Sermon from January 30, 2011
Have you gotten the message yet that God doesn’t do things the way that we might expect?
It’s a recurring theme—in life and throughout the Bible. Again and again, God doesn’t act the way that people expect—the ultimate example, of course, being found in the cross of Jesus. God becoming human: suffering and dying. Throughout the Bible God repeatedly surprises the human race by acting in ways that we don’t expect, and often by using people that nobody would expect. If you consider the people that God works through in the Bible—even if you list them all, every one of them—you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who fits the mold. God has a thing for using people who aren’t even close to perfect.
Somehow, though, we end up thinking just the opposite is true. Somehow, we end up thinking that God is looking for us to be more perfect—that God demands us to be better than we are. Knowing that we have fallen short, we somehow end up thinking that, for some reason, we are beyond forgiveness and that God has no use for us. That’s a terrible place to picture yourself. It’s a grueling and unfortunate way to try to live out your faith, constantly trying to earn a good standing with a god that only associates with the “perfect people”.
Today we heard some of the most well-known words of Jesus: the “beatitudes” from the Sermon on the Mount. We hear Jesus declaring people as “blessed”: Blessed are the poor in spirit…Blessed are those who mourn…Blessed are the meek…Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…Blessed are the merciful…Blessed are the pure in heart…Blessed are the peacemakers…Blessed are those who are persecuted…Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you.
Now, there is a trap hidden in the Beatitudes that I know I have fallen into, and perhaps you have, too (I thank Dr. David Lose for providing this insight). It’s easy to hear “blessed are the pure in heart” & think “am I pure in heart enough?” It’s easy to hear “blessed are the merciful” and think “I try to be merciful. I could list some things that I do. But is it enough?” Do you understand what I’m getting at? It’s easy to hear the beatitudes as a list of ways to become blessed. It’s easy to think that these are the conditions that we must meet in order for God to consider us blessed—in order to be good enough for God to do something through us. Even the parts that at times provide us with comfort—parts like “Blessed are those who mourn”—still can leave us with that uncomfortable reality that we don’t want to mourn; we don’t want to be persecuted or reviled.
But what if that’s not what Jesus is doing in the beatitudes? What if, instead of giving us impossible instructions on how to earn a blessing, Jesus is just plain blessing people? What if Jesus is looking at his disciples, knowing that they are far from perfect and aren’t headed toward being perfect any time soon, and is simply (yet very directly) blessing them? What if Jesus is blessing them, even though they are poor in spirit, even though they mourn, even as they try to be meek but aren’t meek enough, even as they try to hunger and thirst for righteousness but not enough. What if Jesus is blessing them even as they are reviled and persecuted, even as they try to be merciful, pure in heart and makers of peace but are still—first and foremost—broken people. If that is true, then Jesus has blessings to pour out today, as well. Even though you are broken—and every one of us is in some way—Jesus calls you blessed.
I set to the task of coming up with some beatitudes for us today. Trying to make a list, I sought help from people on Facebook. I’d like to share some of that list with you today:
Blessed are the doubtful
Blessed are the lonely
Blessed are those who are excluded
Blessed are the unemployed
Blessed are the foreclosed upon
Blessed are those who are underpaid but overworked
Blessed are those who teach in schools
Blessed are nursing assistants who aren’t appreciated
Blessed are those caring for loved ones who are dying
Blessed are the bullied and abused
Blessed are the frightened and fearful
Blessed are those who have to hide their true selves
Blessed are those who think they are never enough
Blessed are those who are told they are less
Blessed are those who are overwhelmed and rushed
Blessed are those that are stressed and anxious
Blessed are parents who really don’t know what they’re doing most of the time
Blessed are the broken-hearted and abandoned
Blessed are those who know they do not have it all together
Blessed are those who want what they have
Blessed are those who don’t think they have anything to offer
Blessed are those trapped in bodies that hurt
Blessed are the autistic, the depressed, the bi-polar
Blessed are you when you’ve tried every treatment…and they’ve all failed
Blessed are those that can’t make it on their own
Blessed are those who know how to listen
Blessed are those who care
Blessed are they that are more than tolerant
Blessed are those who are searching for God
In the midst of everything that makes you who you are, including the stuff you wish wasn’t there that you can’t figure out how to get rid of, Jesus blesses you. And it’s each Broken yet blessed one of us that God is using to change the world today, because it’s broken yet blessed people that experience the grace of God enough to share it.
God is always looking to use the people that we don’t expect. God has a thing for using people who aren’t even close to perfect.
