A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
June 11, 2016
2 Corinthians 4:16 to 5:10
I love this passage of scripture. There has been more than one time in my life when hearing these words of Paul has given me comfort. I’ve preached before about how they once gave me comfort and courage when I encountered them before I left for my month long trip to the middle east when I was in seminary. After three weeks of sleeplessness, worried about traveling to a political hotspot, I came across this text, and felt peace.
Sadly, I needed the comfort of this passage again a few weeks back. I was at Mo Ranch, a presbyterian conference center that is literally in the middle of nowhere Texas. I was leading workshops at their Women’s Conference. And it was great. Presbyterian Women are always great, and the other women with whom I was leading were truly remarkable. I feel so blessed to have had that time with them.
And then on Friday, at lunch, one of my friends complained of a headache. She said she never had headaches. Someone went off in search of advil or tylenol. Others spoke of how bad migraines are, especially the first one you get when you’ve never had one. Someone else was caring for Kelly, so I didn’t go over to her table. When you have a headache, you don’t want a crowd of people hovering.
Kelly ended up going to the ER, which is a production when you’re in the middle of nowhere Texas. And it turned out she did not have a headache. She had a catastrophic hemorrhagic stroke. They kept her on life support until her family could gather and organ donation plans could be ready. She died last Sunday. She was 50 years old.
Knowing Kelly was one of the leaders of the conference was one of the things I was most excited about. I knew her casually, as one knows other pastors in the church. But she served the church in San Antonio that took such good care of me when I was in college, so she loved the people who loved me, which made me love her. I’d long admired her consistent voice for justice—for Palestinians, and LGBTQ community, and most recently—immigrants on the Mexican border. And, she was a lifelong friend of Southminster’s own Ann Agnew, so that was a connection for us too. Kelly and I talked about Kem and Ann’s wedding that week, sharing stories and laughing. We went for a hike the day before her stroke. We laughed over breakfast tacos that morning. We talked about ministry and parenting and the saints of her church who I know and love.
I’ve been around many people as they were dying. It is one of the holy privileges of being a minister. It is a rare thing, though, to be present with someone who is fully, and actively LIVING one minute, and then dying in the next.
“So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”
I confess I prefer a world where our “earthly tents” last longer than they sometimes do. I realize that I want to take our “earthly tents” and cover them in titanium, wrap them in bubble wrap, and coat them in Kevlar. I want to keep people safe and alive.
AND I CAN’T.
I couldn’t do anything to help my friend Kelly.
I cannot guarantee that some person won’t decide to walk into a school, movie theater, or mall with an assault rifle and open fire.
I cannot guarantee that car accidents won’t happen.
I cannot guarantee that cancer won’t strike.
I cannot guarantee that fires, floods, and quakes won’t catch people unaware.
And I hate that.
But it is life. We know that. We know that.
Life is beautiful and fragile.
We do not lose heart. We are always confident.
There is a scene at the beginning of the movie Finding Nemo, where a mama fish dies while trying to save her baby fish eggs from a barracuda. The daddy fish, Marlin, finds one egg that escaped the destruction and he tells the egg, “don’t worry. Daddy’s here. I will never let anything happen to you.”
And so Nemo is born to a well meaning and over protective father. Here is the scene where some gnarly turtles help Marlin realize he can’t keep his son safe and allow him to live at the same time.
“So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord—for we walk by faith and not by sight…”
Walking by faith, not sight.
When we try to order our worlds by the things we can see and touch, we are unable to trust in God’s ability to order our world.
When I first encountered the text from 2nd Corinthians, before my anxiety had surfaced, I must confess that I dismissed it. I read Paul’s words about wishing we were with God and away from our bodies and thought, ‘speak for yourself, Paul.’ Maybe someday. I have no immediate desires to leave this earth. Quite frankly, I wondered just what kind of weirdos the Corinthians were that Paul would have to remind them to live their lives.
I do not know what the situation was in Corinth in the first century. I am not sure why Paul wrote them that letter. But I do know that when I first read that passage from a moment of pain and great anxiety, and when I read it again last week after Kelly died, it saved me. In the first letter to the Corinthians, Paul says, “the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.”
In this passage, Paul sets up a dichotomy between God’s eternity, which cannot be seen, and our mortal existence, which we can see, touch, and hold. Interestingly, all of the descriptions of permanence, weightiness and stability belong to God’s realm, which our society would describe as ‘ethereal’. He says that this world is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure. Eternal weight of glory. Also, God is making us a building “not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” while we live in here on earth in a flimsy tent.
The revelation of Christ, crucified changes where we place our permanence, where we place our weight. The world tells us we are “safe” when we take proper precautions. When we lock our doors. When we stay home. But Christ, crucified tells us that is not the point. Because this world is not our home.
We who have received the revelation of Christ, crucified no longer place our security in the powers of this world. Sure, I still will wear my seatbelt and look both ways before I cross the street, but I am no longer under the illusion that any power of this age is my protection or my home. When I am hit with anxiety it is because, in my attempt to keep myself and family safe, I crash into the reality that I am not in control.
Paul’s words to the Corinthians reminded me how this is good news, and not reason for anxiety. My attempts at control only end in anxiety and frustration—it is like trying to keep sand from falling through your fingers.
Trusting in God’s control, on the other hand, allows me to live my life. Allows me to venture into God’s beautiful world and know that God is in control. My life, the lives of my children, family, friends, church, the world– are all resting in a home not made with hands.
Paul speaks of how we walk by faith and not by sight.
I confess I’m guilty of walking by sight and not by faith.
Even when Kelly was in the midst of her “headache” last week, I was looking to see what I could do. I wanted to fix it. I wanted to be able to see, explain, and solve it.
When I walk by sight, that’s when my instincts to protect, to wrap in bubble wrap, to control, go into overdrive. When I walk by faith, remembering that God is the one with the perspective I lack, then I can set my anxiety aside.
This past week, Alden left for his summer internship in Chicago. Part of me wanted to say “no, come home. It was a bad idea. Stay home with your momma”. But when I closed my eyes, stopped looking at what I could try to control, and listened for God, I was reminded that life is for living.
And since our time for living is unknown to us, we have to live it while we can.
So I didn’t make that call to Alden. And so he’s off to have his experiences, and his struggles, and his joys, and adventures in Chicago. This week, we got a late night text from him that he figured out the Argentinian Men’s Soccer team was staying at a hotel very near where he lives in Chicago. And so he went and hung out in front of the hotel until their bus arrived and he caught a glimpse of soccer stars. He said he also practiced his Argentinian accent, which, to our knowledge, we’re not aware he has, to a Spanish language news station.
To paraphrase the band the Strumbellas:
We don’t want a never ending life
We just want to be alive while we’re here
We place our weight on things we see, touch, measure. On status and success that we see in belongings, money, and awards.
God places weight on things we cannot see, touch, and measure. Relationships, experiences, love, eternal life, and the gifts we receive in community.
In a few minutes, we will be coming to the Table, where we will taste and see that the Lord is good. Sacraments are visible signs of invisible grace, they give us a tangible sign of God’s weighty, eternal love and life. Tonight, I invite you to come to the Table with your eyes closed. Put your hands on the shoulder of the person in front of you and “walk by faith, not by sight” as you come to the Table. When you hear “the body of Christ, broken for you”, open your eyes and receive the gift of Communion. You can return to your seat with eyes open to appreciate the gifts we have in this flimsy, earthly tent.
So we do not lose heart. And we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord— for we walk by faith, not by sight.
Thanks be to God.