A sermon at Ketchikan Presbyterian Church by George R. Pasley
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
I heard a story on National Public Radio a few years back- it was not an uncommon theme, but it struck me and I keep it in mind.
Thirty-three years ago, Denise and James Reston had a baby girl. Hillary.
Hillary was their third child. She was bright, gregarious, and charming. Her parents had every reason to believe she would grow up to be an accomplished, successful and responsible citizen of the world.
But something happened. At the age of 18-months, Hillary developed a fever. Nothing could be done, and the family waited it out. The fever broke, and it looked like she had survived. But she hadn’t.
Several months later Hillary started having seizures. Hillary’s parents saw her vocabulary of about 200 words “drop away one by one by one. Then it was only three words. Then it was just sounds. The doctors told Hillary’s parents that her brain was severely damaged by the fever, and that she was mentally retarded.
Hillary is now 33, but she is about the size of a 10-year-old. Her life has included a kidney disease so severe that it took a transplant to save her. She has a job, shredding papers. Her parents and her older siblings love her, and care for her.
Her father, a writer, has written a book about his child. In the opening chapter, he writes:
“In the early years of Hillary’s illness, we often wondered, angrily, why our child had been singled out, and why we, far from perfect perhaps, but good and decent people, had been cursed. We demanded an answer about the randomness of tragedy. Why us? We asked as if rationality guides the universe. We demanded to comprehend the incomprehensible.”
(Fragile Innocence: A Father’s Memoir of His Daughter’s Courageous Journey © Copyright 2006 by James Reston Jr. Published by Harmony Books.)
A few weeks ago, I received an e-mail chronicling the struggles of small churches in small villages throughout Alaska. Deaths seem to come in bunches, but even one death can affect a small town in a myriad of ways that ripple for years, if not decades.
Once there was a murder in Hoonah. Another time there was a murder in Kake. Another time there was a suicide in Metlakatla. Another time there was an accidental death in Hydaburg. Here in Ketchikan, there was a stillborn baby. Other times there have been deaths at sea. Stories still abound about the closing of mills and other industries.
And as I read those prayers and shared them, you here in Southeast Alaska thought of other villages facing similar hard times. And I, who only recently came from Kansas, thought of those wonderful small towns that once populated America’s farm country- small towns and churches that are fading away because the world is changing and there is no room for them.
A few years ago I went back east to visit, and while I was there one of my acquaintances learned that his grandson had disappeared on a bitterly cold night in Fairbanks.
He was never found
In all of those situations, we demand to comprehend the incomprehensible. But we proclaim Christ, crucified.
Consider another man, a righteous man, a generous man. He was a man who gave hope to all who needed it, a man struck many times by compassion, a man who was one that many followed. His name was Jesus.
One of his disciples said of him, “We thought him to be the Messiah.”
But instead he was crucified, and his disciples were left trying “to comprehend the incomprehensible.”
Well we know there was more to the story- that he was raised from the dead, and what wonderful knowledge that is.
But we proclaim Christ crucified. We proclaim what is incomprehensible. To those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, it is the power of God and the wisdom of God.
But we have to admit, a different God would be easier to understand. A different God would be easier to explain and to proclaim. A different God would certainly be easier to preach! After all, how can you proclaim what is incomprehensible?
But this is the only God we have; there are no others before us.
We proclaim Christ crucified. To devout Jews of the age, it was unthinkable. To the Greeks, it was babble. And if I may add to what Paul wrote, to the Romans it was comical.
Those who had strength used it. Those who had limited strength looked for an edge- a weakness in their opponent, perhaps. Or perhaps they found a way to accentuate the strengths they had.
And those without strength? They ran. They hid. They hired a bodyguard. They joined a gymnasium.
But we proclaim Christ crucified. It is the power of God and it is the wisdom of God, but it is a different sort of power and wisdom.
It is the power of weakness and the wisdom of love. And even if it is incomprehensible, it is not without meaning. In fact, in all the history of the world, no proclamation has ever had as much meaning as the one we proclaim.
What does it mean? We see only through a very dark glass- we shall not comprehend completely until God wipes away every tear. But we can see just a little.
