Proper 18B, September 6, 2015

September 7, 2015

The Turbulent Journey to Peace
Mark 7:24-37


If I were to give you a thumbnail sketch of my faith journey there would be a significant dividing line between the way I viewed God before I met Lewis Chesser and after I met Lewis. Just as world history is divided between BC and AD, I guess I can divide my theological life in to BL & AL — Before Lewis and After Lewis. Sometimes I want to blame him for the way he altered the course of my life, but on most days I’m grateful to Lewis for the role he played in saving my soul.

Now that’s a powerful phrase I’m throwing out this morning. You might think I’m sounding a little like a Southern Baptist by claiming that my soul has been saved. This might be encouraging to some of you and frightening to others, but the truth is I’m not claiming salvation in the way it’s often portrayed. I would say the traditional understanding of salvation is to simply believe your soul is going to heaven instead of hell when you die, and that’s probably how I understood things before I encountered Lewis, but I don’t see it that way any more.

You might say I’m optimistic about what happens to all of us when we die. There may well be some reckoning involved in the process. Coming to Jesus in the afterlife will probably be more pleasant for some people than for others – I’m not privy to those details, but I’ve come to believe that salvation is something we can experience on this side of death. I fully trust that our relationship with God extends beyond death, but I believe that God can bring us some of that peace that passeth all understanding while we’re still hiking around on earth, and that’s what I think of as salvation.

I think what we see in these two stories this morning are portrayals of salvation experiences. Both of these stories illustrate the way in which Jesus brought some peace in to the lives of some people who were feeling pretty torn up. There are some strange twists to these stories – as is often the case when the spirit of God comes in to the house, but normal rules don’t apply when God is involved. These stories aren’t particularly pretty, but they end well, and I think that can always be the case when we are open to the various ways in which God works with us to bring salvation and peace in to our lives.

I wasn’t healed as quickly as was the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman or the man from the region of Tyre, but I feel like I experienced a similar level of life transformation through my involvement with the Wesley Foundation while I attended the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. Lewis Chesser was the director of that campus ministry program while I was there, and as I say, it was a life-altering experience. I wasn’t a bad person prior to meeting Lewis. In fact you might say I was a more well-behaved person before I got involved in that community. Fear of spending eternity in hell can keep you out of some trouble, but I was having a hard time being good enough to keep my perceived notion God happy.

I transferred from Hendrix to the U of A as a sophomore. I tell people that I don’t think I had a problem with Hendrix – I had a problem being a freshman in college. I just didn’t like my freshman year, and I needed to do something different, so I went to the U of A in hope of becoming a Mechanical Engineer. I didn’t really know what Mechanical Engineers did, but I was interested in solar technology, and someone said I should go in to Mechanical Engineering, so that’s what I set off to do.

The Education Director, Emily Cockrill, at First United Methodist Church in Wynne knew Lewis from Annual Conference business, and she said I should go by the Wesley Foundation when I got to Fayetteville, and I did. I had an immediate connection with Lewis because he commuted on a bicycle, and I was a committed bicycle rider in those days. I also got to know some of the people who came around there. There was a handful of people who lived in an old house on the Wesley Foundation property – it was called the Pierce House, but other people often dropped by there, and it was an interesting assortment of people. It’s not easy to describe what that community was like, but it might best be described as a sociological refugee camp. There were some starving artists & musicians, some recovering addicts, some practicing addicts, some ping-pong enthusiasts, some leftover hippies, some poets, some people who were restarting their lives after failed marriages or careers, and a few lost children like myself.

But all of these people were never assembled at the same time. The program at the Wesley Foundation didn’t involve large numbers of people. It was sort of a struggling institution on some level, but I can testify that it was a place that touched a good number of people in a really good way. It probably put-off a good number of people as well, but I can tell you it provided me with the soul-soothing medicine that I needed.

I dropped by several times during that first fall semester, and I would show up on Sunday mornings for the worship service. I probably met the criteria for being clinically depressed, but this was 1977 and you didn’t really talk about such things. I don’t think my brain chemistry was off – I just didn’t know what I was going to do with my life, and I felt alienated from life. I had navigated high school well, but I felt lost when I went to college. I felt like God and everyone else was waiting for me to get with the program, and I didn’t know what program to get with. I was carrying around some deep despair.

