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Sermon - March 28, 2021
“Sacred Transitions: Seeing the Unseen”
2 Corinthians 4:7- 5:1
March 28, 2021
In Epistle lesson today, Paul exhorts the members of a church he loves in Corinth, to focus on what is absolutely essential in their lives. Paul says that standing at the center of a church’s life is not something material, not something tangible – not something that can be seen – but instead, at the center of the life of a church is what cannot be seen. “For what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.”
The last several weeks have been a time of serious reflection for me. During this time, circumstances have caused me to look especially hard for the unseen that stands at the center of my life and that stands at the center of all our lives.
We have framed the sermons over the past several weeks around the term, “Sacred Transitions”. When I Googled the phrase, the top two entries were for a group in New Hampshire called the Sacred Transitions Midwifery Institute and a company by the name of Sacred Transitions which deals with end-of-life issues. In my mind, those two uses of the term Sacred Transitions provides two powerful images of which we and the Church are presented. Which will we choose to shape the direction of our future?
Life is filled with transitions: a child entering school, choices about which college to attend, marriage, becoming a parent, retiring, having to learn to live alone now that a spouse’s mind and memory have withered away, or a beloved partner has died, living with a terminal illness – all these are transitions, passages, changes, moving from one thing and toward another. Transitions
can, when you are in the midst of them, be overwhelming. You tend to lose your bearings.
Mr. Holland’s Opus is a movie about a frustrated composer in Portland, Oregon, who takes a job as a high school band teacher in the 1960s. Although diverted from his lifelong goal of achieving critical fame as a classical musician, Glenn Holland (played by Richard Dreyfus) believes his school job is only temporary.
One of Mr. Holland’s students, named Gertrude Lang (played by Alicia Witt), becomes so discouraged by her lack of improvement in playing the clarinet she comes to Mr. Holland after school and tells him she is giving it up. You might say she has lost her bearings.
PLAY THE SUNSET CLIP
This morning I want to remind you and remind myself of the dynamic and wonderful gospel of Jesus Christ that, when we allow ourselves to be captured by it, moves us from fear, worry, and panic to hope, joy and courage. It places us on a peak of trust and contentment that allows us to rise above the valley of anxiety and then move into it. The everyday ups and downs take on a steadiness as they are interpreted by memory and hope.
The gospel of Jesus Christ places us in this long continuum of grace. We have a past, a narrative, a story of the Spirit of God bringing people out: out of slavery, out of oppression, out of despair and into the promised land, into the new world, beyond death. These passages of life are not always easy – but there is promised resolution, promised delivery.
The apostle Paul talks about suffering a great deal in his letters and the passage before us is no exception. He has the temerity to declare that our suffering achieves something: “glory”. “Therefore,” he continues, “we do not lose heart.” Literally, we are NOT despondent.
On one occasion, I preached on this text at the funeral of a friend who had died after suffering long and hard. I knew I had to be careful in how I preached this rich text, so I said, “How can we not lose heart at a time like this? Your body and your mind gradually waste away through an unimaginable sequence of developments. First those little signs that irritate and worry. Then a host of tests and a diagnosis—it’s Parkinson’s. Then it’s cancer here and then there and then everywhere. Then it’s this treatment and that complication, back to the hospital and then home and, finally hospice care at home. Then it’s almost a total loss of life’s quality, and finally the deep sleep of death. How can you not lose heart? When your loved one slips away from you an inch at a time, so that he isn’t the same person you loved all those years, how can you not lose heart? When death finally separates you from a woman who has been such a huge part of your lives for as long as you can remember, how can you not lose heart? It’s enough to break your heart!”
Paul’s cure for a broken heart is to look ahead to that “eternal weight of glory that is beyond all comparison.” A Christian who had suffered much in life put this thought in contemporary language. “In the light of heaven, the worst suffering on earth, a life filled with the most atrocious torture, will be seen to be no more serious than one night in an inconvenient hotel.”
That kind of talk infuriates critics of Christianity. Heck, it might even infuriate you. It seems an overly simplistic response to the terrible suffering of the human race. I fully agree that we have to take suffering seriously as we preach the Good News. But the fact is that the Christian faith does have a final answer to the problem of suffering. The complete Christian response must show how sin and Satan cause suffering, must wrestle with the sovereignty of God, must always maintain a clear focus on the suffering of our Savior, and must bow before the mystery of suffering in a world ruled by a good and all-powerful God. It is simply not true that all the Christian faith has to offer in the face of the world’s terrible suffering is “pie in the sky by and by.”
