This at Last!

My Children
My Children
Genesis 2:18-24 NRSV

We Americans have always had a high regard for independence. We believe in a staunch individual ethic that leads people to step up, step out, and stand on their own two feet. We look up to those who are able to look after themselves, to take care of number one, to be responsible, to be independent. And we tend to look down on those who are dependent on others for their survival.

This is arguably the greatest virtue of our society, the aspiration of every boy and girl. Study hard, grow up, move out on your own, and get a good job, so you can become self-sufficient, self-reliant, self-supporting. And bookstore shelves and YouTube videos labeled, “Do-it-yourself” and “Self-help,” are filled with books and videos to help us keep our independence. Anything else and you are considered to be a failure, worthless, no count, lazy, good-for-nothing. Yes, in our society, independence is what it is all about.

Many grocery stores now have “self-checkout” lines that are almost always available with no waiting. If you are smart enough to check your own groceries, if you have good ol’ American wherewithal and work ethic, if you are responsible and have learned to really be independent, if you have elevated yourself to a place where the assistance of a Wal-Mart cashier is truly beneath you, then you’ve earned the right not to wait in line.

Independence. It is what makes turning 16 and getting your driver’s license so wonderful, and it is what makes the day the doctor or your children take the car keys away from you so dreadful.

Perhaps more than any other day, we fear the day we lose our independence. It is the reason we save for retirement, eat right, take our vitamins and exercise; so we can avoid the nursing home and remain independent to the bitter end.

This is why coming to church can sometimes be confusing, and oftentimes, challenging. We come to church and open our Bibles only to discover that God’s ideals and virtues are oftentimes very different from our own. We come to church to reaffirm our beliefs, only to have God call those beliefs into question.

On the very first pages of our Bible, we learn that the first thing that God said was “not good” was, guess what? Our independence.

“This is not good,” says the Lord, “I will have to keep working, continue creating, to make you a partner, someone on whom you can depend to help you be the person that I have created you to be.”

So out of the ground, the Lord formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air.

And then the man searched high and low. He became acquainted with each creature so intimately, that he was able to give a name to each one. But out of all of the animals that he encountered, and out of all of the birds that he watched, he could not find a single suitable companion, a partner on whom he could depend, with whom he could share a mutual relationship and an intimate communion.

But God did not give up. God was not finished. God was intent on helping the first human be the person he was created to be. So God kept working. God continued creating. However, this time, not from the ground; but from the man himself.

As the man slept, God removed one of his ribs and used that rib to make a woman. Instead of forming another human being from the ground, God split the first human being into two beings and then presented her to the man. It was then that the man said:

“This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”

This at last is the relationship for which have been searching.

This at last is the beloved communion for which I have been longing.

This at last is my partner, my companion, my confidant, my sister.

This at last is someone with whom I can be mutually connected.

This at last is someone on whom I can depend.

This at last is what I have needed to be the person that God has created me to be.

“This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”

But this is not the good news. This is not why we are here this morning, mutually connected, depending on one another, communing with one another.

The good news is God was not finished with God’s new beloved community. God knew that an even greater communion was needed if we were ever going to be the persons that God has created us to be. So God kept working. God continued creating. And, this time, God took it one step further.

God looked at God’s beloved community, and God, God’s holy self, decided to join the community! God came to be with us, and God came to be one of us. God became flesh. God became bone. And God’s beloved community called him “Jesus.”

And one night, as Jesus sat with his beloved community at a table, he took bread and broke it, and blessed it, saying, “This is my body.” Then he took the cup, saying, “This is my blood.”

And here we are today. We have gathered here this morning at a table with Christians all over the world, mutually connected, depending on one another and communing with one another, signing in one voice:

“This at last is bone of our bones and flesh of our flesh.”

This at last is the relationship for which we have been searching.

This at last is the beloved communion for which we have been longing.

This at last is our partner, our companion, our confidant, our brother.

This at last is someone with whom we can be mutually and eternally connected.

This at last is someone on whom we can truly depend.

This at last is what we have always needed, all we will ever need, to be the persons that God has created us to be.

This at last is the one who reminds us that we are all interconnected by the love of our God who never gives up on us, who keeps working and keeps creating until the whole creation understands that there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female, but we are all one in Christ Jesus our Lord.

One day, I was talking with someone who was dying with cancer. He told me that his illness had demonstrated to him the things that were truly important in life. He said, “And the funny thing is, that they are the opposite of what I always thought was important.”

He said: “I never knew how many friends I had until I got sick. And I never realized just how important they are. Jarrett, the truth is, ‘We really do need a little help from our friends.’” Before his illness he admitted that what he had valued more than anything in the world was his independence, “but no more,” he said, “no more.”

Then he said: “Maybe that is why God created us to depend on one another. It is like a kind of training.”

“Training?” I asked.

“Yes, training,” he said, “because the most important thing in this life is to reach a point where we learn to be dependent on God, to reach to a point sometime before we die, where we have truly put our lives into the hands of God.”

