Practicing Our Faith Sermon Series – #5: Practicing Healing

SCRIPTURE – James 5:13-16 – 13 Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14 Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.

SERMON
Practicing Our Faith Sermon Series
#5 – Practicing Healing
March 18, 2018
Rev. Kory Wilcoxson

I’ve never told you this before, but I was once on the receiving end of a miraculous, super-natural healing. No, a TV evangelist didn’t smack me on my forehead or slay me in the Spirit. I was miraculously healed by a chicken poppyseed casserole. This happened right after our first child was born. We were living several hours away from our family, we had virtually no support system, and we were beyond exhausted. And then a little old lady from the church I was serving as a youth pastor showed up at our apartment door with a steaming hot pan of chicken poppyseed casserole. And the Lord said, “It was very good.” It was absolutely the cure we needed for what ailed us at that moment. Does that count as a healing?

For our Lenten sermon series, we’ve been looking at how to grow in our faith through the ways we practice living it out. We’ve learned that practicing things like saying yes and no, honoring our bodies, and offering forgiveness help us take the next step on our faith journey. We never expect to master these disciplines, but by practicing them, we can hope to gradually get better at them and honor God in the process.

Today, we are talking about practicing healing. The first challenge we have to overcome is trying to come to a common understanding of what it means to heal, because that concept means different things to different people. For a lot of folks, healing means a physical cure from some malady or illness. That’s certainly one aspect of healing, but it in no way defines its totality. What does it mean to heal or to be healed? And does healing have anything to do with our faith?

Early believers thought so. Healing was very much a part of the early Christian understanding of a life of faith. We know that Jesus healed many people during his time on earth, including the 10 lepers we read about earlier. When Jesus sent his disciples out into the neighboring towns, one of their marching orders was to heal every sickness and disease. The early church picked up on that, making rites like anointing the sick with oil and the laying on of hands an integral part of their wholistic ministry. To this day, the Catholic Church has as one of its seven sacraments the anointing with oil for the purpose of healing.

But somewhere along the line, the sacrament of healing lost its cultural value. It was most likely around the time of the Enlightenment, when spiritual reality and material reality were separated, and the role of human knowledge took precedence over the role of faith. You no longer needed to be anointed with oil when you were sick, because new discoveries were providing scientific cures for diseases. That has proliferated down through the centuries, to the point where the concept of healing is relegated almost exclusively to the world of medicine.

Of course, healing does still exist in religion, but only as a caricature. You probably know of folks like Benny Hinn, who’ve made a fortune off of performing theatrical “cures.” You’ve probably also heard about the dog who was sent to Christian obedience school. On graduation day, he was asked to sit, and he sat. He was asked to speak, and he barked. He was asked to heal, and he raise his paw and said, “Lord Jesus, I command you to remove the squeaky demon from this chew toy.” There’s a good reason we Christians are skeptical about healing as a spiritual practice.

So, healing is either something done with medicine or something to be made fun of in religion. And yet, healing has so many more layers and dimensions to it than a physical cure. As John Koenig says in the book Practicing Our Faith, “Healing events are daily signs of the divine mercy that is surging through our world and guiding it toward its final perfection. This is true whether they take place by the sharing of chicken soup, the performance of delicate surgery, or the laying on of hands in a service of worship.” All these acts, and many more, are ways of practicing healing.

In our passage, James tells us praying is one of those ways. He says, “Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.” One of the most effective ways we can practice healing is through intercessory prayer, praying for someone who is sick to be made well (which may be different than being physically cured).

Right after I was diagnosed with MS, a staff member at my seminary came to me and said, “Kory, a group of us have a prayer meeting every Wednesday morning, and we’d like to invite you to attend so that we can lay hands on you and pray for you.” I liked this guy, but I was still coming to terms with my this next chapter in my life and skeptical of what sounded like evangelical revival tactic, so I didn’t go, because that’s not how healing happens. I had just learned I had multiple sclerosis; what good could they do for me?

I have since learned two things about that invitation. First, what he was offering was solidly grounded in scripture. And, second, healing absolutely does happen that way, but maybe not the kind of healing I was looking for. If we think of healing only as a physical cure, then we are limiting our understanding of how God works in our lives, and we’re setting ourselves up with unreachable expectations. If our only form of practicing healing is an intercessory prayer that says, “Lord, take away my grandma’s terminal cancer or else,” then we’re missing the ways God can bring about healing that transcends the physical realm.

Healing, in its most divine form, is not about curing. It’s about restoration. It’s about restoring wholeness to what is broken. That can be a broken bone, or a broken heart, or a broken society. Theologian Paul Tillich said that, “Healing is an element in the work of salvation.” Often, Jesus combined a physical healing with a spiritual one, telling the person who had been physically cured that their sins were forgiven. And remember, James says the prayer of faith will save the sick. Salvation, not curing. So, to practice healing is to practice restoring something to its original, God-ordained state.

Because of this more holistic way of seeing this practice, I believe healing is making a comeback, returning from its banishment to the outskirts of religion to take a central role in the restorative process. I believe, after centuries of thinking religion didn’t have anything to offer in the way of healing, people are coming to see the power of prayer in a different light. When I started in ministry, whenever I was visiting someone in the hospital, I would have to wait until the doctors and nurses and staff were done before I could spend any time with them, and my visits were frequently interrupted for the more important work of attending to the patient’s physical needs. But several times in the past few year, I’ve been visiting with a patient when the doctor has come in the room. I have introduced myself as the person’s pastor, and the doctor has said, “Oh, don’t me interrupt. I’ll wait until you are finished.” The power of prayer is being accepted as part of the healing process for a patient.

So how do we practice this? First, we have to expand our understanding of healing. Trust that God can bring about healing in all situations, even if a physical cure doesn’t take place. Wounds can be healed and wholeness can happen even as bodies give way to sickness and death. Practice having the eyes to see the healing power of God that goes beyond our limited expectations of a person receiving a super-natural cure.

A second way to practice healing is to trust that your prayers for healing make a difference. It can feel helpless to see a friend or loved one suffer, and sometimes prayer can feel like busy work or last-ditch effort to do something, although we don’t always believe it matters. But James tells us the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. When I laid in the hospital bed with my new diagnosis of MS, I could feel the power of people praying for me, and that brought me a sense of peace, that God could work through this curve ball my body had thrown me.

So, who can you pray for today? Who needs healing? Who needs peace, assurance, guidance, a cure? How about praying for our country to be healed from violence and division? We can pray for all of those things, and then trust that God hears those prayers. I believe healing is happening all around us, in some of the most unorthodox and unexpected ways, through whispered words of forgiveness and steaming hot chicken poppy seed casseroles.

I want to close with this story, my most memorable experience of the power of healing. I was once asked to come see a man in a coma so that I could anoint him with oil. Now, you may not know this, but I’m not Catholic, so this was something new to me. Thankfully, I had some oil in my office we use on Ash Wednesday, so I grabbed it and headed to the ICU unit at UK hospital.

The scene when I arrived was tense. The man in question, an athlete in his 40s, had fallen and hit his head and was not expected to survive. The family included a 10-year-old son and the man’s ex-wife and his current girlfriend and his parents and his ex-in-laws and his current girlfriend’s parents. The mood was chaotic and turbulent and contentious. So I gathered the family in the room, and I anointed the man’s head with oil and said a prayer. Then, I invited each family member to anoint his head with oil and speak a word of love to him. And then, completely by the Holy Spirit’s leading, I asked if any of the family members would like to be anointed with oil. Almost all of them stepped forward. Instead of doing all the anointing myself, I anointed the first person, then handed them the oil and said, “Now, anoint the person behind you.” I watched as the son anoint his mother, the ex-wife, who then turned and anointed the current girlfriend as all the various in-laws looked on. The best way I can described what happened was that air in the room softened. Although the man died the next week, I know healing took place in that room, thanks be to God.

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That’s Not in the Bible sermon series – God Has a Plan for You

SCRIPTURE – Deuteronomy 30:11-20 –

 Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. 12 It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” 14 No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.

15 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God[b] that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

SERMON
That’s Not in the Bible Sermon Series
God Has a Plan for You
Sept. 14, 2019
Rev. Kory Wilcoxson

You remember the game show “Let’s Make a Deal”? I believe they have revived it, but I’ll always remember the version with Monte Hall as the host. Monte would present a contestant with three doors and they’d have to choose one. Behind one door was a brand new Chevy Nova, behind the second was a dinette set, and behind the third was a rubber chicken. And the contestant would have to choose. And no one wanted to get the rubber chicken. Do you ever feel like trying to figure out God’s plan for you is like trying to pick the right door? What if I choose the wrong one? That’s scary.

