by Pastor Edward F. Markquart, Sermons from Seattle
Scripture: Luke 23:32-38
She came walking into entry to the church offices and she was standing at the foot of the steps. She was by herself. I was up at the top of the steps, looking down. She was at the bottom landing; I was at the top. I called her by name. I will call her Rachel in this sermon; that is not her name; but will be for this sermon.
I spoke to her, "Rachel, how are you today?"
She said, "Rotten."
"I am sorry to hear that," I responded.
She continued, "I have been down in the dumps lately. I haven't been myself. I just haven't been right. … Sometimes, do you ever think that it was all a myth, an illusion, a hoax?"
I said, "Yes. Sometimes."
By this time, I was sitting on the top step and she was leaning against the black railing at the bottom of the steps.
She continued, "I don't know. I have had so many friends who have been hurt lately. I have my closest friend and she is dying of cancer. I have another good friend whose husband has had a bad stroke. I have another friend whose daughter has just gone through a divorce. I have all of these people lately, who are really hurting, and I ask the question, 'why?' Why does God allow all these good friends of mine to hurt so deeply."
We continued our conversation back and forth for a while, chatting this way and that way, and suddenly she blurted out. "You know, when somebody gets hurt, I really have strong feelings. When somebody cuts their finger, it is as if I have cut my own finger. If somebody has cancer, it is as if I have cancer. If somebody's husband has a stroke, it is like my husband has had a stroke. I feel their feelings so deeply. Sometimes, I wonder if something is wrong with me."
I said, "You really identify with your friends, don't you?"
She said, "Yes, it is really hard to believe in God at times like this, isn't it? It seems like a hoax about God, about heaven, about God's presence being with us, about God intervening in the life situations of ourselves. It all seems like such a hoax."
There was a long pause, and then she said quietly, "I remember when my child was born. He was handicapped, retarded, and I remember how much I cried in the hospital. I remember how hard it was for me to gradually open up and accept what had happened. During the week, I just cried. During the weekend, when I went home, underneath it all, I knew that God was going to be with me, was with me already, that God was going to give me the strength. So when I finally came home, I thanked God for giving me such a good baby. I thanked God for giving me such a good husband. I thanked God for being with me, and I knew I could handle all of this with the presence of God. I then broke down and cried again."
We talked some more back and forth. It was time. We said goodbye. We hugged. And we were aware; I was aware and she was aware that God had been with us, that God had been with us in this conversation. Both of us had experienced in some small measure the healing presence of God.
It is with the awareness of the feelings of this conversation, that we approach the gospel lesson for Christ the King Sunday (or Passion Sunday.) Jesus was on the cross and three times the criminals taunted Jesus with variations of that important question.
They said, "He saved others; let himself save others if he is the Christ, the Son of God, the King of the Jews."
"If you are the king of the Jews, why don't you save yourself? If you are really King of the Jews, why don't you save yourself from the cross."
Finally came the last one, the big one, "If you are the King, why don't you save yourself…and us from the cross?" It is the "and us" from the cross that rings through the centuries and into our hearts.
Then we hear the words from Colossians, "You, Christ, are the visible likeness of the invisible God. You, Christ, created the heavens and the earth. You, Christ, are the head of the church. You, Christ, are the first born of the dead. Jesus, if you are all these things, if you are the visible presence of the invisible God, if you are the creator of the all the galaxies, if you are the first born of the dead, certainly you should be able to save yourself from the cross. Certainly, you should be able to save us from the crosses we bear."
Isn't that our question as well? Jesus Christ, if you are the Son of God, why didn't you save yourself from the cross? Jesus Christ, why didn't you save us from our crosses? Jesus, if you are the Son of God, why didn't you save that friend of mine who is thirty five years old, who has two children, and was dying of cancer, and now just died and left the two children and a dear wife. Jesus, if you are the Son of God, why didn't you save him from his cross? Why didn't you save my father? Why didn't you save my mother from the immense indignity of the pain from her kind of cancer? God, if you are really God, why don't you intervene. And how about that woman whose husband died at the age of forty three, and she has had a horrible life for the past twenty years. Now, she has cancer and is getting ready to die. Jesus, if you are the Son of God, why don't you take those crosses off those peoples' backs? Off of our backs? If you can't save these people from the cross, perhaps you aren't the Son of God after all.
Today is Christ the King Sunday. Today is the day that we celebrate Christ as the King. Today is the day we celebrate Christ as the creator of the galaxies, the first born of the dead, the head of the church. What kind of king is this anyhow? What kind of king is this who does not use his power, who does not use his divine connections, to get himself off the cross? What kind of king is this who does not use his connections, influences, and resources to get you and me off the cross? What kind of a king is this who allows so much immense suffering on this planet earth?
I would like to say that today we are at the very mystery of God, the mystery of the universe, at the very heart of the mystery of love. God chose to experience the place of the greatest pain, the cross. In the cross, we are meet with the very mystery of God, where God chose not to avoid the suffering of this world. We hear the statement, "Where suffering is, love is. And where love is, God is." We are at the very heart of the incomprehensible mystery of God that is symbolized by the cross.
Now, you and I are not the same as God. We try to avoid suffering, often at all costs. When we get the cross put on our back, we often complain, "Why me, God? Why us?" We get angry at God; we become depressed; we become hurt; we no longer believe in God or that God intervenes in our lives." Isn't it an interesting quality of human beings that the whole world can be suffering, and we never ask the question, "why;" but when something goes wrong with me, with my family, with my friends, with my loved ones; when something goes wrong with my life, I then ask the question deeply and personally, "Why God? Why me? Why us? Why my loved one? " Isn't that true about human nature?
