“Wisdom, Vulnerability, and Despair”
A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt
At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA
On February 9th, 2014
Isaiah 58:1-9 and I Corinthians 2:1-12
Our first bit of scripture is the Old Testament lesson for today. It is from near the end of the book of the prophet Isaiah. Scholars believe that this particular portion of Isaiah may have been written after the return from Exile, when they had settled into what might be called “the new normal.” Notice how Isaiah decries the way workers are treated and calls for the practice of justice, the end of oppression, the sharing of bread with the hungry, the giving of shelter to the homeless poor and clothing to those who are destitute. You do that, Isaiah says, and God’s light will shine on you. Listen carefully.
Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God.
‘Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
Our second scripture lesson is from the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth. Corinth was a seaport city, a melting pot, filled with people of various cultures from across the known world, bringing various thoughts and ideas. Not surprisingly, the church that Paul helped found had its share of tension. The congregation in Corinth makes every church I’ve ever served, especially this one, look positively harmonious by comparison. Every time I read about the church at Corinth, I think, “Thank you, God, for sending me to Immanuel!”
As we begin in the second chapter, it’s important to hear a couple of verses from the first chapter. Earlier Paul had written of his message among them in terms of how Christ was God’s wisdom: we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
We pick up now in the second chapter.
When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.
Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,
‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the human heart conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him’—
these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.
It has been a tragic and distressing week in this larger community. Those of us who are attuned to the problems and possibilities of teenagers because we are teens or were teens or know teens—or because our children are in their teen years or have just finished them or are about to enter them—have been jarred again with a reminder of life’s fragility. That uncomfortable knowledge has hit some in this congregation even harder because you knew one or both of the young people, seniors at Langley High School, who ended their lives this past week, or because you know their parents, or because you yourself have had the experience of a loved one, a relative, or a friend committing suicide. Statistically, you’d be surprised at how many people know this pain very close to home.
There is a temptation in the church, when it comes to painful topics like this, to avoid addressing them at all. The pain is too raw, even years later. Or it feels too soon. We know too well how people speaking in God’s name have heaped shame and guilt on families rather than helping them deal with their grief over lives ended too suddenly. Bringing it up might scrape the scab off of a deep, not fully healed wound. Or worse, give someone a thought or nudge them in a direction. Best to leave it under the rug, then.
But if we can’t talk about something like this in the church, for God’s sake… If the Gospel of God’s love embodied in this complicated, too often painful, world doesn’t somehow speak to the reality of teen suicide (or for that matter, to the fierce grip of addiction that led a brilliant talent like Philip Seymour Hoffman to die with a needle in his arm), then I’m not sure the church is good for all that much.
Seven weeks ago, from this pulpit on Christmas Eve, I said “It is okay to admit the darkness tonight as well. Acknowledging the darkness doesn’t stop the power of the songs we sing. It just makes them deeper and richer because it lets them rub up against the real world in which we live.”
Acknowledging the pain in the world, the depths of despair into which people fall, the icy clutch of addiction, the fact that people die too soon, doesn’t nullify the truth of God’s embodied love. It puts it in real conversation with life.
Ironically, the first thing to say when it comes to the pain of such loss is that there are really no words. No words adequate to the sheer depth of pain that close friends and loved ones feel; no words sufficient to plumb the mystery of why. Although there are always people who ask that question, “What led them to do something so harmful to themselves? And to others who will carry that pain forward? What led them to foreclose on their future?”
“Who is to blame?” That’s what some people want to know. And why, if there is a God, did God allow them to get to that point and not somehow intervene to try and stop them?
There is great wisdom in standing mute before that mystery. We don’t know. We don’t finally know. We can’t know.
Words can be used so carelessly, so unhelpfully, in times like this. I love what I read somewhere about Job’s comforters, the three friends who sat with him on the ash heap, where he was picking his sores with a potsherd after he lost everything: his cattle, his lands, his house, his children. Then they started to try to explain why these things happened to him.
“They were doing just fine,” this commentator said, “Until they opened their mouths. They should have left their traps shut. Because until they tried to explain why it all happened, they were doing all right. They blew it when they opened their mouths, particularly when they tried to explain how it must have been Job’s fault that all of this occurred.”
There is a place for silence. But there is also a place for speech. And the church, I would argue, is not just a place for silence, but for speech. So let me tell you a few things I do know, a few things I do trust, even in the face of the mystery.
One is that God was and is present with Timmy and Alex and Philip. Those individuals may not have been able to access that love in that moment, they may have been too deep in despair to see and to feel it, but God was there. There is nowhere we can go, is the testimony of scripture, that God is not present there, whether we feel God or not. Read Psalm 139 and tell me any different.