It was as if he was saying: “No more! Because, now I see it. Now, I get it. In my most vulnerable, most dependent state, now, I know it. This at last is what life is all about!”

This at last is why several of you went out in the pouring rain on Friday to cook and serve a meal in the community soup kitchen.

This at last is why we have purchased a missions trailer and are stocking it with tools to help people renovate or repair homes.

This at last is why many of us are planning to go back to West Virginia and Nicaragua.

This at last is why we are having a meeting tomorrow at Noon to talk about truly being the body of Christ in this world, protestant and catholic, black and white. Because despite their beliefs, despite the color of their skin, they are bone of our bones and flesh of our flesh. We are all mutually connected, equal partners, dependent. We are one body serving one Lord.

And this at last is why I held Emmit Brinson’s hand this morning in the hospital and prayed the following words:

O God,

Thank you for those you have placed in Emmit’s life on whom he depends.

Thank you for the love, the care and the prayers of his church family.

Thank you for the love and care of his children and grandchildren,

for the faithfulness of his partner, LaRue.

Thank you also for the love and care of this hospital,

for the wonders of medical science on which we depend;

for we know they are gifts from you.

Thank you also for Emmit’s faith and trust in you,

and for the way Emmit depends on you, daily.

And please let him know that you are not finished with him.

You are still working with him.

You are still creating.

Remind him, and remind all who love Emmit,

that he is in good hands,

for he is in the hands of the Great Physician.

He is in your hands.

Work through all of these relationships

to bring him healing, strength and peace,

especially through the special relationship he has with you through Jesus Christ. Amen.

This at last is why we are here: to be in relationships; to learn to depend on one another; to care for one another; to understand that at last we are all related; we are all united.

And as we depend on each other, we learn to depend on the One on whom we can depend forevermore, the One who came to us at last, the One who came to be with us and for us, the One to show us how to be the people God has created us to be: This at last, our Christ, our brother, our Lord and our Savior, bone of our bones and flesh of our flesh.[i]

[i] Inspired from: This at Last!, An Intergenerational Liturgy for World Communion Sunday, Nineteenth Sunday of Pentecost year B, written by the Rev. Dr. Laurel Koepf Taylor, Assistant Professor of Old Testament at Eden Theological Seminary, Saint Louis, Missouri.

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Choosing Our Pain

Mark 8:34-38 NRSV

This past week, I invited someone to visit our church. They responded that they had been wounded so badly by people in the church in the past, that they were much better off staying at home on Sunday mornings. Their words and the snow that had just fallen reminded me of an old song by Simon and Garfunkle:

A winter’s day in deep and dark December

I am alone, gazing from my window to the street below

On a freshly fallen, silent shroud of snow,

I am a rock, I am an island.

I’ve built walls, a fortress deep and mighty that none may penetrate.

I have no need of friendship.

Friendship causes pain.

It’s laughing, it’s loving I disdain.

I am a rock, I am an island

Don’t talk to me about love;

Well, I’ve heard that word before.

It is sleeping in my memory.

I won’t disturb this slumber of feelings that have died.

If I had never loved, I never would have cried.

I am a rock, I am an island.

I have my books and poetry to protect me.

I am shielded in my armor, hiding in my room, safe within my womb.

I touch no one, and no one touches me.

I am a rock, I am an island,

And a rock feels no pain, and an island never cries.

How many of us have been tempted by the brokenness of human relationships, hurt so badly by love, that were tempted to withdraw unto ourselves becoming rocks or islands?

We give our love to another—a spouse, a relative, maybe a friend, perhaps even the church. We empty ourselves. We pour out ourselves.  We make ourselves vulnerable as we give ourselves completely to that person, to that family or to that community.  And what do we get in return? We get disappointed. We get betrayed. We get stabbed in the back. We get manipulated. We get used and abused.

Sometimes the pain is so profound and so intense that we are tempted to withdraw. We say: “If loving others is only going to bring heartache and heartbreak, I will never love again! I will never open myself up, empty myself, pour myself out to another!

“If being her friend is going to hurt this much, I’ll go it alone. “If loving him is going to bring this pain, I’ll be a rock.” “If joining a church and getting involved in the life of the church is going to bring this much misery, then on Sunday mornings, I’ll be an island! And I will never feel pain and grief again!  For ‘a rock feels no pain, and an island never cries.’”

Perhaps we’ve all said it, or at least felt it. For who can deny the reality that when we do open ourselves up and love another as God has created us to love, we indeed open ourselves up to the enormous likelihood of grief and pain.

However, the question I would like to pose this morning is this: “Is the likelihood of grief and pain any less enormous when we choose to stay home, go it alone? Is it really true that “rocks do not hurt and islands do not cry?” The truth is that if we love, we cannot avoid grief. But can we truly avoid grief by avoiding love? As human beings, is it possible for us to avoid pain by going it alone, by living life outside of community?”

A Buddhist Monk would argue that the one element in life that is unavoidable in this world is pain. One of the four noble truths of Buddhism is that suffering is a basis for reality. Pain is in inescapable. I believe there is an element of truth here. If we love we will suffer. But if we go it alone we will also suffer. Whatever path we choose, pain is always inevitable.