During our current sermon series, we’re looking at some of the most often said Christian clichés, like “Everything happens for a reason” and “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle” to see if these statements are actually helpful or if they do more harm than good. Today’s statement digs into issues about God’s control versus our free will and the level to which God participates in our lives. I recognize that by exploring this cliché more deeply, it might call into question long-held beliefs about God’s role in how we live, and some of us may not be ready to pull back that curtain just yet. And that’s OK. We’re not supposed to have all this faith stuff figured out. But I wonder if we’re afraid to ask, “Does God have a plan for us?” because what if the answer is “no”? Or what if God does have a plan, but we chose the rubber chicken instead?

I want to tell you two stories that map the trajectory of this statement in my own life. I used to believe very strongly that God had my life all mapped out. When I heard the call to go into ministry, I looked back at my life and saw how God had guided me to a journalism degree and then to a communications degree in order to prepare me for ministry. Now, as I was preparing to choose a seminary, I knew God would guide me toward God’s plan for me. I need to preface this story by letting you know that I grew up a huge fan of Chris Mullin, the professional basketball player. Mullin was tall, white, and slow, so we were basically twins…except he could play basketball. I had Chris Mullin jerseys and basketball cards. If they had made Chris Mullin pajamas I would have owned two pair. I loved the guy.

As I was considering where to continue my education, I visited two seminaries: Lexington Theological Seminary right here in town and Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. I just knew God would shine a heavenly light on the one I was supposed to attend. At first, it wasn’t clear. I liked both schools and didn’t feel a divine tug toward one or the other. Lexington was the home of the Kentucky Wildcats – check! – but I had also lived in Lexington before and didn’t have a great experience. Indianapolis was a really cool city with a professional basketball team, the Indiana Pacers– check! – but it wasn’t the home of the Kentucky Wildcats. So, without being 100% sure of what God’s plan was, I chose CTS in Indianapolis.

Two weeks after we moved to Indianapolis, Chris Mullin, who played for the Golden State Warriors on the west coast, was traded to – can you guess which team? – the Indiana Pacers. Aha! I got the divine dinette set! God confirmed for me, through a slow, white basketball player, that I had made the right choice and followed God’s plan for me.

But my understanding of God’s role in our lives changed for me during my time in seminary. In the winter of 2001, I was in my last semester and beginning to start the job search process. I put out my papers and churches had to decide whether or not they want to talk to me. It can be a bit nerve-wracking, especially for a greenhorn soon-to-be seminary graduate trying to figure out how to be a real pastor in a real church. Will anyone want me? Will I be any good? Where am I supposed to go? What is God’s plan for me?

I ended up interviewing with and visiting two churches: one in Fairmont, W.Va., and one in Lincolnshire, Ill. Both churches were appealing, both had their strengths and weaknesses, and most importantly, both of them actually wanted to pay me money to work for them. They obviously knew less about what they were doing than I did. So I was faced with a decision: Chicago or Fairmont? How was I supposed to know which one was the right one for me? I prayed, “God, give me a sign, draw an arrow pointing in the right direction, smack up upside the head with an atlas opened to the page of the place I was supposed to go.” What was God’s plan for me?

I chose to go to Lincolnshire and served there for eight years. Was that God’s plan? To be honest, I have no idea. I truly don’t think God cared whether I went to Lincolnshire or to Fairmont. That may sound callous, as if I believed God didn’t care about me, and that’s not at all what I mean. What I mean is that I believe I could have fulfilled God’s plan for my life either in Fairmont or in Lincolnshire. I’m not questioning whether God has a plan for me; I’m questioning the specificity of that plan.

That’s the question this cliché raises for me. Just how closely does God direct what happens in my life? Can every good thing that happens be attributed to God? If so, who gets the blame for the bad things? Satan? God? Me? Was it God’s plan for me to go to Lincolnshire? Maybe. But what if I had gone there and had a horrible experience? Would that have been God’s plan? Because that’s happened to a lot of ministers I know. With this and other clichés, we have to be careful. We’ll often use them when the outcome of a situation is favorable. Are you in a fulfilling job? It must have been God’s plan for you to work there! But what about the job that started out feeling like God’s plan but turned toxic? Was it God’s plan for us to experience those things, as well? If we’re going to give God all the credit when things go well, we’ve also got to be willing to give God the responsibility when they don’t, or else we need to rethink our beliefs about God’s role in controlling what happens in our lives.

Saying “God has a plan for you” implies that God has mapped out a life route for us, like some divine GPS that already has signaled the turns we should make in order to reach our destination. But I wonder if our route hasn’t been planned ahead. What if we are co-creators with God in drawing the map as we go. A pastor friend of mine has written a book called, “We Make the Road by Walking.” In other words, we participate in the creation of our plan, using our free will and God-given gifts to plot our journey. This cliché makes it sound like if we sit back and wait, God will illuminate the right way for us like a Yellow Brick Road leading to the Emerald City. But God’s plan may simply be for us to get off our keisters and start moving forward. We may not recognize God with us because we are searching for a superhighway of destiny rather than a twisting, meandering road that only appears with the next step. Maybe God’s plan for us is simply to take the next step in front of us.

Let’s add a little more grist to this mill by turning to our scripture reading for this morning. Moses is speaking to the Israelites at the end of his time with them. He is about to die and they are about to cross over into the Promised Land. So in this last paragraph of the last sermon he’ll ever preach, he boils down all of his teachings about God’s law and God’s guidance to this one simple passage. He basically says to the people, “God’s word for you is clear. It’s not hard to reach. In fact, it’s right inside of you. You know what God’s word says: follow God and live or don’t follow God and die.” God has set before them life and death, blessings and curses, and Moses exhorts them to choose life.

As I read the passage, that in a nutshell is God’s plan for us, to choose life and live out what Christ taught us and showed us: grace, love, and forgiveness. I believe Jesus paraphrases this passage when he says, “Love God and love your neighbor.” If you do those things, you choose life. If you are living in such a way that you aren’t loving God or loving your neighbor, you have chosen curses. God’s plan is for us to live out the gifts Christ has given us. I could have lived out that plan in Fairmont or in Lincolnshire. I could have lived it as a pastor, a professor, or a plumber. I believe God gives each of us certain gifts to use, and then gives us the free will to choose how to use them. I believe God’s plan for us has less to do with what we do in our lives and more to do with how we live it.

That’s why we need to pay attention to what our statements say about God because clichés like this can portray God in a different light than we think. I’ve most often heard it said in response to someone’s disappointment or disillusionment. A person is fired from their job, or a significant relationship ends, or they come to a fork in the road of life, and their supporters say, “Don’t worry, God has a plan for you.” That’s actually a thinly veiled way of saying, “I’m going to invoke God’s omnipotence to let you know that God’s got this all taken care of  because I have absolutely no idea what to say to you right now, and I certainly don’t have any answers about what you should do next.” And then we walk away.

What’s a lot harder to do is to stay with the person in the midst of their not knowing, in the midst of their lostness. The Jews have a ritual that accompanies the death and burial of a loved one. After the burial, the immediate family returns to a home designated as the “shiva house,” to begin a seven-day period of intense mourning. This week is called “sitting shiva,” and is an emotionally and spiritually healing time where the mourners dwell together and friends and loved ones come to comfort them with short visits referred to as “shiva calls.” The mourners experience a week of intense grief, and the community is there to love and comfort and provide for their needs. This is a critical point, for if a person must feel the heart-wrenching pain of grief and loss, it should be done when they are surrounded by loved ones who can share that burden.

When we use “God has a plan for you” as an escape hatch from a difficult conversation, we are excusing ourselves from helping the other person bear their burdens. Instead, I believe we are called to dwell with them in the midst of their struggle. Regardless of what the plan may be, we are called to sit shiva with them, helping them deal with their own sense of loss and fear and unknowing in a time of disequilibrium by showing them they are not alone.

Ultimately, I do believe God has a plan for us. In Jeremiah, God says to the prophet, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Doesn’t say anything about who you should marry or where you should live or what you should do for a living. God wants you to thrive, to have hope, to have a future. God has given each of us the gifts necessary to live a life of significance and fulfillment and service, and then we choose how we do that. Can you still serve God in a bad job? Sure. Can you still honor God in the midst of struggle? You bet. I believe God is less concerned with what we do and more concerned with how we do it: we grace, we integrity, with love, each day becoming more and more like Christ. Ah! Striving to become more like Jesus Christ. Now that sounds like a good plan.

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That’s Not in the Bible Sermon Series – Everything Happens for a Reason

SCRIPTURE – Romans 8:18-28 – I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

28 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

SERMON
That’s Not in the Bible Sermon Series
#1 – Everything Happens for a Reason
Sept. 8, 2019
Rev. Kory Wilcoxson

“Everything happens for a reason.” “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” “God has a plan for you.” Have you ever said one of these? I know I have. In many cases, these words and other spiritual sayings can be great sources of comfort to people during difficult times. But that’s not always the case. In our sermon series starting today, we want to take a closer look at the Christian clichés that come easily to our lips when we’re confronted with a crisis or put in an awkward situation.