And there are times when people can’t feel it. If you haven’t read William Styron’s memoir of depression, Darkness Visible, you really should. It’ll give you a glimpse into how cut off people can feel, if you haven’t felt that cut off yourself. There are times when we can feel cut off, but God does not give up on us.
A second thing I know and trust is like unto the first, and that is what William Sloane Coffin said in his sermon on the occasion of his son Alex’s death. Alex, who’d probably had a few too many cold ones, ran his car off the road and into Boston Harbor one foggy night and drowned.
In a sermon a few weeks later, Coffin said, “When Alex’s car sunk under the waves, God’s was the first of all of our hearts to break.” God wants us to live and love fully. God wants us to move beyond separation and isolation and preoccupation with self into fully embracing life and possibility and others. And God’s heart breaks, when we don’t, when we give up. But God does not ever abandon us.
And the third thing is that God’s embodied love is stronger than death. That is the Gospel message in a nutshell for me. That’s what the cross and resurrection of Jesus is about. God not letting death get the last word, or sin, or hopelessness, or grief, or despair, for that matter. Death has a word, and it is a powerful word, don’t get me wrong. Somebody after the morning service told me that her high school friend committed suicide 52 years ago and she is still dead. Oh, death has a word. But the power of the life that comes from God, the life that is eternal and unshakeable and willing to stand with us and for us, is stronger still than anything death can bring.
When the Apostle Paul was writing to that conflicted church he helped found in Corinth, he wrote these words, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling.”
It’s not that Paul didn’t know lots of other things. Disagree with his theology all you want, disagree with his attitudes towards women, his first century view of how relationships should work, all you want, Paul was quite a learned man. He knew a lot of things.
But knowledge is different than wisdom. And the kind of wisdom Paul had access to and calls us to is the divine wisdom that Jesus understood and embodied: the wisdom of vulnerability. That’s what Paul was talking about when he said he decided “to know nothing among them except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
It is a wisdom that is willing to be vulnerable for the sake of another, willing to stand up bravely for love and life even in the face of great pain, willing not to run from the possibility of pain, or to numb out to avoid it, but to experience it and to live through it. It is in that sort of vulnerability that hope lies.
That sort of wisdom involves a choice.
It is the choice to reach out to the hurting. It is the choice to look beyond the blinders that we have on us from time to time that keep us from seeing beyond our despair into the hope that comes with a longer view, a view that goes beyond the next moment that seems so impossible to face. It is the choice to live and to love.
One of my favorite writers on vulnerability and its power is a woman named Glennon Doyle Melton. If you aren’t acquainted with her blog Momastery, please, particularly if you are a mother, look it up. What she writes is so wonderful for all of us of any gender or circumstance.
Here’s a portion of a letter she wrote to her son as he was beginning to start his first day of third grade[i]. Glennon wrote to him that she wanted to make sure he didn’t make the same mistake that she did, because she had a classmate named Adam to whom she never really reached out.
Adam looked a little different and he wore funny clothes and sometimes he even smelled a little bit. Adam didn’t smile. He hung his head low and he never looked at anyone at all. Adam never did his homework. I don’t think his parents reminded him like yours do. The other kids teased Adam a lot. Whenever they did, his head hung lower and lower and lower. I never teased him, but I never told the other kids to stop, either.
And I never talked to Adam, not once. I never invited him to sit next to me at lunch, or to play with me at recess. Instead, he sat and played by himself. He must have been very lonely.
I still think about Adam every day. I wonder if Adam remembers me? Probably not. I bet if I’d asked him to play, just once, he’d still remember me.
I think that God puts people in our lives as gifts to us. The children in your class this year, they are some of God’s gifts to you.
So please treat each one like a gift from God. Every single one.
Baby, if you see a child being left out, or hurt, or teased, a part of your heart will hurt a little. Your daddy and I want you to trust that heartache. Your whole life, we want you to notice and trust your heartache. That heartache is called compassion, and it is God’s signal to you to do something. It is God saying, Chase! Wake up! One of my babies is hurting! Do something to help! Whenever you feel compassion — be thrilled! It means God is speaking to you, and that is magic. It means He trusts you and needs you.[ii]
God trusts you and needs you. Every single last one of you.
Hear that, and make me a promise. Do not forget it.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.
[i] Glennon Doyle Melton, Carry On Warrior: Thoughts on Life Unarmed ,(New York: Scribner, 2013). You can also read the letter here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/glennon-melton/letter-to-kids-before-school-starts_b_1828204.html The title of the chapter where she relates her letter to Chase is appropriately called “Brave is a Decision.”