A sermon preached by Deanna Watson at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho.
June 23, 2013
There is a dichotomy between the two diverse pathways described in Galatians. Before Jesus, when we were bound by, and held in custody by the law. And then, when Jesus came, we were freed from the bondage by the law of love.
Before Jesus, we were cursed, living by a rule bound life that measures our worthiness by the level of our adherence to a standard of perfection. A standard we humans, even on the best of our days, are not capable of meeting.
And then God sent Jesus to earth to offer us a new path, of living by acceptance of the grace granted to us through our faith. And I want to suggest that these pathways like most trails that diverge, lead us to very different experiences.
It seems like an easy choice. The pathway under the rule of law, is steep and jagged and takes us to places we cannot climb but almost assuredly will fall. The one provided to us through faith in Jesus Christ, the one of grace through faith, though not smooth, and not without hills and valleys, provides footsteps to follow, resting places in cool shade, and it leads us beside still waters. We still fall from time to time, but on this trail we are not irretrievably lost and there is always a hand to help us back on our feet once more.
Why is it then, that we spend so much of our time and energy living as if the one and only way, is through adherence to rules we cannot fully follow?
Through being perfect when we are not?
And why is it that we forget the simple truth that came with Jesus?
That the way, the truth and the life is ours simply by following the path that Jesus set for us. Every day he renews an invitation to follow him. Too many of our days we miss the invitation and revert back to pathway number one. Maybe because we are simply too distracted looking up the rules or pointing out the ways that others fail to follow them.
A sure sign that we are on the wrong path is when our love of law overpowers the law of love.
I am not suggesting that following Jesus means we don’t have to follow rules. But being clothed in Christ changes our approach to life. It changes how we react to life. It changes who we are because of whose we are.
The pathway of rules expects us to be in control. In trying to follow it, we wrongly place our trust in ourselves, believing that the power comes from us, and can be controlled by us. When we try to do it on our own, we are focusing on ourselves. When we use our own vehicle, there is no room for God, even as a passenger.
But, when we choose the other path and turn to God, and acknowledge our weakness, he says, “My Strength is sufficient.”
When we acknowledge our doubt, he says “I give you hope.”
When we acknowledge our ambivalence, he says “My compassion will guide you.”
When we acknowledge our fear, and even our hate, He responds, “My courage and love will overcome your all. I just require your faith and that you follow me and I will make the way for you.”
I tried to prepare this message without delving into my own personal story because this isn’t about me. But, I’m no Biblical scholar and all I have to offer is my understanding formed by my own experience.
And, in these past couple of years I have been in one of the deepest valleys of my life. Disillusioned by following the rules, and my inability to control outcomes, or overpower pain. Of coming to the realization that no matter how hard I try, I do not have the power to make life bend to my will.
To speak without drawing from my own depth, I realize would make me nothing more than the novice Christian that I am, trying to make academic sense of something that cannot be fully understood without being felt, and can’t be felt if it isn’t based on shared personal experience.
As many of you know, I lost the love of my life almost exactly a year ago. John had Crohn’s disease and for five years we experienced a downward spiral of infection, seizures, heart and brain surgeries, strokes and finally back again to the infection that killed him last June. His Mom died just a few weeks later. During that same five year period, my daughter had 11 surgeries, and I had my health challenges including my second round of hip replacements, and in this last year, a three level spinal fusion and a difficult knee replacement.
Deep sadness, chronic pain and the constant stress from trying to cover demanding medical costs combine to create what looks and feels like a figurative tsunami. The need to keep working, keep expending energy when all the indicators say there is no energy left, tells me of my need for grace.
For me at least, it is not possible to go through dark, distressing times without asking the question, “God, what have I done to deserve this?”
Or of bargaining with God in the midst of struggle.
Of trying to set conditions that it better be worth it in the end.
And then, accusing God of failing to hold up his end of the bargain when things don’t work out the way I bargained.
And of wondering if only I had prayed differently, lived more piously, if then my loved ones might still be alive?
My life more bearable?
But that line of thinking subscribes to the erroneous belief that God is a scorekeeper and he rewards the person that believes she can control the outcome through her own behavior. By following the rules. But that misunderstands the whole Divine formula and frames God as more a puppet than the omnipotent power that he is.
Living in faith means hearing God speak to our heart in a persistent whisper, especially during the darkest times of our lives, those times when we are angry at God for letting us struggle in vain…of fighting for life and losing it, of accusing God of not making the end worth the Hell we just went through…..
It is then, if we can stop railing long enough, we can hear God lovingly remind us that all that is necessary is for us to adjust our understanding of the meaning of the term “the end”….
Of realizing that this life is prelude.
Of coming to the understanding that God tells us to focus on the unseen because all that is seen is temporary.
We can see the rules, but when we focus there, we do not see the ruler.
And, If we did live in a world that rewarded those who most fundamentally followed the rules, wouldn’t those who “earned” their way forward, be motivated by the wrong things? Of being “good” in order to get what we want rather than being good for “goodness sake?”
If I am motivated to live a certain way so God will favor my life here on earth, I am not motivated by love and trust in God, but by my own selfishness.
And when I get what I want and my life gets more comfortable, and I watch those around me struggle, then in pious righteousness, I can condemn them for not properly following the rules and I can judge them deserving of the fate they got. I don’t have to care about them and I can just go on living the good life full of blessings and prayers answered according to my design.