I’m not expecting us to conclude it’s wrong to say these things. In many cases, these words can be very soothing. But it’s important for us to ask why we say them. I believe they are often said, not to offer comfort, but to provide some sort of explanation when there really is no explanation. There are two things we human beings don’t particularly like: silence and mystery. And we really can’t stand a mysterious silence! So when we’re faced with a situation that has no logical explanation, we will quell the mystery and shatter the silence by saying something that we think will be helpful, probably because someone once said it to us. When we simply don’t know how to respond, we lean on these Christian truisms, which one author called “spiritual urban legends.” That same author said, “Sometimes we treat the Bible as if it’s a series of sound bites and little sayings that we can put on T-shirts, coffee cups, and posters. But it’s a big book.”

I believe when we use a Christian cliché, we are hoping to accomplish two things. First it provides an answer to the mystery that has confronted us, no matter how misguided or theologically inadequate that answer may be. And second, it provides us a way out of the conversation. When someone tells us that they were just diagnosed with cancer, it’s a bit of a conversation stopper. So we respond as we have learned, with a saying that we think conveys care and concern and some vague sense of spirituality, like “Don’t worry, God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” Then we give the person a hug and leave. The problem is, we may have done more harm than good.

We think that these sayings make the other person feel better. But in many cases, they don’t. Instead, they make us feel better because we’ve done something in a situation where there’s really nothing we can do. We don’t like to feel helpless or out of control. So, instead of sitting with the person in their pain and despair, which is a really hard thing to do but may be exactly what the person needs, we speak into the mysterious silence words that we think convey hope. And then we walk away.

Let’s start today with one of the most common Christian clichés: Everything happens for a reason. I heard the story about a pastor making a hospital visit one day. When he got to the patient’s room, they were asleep, so he set down his keys to write them an encouraging note. He left the note on their bedside tray and made his way back to the car, only to find he had left his keys in the patient’s room. He trudged back into the hospital and up to the room to retrieve his keys. When he walked in, the formerly sleeping patient was now awake and they had a wonderful visit together. As the pastor was leaving, he told the patient about leaving his keys and coming back to the room a second time, to which the patient responded, “Well, everything happens for a reason!”
When something fortuitous happens like that, we often look for a deeper meaning. You’re running late for a meeting and parking spot opens up right next to the door of the building. You get caught by a red light, only to witness an accident up ahead that might have involved you. You didn’t quite finish your homework over the weekend, and then wake up Monday morning to a snow day. Hallelujah! Everything happens for a reason! Or does it?

At the last church I served, there was a little girl named Emma Short. Emma had Down’s Syndrome and was one of the bright lights in our congregation. She loved to sing and play and the congregation loved to love on her. I got a call the night before Thanksgiving one year that Emma had been taken to the emergency room. Doctors eventually found a massive brain tumor, and Emma died a few days later. A few minutes after she died, her parents called me into Emma’s room as they held her body and asked me to say a prayer. Do you think I should have said to them, “Well, everything happens for a reason?”

Of course not. Can we agree that some things happen for a reason, but other things happen for no reason? Sure, there may be a meteorological explanation for a hurricane or a medical explanation for a brain tumor, but there’s no reason for them, there’s nothing we can say that will explain thy “why” behind such tragic events. But sometimes, when we are faced with the magnitude of someone’s grief or the enormity of bad news, we just don’t have anything to say. So we say, “Everything happens for a reason,” hoping that provides some sort of comfort.

But here’s the thing. That’s not in the Bible. And here’s another thing. It’s not even spiritual. It’s more mystical, pointing toward something greater than our understanding. But if you think about it, the statement doesn’t say anything. Why did it happen? Who made it happen? What’s the reason behind it? It’s the quasi-spiritual version of saying, “Oh well…” or “It must be God’s will.”

The implication of the statement is that God is behind the event and God has a reason for this event happening. That makes perfect sense when the outcome of the situation is good, like a pastor getting to spend quality time with a parishioner after forgetting his keys. But when this statement is applied to a tragic situation, it paints God into a logically indefensible corner. If everything happens for a reason, and God is somehow behind that reason, then God has a lot of explaining to do to Emma’s parents and to all of us who’ve experienced tragedy and loss.

I think I know how this scapegoating of God happened and it starts with Romans 8:28. Here’s a great example of where translation plays a crucial role in our understanding of God’s word. The first authorized English translation of the Bible, the King James Version, renders the verse this way: “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God.” This can be interpreted that all things, good and bad, happen for a reason – for the good of them that love God. Since this was the only English Bible for about 400 years, this way of understanding God’s work came to be authoritative.

We can see how this line of thinking was picked up in subsequent translations. The NRSV, which we use in worship, reads very similarly to the King James: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God.” Now listen to how the NLT translation makes God’s role even clearer: “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God.” In this translation, God’s role in all things that happen, good and bad, is that God causes them. It’s a short step from this verse to “Everything happens for a reason.”

But let me offer an alternative translation. The NIV says it this way: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.” The difference can be found in one little preposition, two tiny letters: in. There’s a Grand Canyon of difference between all things working together and God working in all things. The NIV version says that no matter what happens, good or bad, explainable or unexplainable, God is at work in them. God is working through even the most tragic situations to bring about good. The semantic difference is small, but the theological difference is enormous.

For example, after Emma died, her parents established a fund in her name for the church to use for any music-related needs. We used that money to buy children’s music and to upgrade instruments, and it was a huge blessing to us. Now, did God cause Emma to die so the church could get that fund? You see how ridiculous that sounds. Or did God work through the tragedy of Emma’s death and her parents’ grief to create that fund as a way for Emma’s legacy to continue?

The problem with saying “Everything happens for a reason” is that the word “everything” is all-encompassing, covering everything from well-timed snow days to killer tornadoes. But what kind of God would open up parking spaces for someone who’s running late but not stop planes from flying into buildings? That’s not the kind of God I want to worship. When we say this line in the face of a crisis or tragic situation, we are ascribing to God a causal role that paints God as a capricious, finicky deity who has the power to control everything but chooses not to do so.

So what do you say when faced with these kinds of situations? When we feel like we have to say something, what can we offer? First of all, sometimes the best thing you can do is be quiet. As one writer said, “When you have nothing to say, say nothing.” As hard as it is, sit with the other person in their pain. Offer a hand to hold. Listen to what they are saying. You’ll learn more about how to care for the other person by simply being present with them.

If you absolutely have to say something, think about it first. I honestly don’t remember what I prayed with Emma’s parents that day, but I do remember saying, “God is with you.” That’s what Romans 8:28 says, at least in the NIV translation. No matter what circumstance you are in, God is with you. No matter how you got there, be it a failing body or your own boneheaded choices, God is with you. No matter what the outcome will be, God is with you. That’s the role of grace in the midst of our tragedies. Life may never be the same, but life can still be good. God is at work to help make that so.

Life is hard. Stuff happens. I know that’s not very pastoral of me to say, but it’s true, isn’t it? Sometimes things happen for no good reason and blaming God as a way of explaining it only makes matters worse. Instead, let’s choose to worship a God who works for good in all things, even the things we screwed up. God is always there for us, not teaching us lessons by causing things to happen, but loving us through things that happen. Our hope is not dependent upon finding a reason to explain why bad things happen; our hope is founded on the belief that God is with us. Whether there’s a reason or no reason, God is with us. In all things. Always. Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

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Reel Faith Sermon Series – Doubt

SCRIPTURE
Matthew 28:16-20 – Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

SERMON
Reel Faith Sermon Series
Doubt – Matthew 28:16-20
August 18, 2019
Rev. Kory Wilcoxson

“What do you do when you’re not sure?” That’s how Father Flynn begins his sermon at the opening of the 2008 movie, “Doubt.” We’re continuing our summer sermon series called, “Reel Faith,” in which we’re looking at the ways God speaks to us through popular movies. This week’s film is an outstanding one starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Meryl Streep, and Amy Adams, and it centers around the relationship between doubt and certainty. Which of these should take precedence as we seek to live out our faith? How certain should we be, and how much doubt should we be OK with?

The movie is set in 1964, the year after JFK was assassinated. In the opening sermon, the new priest, Father Flynn, is trying to help his congregation cope with the enormous changes the church is facing. Not only has the nation’s top Catholic been assassinated, but the church is reeling from the consequences of Vatican II, which introduced sweeping changes for Catholic churches. You may not be aware of this, but churches don’t always do well with change.

