Sermon at Kinmundy and Wesley United Methodist Church on 9/8/19. Title: The Benefits of Dark Days. Text: 1 Corinthians 2:1-2, 2 Timothy 4:3-8. Audio link – Right-click, open in new tab to play: Kinmundy or Wesley. Right-click, open in new tab to view slides as a PDF: Slides.
Is this man a failure?
No. But let’s think about that just for a minute. In the way the world measures success, you’re supposed to become popular. You’re supposed to be highly respected. You’re supposed to draw a crowd of followers, people who buy your product, people who believe that you are a good person. (Jesus did all these things.)
And there you are, dying on the cross, and not only are all of those people missing, all the crowds, but literally people are coming up to you and attacking you and trying to shame you. They are saying, “You, who thought you would rebuild the temple in three days, come down from the cross. You said you were the Son of God. Well, if you are, come down from the cross,” and Jesus is helpless.
Maybe not completely helpless, because he can say to the thief next to him, “Today, you’ll be with me in paradise.” He can look down on the crowd that is there to harm him and he can say, “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.” But truly, in terms of what the culture admires, this is not the high point of anyone’s life.
Why is it so important? You see, as human beings, we have a tendency to want to skip over the hard part. We want to watch the Olympic athlete win the gold medal, but we skip the thousands of hours of practice and labor to build those skills to that highest level. We skip over the journey because the journey has the hard parts. We go straight to the victory, and nonetheless, if you do the journey well, it leads to this: Resurrection and new life. Let’s not separate the destination from the journey that it takes to get there and especially when some parts of that journey are most difficult.
In 2008, J. K. Rowling gave the commencement address at Harvard, and as I said to you last week, at the end of August when I was praying about the sermons for September, for some reason it seemed to me that these words needed to be shared with you and I’ve been trying to understand why. But J. K. Rowling addresses the commencement exercises at Harvard and she looks out over all these incredibly wealthy young people and she says to them, “You probably have never failed in your entire life. And she says to them, “On this wonderful day when we’re gathered together to celebrate your success, I decided to talk to you about the benefits of failure.”
And she began to talk about her own life. She grew up in a very ordinary home. Her mother died before she went to college from multiple sclerosis. Life was difficult. She graduated, got a teaching degree, moved to Portugal, was teaching English. Met and married a man. It never says, but the implication is that he physically abused her. And she fled back to England, got a teaching job in Edinburgh, lost that teaching job.
But many years before when she was stuck on a train that was delayed, believe it or not, four hours, she all of a sudden got this idea for a series of novels about a little boy who was a wizard. And when she came back from Portugal, to Edinburg, she had three chapters of a book about this little boy. And it was about all she had. Not only that, she lost that job. Through a series of odd jobs, she was able to pay her rent, and then she lost those jobs, and finally had to live on assistance. The way she expresses it in the commencement address is, “I was as poor as you can get, and not be homeless.”
But she took care of her infant daughter. And when her infant daughter would allow her she wrote in longhand more of this story of this little boy wizard. One of her favorite places to write was this coffee house. Because apparently, when she took her daughter in the stroller, her daughter would fall asleep. And when her daughter was asleep at the stroller, she could write. And so day by day, the pile of pages grew.
“So why do I talk,” she said to the Harvard graduates, “Why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential.”
“I stopped pretending to myself,” she said, “That I was anything other than what I was and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. All my energy into finishing.”
“Had I really succeeded,” she said, “in anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belong. I was set free because my greatest fear had been realized.” As close to homeless as you can get.
“And in spite of that, I was still alive. And I had a daughter who I adored. And I had an old typewriter. And I had a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.
The benefits of failure: you can begin to build on the rock at the bottom. And so Paul says this to the church in Corinth … the church in Corinth, which is the church that has all the problems that the church can have. The poster child for dysfunctional churches, the church at Corinth.