But I would show up at the Wesley Foundation for tea and conversation pretty regularly and Lewis asked me if I would show up on a Saturday to help bring down a dead tree that was on the property. The Wesley Foundation property was on the corner of Leverett and Maple St. (right across Leverett from the Kappa house for those of you who are familiar with the campus), and this tree was leaning toward Maple St., but Lewis thought that we could put a rope high up in the tree and a bunch of us could pull it in to an open area away from the street as he made the cut.

I think there were probably about 6 of us that showed up to do the pulling that morning. Lewis had the chainsaw. He started cutting and as he got close to what he considered the critical point he gave us the signal to start pulling. We started pulling and Lewis kept cutting until the saw got in a bind and quit. We pulled as hard as we could for as long as we could, but
nothing happened.

The saw was stuck in the tree. The tree was still standing, and we were just standing there with a limp rope in our hands. But we didn’t stand there long before we heard the distinct crack of a tree that was about to fall down. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard such a crack, but it’s a powerful sound. It’s not that loud – at first. It’s a small sound, but it has a lot of meaning to it. It means a few tons of wood is about to hit the ground.

This is one of those moments that has stuck with me for a long time. Somebody had the good sense to rush out and stop the one car that was coming down Maple. My soon-to-become best friend, David, said something that you can’t repeat in church, and I just stood there and watched as this huge tree came down and spilled into the road. It was only the top limbs that hit the road. It wouldn’t have killed an unsuspecting driver, but insurance companies and lawyers would have been involved.

That was the event that sealed my relationship with the Wesley Foundation and with Lewis. It might have driven other people away, but I don’t think I had ever been so involved in such a failed operation, and it was somehow compelling to me.

The transformation of my understanding of God didn’t happen quickly and my despair didn’t evaporate immediately, but through the conversation, the preaching, and the response to the preaching that went on around there my understanding of God dramatically shifted. I came to see God as less of a judge and more as a compassionate healer. I came to let go of my sense of trying to be deserving of God’s love and to accept that God loves us regardless of who we are and what’s wrong with us.

I think that’s the essence of these stories that Mark tells us about this tenacious Syrophoenician woman and the disabled man from Tyre. The way Jesus responds to this woman sort of makes you wonder what Jesus was thinking, and in all honesty I don’t know why Jesus said what he did. It seems like he could have been nicer about the whole thing, but what it ends up highlighting is not just the universal nature of God’s love – it reveals the way in which it’s often our brokenness that moves us to seek the source of salvation. This woman was not put-off by the harsh words of Jesus because she knew what she needed and she was relentless in her effort. There are no boundaries to the love of God, but that doesn’t mean we have easy access to it. Some tenacity may be required.

I don’t take credit for my own salvation. I really don’t even give Lewis credit for the healing of my despair and the salvation of my soul, but he did some good pointing to where I could find it. Lewis sort of went out of his way to not portray himself as the one to be revered. He didn’t intend this, but by dropping that tree in the opposite direction of where he wanted it to go Lewis revealed himself to be significantly less than perfect, and somehow that spoke to me in a good way.

I like to think that the subtle but profound crack that I heard just before that tree came down was also the sound of my own unfortunate image of God starting to crack and come down. I know I don’t have a perfect understanding of God, but through the ministry of the Wesley Foundation I was led to believe that I’m perfectly understood and loved anyway. And that’s what salvation looks like to me. I’m not free from despair, but it’s more of an occasional distraction than my orientation point. I no longer trust myself to get everything right, but I feel like I can continue to grow in my relationship with the One who does.

I didn’t become a Mechanical Engineer while I was in Fayetteville, but I did become a more devoted follower of Jesus Christ, and now you might say I’m employed by him. I might not be one of his best salespeople. I never was that good at sales, but I love Jesus. He can spit, touch my tongue and stick his fingers in my ears anytime. I feel that he provided me with new life, I’m grateful to have it, and I want more of it.

I believe that regardless of where we are or what’s wrong with us there is this opportunity for new life. It was hard for some people to see that God was fully present in the life of Jesus Christ, but others couldn’t be persuaded otherwise – even by Jesus himself. Jesus isn’t necessarily who we think he is, but he can provide us with what we need. I thank God for that, and I thank God for the new possibilities that exist for us all as we grow in our knowledge and understanding of this man who fully embodied the love of God. Thanks be to God for Jesus Christ and for the way in which he continues to live among us! Amen.


One Response to “Proper 18B, September 6, 2015”

  1. Earl Jones Says:

    Wonderful, now I’ve been to church !!

    Earl Jones 501-944-1860 PO Box 2547 Little Rock, Ar. 72203 “The years teach much which days never know”. Ralph Waldo Emerson


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