At my last church, I once proposed in a newsletter article that we consider moving our worship time back 15 minutes to allow for more time for Sunday school. Even though I only floated this out there as an idea, the backlash was so extreme I had to re-read my newsletter column to make sure I hadn’t accidentally put a few cuss words in there. You’d have thought I suggested we change the color of the carpet in the sanctuary! Churches don’t do well with change.

So, imagine being a Catholic in 1964 when your world was rocked in more ways than one. The country is changing, the church is changing, and there’s a lot of fear and trepidation about the future. Father Flynn represents a more progressive Catholicism that embraces that change, concluding his sermon by saying, “Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty. When you are lost, you are not alone.”

I’m sure those words were comforting to many in his congregation who were struggling, but there’s one person who was not happy with the priest’s vulnerability and openness to doubt. Sister Aloyisius, played by Streep, is an old-school, hard-line nun who is principal of the church’s school. While Father Flynn is preaching, she patrols the aisles, smacking boys upside the head when they talk during the sermon and hissing at kids who’ve fallen asleep. Later, when she calls one boy out in the middle of class, Father Flynn says, “The dragon is hungry.” To Sister Aloyisius, Father Flynn represents everything that is wrong with the changes coming to the church. He wears his nails long, he uses a ballpoint pen, and he dares to recommend secular songs for the annual Christmas play. When he suggests “Frosty the Snowman,” the sister rebukes it, saying, “It’s a song that espouses a pagan belief in magic. It has no place in the church.” Thank goodness he didn’t suggest, “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.”

This cold war between the sister’s certainty and the priest’s openness to doubt boils over when a young nun suspects that the priest is having an inappropriate relationship with the only African-American boy in the school. She reports it to Sister Aloyisius, who sees this allegation as the opening to get the priest removed and to restore the church to the way things used to be.

Ah, the way things used to be. The good old days. The days when everything was predictable and nothing ever changed. Remember those days? Me either. Because they don’t exist. They never have. The world is constantly changing, so it’s natural for us to long for a simpler time, but when it was that simpler time, we longed for an even more simpler time. Today’s cellphone is the last generation’s television is the last generation’s automobile is the last generation’s sliced bread. “Back in my day, we had to eat the whole loaf at once…and we liked it that way!” But when faced with the forecast of change, especially change that is inevitable, we long for the days when we were more comfortable, when we could be more certain about things. Change forces us to doubt the truths that we’ve held for so long, truths like “presidents don’t get assassinated anymore” and “no one would fly a plane into a building” and “government officials are elected to serve the people.” What do you do when you’re not sure about things that used to be certain?

The winds of change that blow all around us are represented in the movie by the actual wind, which seems to thwart Sister Aloyisius’ attempt to be in control. In one scene, she walks into a classroom in which in the window has been left open and the wind is blowing in leaves and debris. She slams the window shut and shouts,” Who keeps opening my window!” In another scene, she curses the wind, calling it peripatetic. I had to look that one up. It means something or someone that travels without a plan from place to place. Kind of like when Jesus says in John 3, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So, it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” So, according to Jesus, those who are led by the Holy Spirit are open to the kind of change that faith in a living God can bring.

That is not the kind of person Sister Aloyisius is. Once she has it set in her mind that Father Flynn has committed a sin, nothing can convince her otherwise. After the priest offers a plausible explanation for the accusation made against him, the sister dismisses it, saying, “I’ll bring him down.” When the sister confronts the priest a second time, he says to her, “You haven’t the slightest proof of anything,” and she responds, “I have my certainty!”

I believe that kind of certainty has become a sin in our world today. When it comes to political or social issues, people on both sides have so convinced themselves that their way of thinking is right that they won’t allow their views to be corrupted with the facts. With social media and 24-hour news channels, we’ve created echo chambers that make us think that our way of thinking is the right way of thinking. Our certainty has become the iron cage we’ve built around ourselves, locking us into a tunnel-vision perspective that serves as spiritual blinders, not open to the fresh winds of change brought to us by God’s spirit. In our divisive world, it feels like there’s no room to be not sure.

But life compels that from us. Who can be sure about anything these days? Change is coming at a pace faster than we can process it. I rented a car last week and got upgraded to an SUV with all the bells and whistles. When I sat in it for the first time, it had so many dials and buttons I felt like I had to call mission control to get cleared for takeoff before I started the thing. Nothing seems simple anymore. Long-held beliefs are being challenged, foundations of faith and practice are developing cracks, and the world we once knew is no longer the world we live in. We’re no longer sure. So, what do we do?

I think we have two choices. We can acknowledge our doubt, exploring it as best we can, accepting that there are some things we can’t know, and live with the frustrating ambiguity of our lives, trusting that God walks with us. Or we can retreat into dogmatic certainty, suppressing any doubts, living as if we have access to the absolute, incontrovertible truths about everything. Do we choose doubt or certainty? Certainty is simpler, isn’t it? Black and white. Clear-cut. A definitive understanding of right and wrong, who’s and who’s out. That is, until the wind blows and scatters what we think we know. Albert Einstein said, “The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”

In the passage I read from Matthew, the writer tells us, “When the disciples saw the risen, they worshipped him; but some doubted.” Disciples pastor Fred Craddock says this passage should be translated another way: “They worshipped him and some doubted.” They worshipped and they doubted. Do those two things go together? Worship and doubt? You bet they do. Have you seen that bumper sticker that says, “God said it, I believe it, and that’s that”? Boy, it’d be nice if faith were that simple, that easy. But it’s not, is it? Unless Jesus is driving that car, the person behind the wheel can’t live up to the message on the bumper. No one has that kind of faith; even when the resurrected Jesus was standing right in front of them, they worshipped and they doubted. If the disciples couldn’t be certain then, what hope do we have?

In the movie, Sister Aloyisius’ certainty seems to win the war when Father Flynn gets transferred to another parish. The climactic scene is a conversation between Sister Aloyisius and the young Sister James, who’s been caught in the middle of this battle, at times believing in the priest’s innocence, at other times sharing Sister Aloyisius’ certainty.  Sister James asks the older nun if she ever proved that the priest had done anything wrong. The nun says, “I told him I had called a nun in his previous parish and found out about his previous infringements.” The younger sister says, “So, you did prove it.” The older sister says, “I made no such call.” “You lied?” “Yes. But if he’d had no such history, the lie wouldn’t have worked.” The younger nun says, “I can’t believe you lied.” And the principal replies, “In the pursuit of wrong-doing, one steps away from God.” Think about that line. “In the pursuit of wrong-doing, one steps away from God.”

That’s the curse of certainty. We’ll endeavor to hold so fast to our certain beliefs that we’ll do so at the expense of who God is calling us to be. God never calls us to stay the same, and yet to be open to change means admitting that we may not have all the right answers and that previously held beliefs may need to be reexamined and struggled with to see if God might be speaking a new word to us. We hold so tight to our certain beliefs because we’re afraid of the change that might come with letting go, and yet, when we look up, Christ is already out ahead of us, beckoning us to let go of what we think we know and trust in who he is calling us to be. We can either stick to what is comfortable and familiar, or we can open ourselves to the ways God’s peripatetic Spirit is moving through our lives.

The movie ends just two lines later. After her line about stepping away from God, Sister Aloyisius says to the younger nun, “Of course, there is a price.” Then she breaks down in tears and says, “I have doubts, I have such doubts.” The danger of certainty is the threat doubt poses to it. We can build a world of certainty that is resistant to new ways of seeing the world, which can close us off from the work of the Spirit. Our world is going to keep changing, and so is our church. Each new person who joins Crestwood changes us in ways we can’t expect. I pray we stay open to the ways God is calling us to change, as people of faith and as a church. Once, I thought I knew everything. Now, I have such doubts. Thanks be to God.

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Reel Faith Sermon Series – The Greatest Showman

SCRIPTURE – Psalm 139:7-18 –

Where can I go from your spirit?
    Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
    if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
    and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
    and the light around me become night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is as bright as the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.

13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
    Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
15     My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
    intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
    all the days that were formed for me,
    when none of them as yet existed.
17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
18 I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
    I come to the end[a]—I am still with you.

SERMON

Reel Faith sermon series
The Greatest Showman – Psalm 139:7-18
August 11, 2019
Rev. Kory Wilcoxson

I’ve never shared this with you all, but I was once a king. I even wore a crown. I was about eight years old, a boy king like King Tut. My Little League team, which was co-ed, had to choose a king and queen to represent them at the end-of-the-year celebration. Our team only had one girl, Michelle, so it was pretty clear who was going to be queen. To be completely fair, our coach put a bunch of pieces of paper in a hat and had us each draw one out. One of the pieces had the word “king” on it.