For those presently living in a chapter of the story that is filled with great suffering, such talk of future glory may seem a cheap comfort. As Dostoyevsky has one of his characters say in The Brothers Karamazov, “Making up for it in the end doesn’t make up for it.”
In our text Paul responds to that condemnation of future glory by saying, in effect, “You have no idea.” Literally, you have no idea. We think analogically, in metaphors, by comparison. “This is like that.” Our translation of verse 17 uses the word “outweighs,” which isn’t as good as another translation that says, “beyond compare.” The Greek word there is hyperbole, which means a comparison that goes overboard, an exaggeration, an overstatement. In fact, Paul uses the word twice, hyperbole upon hyperbole, meaning that there is simply no way to exaggerate or overstate the glory. No matter what comparison you use, it won’t come close. When you compare the sufferings of this life with the coming glory, there is simply no comparison.
That’s why Paul dares to say that our sufferings are light and momentary. In using that word “momentary,” Paul is not denying that suffering drags on and wears us down. He is simply assuring us that in comparison to eternity, any suffering is but for a moment.
Somewhere Dostoyevsky tells the story of an atheist who died and was dismayed to find that there is indeed life after death. Indignant, he shouted, “This is against my principles.” For which he was sentenced to walk a quadrillion miles in the dark, after which the gates of heaven would be opened to him and he would be forgiven. “I won’t go!” he said. “I refuse on principle.” He lay down, for a thousand years.
Then he got up and went on. It took him more than a billion years to walk those quadrillion miles. But he made it. As he walked through the gates of pearl, after he had been there only two seconds, he cried that those two seconds were worth walking not a quadrillion miles but a quadrillion quadrillion. That’s why Paul uses the word momentary.
In comparison to the weight of glory, our troubles are also light. The word trouble there is a word that means pressure, that which weighs heavily on us and squeezes out of us all the joy and peace and hope and light. When you feel the weight of glory, says Paul, you will realize how light the weight of suffering was. Indeed, the weight of glory will fill you with joy and peace and hope and light. What a strange idea—a weight that fills. What can such glory be like? To what can we compare it?
This where that “seeing the unseen” thing comes in. At the heart of everything that is important, whether it is in one’s relationship with a family member or close friend; or in one’s relationship to the broader community and even to the whole world around us – at the heart of everything is the unseen but very real presence of hope, of faith, and of love. And this unseen presence is shared by all human beings; it is a presence that embraces all of us.
Toward the end of Mr. Holland’s Opus, we find an aged Mr. Holland fighting in vain to keep his job. The school board has decided to reduce the operating budget by cutting the music and drama program. No longer a reluctant band teacher, Mr. Holland believes in what he does and passionately defends the role of the arts in public education. What began as a career detour became a 35-year mission, pouring his heart into the lives of young people.
Mr. Holland returns to his classroom to retrieve his belongings a few days after school has let out for summer vacation. He has taught his final class.
With regret and sorrow, he fills a box with artifacts that represent the tools of his trade and memories of many meaningful classes. His wife and son arrive to give him a hand.
As they leave the room and walk down the hall, Mr. Holland hears some noise in the auditorium. Because school is out, he opens the door to see what the commotion is. To his amazement he sees a capacity audience of former students and teaching colleagues and a banner that reads "Goodbye, Mr. Holland."
Those in attendance greet Mr. Holland with a standing ovation while a band (consisting of past and present members) plays songs they learned at his hand. His wife, who was in on the surprise reception, approaches the podium and makes small talk until the master of ceremonies, the governor of Oregon, arrives.
The governor is none other than the student Mr. Holland spent 2 or 3 short minutes helping to regain her bearings. As she addresses the room of well-wishers, she speaks for the hundreds who fill the auditorium:
PLAY MR. HOLLAND’S OPUS CLOSING SCENE
This is where you and I are encouraged and invited to live – grounded in a story of deliverance and perched on the precipice of hope, a future that cannot be seen but can be imagined because we trust that Jesus Christ is Lord and “God writes straight with crooked lines.”
Birth, graduation, marriage, work, retirement, joys, tragedies, triumphs, deaths – the myriad of “slight momentary afflictions,” especially those that don’t seem so slight or so momentary: To what will you dedicate your heart and head during the transitions, as your outer nature is wasting away? Keep your eyes on the “eternal weight of glory,” remember and hope. Amen.
Preached by Rev. Rich Hinkle
Scotch Presbyterian Church
March 28, 2021