He says this to them, “When I came to you, brethren, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God, in the lofty words, or wisdom. For I decided,” a very conscious, deliberate decision– the word decision needs to cut. He cut himself loose from everything else, and he decided to know “nothing among you,” except for one thing, “Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” Why is this important? It’s so important that to this church with problems, Paul says we’ve got to go back here and start there because this is the solid rock at the bottom.
As J. K. Rowling said, “Why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential.” If we go back to Christ crucified, we will set aside everything that distracts us. We will declutter our church. We will declutter our minds. We will set aside everything that is less important so that on the rock at the bottom, we can begin to build what will last for all eternity. Jesus Christ is that rock.
J. K. Rowling says, “I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was.”And what was she? A failure who had nothing but a story to tell. “And I began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me.”
Paul said when he came to this church that was in trouble, “I’m getting back to the only thing that is the most important and I need to direct your attention to finishing the only thing that really matters. Remember that Christ was crucified for you. (We have nothing but this story to tell!)
On the night that he was betrayed in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus said, “Father, if there’s any other way but nevertheless, thy will be done.” Jesus healed people but that was set aside. Jesus taught people how to live but that was set aside. Jesus had an influence on the spiritual life of people through His preaching but that was set aside because what was at the heart of Jesus was His desire to obey what His Father had asked Him to do and it was this: to die for you and me.
Have you been in a dark place like this? A place where Jesus says, “My God, My God why has thou forsaken me?” A place of despair, a place where you feel not only that you’re a failure but perhaps you’ve lost everything.
Twenty-one years ago, I was in that place. I felt that I had lost everything, and indeed I had. I was as close to homeless as you can get. And I would wake up in the morning around 4:30 or 5:00 o’clock having a panic attack because I thought I was going to die. But I realized that even if I had lost everything, the one thing that no one could take away from me was my relationship with Jesus Christ.
And if I thought I was suffering, I guarantee you that I know He understood me. Because on the worst day of your life, you will know that He understands what it’s like for you.
One of the things the sheep have to understand is the good path … and it is a good path. The good path to green pastures, of the still waters and for the restoration of our souls. The good path to everything that is good … will still go through the valley of the shadow of death. And there will still be dark days, even though there will be many days of great joy and sunshine and flowers. But sometimes like Jesus, we just need to keep going and to be faithful when faithful requires us to face hard and difficult things.
Hard and difficult things will declutter your life. There is the person who means you harm. You can leave them by the side of the road. There’s the person who is desperate to get away from you. You don’t need to chase that relationship. Let them go. There is the job that seemed to be the perfect job but it so full of stress and you’re surrounded by people who are so dysfunctional that you can’t possibly enjoy life. You can let it go and walk with your Shepherd through the dark days and into life. Because however difficult that place might be, Christ will meet you there and will walk forward with you.
I’d like to invite you to take just a minute, and by a minute I mean a literal minute. I’ll be watching the second hand. To let this truth sink into your heart and to pray and to know that Christ will walk with you through failure. Let us pray …
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION: Let’s have a conversation! Please reflect upon the questions below as you consider the material presented above. In a comment, share your thoughts and additional questions. What would you like to know?
What grabbed your attention?
What is the human need or problem?
What questions do you have about any quotes provided?
Does the Bible say anything about this?
What solutions do you see for the problem?
What specifically could we begin to do to make a change?
Photo credit: MaxPixel @ https://www.maxpixel.net/Clinic-Faith-Christ-Jesus-Cross-Jesus-Christ-2437571. No artist listed.
Kinmundy United Methodist Church is located at 308 E. Third Street, Kinmundy, IL 62854. Worship begins at 9 am Sundays. The building is handicap accessible.
Wesley United Methodist Church is located at 3381 Kinoka Raod, Patoka, IL 62875 in the country between Kinmundy and Patoka. Worship begins at 10.45 am Sundays.
VISION: We are a functional family of God, where Jesus is Lord and people grow.
MISSION: Every layperson is called to carry out the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20); every layperson is called to be missional. (¶126 of the 2016 Book of Discipline)
Paradigm: There are two kinds of people in this world: people who need to become disciples and disciples who need to become disciple makers.