good Things God has waiting for us in our post-human lives.
Before then, there will be good times and great times and times when we will need to ask for help, and other times when we are the help that others need. Regardless of the times, of the circumstances, of what we may even think, we have the presence of Christ to give us the peace that passes all understanding, which seems like a mighty good reason to pray.
Lovely and Lavish God, we thank you for your overflowing grace, the grace that enables us to put one foot in front of the other, and to keep on keeping one. Forgive us when we fail to trust your presence and promises. Help us to embrace them more - with our whole beings. For the gift of your son, and in his presence, all your people say, Amen.