Sunday, May 12, 2019

Secrets in the Dark: Discovering the Treasure of Jesus and His Kingdom

Life even at its most monotonous and backbreaking and heartnumbing has the Kingdom buried in it the way a field has treasure buried in it, Jesus said. + Frederick Buechner

I was introduced to Presbyterian minister and author Frederick Buechner by my friend, Rich Rivera, pastor of Restoration Community Church in the South Bronx.

Frederick Buechner's book, Secrets in the Dark, has been my companion since then. The whimsical and revelatory words that were once spoken by Buechner from the messages he delivered to audiences of hurting and hopeful seekers have impacted me greatly.

Today's post includes excerpts from Chapter 20 entitled "The Church." I quoted some of these wonderful sentences in a sermon "Jesus Loves His Bride" back in 2017. Buechner's entire sermon is wonderful, but the excerpts below are provided simply to give a glimpse and a tip of the hat to the power of Jesus' love for His church and His commitment to bringing His Kingdom come.  

"The Church" by Frederick Buechner | Matthew 10:1-8

... Jesus made his church out of human beings with more or less the same mixture in them of cowardice and guts, of intelligence and stupidity, of selfishness and generosity, of openness of heart and sheer cussedness as you would be apt to find in any of us. The reason he made his church out of human beings is that human beings were all there was to make it out of. In fact, as far as I know, human beings are all there is to make it out of still. It's a point worth remembering.

It is also a point worth remembering that even after Jesus made these human beings into a church, they seem to have gone right on being human beings. They actually knew Jesus as their friend. They sat at his feet and listened to him speak; they ate with him and tramped the countryside with him; they witnessed his miracles; but not even all of that turned them into heroes. They kept on being as human as they'd always been with most of the same strengths and most of the same weaknesses.

And finally when it comes to remembering things, we do well to keep in mind that the idea of becoming the church wasn't their idea. It was Jesus's idea. It was Jesus who made them a church. They didn't come together the way like-minded people come together to make a club. ... They came together because Jesus called them to come together. That is what the Greek word ekklesia means, from which we get our word "church." It means those who have been called out, the way the original twelve were called out of fishing or tax collecting or running a kosher restaurant or a Laundromat or whatever else they happened to be involved in at the time. ... 

They lay down their fishing nets, their tax forms, their bridge hands, their golf clubs, their newspapers to gaze at the sky because what is happening up there is so marvelous they can't help themselves. Something like that, I think, is the way those twelve men Matthew names were called to become a church, plus Mary, Martha, Joanna, and all the other women and men who one way or another became part of it too. One way or another Christ called them. That's how it happened. They saw the marvel of him arch across the grayness of things – the grayness of their own lives perhaps, of life itself. They heard his voice calling their names. And they went.

They seem to have gone right on working at pretty much whatever they'd been working at before, which means that he didn't so much call them out of their ordinary lives as he called them out of believing that ordinary life is ordinary. He called them to see that no matter how ordinary it may seem to us as we live it, life is extraordinary. "The Kingdom of God is at hand" is the way he put it to them, and the way he told them to put it to others. Life even at its most monotonous and backbreaking and heart-numbing has the Kingdom buried in it the way a field has treasure buried in it, he said. The Kingdom of God is as close to us as some precious keepsake we've been looking for for years, which is lying just in the next room under the rug all but crying out to us to come find it. If we only had eyes to see and ears to hear and wits to understand, we would know that the Kingdom of God in the sense of holiness, goodness, beauty is as close as breathing and is crying out to be born within ourselves and within the world; we would know that the Kingdom of God is what we all of us hunger for above all other things even when we don't know its name or realize that it's what we're starving to death for. The Kingdom of God is where our best dreams come from and our truest prayers. We catch sight of it when at some moment of crisis a strength seems to come to us that is greater than our own strength. The Kingdom of God is where we belong. It is home, and whether we realize it or not, I think we are all of us homesick for it. ...

Life is extraordinary, and the extraordinariness of it is what Jesus calls the Kingdom of God. The extraordinariness of it is that in the Kingdom of God we all belong to each other the way families do. We are all of us brothers and sisters in it. We are all of us mothers and fathers and children of each other in it because that is what we are called together as the church to be. That is what being the church means. We are called by God to love each other the way Jesus says that God has loved us. That is the good news about God – the gospel – which he came to proclaim. Loving each other and loving God and being loved by God is what the Kingdom is. ...

Loving God means rejoicing in him. It means trusting him when you can think of a hundred reasons not to trust anything. It means praying to him even when you don't feel like it. It means watching for him in the beauty and sadness and gladness and mystery of your own life and of life around you. Loving each other doesn't mean loving each other in some sentimental, unrealistic, greeting-card kind of way but the way families love each other even though they may fight tooth and nail and get fed up to the teeth with each other and drive each other crazy, yet all the time know deep down in their hearts that they belong to each other and need each other and can't imagine what life would be without each other – even the ones they often wish had never been born.