But here’s what you need to know: I didn’t want to be king. Oh, believe me, I wanted the attention and the crown and the McDonald’s coupons that came with being a king. But I didn’t want to stand next to Michelle. As with many girls, Michelle had grown much faster than all the boys, so she stood about half a foot taller than everyone else. She had this wild, curly hair that stuck out from under her cap like some kind of animal was trying to escape, and her teeth were badly in need of dental work. I’m not going to tell you the names we boys called her because, even today, I’m ashamed. So, guess who’s slip of paper said “King”? I groaned as all the other boys laughed at me, teasing me for being Michelle’s “date.” I said to the coach, “Do I have to stand next to her?” well within earshot of Michelle. I wonder how she felt hearing me say that.

We continue our movie sermon series called “Reel Faith” this morning but looking at a recent movie all about people who stand out, people who don’t fit in, and how the world treats them. “The Greatest Showman” is a musical that was released in 2017 and stars Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum, the founder of the famous circus that bore his name. The movie is a highly stylized account of Barnum’s life, starting with his poor upbringing and his dreams of something bigger. When he loses his job with a shipping company, he deceitfully secures a loan to open a wax museum. When the museum struggles, Barnum realizes he needs live acts to draw people in.

So, he goes about recruiting what his poster calls “oddities,” misfits that stand out because they are different in some way. When he tries to recruit Charles Stratton, who will become known as the tiny Tom Thumb, Barnum says, “I’m putting together a show and I need a star.” Stratton says, “You want people to laugh at me.” Barnum says, “They’re already laughing at you, so you might as well make money off it.” Barnum goes on to recruit other oddities, such as a bearded lady, a tattooed man, a man covered with hair, the world’s tallest man, the world’s fattest man, and two African-American trapeze artists. Barnum is banking on the fact that people will pay money to see these oddities who are so different from everyone else.

Barnum’s show is successful but comes with a price for him personally. His goal is to become accepted as a legitimate businessman, a respected member in New York’s elite crowd, but the popularity of the show only lumps him in with his oddities. The show is panned by a newspaper critic who calls it a “circus,” and Barnum and his family are ridiculed by the very people Barnum with who Barnum wants to attend parties and drink champagne. It turns out that if you hang with misfits, or stand next to one on the Little League field, you become a misfit yourself.

In an effort to become accepted, Barnum discovers a European opera singer and sponsors her tour of America, turning his back on his family and his circus in order to find favor with the movers and shakers of society. The first show is wildly successful and for the first time, Barnum gets a taste of what it’s like to be part of the “in” crowd, not lumped in with the freaks. When the circus performers show up at the after-party, Barnum closes the door on them for fear their presence will taint his acceptance. He doesn’t want to stand next to the misfits.

Let me pause the narrative just a moment to observe the poignancy of this movie. Although set in the early 1900s, the themes raised by “The Greatest Showman” are relevant to today’s society. The movie deals with issues like racial discrimination, gender inequality, class warfare, prejudice based on physical ability and differences, the choice between family values and power, and the undying pursuit of the American Dream at the cost of the dignity of others. At one point, a crowd of protesters carrying torches confront the circus performers, telling them to go back to where they came from because they didn’t belong. It’s sad how little we’ve changed.

When Barnum shuts his performers out of the after-party, they sing a song called “This Is Me.” Listen to the lyrics: “I am not a stranger to the dark/Hide away, they say/’Cause we don’t want your broken parts/I’ve learned to be ashamed of all my scars/Run away, they say/No one’ll love you as you are/But I won’t let them break me down to dust/I know that there’s a place for us/For we are glorious/When the sharpest words wanna cut me down/I’m gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out/I am brave, I am bruised/I am who I’m meant to be, this is me/Look out ’cause here I come/And I’m marching on to the beat I drum/I’m not scared to be seen/I make no apologies, this is me.”

It’s a powerful song, but the truth is that most people who don’t fit in are scared to stand up for themselves. That was certainly true in Jesus’ time. You wouldn’t hear a leper or a crippled person singing, “This Is Me.” They were relegated to the fringes of society, considered unclean and untouchable, forced to live as freaks and oddities, doors constantly closed on them. No one wanted to stand next to them for fear of being considered outcast just like them.

I heard a powerful definition of sin the other day. This commentator retold the story of the Good Samaritan, in which a beaten and bruised man is lying in the road. Two religious leaders pass right by without even stopping to help, and it is a Samaritan, considered an enemy by the Jews, who helps the man. The commentator said this: “I don’t consider it a sin if you are trying your best to do right and you fail. I consider it a sin when you have the power to do right and choose not to. For me, sin is the failure to bother to love. The two religious leaders couldn’t be bothered to help the injured man. That’s their sin.”

Sin is the failure to bother to love. No one bothered to love the freaks who ended up in Barnum’s show because no one saw them as people worth loving. Even Barnum saw them as a means to the end of making money, and the moment he was accepted by the aristocratic elite, he shunned those who were different. If you stand next to a misfit, you become a misfit yourself.

Of course, this begs the question: Who are misfits today? Who doesn’t fit in, who are being cast out because they are different? We have seen people carrying torches in protest of others who look different than them. We have heard the cries of “go home!” aimed at people who others think don’t belong. We have witnessed people turning their backs on other human beings who simply want to be accepted for who they are, who God created them to be. There are misfits all around us.

My friend Melissa has started a worshipping community called Salvage Garden, which is aimed at children and adults who are different, who deal with disabilities, who live with autism, who don’t fit in. She said she started this community because she took her son, who has autism and is non-verbal, to visit a church. During Sunday School, her son was making noises and swaying as the kids did their crafts. One of the children asked, “What’s wrong with that kid?” Melissa’s daughter answered for her brother, “Nothing wrong with him. God made him that way.” What we see as a misfit God sees as a child. There are other misfits in our world who are being treated with the same way, cut down by sharp words, told to hide away. Who’s going to stand next to them?

In the movie, Barnum eventually tastes defeat as the opera singer ends her tour and his circus building is burned to the ground by protestors. Barnum is ruined, his family has abandoned him, and he’s out of money. He’s back to square one, facing the same poverty he fought so hard to escape. So, who stands next to him? The circus performers, the very people he failed to bother to love. They tell him, “Our own families hid us. But you gave us a family. This is our home.”

For the first time, Barnum is seeing the performers not as oddities, a means to make money, but as friends. And when you bother to love someone different, someone shunned by society, you stop seeing them as a threat, someone to be feared, someone unusual and odd. You start seeing them as a person, part of God’s colorful creation. In the movie, the newspaper critic who panned Barnum’s show eventually says to him, “Taking people of all shapes, size colors, putting them on stage together and presenting them as equals, someone might call that a celebration of humanity.”

We have two choices. We can celebrate the diversity of humanity God has created, recognizing that God has formed each of our inward parts, that each of us is fearfully and wonderfully made. Or we can live in fear of those different than us, seeing them as threats, wishing they would go home and just leave us normal people alone. We can be a church of inclusion and love, a church that stands next to the misfits, or we can be a church that chants for them to “go home,” a church that seeks to keep God’s gospel pure and unblemished. Here’s my question. If Jesus were here, which church do you think he would attend?

The people who most need to be accepted in this world aren’t people who are already in the church. They are waiting out there for someone to choose them, to stand next to them, to say that matter. They are waiting for someone to bother to love them, even if they look, sound, think, and feel differently than us. When Christ encountered the oddities – the lepers, the wounded, the lame, women, foreigners – he didn’t shy away. He reached out, touched them, made them whole. Christ loved across barriers, not within them. He stood with those that others shunned, called names, made feel less than human. He stood with those not valued by society, those people said we should fear, those who had no homes. He stood with the misfits, the oddities, the freaks. Where do you stand?

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Reel Faith Sermon Series – Big Fish

SCRIPTURE – John 6:1-13 – After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” 10 Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. 11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” 13 So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 

SERMON
Reel Faith Sermon Series – Big Fish
August 5, 2019
Rev. Kory Wilcoxson

At General Assembly, our denomination’s national gathering in Des Moines a few weeks ago, one of my favorite moments didn’t take place in the exhibit hall or a workshop classroom or even in the arena where we worshipped. It took place in a bar. No, I wasn’t drinking and yes, I remember everything that happened. About 100 people packed into the basement of the Des Moines Social Club for an event called Story Hour, in which people were invited up on stage to share a story about the evening’s topic, which was “Failure.” About six brave souls got up and told us about a time in their lives when they completely fell flat on their faces, failing miserably in a crucial moment or botching an important assignment. The speakers were courageous and vulnerable. There were a lot of laughs and more than a few tears. The Holy Spirit was present with us as the speakers bared their souls about a time in their lives when they were utterly human.

