This is another sermon in a series about how the world overwhelms us and how the Bible encourages to stay grounded in God’s love and grace.
SCRIPTURE – Romans 12:9-21 – Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.[c] Do not be conceited.
17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”[d] says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”[e]
21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Overwhelmed Sermon Series
#5 – Unbreaking Our Hearts
I remember the first time I became aware that the world was larger than my universe, and that it was not nearly as safe and comfortable as I assumed. I was probably about five, watching TV and a commercial came on featuring Sally Struthers, who I only knew as Meathead’s wife on “All in the Family.” She talked for a few seconds, and then the commercial showed pictures of these children in Africa who were malnourished, who had open wounds, who had flies crawling around their faces. I had been threatened by my mom to eat all my Brussel sprouts and cottage cheese because there were kids starving in Africa, but I didn’t know there were REALLY kids starving in Africa. I watched the rest of the commercial in silence and disbelief. You mean there were people in the world who didn’t have it as good as me? What was my little five-year-old mind supposed to do with that?
Today we continue our sermon series called “Overwhelmed,” in which we’re wrestling with the ways life overwhelms us and how the Bible and our faith help us cope. We’ve talked about being overwhelmed by our busyness, by our stuff, by how much we are needed, and by the illusion that we should be perfect. Today, we’re talking about how we are overwhelmed by the need we see around us and how it can be almost paralyzing. In the face of such overwhelming need and suffering, what can we do? What difference can we make?
Just a few months after I started here at Crestwood, Haiti was hit with a devastating earthquake. Thousands were killed and millions of dollars of damage was done in this already impoverished country. A few months later, we did a Sunday School series called “God of the Earthquake,” in which we tried to make sense of why such things happen and where God was in the midst of it. I taught one of those classes, and I remember struggling with what to say that would provide answers in the face of such death and destruction. While people were suffering and dying, I was teaching a class. Was that enough? Was there more I should be doing?
It seems like we wrestle with this issue almost daily. Turn on the news or fire up your computer and you’re likely to read about something tragic that’s happened in another part of the world. Tornadoes in Louisiana, terrorist attacks in Tel Aviv, natural disasters, humanly-caused oppression and violence. The bad news is unavoidable. And that doesn’t even take into consideration the poverty, racism, and homelessness we drive by in our own community. Every day we are reminded of the amount of need there is around us.
This wasn’t as much of an issue in previous generations. World-wide suffering was relegated to a few column inches in a newspaper or 30 seconds on the local news. But once the size of the planet shrank, thanks to technology, suddenly AIDS-stricken villages in Africa and bullet-riddled schools in Sandy Hook felt like they were next door. These tragedies went from being abstract to very real, with images, faces, and body counts attached.
When confronted with this, we can’t helped but be moved. That’s not just a Christian response, that’s a human response. I’m still haunted by the image from Aleppo of the dust-covered little boy sitting in the back of an ambulance after his building was bombed. Or the body of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old refugee boy washed up on the beach in Turkey. When I think about those images, along with my sadness and anger, I feel guilt. I feel helpless. “I should do something. But what can I do? There’s nothing I can do.” It’s overwhelming.
My first reaction is to take it out on God, to shake my fist and scream to the heavens, “What are you doing? Where are you?” I don’t believe God causes all this stuff, but I still need to be mad at SOMEbody. Is it OK to get mad at God? Well, according to a source I read, not only is it OK, we are given permission. That source is the Bible. A good portion of the book of Psalms contain psalms of lament, which were written to express the emotions of anger and sadness felt across humanity. You can hear the anguish in the psalmist’s voice when we read, “Why, O Lord, do you stand far away?” “Why do you forget our affliction?” “Why have you forsaken me?” Author Jacqueline Bussie calls is “audacious why-asking,” and reminds us that God is big enough to take our anger and frustration. When we feel overwhelmed by the need around us, a good place to start is to pray these questions to God. Our prayers become our protests against the evil and injustice we see. “Why, God?”
Of course, that doesn’t mean we’re going to get an answer that satisfies us, if we get an answer at all. And in the absence of a good answer, we’ll make up a bad one, as if God is relying on us to explain what’s going on. God doesn’t need us to defend God, and when we do, we tend to slip into Christian clichés that are, at best, not helpful and, at worst, theologically irresponsible. Saying “Everything happens for a reason” or “God has a plan” in the face of starving children or mass genocide makes God look like an insensitive jerk who doesn’t really care about the life God is supposed to have created. We can’t explain why these things happen. We can’t understand. We won’t understand.