... You and I are their family and each other's family, because that is what Jesus has called us as the church to be. Our happiness is all mixed up with each other's happiness and our peace with each other's peace. Our own happiness, our own peace can never be complete until we find some way of sharing it with people who, the way things are now, have no happiness and know no peace. Jesus calls us to show this truth forth, live this truth forth. Be the light of the world, he says. Where there are dark places, be the light especially there. Be the salt of the earth. Bring out the true flavor of what it is to be alive truly. Be truly alive. Be life-givers to others. That is what Jesus tells the disciples to be. That is what Jesus tells his church, tells us, to be and do. Love each other. Heal the sick, he says. Raise the dead. Cleanse lepers. Cast out demons. That is what loving each other means. If the church is doing things like that, then it is being what Jesus told it to be. If it is not doing things like that – no matter how many other good and useful things it may be doing instead – then it is not being what Jesus told it to be. It is as simple as that. 

The old woman has gone to the movies to help take her mind off the fact that she has cancer. Cancer is a sickness that you and I don't know how to heal, more's the pity, but it is not her only sickness. Her other sickness is being lonely and scared, and in some ways that sickness is the worse of the two. Sometimes she wakes up in the middle of the night and thinks about it – wishes she had somebody she could talk to about it or just somebody she could go to the movies with once in a while and share her popcorn with. Heal her, Jesus says.

The fat man in the pickup has a son who is dying. He is dying of AIDS. It was his wife who put the Jesus Loves You sticker on his bumper. The way he sees it, if you do not believe in God anymore, it doesn't make much difference whether Jesus loves you or not. If God let things happen to people like what has happened to his son, then what is the point of believing in God. Raise him, Jesus says.

"Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons," Jesus tells the disciples. That is the work he sets us. In other words, we are to be above all else healers, and that means of course that we are also to be healed because God knows you and I are in as much need of healing as anybody else, and being healed and healing go hand in hand. God knows we have our own demons to be cast out, our own uncleanness to be cleansed. Neurotic anxiety happens to be my own particular demon, a floating sense of doom that has ruined many of what could have been, should have been, the happiest days of my life, and more than a few times in my life I have been raised from such ruins, which is another way of saying that more than a few times in my life I have been raised from death – death of the spirit anyway, death of the heart – by the healing power that Jesus calls us both to heal with and to be healed by. 

I remember an especially dark time in my life. One of my children was sick, and in my anxiety for her I was in my own way as sick as she was. Then one day the phone rang, and it was a man named Lou Patrick, whom I didn't know very well then though he has become a great friend since, a minister from Charlotte, North Carolina, which is about eight hundred miles or so from Rupert, Vermont, where I live. I assumed he was calling from home and asked him how things were going down there only to hear him say that, no, he wasn't in Charlotte. He was at an inn about twenty minutes away from my house in Rupert. He knew something about what was going on in my family and in me, and he said he thought maybe it would be some help to have an extra friend around for a day or two. The reason he didn't tell me in advance that he was coming was that he knew I would tell him for heaven's sake not to do anything so crazy, so for heaven's sake he did something crazier still, which was to come those eight hundred miles without telling me he was coming so that for all he knew I might not even have been there. But as luck had it, I was there, and for a day or two He was there with me. He was there for me. I don't think anything we found to say to each other amounted to very much. There was nothing particularly religious about it. I don't remember even spending much time talking about my troubles with him. We just took a couple of walks, had a meal or two together, and smoked our pipes. I drove him around to see some of the countryside, and that was about it.

I have never forgotten how he came all that distance just for that, and I'm sure he has never forgotten it either. I also believe that, although as far as I can remember we never so much as mentioned the name of Christ, Christ was as much in the air we breathed those few days as the fragrance of our pipes was in the air or the dappled light of the woods we walked through. I believe that for a little time we both of us touched the hem of Christ's garment. I know that for a little time we both of us were healed.

We are called to be Christs to each other like that, I think. Like Peter, like Thomas, the Marys, Joanna, we are called to be not just human beings but human beings open to the possibility of being transformed by the grace of God as it comes to us who knows how or when – in the fragrance of pipe smoke in the air, the band of a rainbow arched against the gray sky. Somebody calling on the phone: "Just twenty minutes down the road did you say? Good God, you must be crazy!" And that is just it, of course. We are called to be crazy exactly like that. We are called by the good God to be the hands and feet and heart of Christ to each other. ...

"Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me," Jesus said (Matthew 25:40), which means that in this world now Jesus is each other. Heal the sick and be healed. Raise the dead and be raised. Everything that matters comes of doing these things. Doing those things is what the church is, and when it doesn't do those things, it doesn't matter much what else it does. Preach as you go, saying "The kingdom of heaven is at hand," Jesus told the disciples. ...

The Kingdom of Heaven is only twenty minutes down the road, for Christ's sake. The Kingdom of Heaven is in the movie theater as the old woman gets up to leave, shaking popcorn crumbs out of her lap. The Kingdom of Heaven is there as the fat man goes driving by in his pickup with the bumper sticker he can't believe in. The Kingdom of Heaven is in the eyes of love and longing and blessing that we raise to look at him as though he is a rainbow in the sky.

Christ is all,

Rev. Mike "Sully" Sullivan

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