I just don’t think that is what God had in mind.
And this brings me to an epiphany about these divergent pathways:
I would be lying in Church if I told you that I have been happy these past couple of years. But my experience of life has brought me something else. Something of far greater value.
Let me side step a moment. I am a loyal American but I confess I take issue with the founders of our nation for putting in the Declaration of Independence one of our supreme values being our individual right to the pursuit of happiness. Or at least of our common modern interpretation of what that means.
I don’t think that’s why we were put here. I think we were put here for the pursuit of purpose. For the reason of helping one another. For making a difference. For counting our blessings yes, but also for making our blessings count.
And, if we live a life of purpose, answering the call God placed in the center of our hearts, while we may not be happy all the time, illusive, temporary “happy” will be replaced by deep and permanent joy.
Trying to follow the rule of law, and spending our life in the pursuit of happiness are diversions from our true path and ignore the fact that we don’t have the power to control outcomes.
The root for “happy” is the same as for happening. Our happiness is dependent on something happening. In most cases, we need a set of circumstances to be in place in order for us to be happy. A good job, a good marriage, that our kids do well in school, that we have plenty of money for get away vacations, that our health is good…..and we spend much of our time, effort and wishes trying to arrange our life just so….just so we can be happy.
There are moments in our lives when the stars align and everything falls into place according to our design. But then, there’s that phone call that brings us to our knees, there’s an accident, a cancer diagnosis, divorce papers are filed, people die…something happens that wasn’t in our script…. Life happens and the changes chase our happiness away.
And then, at a certain point, we set again upon the task of gathering up the pieces of our life like legos and painstakingly begin reconstructing them back into their places so we can be happy again, for a time.
The problem is, so much of our lives get spent waiting to get through something so we can be happy. It’s kind of like trying to follow a rigid set of rules. We try to control circumstances through our own power. Even when we achieve success from time to time, it is fleeting and it leaves us frustrated…jealous when we perceive someone else has more, or that it lasts longer than ours. And we are unhappy that we are unhappy.
The problem with happy is it is no match for sadness or grief or anger or deep disappointment. It’s a fickle friend. It’s runs for cover when the rains come, leaving us sopping wet, and alone.
Joy, on the other hand, is akin to pathway number two described in Galations. It comes when we follow the path of grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Like grace, it is ours as a byproduct of our life in Christ. It is a fruit of the spirit and it comes from following the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law.
Joy is not dependent upon circumstances but upon what is contained deep within the very fiber of our being….our soul. When it is foundational to our true being, every other emotion or feeling can rest upon it and it will not be crushed, it will just grow deeper.
This means that it is possible to pass through and even dwell in the valley – to grieve with our whole heart and still find joy. It doesn’t come when we chase it but it is there when we let it be. Even as waves of grief overcome us, when pain overwhelms us, joy quietly waits within us.
Joy does not run away when bad times come. Joy stands beside us in the rain. The difference between happiness and joy is like the difference between the fair weather friend and the friend you know you can call in the middle of the night.
Happiness is a sunny day at the beach.
Joy is knowing the sun is always there even when it is hidden behind dark clouds.
Happiness is when everything is going according to our plan.
Joy is knowing the plan is bigger and greater than we can know.
Happiness is something we chase.
Joy is something we receive.
When I think of an example of someone with joy, I’m guessing I am not the only one who has noticed that Florence has a particularly joyful countenance. (n.b. Florence is a member of our congregation. Her laugh is infectious and she spreads joy.)
I don’t know a lot about Florence’s personal history but I think I know enough to realize it hasn’t been like a never ending trip to Disneyland.
And yet, to see her in action is to see someone with a smile that cannot be contained. It sparkles through her eyes and dances through her laughter. And what she has is contagious. Try to be around her and not smile.
I had breakfast with her after church recently and I wanted to ask her about it, but wondered what if she just didn’t realize that her life really hasn’t been just one big bowl of strawberries and whipped cream? I didn’t want to be the one to break the news.
I asked her though, and of course, she just smiled.
Here’s what I think. Florence is a joyful person. She probably learned early on, that if she waited for the conditions to be right to be happy, she would live for long periods of time in frustration. But, if she lived with a grateful heart, she would know many blessings.
We can spend our lives trying to justify ourselves through adherence to rules we, as fallible human beings, cannot perfect. We can try to control life to achieve happiness and then spend most of our life unhappy that we are unhappy and can’t change what we can’t change.
Or we can invest our lives in following the path of Jesus knowing that even when life knocks us down, when it brings us to the floor of our being, guess what is waiting there for us? It is not dependent on us creating it, or capturing it. All it requires is that we recognize it. It’s not what we see, it’s where we focus.
Paul, from his prison cell tells us to consider it joy when we encounter trials. He tells us to fear not….not because we can be assured of an easy road, but because our lives are in God’s hands. As Christians, we will grieve and we will cry and we will wail at the injustice of our world. Jesus did. But we will know the peace that passes understanding. And that peace will hold our souls and protect our joy. And it is our souls and our joy that will carry us into the next world. And that’s where unfettered, the happiness we’ve chased will be waiting for us.
In the meantime, in our darkest moments we can conclude that God must surely love us beyond measure, that he wants to hold us so close.