It needs to be clearly said that the nature of God is not to avoid suffering; that the nature of love is not to avoid pain or the places of pain. That's the way love is. That's the way God is; not to avoid pain and not to avoid the places of pain. Intuitively, we all know that. Intuitively, we all sense that. Loving people do not use their resources and connections to avoid the pain of their loved ones. I'll say it again: loving people do not use their resources and connections to avoid the pain of their loved ones. You know that and so do I.
For example, think of all the parents in our congregation who have been down to Children's Hospital this year. Many of you are here today. Recently, your children have been down to Children's Hospital and much too often lately. When you go down to Children's Hospital, you know that the medical problem being faced is not simple. Your child has a complicated disease or medical problem, or you wouldn't be at Children's Hospital. Why is it that every single child who goes to Children's Hospital, why is it that every one of you parents are down there immediately? You are down in that hospital right with the child, and if you had your way, you as a parent will stay all night with the child. You will not allow for you to be physically separated from your child if at all humanly possible. Why is it that way? What is it that love is much stronger than the places of pain? That's the way it is. I didn't truly understand this in my younger years before I was a parent; but now I do. Now that I am a parent, I don't have to have anybody explain it to me. I now deeply understand. I want to be there … in the hospital…and no Mack truck will stop me.
I ask you children, as I did in the children's sermon. When you were down at the hospital, do your mom and dad avoid coming down to see you? Of course not. Why? Their love is always stronger than pain. Love is stronger than the fear of pain, and that is why your mom and dad come. You couldn't stop them from going to see you, even if you had a bulldozer or huge truck. They are determined to see you, to be with you. I asked the children in the children's sermon, why there parents wanted to be with them in the hospital and they have many good answers. One little child said so clearly, "Because they don't want me to be alone." And so it is with God: God does not want us to be alone at our most frightening or painful moments.
How about when your mother and/or father are really sick? You want to be there with them. For example, Cookie Morris this past year. Cookie Morris' father was very sick, and she was down at that hospital day and night and day and night and day and night. You couldn't have stopped Cookie Morris from being down there.
This past year, you couldn't stop Jan Markquart, my wife, from going back home to St. Paul to see her father die and be with him as he died. This was a very unpleasant death, with starvation due to cancer. You could not have stopped her from being at his bedside. You could not have stopped that woman with a huge bulldozer or semi-truck. For that is the way love is. You cannot stop loving people to go and be with their loved ones.
That's the way God is. God is the same. That is the nature of love; that is the nature of God, to go and be with people in the midst of their pain and suffering.
Now, all of the people that I described could have used their connections and resources to avoid going to the hospital, to avoid going to the places of suffering, but they didn't. Why? Because genuine love, true love, God's love is always stronger than pain and the fear of pain and the places of pain.
It was about a year ago that Jack Lyon and I were in Arusha, Tanzania. We met this man, this new hero of my life. His name is Dr. Mark Jacobson' his wife is named, Linda, and they have two little children. Dr. Mark Jacobson, as I recall, was valedictorian of his class at Harvard, and then he went to the University of Minnesota Medical School where again he was the top student in his class. Again, he was the valedictorian and gave the valedictorian address. He is an incredibly brilliant man. Then he went to Arusha, Tanzania, a city that has immense suffering. He used his brains and resources to work in that area of the world. Each year, his hospital takes care of 35,000 patients, and they pay a dollar a person, or $35,000 income, paid by the patients and their families for their medical care. The patients feel good and self-respecting about paying their medical bills. Dr. Jacobson could have used his resources to escape suffering; he could have used his resources, brains and education to build a lucrative medical practice; but he didn't. He used those resources in and around Arusha whose population has been decimated with AIDs. You could not have stopped him with a bulldozer or semi-truck. That's the way love is; that's the way God is; that's the way God's people are.
That is a grand example, a lofty example, and is way above my life. Let me give you a closer to home example. It is the example of little Jacob McGee in our congregation who is a little eighth grade boy. He comes here to be here with the homeless men and stay overnight. He rides with his father, Roger, in the van, down to the homeless shelter to pick up the homeless men, and bring them here to stay overnight. Now, the little boy could have just as well stayed home. He could have stayed home where it was nice and warm and comfortable. He could have watched TV and wiled the night away. But love is stronger than a place of suffering. Love is stronger than uncomfortable feelings. Love is stronger than apathy. So little Jacob McGee wanted to be here, with people who are hurting. That is the nature of love. That is the nature of God. To want to be with people who are hurting.
How about the Mandervilles and all those other people who come down and sleep at church with the homeless overnight. Now, they could have stayed home in their house; they could have been in their warm bed; they could have been in front of the fireplace and TV. Why is it that people, after people, after people chose to come down here and to sleep with homeless men? Because love is stronger than pain; love is stronger than anxiety; and love overcomes the inertia of avoiding places of heartache and pain.
The same is true with God. Why did God not stay up in heaven where it was safe? If I were God, I would have stayed up in heaven where it was safe, built a nice fire in the heavenly fireplace and read a book about angels around me, whose wings were cuddled around my heavenly throne. But not God. When God looked down on this earth, God saw all the pain that was down here and God came down here to this earth to be with us. God came down to earth to be in our places of greatest pain. I can understand that because I understand mothers and fathers and how deep is their need to be with their children in the midst of pain and down at the hospital.
Today is Christ the King Sunday. The Lord God says to you and me. "I love you. I am with you. I will strengthen you. No matter what your situation, I will be with you in the midst of your pain. Today you will be with me in paradise."
About that conversation that this sermon began with, that conversation on the steps outside my office? In our conversation, we didn't talk about these things. We didn't need to. Sometimes the truth is bigger than words, is bigger than concepts and you simply know the truth in your heart. And Rachel? She knew and knows the Truth about love… and God. Amen.
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