I think that night was so powerful to me because these people were sharing their stories. There’s something about hearing a story that draws us in, makes us lean forward, captures our attention. There’s a reason Jesus didn’t start his parables with, “Now, if you’ll pay attention to the graph I’ve created on this PowerPoint presentation.” He says, “There once was a farmer…” “The kingdom of God is like…” I believe if Jesus were telling the stories today, he’d start with “Have you heard the one about the ten bridesmaids?”

As we continue our sermon series on movies called “Reel Faith,” today we’re looking at one of the most endearing, peculiar movies I’ve ever seen. The movie “Big Fish” is based on a book called “Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions” by Dan Wallace. The movie came out in 2003 and is directed by the visionary Tim Burton, who also gave us classics like “Edward Scissorhands,” “Beetlejuice,” and “Alice in Wonderland.”

The story is about Edward Bloom, a traveling salesman who has a penchant for telling tall tales. Edward’s son Will loved these stories as a child, but now that Will is all grown up he has distanced himself from his father, fed up with his dad’s inability to tell the simple truth. When Edward is diagnosed with cancer, Will and his pregnant wife fly home, and Will uses this opportunity to ask his dad about the real story of his life, not the half-truths and legends that his dad has told him when he was younger

For example, Edward told his son that on the day Will was born, Edward was down at the creek trying to catch a giant uncatchable catfish. Edward said he used his wedding ring as bait and finally caught the fish, but as he was reeling it in, his wife went into labor, so he had to retrieve his wedding wing from the fish’s mouth, set it free in the creek, and rush to the hospital. Edward tells that story at Will’s wedding, but Will says angrily to his mom, “He was on a sales trip to Wichita.” Is the fish story true? No. But is it a great story? You bet.

When Will arrives at his dad’s bedside, the two men together for the first time in years. Will says he’s going to be a father and Edward says, “You’re in for quite a surprise. Having a baby changes your life. There’s the diapers and the burping and the midnight feedings.” Will says, “Dad, did you do any of that?” Edward responds, “No, but I hear it’s terrible.”

As Will sits with his dad, he tells him he wants to know the true version of things, not the fables Edward has been spinning. Edward says, “I tell stories.” Will responds, “You tell lies, amusing lies.” But Edward insists his stories really happened and begins to recount them again. Through director Tim Burton’s magical vision, we see Edward’s stories played out: the story about seeing his own death in the glass eye of a witch, the story about befriending a giant named Karl, the story about meeting a circus ringmaster who was also a werewolf, the story about rescuing Siamese twins while on a mission during the war, and the story about getting his car stuck in a tree during a rainstorm. Will says, “Dad, I have no idea who you are because you’ve never told me a single fact.”

Will is right. His dad’s stories are absurd. Exaggerated. Irrational. Kind of like a story about a man who fed five thousand people with just five loaves of bread and two fish. Or the story about a man who built a boat so big he could fit two of every kind of animal on it. Or the story about a man who jumped in the ocean and lived for three days in the belly of a big fish. Or – the granddaddy of them all – the story about a man who was killed on a cross but three days later walked out of his tomb like he was strolling through the park. Absurd. Irrational. Stories of mythic proportions.

Are any of those stories true? Were any of Edward’s stories true? I honestly don’t know. Some people say all the stories in the Bible have to be true or else none of them are true. I don’t believe that. Other people say the Bible is just a bunch of made-up stories to make people feel good. I don’t believe that either. I think the truth may lie somewhere in between. It all depends on what you mean by “true.”

Let’s get at it by way of an analogy. When I walk out on my deck in the morning and see light appear in the sky, I say, “The sun is rising.” Now, a meteorologist or astronomer would be quick to point out that statement is factually untrue. The sun doesn’t rise or set; it stays still while the earth moves. But my experience tells me that the sun rises and sets. That is true for me, even if it’s not true in other ways.

Are the stories in the Bible true in a way that we can prove them? That was never an issue for the early readers of the Bible. They didn’t care about the verifiable truth of scripture, because for them, it was true in more profound ways. For example, archaeology has shown no evidence of a group the size of the Israelites leaving Egypt, traveling 40 years in the desert, and settling in Canaan. No candy wrappers, no discarded maps, no sandal prints. Archaeology and the Bible don’t line up. But that didn’t make a lick of difference to the early readers.

Getting the past right was not the driving issue of the biblical writers. The primary purpose of the Bible was to tell the story of God and God’s people as a way of explaining their current situation, not unlike how other cultures used supernatural stories to explain natural phenomena. They didn’t care that the facts didn’t line up. They didn’t care that in the Bible God spoke directly to people, the sun stopped moving, Jesus drove out demons, and animals talked. Who cares if that stuff doesn’t happen today? The purpose of the Bible is not to explain science or accurately recount historical events. And as soon to use it to do those things, we’re severely distorting the Bible’s purpose. Trying to contort the Bible to be factually true isn’t submitting to God, it’s making God submit to us.

I believe “Big Fish” and the Bible have something in common: every story in them is true and some of them really happened, and the more we can grasp that truth, the more the Bible comes alive for us. We can quibble over how long a day was during Creation or how Moses did all those plagues or how God rolled away the stone from the tomb. Or we can just listen to the stories and the truths they contain for us and let them take root in our hearts.

Toward the end of the movie, Edward the father has a stroke, so the son Will goes to his bedside. The family doctor is there and asks Will if he wants to know the true story of his birth. The doctor says, “Your mother came in about three in the afternoon. Her neighbor drove her, on account of your father was on business in Wichita. You were born a week early, but there were no complications. It was a perfect delivery. Now, your father was sorry to miss it, but it wasn’t the custom for men to be in the room for deliveries then, so I can’t see as it would have been much different if he had been there. And that’s the real story of how you were born. Not very exciting, is it? And I suppose if I had to choose between the true version and an elaborate one involving a fish and a wedding ring, I might choose the fancy version. But that’s just me.”

Later that night, Edward wakes up and sees Will sitting beside him. Barely able to speak, Edward asks Will to tell him the story of how he dies. Will says, “I don’t know, Dad. You never told me that story.” Edward insists more fervently, “Tell me the story.” And something in Will softens. So, the son, who used to be so jaded by his dad’s fantastic stories, tells one of his own. With tears rolling down his cheeks, he tells the story about how he helps his dad escape from the hospital and goes down to the riverbank, where all the characters from his dad’s stories have assembled. He tells about how he takes his father into the river and sets him down in the water, where the dad turns into a big fish and swims away. Will says, “And that’s how it happens.” Edward whispers, “Exactly,” and then closes his eyes and dies in the hospital bed.

But that’s not the end of the story. Later, at his father’s funeral, Will is stunned to see some of the characters his dad told him about in his stories are actual people who’ve come to pay their respects: the giant named Karl, the ringmaster from the circus, the Siamese twins (actually two separate identical twins). Will always thought these stories were just made up, fairy tales from his dad’s quirky brain. But the people were real. Maybe there was some truth to these stories after all.

Are the stories in the Bible true? I don’t know. But I’ve seen a small amount of food feed a hungry crowd at a soup kitchen. I’ve seen a rainbow in the sky after a hellacious storm and people band together to repair the damage the storm left behind. I’ve seen new life spring up from a loved one’s death as warring relatives reconcile. I’ve seen people who ran away from God come slinking back, only to be welcomed with open arms by God’s church like the prodigal son returning home. Did all the stories in the Bible happen? Maybe. Are they true? You bet. Some people say you have to believe they all are historically true, but I don’t believe that. And some say they are all made up, told to fool us into belief. I don’t believe that either. I believe the Bible is a book of mythic proportions, telling the story of a God who can’t be contained within its pages.

You see, our world tells us one story. We’re born, a collision of molecules, a random sampling of DNA. We grow up, get jobs, have families. Then we die. End of story. Not very exciting, is it? But the Bible tells us a different story, about a God who chose us, formed us, breathed us into creation, nurtured us in childhood, cleansed us in the waters of baptism, called us to do good works, showed us how to love others, and promised us that death is not the end of us. Now, if I had to choose between the world’s version and God’s version, I think I’d choose God’s version, even if I can’t prove that it’s true. But that’s just me. How about you?

 

 

 

 

 

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Reel Faith Sermon Series – The Soloist

SCRIPTURE – John 15:12-17 – “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants[d] any longer, because the servant[e] does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”

SERMON
Reel Faith Sermon Series
The Soloist – John 15:12-17
July 28, 2019
Rev. Kory Wilcoxson

Do you all remember the new business concept I shared with you a few years ago? I think I’m ready to pull the trigger on it and I’m looking for investors. The idea is for a gas station, but it’s not like any gas station you’ve ever seen. When you pull up to the pump, instead of getting out of your car, a person comes from inside the gas station, asks you how much gas you want, and – get this! – they pump your gas for you. I think I’ll call them “attendants.” Not only will they pump your gas, but they’ll also wash your windshield and even check your oil if you want, all while you wait inside the comfort of your vehicle. Isn’t that a novel concept?

