Real Strength

John 6: 24-35   Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

Ephesians 4: -16              August 2, 2015

“… lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love...

Prayer:  We reach out to you, O God, knowing that you are constantly reaching out to us.  May the fingers of our spirit meet with yours so we may be strengthened in you.  Amen.

Rev. Sue Washburn, a Presbyterian pastor in the Pittsburgh area tells a story in The Christian Century about how her church endorsed a new slogan: “Reaching Out to ALL God’s People!”  She enthusiastically proclaimed it from the pulpit; it was printed in all their literature, on their web site, and so on.  “And then “she wrote,”  God gave us Joshua,” “Joshua showed up disheveled and smelling bad,” asking for money.  And Pastor Sue and some others in the congregation reached out to him.  And he kept coming back, week after week, with the same story that he needed money and assistance.  Some vocal members wondered aloud if “Reaching out to ALL God’s people” was really a good idea, while others felt called to provide.  In her silent prayers, Pastor Sue said, “God, can you clue me in?  Why is Joshua with us?”

The story is long and detailed, but let me take you to the part when after several weeks Joshua invited some people that he know to crash at his small apartment.  Instead of staying for a short period time, it appeared they weren’t going anywhere, anytime soon, and he couldn’t figure out how to get them to leave.

His girlfriend, Kelly, who also lived with him, had mental illness issues which now flared up, and she was put in a locked-down mental health unit.  And Joshua wanted to visit her, and he asked Pastor Sue to drive him there and go in with him.  Pastor Sue agreed, but she prayed silently, “When will this end, God?  We all have given so much.”

The visit with Kelly went fine, and on the way home, Joshua pulled out his cell phone and started playing his favorite song sung by the band “Alabama” called “Angels Among Us.”  The lyrics of the chorus profoundly struck Pastor Sue: “Oh, I believe there are angels among us / Sent down to us, from somewhere up above / They come to you and me in our darkest hours / To show us how to live / To teach us how to give / To guide us with the light of love.”  Pastor Sue prayed to God, “OK, God, I think I get it” (Washburn, Sue, an essay on “Reversal,” The Christian Century, June 24, 2015, pp. 24-5).

Joshua may or may not have been an angel per say, but I’d say he caused Pastor Sue and others in the church to search within their hearts for the inner strength needed to be agents of Christ love and grace, wouldn’t you say?

Inner strength must be looked for because situations like Joshua’s and Kelly’s and Pastor Sue’s I think call for a spiritual response that often goes against our natural inclinations.  I confess that in the early years of my ministry I was tempted not to help guys like Joshua ALL THE TIME!  Two or three times, OK… but mostly, I would have rather tried to help them become self-sufficient so they could learn to help themselves, and dare I say it, not come to me all the time.  I would have all rather stuck with my normal routine than to have interruptions by the likes of Joshua-types and Kelly-types.  Those were the inner attitudes, perceptions, and hesitations that I had.

But I eventually found out how selfish and broken those attitudes were.  The truth is, I think living a life worthy of being called Christ’s companions and followers takes real strength, real humility, real honesty.  Might we need to address honestly where our inner attitudes and perceptions could get in the way us being agents of Christ’s love and grace toward those who suffer with mental illness or those who suffer from substance abuse or simply those who suffer?  We possibly would have to look at our own hesitations toward those who are down and out, and see how those hold us back from being a willing participant in  a life worthy of our calling.

Likewise, if you are one who is suffering with mental health issues, or substance abuse issues and are in pain and anguish, I think it takes real courage and strength from within to face your illness and to seek help.  We know that one in four people in America suffer from one form of 

mental illness or another, or from substance abuse. If you need help call me,  call Fred, call Jim at NAMI, call your doctor.

Perhaps the greatest challenges in life that we face as people of faith are the ones that require us to face with gentleness and patience our imperfections, inner attitudes and beliefs that don’t align with God’s vision for all people.  God’s vision is that everyone be filled with the boundless riches of God’s grace found in the spiritual food Christ offers, regardless of how sinful or how righteous we might be.  God’s vision has it that we may fully incarnate God’s love in our lives, especially as we respond to those in great need with love and compassion, no matter how imperfect and fallible we are or they are.

So, we might be asked to rise above our natural inclinations, our normal routines, our hesitancies, our fears and imperfections to respond with grace toward all so that everyone we encounter may experience the fullness of God’s vision of health and wholeness.

I read last week of a woman whose mother was near death.  The chaplain from Hospice entered the room and chatted briefly with the dying woman and her daughter.  Near the end of the conversation, the chaplain asked the dying woman what her favorite hymn was.  After a long pause, she began to sing Fanny Crosby’s famous hymn: “Pass me not, O gentle Savior, hear my humble cry / while on others you are calling, do not pass me by…”  About a week later, the chaplain was called back; the woman was very near death, and this time there was no response from her.  The chaplain prayed with the woman and her daughter and then sang “Amazing Grace.”  Then she left, and later that evening, the chaplain got word that the old woman had died.  The chaplain went back to visit with the daughter who said she had something she needed to share.  The daughter said, “When I was a child, my mom used to ask me to sing to her and in church.  I never did.  I didn’t think I could.  All through my growing up, she begged me to sing until finally I said to her, ‘Momma, stop asking me to sing to you.  I promise you, I will sing for you before you die, but please don’t ask me again.’  [All these years] I never sang to her.  I never remembered my promise until I heard you singing “Amazing Grace” to her.  Then I remembered and when you left, I got her hymnbook, and I sang to her.  And then she died” (Worthington, Judy, “Reversals,” The Christian Century, June 24, 2015, p. 24).

That takes finding real strength within, don’t you think?  Even in the face of fears, hesitancies, imperfections...it take real strength in the inner core. I believe you can find real strength by looking in the inner core of your being.  Your real strength comes from the Spirit of God which touches you in that place. This inner core is where God calls you to use your gifts.  This is the place where God strengthens you to face anything that goes against God’s vision.  It’s where you are enabled to choose life in the face of death, empowered to embody Christ in the face of terror, to bring beauty in the face of destruction.

There is a man in Iraq named Karim Wasfi who is the conductor of the Iraqi Symphony Orchestra.  He is also a master cellist.  In the last several months Mr. Wasfi is fighting back against terror using the universal language.  He dresses up in his black and white performance tuxedo and goes and plays his cello at the site of bomb explosions all across Baghdad shortly after they happen.  He says, “The other side chose to turn every aspect of life in Iraq into a battle and into a war zone.  I chose to turn every corner of Iraq into a spot for civility, beauty, and compassion.”  His music rises through the bombed cars and buildings, sharing beauty and compassion in the face of death and destruction (Century Marks, The Christian Century, July 22, 2015, p. 8).

How much real strength from the core of Mr. Wasfi’s inner being do you think he needs to go and play the cello in a war zone?

How much real inner strength from within did that daughter need to make good on an age-old promise to sing to her mother?

How much real strength does one need to address one’s own mental health issues, or substance abuse issues?

How much real strength do each of us need to take an honest, humble look at our selves and address the places where our own natural inclinations can get in the way of God’s vision becoming a reality through us?

How much real strength is needed for us to be agents of Christ love and grace?  To really reach out to ALL God’s people with patience and 

love?

God only knows how much strength we need.  But, rest assured—God does know, for each of us.  And God’s Holy Spirit can touch your inner Spirit, and you will find all the real strength you need from deep within.  Amen.