Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Healing of Wounds (Story Sermon)

The Healing of Wounds
Romans 8:18-30
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

         Years ago, I pulled into one of those gas station-truck stop-minute mart-fast food-donut shop places you find on major interstates. I needed gas, and by golly found it.
I got out of my car and looked over at all the transfer trucks lined up at the diesel pumps. And the truck nearest me caught my eye immediately, because on the side of the trailer in huge red and black, all capital lettering was the word “G.O.D.”
G.O.D. was an acronym. It stood for Guaranteed Overnight Delivery. Now that’s marketing. When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight, forget FedEx. Call G.O.D.!
And what trucker, regardless of creed, wouldn’t take some pleasure in saying, “Yeah, I drive for G.O.D.?”
         You know, I would bet my ordination certificate that underneath some of your smiles lies a desperate desire for God to box up and overnight an answer to some burning question, or a cure for a painful illness or experience. Laughter has lots of health benefits. It can relieve and even heal some of life’s deepest pain. It can also serve as camouflage for denial. And denial is kind of petri dish for resentment and despair. It allows us to ignore suffering – our own and that of other’s.
         As the body of Christ, we proclaim that God enters not only human history but the vulnerability of the human condition itself. And while Jesus reveals the deep woundedness within God, faith is not a cure for suffering. It’s not a bypass around it. In fact, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, faith calls us into the most profound human suffering. Paul says that through the sufferings of the present time, through the groaning of the entire creation, God is at work, transforming this world from brokenness toward wholeness. And shared wounds, be they curable or incurable, become transformed wounds. And transformed wounds become redeemed and redeeming wounds.
         Still, why do healthy and happy people get sick and suffer? Why are folks who are full of joy and promise driving down the road one minute and being airlifted to a trauma center the next? Why do people open fire on concert crowds, in night clubs, and, for God’s sake, why in schools? Why must Jesus cry out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I don’t know. That question has been a hobgoblin of religious faith since the beginning of time. And as much as we might wish it were true, God is simply not in the overnight trucking business.
         Nonetheless, I do trust that God is with us. I trust that God is relentlessly present in human history through, oddly enough, human suffering. I look at Christ’s wounds as bottomless wells, flowing with the love of an attentive Creator. What might that look like?
         Michael was a 42-year-old husband, father, and pastor. One cold, February afternoon the family pediatrician called Michael and his wife, Abby, to his office for a private consult. Their only child, a twelve-year-old daughter named Hannah, had been suffering from terrible headaches. A check-up and an MRI had revealed an angry tumor making itself at home inside Hannah’s brain. Surgery would be in three weeks.
         At first it was all Michael and Abby could do to pull themselves up and out of the chairs to leave the doctor’s office. Violent waves of shock and fear broke over them. Their thoughts raced, but their bodies seemed to move in slow motion. The ground swelled and shifted beneath them. Feeling off balance, they held onto each other and drifted toward the parking lot.
         When they found their car, they sat down in the front seat. Michael gripped the steering wheel with both hands, and Abby pulled her seat belt across her body but didn’t fasten it.
         Michael reached into his pocket and pulled out his keys. He held them in the palm of his hand to find the car key. On top of that jagged heap of silver and bronze sat the key fob that held them together. Made of clear plastic, it was the kind of key fob that people put pictures of their children or grandchildren in, but inside Michael’s was a piece of plain white paper with a crayon drawing of a sunshine wearing sunglasses and a smile. It was shining down on two stick figures, one tall and one short. They held hands in a patch of blue and yellow flowers. On the other side, scribbled in red pencil, were the words, “God loves Daddy and me.” Hannah had made in Bible School when she was seven years old.
         Michael and Abby looked at the key chain, then at each other, and the dam broke. For twenty minutes they sat in the car, holding each other. They poured great, heaving sobs onto each other’s shoulders. They didn’t speak. They just wept and wept, until finally Abby looked up and noticed that a heavy film of condensation had formed on the inside of the car windows. The thought of rumors floating around about the pastor and his wife fogging up the car windows in a parking lot brought them back to the present about as gently as anything could.
         On the way home, Michael took a circuitous route. He drove through out-of-the-way neighborhoods so their tears could dry, and the redness in their eyes could clear. They talked and decided not to tell anyone just yet. They would let Hannah know that the doctors were going to help her with her headaches, but that it would be a few weeks before they could see her.
         A plan like that would never work, of course. Michael and Abby both began pulling away from work and friends. They smiled less. They asked fewer questions. They found excuses to end conversations sooner. Michael’s sermons began to show signs of carelessness, and his delivery became hollow and unconvincing.
         Just two weeks into their ruse, Michael muddled through a session meeting and closed with a quick, spiritless prayer. He said a general good-night to everyone at once and ducked into his study, pretending to be caught up in some urgent matter.