Of course it’s not. Once upon a time, all gas stations operated that way. I can still remember pulling into gas stations in my hometown and choosing between the two islands: full-service and self-service. When’s the last time you saw a full-service gas station? Nowadays, everything is self-service, from gas stations to banks to grocery stores. The term “self-service” implies we don’t need no stinkin’ attendants; we can do it ourselves! But that attitude of self-service becomes problematic when it runs up against Jesus’ call to serve others. Do we sometimes serve others to make ourselves feel better?

We’re continuing our summer sermon series called “Reel Faith,” in which we’re looking at some popular movies and the spiritual messages they contain. We may not think we can find God in “The Shawshank Redemption” or “Field of Dreams,” but I believe God speaks to us in a variety of ways in which we are most likely to hear God, including through the big screen.

Today’s movie is “The Soloist,” a 2009 film starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx. It’s the true story of Steve Lopez, an L.A. Times columnist who discovers Nathaniel, homeless man, playing a two-stringed violin in an L.A. park. Lopez extends his hand in greeting, but Nathaniel shrinks back, afraid to be touched. Lopez asks Nathaniel a few questions, and in Nathaniel’s rambling, semi-coherent answer, he mentions the word “Julliard,” the famous New York music school. After some digging, Lopez learns that Nathaniel used to be a cello student at Julliard but dropped out because of his mental illness.

Lopez writes a column about Nathaniel, but in the midst of getting to know him, a stronger bond forms. These two men couldn’t be more different Lopez is a suburbanite whose biggest problem is raccoons digging up his well-manicured lawn. Nathaniel is homeless, mentally ill, and almost unreachable in his constant state of manic confusion. Nathaniel chooses to live on the streets instead of going to a homeless shelter.

Because of Lopez’ newspaper story, someone donates a cello for Nathaniel, but in an effort to get him off the streets, Lopez will only let him play it at the shelter. Lopez badgers the shelter director to get Nathaniel medical help and a diagnosis, but the director responds, “Nathaniel doesn’t need one more person telling him he needs medication.” This creates a crisis for Lopez, which he narrates in a voice-over: “I tell Nathaniel the streets are no place for him, but he said he needs to be here. It’s his choice. Should I try to force him inside?” In other words, should Lopez let Nathaniel do what he wants, or make him do what Lopez thinks is best?

Lopez’ inner conflict grows when he sets up an opportunity for Nathaniel to hear the L.A. Symphony rehearse. At first, Nathaniel agrees, but then at the last minute, he refuses because he doesn’t want to leave his shopping cart at the homeless shelter for fear someone will steal it. Lopez is frustrated that Nathaniel won’t do what Lopez thinks he should do, and he explodes: “Fine. There are a million other things I could be doing right now. Things people pay me to do. I have a job. I’m a professional person.” Is this about Nathaniel or about Lopez making himself feel better? Lopez looks around at the homeless people surrounding him, apologizes, and helps Lopez push his shopping cart several blocks to the concert hall.

Can you relate to Lopez’ dilemma? Author David Goetz can. In his book Death by Suburb, Goetz tells about how he volunteered for a ministry program that helped inmates transition back into the world after their incarceration. He was paired with a prisoner named Pete, who was approaching his parole. Goetz met repeatedly with Pete, working with him to help smooth the difficult transition from prison to a local halfway house. Goetz said he had big dreams for Pete that included Pete marrying his girlfriend, buying a house, and settling down in the suburbs.

So, imagine Goetz’s anger when he found out that Pete had been arrested again after only a few months out of jail. Goetz said he was furious because Pete had jeopardized all of Goetz’s plans for him. Goetz was using Pete in his pursuit of significance. He wanted to help a poor person become a suburbanite just like him. Do we suffer from the same motivations? Do we serve others so they can become like us? That’s not full service, that’s self-service, and that’s much different than Jesus calling us to lay down our lives for our friends.

Lopez’s struggle with this heightens. He sets up an apartment for Nathaniel so he can take cello lessons, not knowing that Nathaniel used to live alone in an apartment, which made his mental illness worse. Lopez again appeals to the shelter director for help, telling the director to force Nathaniel to see a psychiatrist. Lopez asks, “What if that’s all he needs to be well? What if that changed his life?” The director says, “Nathaniel has only one thing going for him. A friend. Don’t betray him and destroy his world.” Lopez responses, “I don’t want to be his only thing.” When Lopez tries to get Nathaniel to sign papers admitting Nathaniel is schizophrenic, Nathaniel attacks Lopez and threatens to kill him.

When we serve as Jesus calls us to serve, it can be messy, and it may not end the way we want. That’s why Goetz says we often find ourselves serving in safe or comfortable programs, where we won’t get dirty or risk forming a relationship with someone in deep need. There are people who need friends, who need money, who need a listening ear or a chunk of our time because they are in such deep poverty or despair. But why get involved in that if there’s no upside for us if things won’t turn out how we want?

You all may remember Tanya Torp from Step by Step Ministries, who spoke with us earlier this year about the work her organization does with young single moms. I was having coffee with Tanya a few months ago because I wanted to learn more about the challenges faced by people living on the north side of Lexington. We don’t see the challenges here on Bellefonte Drive, and I want to find ways for our church to connect with people in real, deep ways that not only meets needs but builds relationships.

I asked Tanya about her neighborhood and what people needed. I was thinking about food or clothing or tutoring or transportation. I will never forget her answer. “What we need is someone to come and sit on our porch and listen to our stories. We’ve had churches come in here and help us for a few days and then leave without ever getting to know us. You want to help us? Sit on our porches and talk to us.”

That’s what Lopez fails to do with Nathaniel. At first, he sees him as a story, a project, someone with amazing talent that Lopez can help mold into his image of what he thinks Nathaniel should be. He sets up a recital for Nathaniel in front of a crowd, but Nathaniel freaks out and runs away. When Lopez realizes Nathaniel can’t be who Lopez wants, Lopez says, “I can’t see any outcome to support. I’m done trying. I resign.” It’s only when Lopez spends time at the homeless shelter, sleeps on the street with Nathaniel, listens to him as a person, that Lopez understands what Nathaniel really needs. As one person tells Lopez, “You’re never going to cure. Nathaniel. Just be his friend and show up.”

At the end of the movie, the two men meet again after Nathaniel’s attack on Lopez.  For the first time in the movie, Lopez calls Nathaniel “Mr. Ayers” as a sign of respect. Nathaniel is no longer a charity case, someone to help in order for Lopez to feel better about himself. Lopez tells Nathaniel, “Sometimes friends make each other mad. I’m honored to be your friend.” And Nathaniel shakes his hand.

So, who gets helped in this movie? Does Lopez help Nathaniel? Does Nathaniel help Lopez? Probably a little bit of both, but neither in ways that are ultimately satisfying. In the end, Nathaniel is still homeless and Lopez is still frustrated. But that’s as it should be. Serving others is not about the outcome, because sometimes there may never be an outcome. It’s about the journey, the relationships that are developed, the deepening of our own compassion and empathy when we risk our well-being to enter into someone else’s pain and suffering. We may not alleviate it, but we certainly can help them bear it when the load gets too heavy.

What we have to fight against is our tendency to make those we serve “normal” like us. We think we have it all figured out and if we can just help that other person get to where we are, then they’ll have it figured out, too. But we can never fully figure it out and that way of thinking treats the people we serve as projects, as missions, not as human beings. When Jesus calls us to lay down our lives for our friends, I don’t think he means for us to die for them. I think he means for us to take our lives – our priorities, our expectations – and lay them aside so that we can focus on seeing the other person for who they are. That’s what friends do.

Lopez sees that Nathaniel is at his most “normal” when he’s playing music, and in that moment, Lopez realizes that he has something to learn from this homeless man, not the other way around. Lopez describes it this way: “I watched him, he’s experiencing something higher. I’ve never experienced it, I don’t even know what you call it.” And Lopez’s friend says, “Grace. It’s called grace.”

This church does a lot of great things to serve other people. It’s a core value of who we are. But we must constantly be checking ourselves to make sure that we’re not serving others in order to serve ourselves, to make ourselves feel better. It’s not about us. Jesus says, “I’ve come not to be served, but to serve.” May we follow that example, sitting on porches, listening to stories, seeing the image of God in everyone, even those who mumble to themselves and play two-stringed violins. Because you just never know when you are entertaining an angel without even knowing it. You just never know where you’ll find grace.