Jesus himself said, “In the world, we will have tribulation.”

But here’s the good news: We have been given the grace to choose our pain.

We can choose to love as Christ taught us to love, choose to be in community and experience the pain of grief. Or, we can choose to become rocks or islands and experience the pain of loneliness. But what every human being needs to do at some point or another is to choose their pain. We can choose the pain that comes from emptying and pouring out ourselves, denying ourselves, loving and forgiving others, living in community or we can choose the greater pain that comes from being alone.

Let’s consider for a moment the pain of loneliness, the pain of living a total self-centered life.

In the beginning, God called everything in creation good. But when God looked around and saw that Adam was alone, God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone. I will make him a helper as his partner.”  John Milton once wrote: “Loneliness was the first thing the eyes of God called ‘not good.’”[1]

The truth is that we were created for relationships. We were created to be with one another and to love one another. Without other human beings, we cannot be truly human.

Commenting on this passage from Genesis, John Claypool once said, “A man by himself is not a man; that is, he could never have become one, nor having become one, remain one, without…other humans.”[2] And although the path of love will lead to the enormous likelihood of pain, any other path we choose will lead to even greater pain.

The pain of loneliness and isolation is so much greater that C.S. Lewis likened it to Hell itself. He once said that the thought of “being alone forever was more fearful than a thousand burning hells.” And such existence is the logical end of not loving, of leading a totally self-centered life. [3]

T. S. Elliot once wrote these words about self-centeredness and loneliness:

There was a door And I could not open it. I could not touch the handle. Why could I not walk out of my prison? What is Hell? Hell is oneself, Hell is alone, the other figures in it merely projections. There is nothing to escape from And nothing to escape to. One is always alone.[4]

I believe this is partly what Jesus meant when he said: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life, for my sake, for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Loving others as we are created to love others is painful. Being a part of a church can be painful; however, not loving, becoming a rock or an island is “as painful as a thousand burning Hells.”

When I was a pastor in Winston-Salem, our church advertised in our community that we were going to have “a mission blitz.” We were going to take an entire Saturday, split up in teams and to go out into the community to work in people’s yards and homes. We had several people respond to our advertising by contacting the church days before the blitz to request yard work and light housework.

There was an elderly man we will call Mr. Jones who contacted us stating that his gutters needed to be cleaned and his yard needed to be raked. That Saturday afternoon I arrived at his house with three other adults and four teenagers to do the requested work.

Before we could get started, Mr. Jones met us in the front yard. He immediately welcomed us with left over Halloween candy explaining that since the light on his front porch was burned out, not a single trick-or-treater had visited his house this year.

As we sat on his front porch eating fun-size candy bars, Mr. Jones began to share his sad and rather long story with us. He said that since his wife died twenty years ago he had been living all alone in his house. He then shared with us that although he and his wife had desired a family, they were never able to have any children. Having been injured in World War Two, he never had a job, but he somehow managed to make ends meet with his disability checks. When we finally were able to get away from his stories and hospitality, we got the ladders and the rakes out of the truck and went to work on his gutters and yard.

I had not been on my ladder for more than fifteen minutes when Mr. Jones came out of the back door carrying a tray of cups of hot chocolate for all of us. He said, “Y’all better come and get this before it gets cold.”

We stopped our work and visited again with Mr. Jones for another half hour or so. This time he asked us a lot of questions, especially the teenagers. He wanted to know what grade they were in, what their favorite subjects were, what they wanted to do when they grew up, and whether or not they had a girlfriend or boyfriend.

When we finally got away from him again, we began to see something that we had not seen earlier. There was really not that much work to do. He only had one tree in his yard. The gutters had very few leaves in them. They were not impeding the flow of water. And the leaves that were on the ground were being blown by the wind from his yard into a field behind his house.

It then occurred to me, that Mr. Jones did not need any work. Mr. Jones needed us. Mr. Jones needed someone in the world to acknowledge that he was alive. Mr. Jones needed what he was created to need. Mr. Jones needed others to love him. And Mr. Jones needed to love others.

Yes, loving others will inevitably bring us enormous pain. But the pain will not be any less enormous if we become rocks or islands. In fact, the pain of isolation and loneliness may be as enormous as “a thousand burning hells.”

We can choose to love or not to love.  But we cannot choose pain or no pain. Therefore, in this world we must choose our pain. My prayer is that each of us will recommit to choosing the pain that comes with giving, with emptying ourselves, and pouring out ourselves to others.

And may we go out into our community and find the Mr. Jones’ of the world, male and female, young and old, and love them, and allow them to love us.

[1]This quote of John Milton was borrowed from a sermon entitled “When You Are Lonely” by Dr. William Powell Tuck to Hampton Baptist Church in Hampton, Virginia on July 20, 2003

[2]John Claypool, “Choose Your Pain”

 [3]Ibid

 [4]William P. Tuck, “When You Are Lonely”