         Just when he thought he was safe for one more day, he heard a soft knock at his door, and in walked one of the elders and her husband.
         Connie Ayers was in her late fifties. She was tall and elegant, always dressed neatly, every hair in place. She spoke up infrequently in session meetings, but she was smart and insightful. When she did speak, she did so with grace and a playful sense of humor, especially when tensions began to rise. Her husband, Scott, taught high school English.
         “Michael, you got a minute?” said Connie.
         Michael had always been a poor liar, but he forced a smile and dug in deeper saying, “Sure! What can I do for you two?”
         “You can be honest with us,” said Connie. “Michael, something’s wrong with you and Abby, and Scott and I are concerned.”
         Michael stared at the floor and felt a lump rise in his throat. There was nowhere to turn, no busyness or formality to hide behind. He had told himself that it was the Christlike thing to do to set his struggles aside. But he’d been caught, like a possum in the headlights, and right then he felt that he had more in common with a possum than with Christ. Sinking back into his chair, he knew it was time to come clean.
         Michael motioned for Connie and Scott to sit down, and he began to talk. With each word of his story, a little bit of the weight of the last two weeks seemed to lift. Connie and Scott sat and listened. They didn’t interrupt, and they didn’t look away from his tears. When Michael finished, Scott reached over, took his pastor by the arm and said, “Michael, you’re our pastor. We know you love us. But we are your brothers and sisters in Christ. We can and will love you like you love us. If you’ll just let us.”
         The next Sunday, Michael stood up in the pulpit, and he read from Romans 8. He told everyone what was going on and how Connie and Scott had helped him to face his fears, his grief, his anger, his denial. He shared some of the conversations he and Abby had had with Hannah. It was the most difficult sermon he had ever preached, but it was the most sincere and cathartic.
         Late that evening, after putting Hannah to bed, Michael and Abby sat down together on the sofa and tried to relax with some quiet music and a glass of wine. The day had been exhausting, and the next morning they would take Hannah to the hospital for her first surgery. Just as they were beginning to feel that sleep might be possible, the doorbell rang.
         Michael groaned and got up to answer it. He turned on the porch light and looked through the window.
         “Connie!” he said in a sharp voice.
Alarmed, Abby jumped up and ran to the door. “What’s going on?” she said.
         Michael opened the door and Connie Ayers stepped into the foyer. She was wearing blue jeans and a faded pink sweatshirt. Her eyes were puffy and red, and her cheeks pale. Her hair was very neatly out of place.
         “Michael,” she said, “I had to come to tell you how much your sermon meant to me this morning.” She paused. Then she said, “I also came to tell you something.
         “Michael, I’ve never said anything to anyone about this before, except for Scott…but your story the other night…and the way you opened up in your sermon today. It forced me to go back many years.”
         Abby said, “Come on in, Connie. Sit down.”
         Connie sat in a maroon wingback chair. She took a deep breath and said, “So here it is. I was born a twin, but when my sister and I were eight years old, she contracted meningitis. We never knew how she got it. But in less than a week, she was dead. I never got over it, because I never dealt with it. Why did she get sick and not me? Why did she die and not me? Why did my parents look at me that way? And today, your sermon…I realized just how angry I’ve been at God all these years.
         “Since my sister’s – since Katie’s death, I’ve been plagued with doubts about just how much power God has and just how much God really loves and cares for us. I had to come to see you tonight to tell you this, because Hannah’s surgery is tomorrow. And I hoped that maybe I could do for you what you did for me.”
         “What exactly did I do for you,” said Michael.
         “You opened yourself up!” said Connie. “You opened up your broken heart and showed it to us. You showed us how God is present in your deepest and most intimate pain. And just as you were finishing your sermon, I looked up at the cross on the wall behind you, and before I knew it I had said out loud, ‘My Lord and my God!’”
         “My Lord and my God?” said Michael. He suddenly felt terribly uncomfortable.
         “No, no, no!” said Connie. “Don’t you see? It was like I was the disciple Thomas, and you were the wounded hands that Jesus held out to me after fifty years of doubt, and hurt, and anger. I reached out and touched your wounds, Michael. I felt them. And when I did, I was able not just to believe, but to trust, for the first time in my life, that Jesus really is alive! I was able to trust it because I finally understood that Jesus’ death is God’s wound for us to see and to touch.
“Michael, it’s something you say all the time, not just at Easter. And today I heard it. Resurrection is God’s promise that even when wounds can’t be healed, they can be redeemed. That’s what you tell us, Michael. And I finally got it.
         “So I came to open my wounds for the first time in fifty years. I came to share them with you.
“Michael, Abby, whenever you need to touch them. Here they are.”