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Reel Faith Sermon Series – The Shawshank Redemption

SCRIPTURE – Romans 5:1-5 – Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

SERMON
Reel Faith Sermon Series
The Shawshank Redemption – Hope
July 14, 2019 – Romans 5:1-5
Rev. Kory Wilcoxson

For one of my first classes in seminary, I was asked to write a paper about why I had faith. That’s the moment I knew I was going to fail seminary. How do you answer that? Do you have faith in order to get into Heaven? Do you have faith because you believe it makes you a better person? I said the reason I have faith is because it gives me hope, and I would rather live with hope in something and Someone bigger than me than to live as if this world is all there is.

How you do define “hope”? The dictionary says it’s “a desire accompanied by expectation of or belief in fulfillment.” Feels a bit stodgy, but it gets to the point that hope is the belief in something you want to happen, even without evidence that it will happen. Another dictionary says to hope is “to cherish a desire with anticipation.” But the best definition I’ve ever heard for hope comes from the poet Emily Dickinson, who wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers/that perches in the soul/and sings a tune without the words/and never stops at all.”

Hope is the central theme of our movie for today. As we continue our “Reel Faith” sermon series, we’re talking about one of the most beloved, iconic movies of the last few decades, “The Shawshank Redemption.” It ranks as #72 on the American Film Institute’s all-time movie list and received a 98% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes. That other 2 % probably kick puppies and pinch babies.

“The Shawshank Redemption,” based on a Stephen King novella, tells the story of Andy Dufresne, a mild-mannered, cerebral banker who’s falsely accused of killing his wife and her lover. He’s found guilty and sentenced to serve his time in Shawshank Prison, a hell on earth run by a ruthless warden and violent prison guards. It’s a place where a soft-spoken intellectual like Andy doesn’t fit, and he’s forced to adapt his way of life to survive in his new surroundings without letting the primitive brutality of the prison kill his spirit. As one inmate says, “When they put you in that cell… and those bars slam home…that’s when you know it’s for real. A whole life blown away in the blink of an eye. Nothing left but all the time in the world to think about it.”

During his first few weeks in Shawshank Andy befriends Red, who was sentenced to prison for life as a teenager for murder. Red, played by Morgan Freeman, is now well into middle age and long past his violent days, but a life sentence is a life sentence, so Red is resigned to living out the rest of his days in Shawshank. He’s denied parole every time he is up for it, and he’s long since last any reason to have hope for freedom. Red becomes the narrator of the movie.

Red helps Andy learn the rules about life in Shawshank. Red is the guy who can “get things” in the prison, like cigarettes or books, so Andy goes to Red with an odd request: he wants a small rock hammer that he can use to chisel chess figurines out of the rocks he finds in the prison yard. Red gets that for him, along with a poster of Rita Hayworth that Andy hangs on his cell wall. It’s in the small things like the hammer and the poster that Andy is able to remain true to himself in spite of his new surroundings.

Once the warden learns of Andy’s banking expertise, he starts having Andy do his taxes, directing Andy to illegally shuffle money around so that the warden can steal from the prison without getting caught. Andy tells Red, “I was honest on the outside, it was only in prison that I learned how to become a crook.” Andy helps the warden and, as a reward, earns some perks around the prison, like starting a library to help inmates earn their high school diploma. It’s another way Andy shares a sense of hope inside Shawshank

As his time in Shawshank lengthens, Andy maintains this inner sanctuary of hope and makes it his mission to share it with others. In one of the most powerful scenes, Andy sneaks in the warden’s office and locks the door. Then, he puts an opera record on the warden’s gramophone and plays it over the loudspeaker so all the prisoners can hear. Listen to what Red says when he hears the music: “I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are better left unsaid. I’d like to think they were singing about something so beautiful it can’t expressed in words, and it makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you, those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a grey place dares to dream. It was as if some beautiful bird had flapped into our drab little cage and made these walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.” Hope is a thing with feathers.

But not so for Red. Andy is sentenced to a month in solitary confinement for the opera stunt. When he gets out, Red asks him why he did it, and Andy says he needed to hear the music so he wouldn’t forget that there’s a reason to have hope for something outside the prison walls. Red, who has been denied parole for years, responds angrily, “Hope. Let me tell you something my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope will drive a man insane. It’s got no use on the inside. You better get used to that idea.” Red has been in prison long enough to know that there’s no reason to have hope any longer.

I want to remind you of the Romans passage I read earlier because it’s going to come into play when we get to the end of the movie. Paul encourages the Romans to rejoice in their sufferings and gives this peculiar progression. He says, “Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint.” Every time I hear that passage, I think of Andy Dufresne, who suffered unjustly at Shawshank, who endured his time there, who never lost his integrity, and who, in the end, held out hope, even when everything seemed hopeless.

Hope is one of the reasons people make fun of Christians, just as Red cautioned Andy. Many people think that being a Christian gives people a false sense of hope, promising happiness and peace and eternal life, but never really delivering. For me, having faith has never been a promise of happiness, and the peace I experience is often in spite of the turmoil or conflict in my life. God doesn’t promise to take away the hard parts of life, but rather to walk with us through them. And as for eternal life…who knows? But I would rather live believing it’s true because it gives makes life richer, more meaningful. That’s where my hope comes from.

And yet, we know what it’s like to feel hopeless. We know what it’s like to feel confined by our guilt, our pain, a diagnosis, a rejection letter, a poor decision by a loved one. We’ve felt the chains of loneliness wrap around our hearts, heard the slamming doors of frustration cutting off our dreams and opportunities. Even with all our blessings, we know what it feels to be hopeless, to wonder if there really is anything bigger than the cruel capriciousness of this life.

Andy felt that acutely, and yet he never stopped dreaming of more. Near the end of the movie, Andy tells Red about a dream he has of getting out of prison and going to Zihuatanejo, Mexico, to open a hotel. Red chastises Andy, telling him, “That’s a pipe dream. Mexico is way down there and you’re in here.” Andy says, “I guess that leaves me one choice. Get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’.” I’d like to think each of us face that same choice each time we feel we’re in a hopeless situation. Do we choose to live with hope?

Andy did, even when he was surrounded 24/7 by four concrete walls. Or was he? One morning, when the guards go to get Andy from his cell, it’s empty. He’s vanished into thin air. The warden storms in and throws a fit, only to discover that behind the poster on Andy’s wall is a tunnel that’s been meticulously chiseled with a small rock hammer over the course of 25 years. We learn that on the previous night, Andy crawled through that tunnel and then through 300 yards of sewer pipe to make his escape. In the most iconic image from the movie, Andy emerges from the sewer people into a rainstorm, arms raised to the sky as he tastes his new life for the first time. Seems like I remember another story about guards surrounding a cell that ends up being empty, and the former occupant emerging three days (not three hundred yards) later to new life.

But Andy’s story is not over. You remember all that money he was hiding for the warden? Actually, he was putting it in an account he created for himself, which he now retrieves and uses to start a new life on a beach by the crystal blue waters of Mexico. As Red says when he learns of Andy’s escape, “Some birds are meant to be caged.” Hope is a thing with feathers.

Now, if the movie ended there, it would be a good movie. Maybe a great movie. But what makes it a phenomenal movie is what happens next. While he was still in prison, Andy told Red that if Red ever got out, he was to go to a certain tree in a certain small town and find something buried underneath it. At the time, Red thinks Andy is crazy but he promises, and after Andy escapes, much to his surprise, Red is granted parole and released from prison. He’s been institutionalized so long that he’s afraid he won’t survive on the outside, even contemplating crimes he can commit so that he can be locked up again. The only thing that keeps him from doing it is his promise to Andy.

Under that tree, Red finds $1000 and a note that reads, “Dear Red. If you’re reading this, you’ve gotten out. And if you’ve come this far, maybe you’re willing to come a little further. You remember the name of the town, don’t you? I could use a good man to help me get my project on wheels. I’ll keep an eye out for you and the chessboard ready. Remember, Red. Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies. I will be hoping that this letter finds you, and finds you well. Your friend. Andy.” Suffering produces endurance, which produces character, which produces hope, and hope does not disappoint.

Red buys a bus ticket and heads to Zihuatanejo. This former murderer, hardened by a life in Shawshank prison, who previously had given up on hope, ends the movie with these words: “I find I am so excited I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it is the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain…I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.” The last scene of the movie is Andy and Red hugging on a beach beside the blue waters of the Pacific Ocean.

There is so much I love about this movie, but what I love most is that it reminds me of the tenacious power of hope. When things are going great, we don’t need hope. When we need it is when we feel walled in by our circumstances, or crawling through the sewers of life looking for a light at the end of the tunnel, or desperate for a reminder that God hasn’t forgotten us. In those moments, we need to be reminded that Jesus Christ died on the cross so that we will know how much we are loved and how much God is with us.

There’s so much I don’t know about faith. That might get me fired because y’all are paying me to know those things. But I don’t know them; that’s what makes it faith. But I have hope, and hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies. Hope does not disappoint.

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