One of those people was a man name Robert Schimmel. Robert was a stand-up comedian. If you’re familiar with his work, I’m sure you’re surprised to hear his name in a sermon. I know he would be shocked. Robert Schimmel was not a “family-friendly” comedian. In fact, he pushed the envelope on being offensive and shocking. He modeled himself after Lenny Bruce, and the only show that regularly invited him back was Howard Stern. (I should pause here for a moment and present a disclaimer, because I know that when the pastor mentions someone people in the congregation are going to go and look him up. I don’t want any angry phone calls or emails during the week, and I would like to be invited back next Sunday. I like this job!) You don’t need to look up Robert Schimmel. If you do, you’re going to find some controversial stuff; it’s your choice, not my suggestion. Don’t do it unless you’re prepared for what you’ll find.
I’m not going to repeat any of his jokes today. At the same time, though, I’m not going to be one of those preachers who is convinced that God is using my stand-up comedy act any more than his.
10 years ago, Robert Schimmel was feeling good about his career. He was about to star in a sitcom and was beginning to have some success after years of hard work. And then it all came to a screeching halt when he was diagnosed with stage 3 non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The journey that followed is recounted in a book entitled Cancer on $5 a Day (Chemo not Included). Again: if you read the book, be ready for what’s in it.
On the day of his first chemotherapy treatment, Robert Schimmel entered the clinic. His mind was racing with thoughts that I imagine only someone who has been there would understand. At the same time, he was committed to being positive and beating the cancer. The nurse told him he could sit wherever he liked, so he sat down next to burly man who looked miserable.
“I’m Robert.” He said, “what’s your name?”
“Bill.” The man fired back in a rather embittered tone. It was clear that he was angry and miserable. And, honestly, if anyone in the world has reason to be angry and miserable, it’s a person sitting in a chemotherapy clinic.
“How you doing?” Robert said.
“How do you think I’m doing? I have cancer!”
“Yeah, so do I.”
“Good for you.”
The nurse offered Robert a different chair, but Robert said, “No thank you. I like this seat.” He smiled at Bill, who did not smile back.
As he sat there, getting the first of several treatments he was in for, he realized that his job had always been to make people laugh. He had stood in front of many “tough rooms”, but this was the toughest.
He decided that he was determined to make Bill laugh. He tried to start up a conversation, but it was tough. Bill went back and forth from tolerating him to lecturing him. In the midst of this strained conversation, Robert eventually said something that was timed just right—something I will not repeat, even if you ask me—and it was so shocking and unexpected that Bill’s bottom lip began to quiver. And then his mouth opened involuntarily, and he began to laugh. Then he cackled, and then he roared. He doubled over, causing the nurse to rush over to see if he was OK. He waved her away, still laughing. As the nursed passed Robert, she said, “I’ve never even seen that man smile. What did you say to him?”
After that first chemotherapy treatment, Robert went through the worst misery of his life. He was barely standing as he came back to the clinic ten days later, with all of those thoughts going through his mind again. And then, as he came into the room, he heard some calling “Robert!” That’s when he saw Bill waving frantically at him and pointing to the seat he saved next to him. Bill smiled. “How you doing?” he said. Not missing a beat, Robert replied, “How do you think I’m doing? I have cancer!” Bill was smiling at Robert, but he was also smiling at the nurse—and talking to her. After their chemotherapy was underway, Bill said, “Okay. You ready?”
“Ready for what?” Robert asked.
“I got jokes, man!” Bill proceeded to unleash an avalanche of jokes that he had prepared over the past ten days, smiling the entire time, his eyes beaming with joy. Robert eventually responded, saying, “You know, you’re getting a little too funny. Maybe you should go back to being a [jerk].” And then Bill said, “Too late, Robert. You cured me.”
Schimmel said it was by far the nicest thing anyone had ever said to him.
And in that moment, Bill was cured. The cancer was still there. The chemo was still going to be miserable. But in that moment, Bill was cured—cured by a raunchy comedian who was just as sick and miserable as he was.
God has a way of using people that we don’t expect. Paul (who was one of those people) describes it well in our lesson from 1 Corinthians:
“God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.”
Don’t miss the simple, very direct truth of the gospel: God chose you, even if you wouldn’t choose yourself. Even though you are broken, God calls you blessed. And, even in your brokenness, God will make you a blessing to other broken people. God has a thing for using people who aren’t even close to perfect.
That’s all there is to it. That’s all I have to say. That’s the good news of the gospel. (Amen.)