(Philippians 1:21-30; John 14:8-14) J G White
Sunday, Sept 24, 2017, UBC Digby
Ralph is a wise and kind man. In early retirement he returned to live in his hometown, small town Nova Scotia. And though he’d had a career away in northern Ontario, Ralph still had all the old-fashioned language he had grown up with in his hometown in the 1940s. All the sayings of the old-timers. “Fill yer boots.” “A word to the wise is sufficient.” “If I live and nothin’ happens…”
No wonder Ralph talked about what he planned for the spring of the year with the preface, “if I live and nothing happens.” When he was still a little gaffer, an older brother was on a school field trip along the seashore, when a rockfall came down and killed him and another boy. A few years later, Ralph’s older sister and her husband, and another family member, were in a car that went off the bridge in town and into the tide. The three adults drowned; Ralph’s baby nephew was saved. And Ralph himself was almost killed in a serious vehicle accident up on Ontario that ended his working career early. No wonder he made all his plans in terms of “if I live and nothing happens.”
Ralph’s frequent phrase came to mind as I pondered those famous words of the apostle Paul, “For me, to live is Christ; to die is gain.” Missionary Paul was aware that death could come at any time.
We know life is fragile… ‘handle with prayer!’
Maureen Potter suddenly gone. A friend of Sharon and mine, Rev. Clarence Bungay suddenly gone last week. Constable Frank Deschenes killed suddenly.
Disasters in Mexico, the Caribbean, Florida, etc.
So, if I live and nothing happens… what will I do?
If I live after something happens… what will I do?
“To live is Christ, to die is Gain.” There is no third option. No living without serving God because you are hurt or disabled or almost destroyed.
That was Paul’s experience. Here he was, writing a letter from his prison cell. We can’t even tell for sure what prison he was in. But he writes this letter to the Church in the town of Philippi; it’s his most joyful, happy letter of all!
Yet, he is ready to be dead. It’s possible. He is also ready to be alive and do more. This letter, in and of itself, has been inspiring people for almost the past 2000 years.
I think it was the Moravian Christians who had this symbol: An Ox between a plow and an ax: ready for either – to work or to die. Such was Paul’s life. Such is any believer’s life, with Christ, in Christ.
If you live to suffer through another day, what is your calling? What will you do?
If you survive this week, or next month, or until next year, what will you do?
It is said there are things worse than death. And it is what we do when life is rotten that can be truly beautiful. People go on to live for Christ after physical disability or after disaster comes along. After emotional trauma makes it so that life is never quite the same again. After they have been hurt by the Church, by God’s own people. After they have failed or done terrible things.
After such things… what is your calling? Your mission from God? Your purpose?
Sadly, many people do not find that “to live is Christ.” To live is just pointless, and what has happened makes them useless to Jesus now. So they feel. Many believe their life is wrecked when it comes to being on God’s team.
But in God’s world, this need not be true.
I wonder about a pastor friend who left ministry last year because he was finally caught in a long-term affair with a church member. He may be going back into ministry, in another province.
I wonder about a brilliant retired friend who did time a couple years ago for an abusive moment with his little grand-daughter. His isolation now is extreme.
I wonder about people like Truena Raymond, with her delightful sense of humour that still shines through, and Christian faith, despite the ravages of dementia to her memory and thinking.
I wonder about many people.
God isn’t finished with them yet.
The late Henry Nouwen, Catholic pastor and author, is known as a wounded healer. That’s the title of one of his books, The Wounded Healer. In it, he tells this story from the Talmud, that classic collection of Jewish wisdom.
Rabbi Yoshua ben Levi came upon Elijah the prophet while he was standing at the entrance of Rabbi Simeron ben Yohai’s cave… He asked Elijah, “When will the Messiah come?”
Elijah replied, “Go and ask him yourself.”
“Where is he?”
“Sitting at the gates of the city.”
“How shall I know him?”
“He is sitting among the poor covered with wounds. The others unbind all their wounds at the same time and then bind them up again. But he unbinds one at a time and binds it up again, saying to himself, ‘Perhaps I shall needed: if so I must always be ready so as not to delay for a moment.’”
Nouwen concludes: The Messiah, the story tells us, is sitting among the poor, unbinding his wounds only one at a time, always prepared for the moment when he might be needed. So it is too, with ministers. [Since it is their task to make visible the first vestiges of liberation for others, they must bind their own wounds carefully, in anticipation of the moment when they will be needed.]