We can see that the power of God is measured in love, not horsepower.
We can see that success is measured by faithfulness, not acquisition.
And we can see that when we stand at the foot of the cross, we are standing at the intersection of humanity’s sin, and God’s grace.
When we love someone, there is no guarantee how that love will turn out, no matter who it is we love. And even if it does turn out, there can be quite a lot of mess along the way.
So, to love is to take a risk, to allow your heart to become vulnerable. That’s the risk that Christ took, and he held nothing back.
What does it mean? It does not mean that suffering is AUTOMATICALLY redemptive, but it does mean that if we live lives that reflect God’s righteousness we will sometimes do and say things that put us at risk.
Love is not weak. But it does take risks. And it measures success not by the wisdom of this world, but instead by the standard of faithfulness. In fact, any other measurement is putting a different God before us than the one who brought us out of slavery.
That does NOT mean we tolerate abuse. To women and others abused, we proclaim, “Christ was crucified for you, because he ate with the sinners, refused to condemn the prostitutes, and touched the outcastes. Christ was crucified for you after he criticized the righteous because they put heavy burdens on the backs of those who already knew how hard life can be. Do not let the world crucify you; Christ has already suffered, and he has risen.”
We proclaim Christ crucified, and that means being faithful to an incomprehensible love, a love that enters into the trenches with and even dies for those that Jesus called “the least of these.”
Carroll Pickett was an ordinary Presbyterian pastor until two of his church members were taken hostage where they worked at the maximum security prison in Huntsville, Texas. Authorities negotiated with the convicted murders who took them hostage for eleven days, but the incident ended in the death of the two women.
After their deaths, Pickett vowed never again to enter a prison. But an incomprehensible God was calling Pickett, and six years later he took a job as prison chaplain after remembering the verse, “I was in prison and you visited me.”
In fact, Pickett was assigned to the same unit where his parishioners had been murdered. It was traumatic for him to work in such a place, but every day he remembered that the prisoners needed Christ more than he did.
But faithfulness demanded just a little more of him. That came in 1982, when capital punishment was reinstated in Texas. Pickett was assigned to be the chaplain for death row.
Despite his connection to the families of murder victims, Picket was- and is- opposed to the death penalty. He considers it inhuman and he agrees with our denominations official position opposed to capital punishment.
But something else was weighing on Pickett’s mind, something that was calling him to faithfulness. That something was the belief that no one should die alone. The crucified Christ he proclaimed was calling him to stand with the prisoners in their final hour.
We might not understand the incomprehensible, but those prisoners do, when Pickett prays with them. Christ died an innocent man, but he was crucified between two thieves, extending paradise with his dying breath.
What does it mean to proclaim Christ crucified? Imagine that incomprehensible proclamation, heard by some others whose breath is being taken from them.
One is a Presbyterian elder, formerly active in both her congregation and her presbytery. She was formerly married to an ordained minister of word and sacrament. The marriage ended in divorce when her husband had an affair. His presbytery submitted him to discipline, but the discipline could not and did not heal her wounds. She loves God, but it is hard for her to go to church because the other party in the affair is also there. But when she goes, she needs to hear the proclamation of Christ, crucified.
She needs to hear it because Christ was abandoned on the cross, and waited in death for redemption. And in his suffering, he entered into hers.
Still others were living in the nursing home, and I went every week to read the lectionary scriptures to them. And on one particular week the scripture was from Psalm 22.
I knew the lesson before I arrived, and I was nervous. What would I be able to say? I had no idea, but they were waiting, some of them anxious, while others seemed to be blissfully unaware of their predicament. And I sat down and began to read:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.
They were all in wheelchairs. Some of them could not speak, others spoke only gibberish. Others needed to be fed with a spoon. Yet, when I looked up, they were listening.
I was reading the psalm that Christ recited in his hour of crucifixion- “Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.”
I caught my breath, because the words were sticking in my throat. When I read the lesson, those who were suffering understood. And it was they who taught me a lesson that day.
We proclaim Christ, crucified, and sometimes it is incomprehensible. But the proclamation is not logic to explain, it is a story of love to tell. And those who are suffering and forsaken- well, they will understand.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.