That can feel hopeless, but remember that in the midst of all the bad news, we have the gospel, which literally means “good news.” I believe our God knows what it means to grieve, so God feels what we feel in the face of the need around us. Let’s never forget that God watched God’s own son be arrested, beaten, and ultimately crucified on a cross. God watches over and over again as God’s beloved creation – that’s us – spew hatred, pass judgment, answer violence with violence. God knows what it’s like to be overwhelmed by the need around us.
And yet, God still loves us, in spite of all the stuff we’ve caused and we have to deal with. Frederick Buechner has an interesting quote about holy manure, two words I never expected to say together until this sermon. He says, “I’ll tell you about manure. If you don’t pile it up too thick in any one place, it makes the seeds grow. God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son down into the manure with the rest of us so that something green could happen, something small and green and hopeful.”
In the midst of the need around us, God promises to work with the manure to bring forth something small and green and hopeful. And that starts with each one of us. We can choose to hold all of the manure the world throws at us, or we can choose to compost our sufferings. When we compost the pain and the grief and the need, we create within us a space where something can grow, something stronger and more resilient than the suffering of the world. We can cultivate hope, and it’s that hope that is going to save us, because that hope doesn’t come from us. That hope comes from God.
What does that look like in concrete terms? Let me tell you a story I read about Vlad-e-slaw Miss-e-una. During World War II, Vlad-e-slaw worked as an overseer in a German concentration camp, in charge of monitoring 30 young Jewish women. Despite his official duties, he was secretly so horrified at their health and living conditions that he started sneaking food to the women. One day, one of the women, Devora, fell seriously sick. She developed open lesions on her arms and wasn’t able to work in the camp. Vlad-e-slaw knew that if she didn’t work, she would die. He also knew that if she didn’t get treatment, she would die. And he knew that if the guards at the camp knew she was sick, they would kill her.
What do you do when the situation is hopeless? You compost your suffering and let something green grow. What Vlad-e-slaw did was this: he cut himself on purpose and rubbed his own wound up against Devora’s lesions, thus infecting himself with her sickness. He then went to the doctor, got medication, and gave half to himself and half to Devora. They both got better, and both survived the war. Paul says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and mourn with those who mourn.” In our state of abundance and wealth and comfort, if we rub up against the ills of the world, we run the risk of getting infected. But we also create the conditions for healing to occur. God gave us the power to make a difference in this world, and you are never more powerful than when you share your power and you share in someone else’s weakness. That’s the condition in which something green and hopeful can grow.
By doing so, your faith, your actions, become acts of resistance, and resistance is the secret of hope. Refusing to accept things the way they are is the first step toward change. Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” What would it meant to resist having enemies. Does that sound silly? Resist treating anyone as an enemy. It’s our choice, right? What would it mean to resist hating someone? Doesn’t matter what they’ve done. Refuse to hate them. What would it meant to resist the lie that you can’t make a difference? You know, maybe you can’t do anything by yourself. But look around. Are you by yourself?
So what happens when you see something half a world away that breaks your heart? It would be really easy to change the channel or close the computer. Our hearts have been broken enough, haven’t they? Do we dare let them be broken one more time? God says, “In your weakness, I am made strong. Through the manure of this world, I can make things grow.”
So here’s how you can compost your pain, your suffering, your broken heart. When you see a story on the news that disturbs you, find someone around you to love. When you see the body of a child washed up on a foreign beach, donate to local shelter for abused women and children. When you are touched by the news of people starving, volunteer at a local food pantry. Does it bother you that people are forced to flee their homes because of oppression or violence? Help sponsor a refugee family. If you feel a group of people are being treated unfairly, find someone from that group and stand with them. You may not be able to help that person on the screen, but you can help someone. And hope starts with helping someone.
We are blessed, because we can put our hope in so many things – our education, our money, our stuff, our healthcare. But many, many people in this world don’t have those things. They can only put their hope in two things: God and other people. That’s you and me. My prayer is that are hearts are never unbroken, that we never grow numb to the need around us, that we take our pain to God, that we open ourselves to the suffering of others, that we compost our pain. “God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son down into the manure with the rest of us so that something green could happen, something small and green and hopeful.”