They are each called to be the wounded healer, the ones who must not only look after their own wounds, but at the same time be prepared to heal the wounds of others. They are both wounded ministers and healing ministers. (pp. 87-88)
Some of our wounds are from things that hit us from outside, and some wounds are self-inflicted. It is we, all the saints, who have the work of the ministry. It is wonderful Good News from our Messiah that each and every one of us can be a wounded healer.
Paul, of old, was definitely a suffering man. He wrote at the start of his letter, Philippians,
I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ. (1:12-13)
In the middle of great limitations and dangers, Paul was continuing to do what he could. And though here, he seems to be talking about suffering unjustly for what he has done for Jesus, we also have hints of Paul’s other struggles. In Romans chapter 7 he exclaims: I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? (7:15, 24)
He found his answer in Christ Jesus. And Paul went on to do great things for God. We also have the work of Jesus to do. As we are.
We heard from Jesus, in John 14, today. I see at least three big ideas here: If you see Me, you see the Father.
You will do greater works than mine.
Ask for anything, and I will do it.
Jesus saying to His people: ‘You will do greater things than what you have seen Me do.’ Really? Wow!
Let me end with a striking word picture by Max Lucado, talking of “holiness in a bathrobe.”
When your world touches God’s world, the result is a holy moment. When God’s high hope kisses your hurt, that moment is holy. And I’d like to talk to you about the holiest moment of your life.
No, not your birth. Not your wedding. Not the birth of a child. I’m talking about the holiest moment of your life. These other moments are special. They sparkle with reverence. But compared to this moment, they are about as holy a burp. I’m talking about the sacred hour. No, not your baptism… [Not your first Communion or your first confession or even your first date. I know those moments are precious and certainly sacrosanct, but I’ve a different moment in mind.]
It happened this morning. Right after you awoke. Right in your house. Did you miss it? Let me recreate the scene.
The alarm rings… You’ve already hit the sleeper button three times; hit again and you’ll be late. The hour has come. Daybreak has broken. So, with, a groan and a grunt, you throw back the covers and kick a warm foot out into a cold world.
[You stand. At that moment, everything that will hurt during the course of the day hurts. It’s as if the little person in your brain that’s in charge of pain needs to test the circuits before you make it to the bathroom.]
With the grace of a pregnant elephant, you step toward bathroom. You wish there is some way to turn on the light slowly, but there isn’t. So you slap on the spotlight, blink as your eyes adjust, and step up to the bathroom sink.
You are approaching the sacred. The holiest moment of your life is about to occur. (Get ready. Here it comes. The holy moment is nigh.)
Look in the mirror. Behold the holy one. Don’t turn away. The image of perfection is looking back at you. The holy moment has arrived.
I know what you are thinking. You call that “holy”? You call that “perfect”? You don’t know what I took like at [8:00] A.M.
No, but I can guess. Hair matted. Pajamas or nightgown wrinkled. Chunks of sleep stuck in the corners of your eyes. Belly bulging, dried-out lips, pudgy eyes. Breath that could stain a wall. A face that could scare a dog.
“Anything but holy,” you say. [“Give me an hour and I’ll look holy. Give me some coffee, some makeup.”]
But there’s where you’re wrong. You see, what makes the morning moment so holy is its honesty. What makes the morning mirror hallowed is that you are seeing exactly who God sees.
And who God loves.
“He has made perfect forever those who are being made holy,” [scripture says.] (Hebrews 10:14)
Now I realize that there’s a sense in which we’re imperfect, says Lucado. We still err. We still stumble. We still do exactly what we don’t want to do. And that part of us is, according to the verse, “being made holy.”
But when it comes to our position before God, we’re perfect. When he sees each of us, he sees one who has been made perfect through the One who is perfect-Jesus Christ.
Go ahead and get dressed. Go ahead and put on the rings, shave the whiskers, comb the hair, and cover the moles. Do it for yourself. Do it for the sake of your image. Do it keep your job. Do it for the benefit of those who have to sit beside you. But don’t do it for God.
[God] has already seen you as you really are. And in [God’s] book, you are perfect. (Lucado, In the Eye of the Storm, 1991, pp. 229-233)
If you live and nothin’ happens, may your life be Christ, in, with and for Christ. If you live after something happens, may you still be beautiful for God.