Mending What Was Broken
A Sermon by Louise Westfall
(Sermon Germination Group:  Margi Barratt, Lois Crawford, Wrean Fiebig, Carol Flack, and Janet Scheid)
Fairmount Presbyterian Church
29 August 2010
Text:  Romans 8:31-39
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Watching CNN at the rec center while I was working out gave me the opportunity to learn four new words that have just been added to the Oxford English Dictionary.  Let’s see if you know them:
Defriend:  to delete someone you’ve “friended” from a social networking site.
Chillax:  to calm down and relax
Frenemy:  a person with whom you have strong disagreement and even dislike—such as a political rival— yet who you treat cordially.
Vuvuzuela:  the loud horns blown exuberantly at soccer games.

Learning new vocabulary keeps the old synapses firing, but it does something more:  helps us stay culturally competent in the brave new postmodern world.  Look, you might not aspire to be on top of today’s music, styles, and technology, but you probably want to know what you’re expected to do if someone tells you to “chillax!” (particularly if they’re a frenemy!)

The cultural tidal wave accompanying William Paul Young’s best-seller, The Shack, prompted this sermon request.  Over 7 million copies have been sold, it has become the subject of blogs and op ed pieces, and a film is in the works.  I doubt if most of us would have even noticed the book had it not been for its phenomenal success.  But here is a wildly popular novel about Christian faith, and you have to be intrigued.  What accounts for its appeal?  What hungers does it feed?  Could the Church take a page from its non-traditional approach to Christianity in order to share the good news of God’s unconditional and saving love for humanity? In his sermon last Sunday, Eric explored The Shack’s unique description of the Trinity, and the evocative— even jarring—images of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit the author employs.  Today we’ll focus on its message and its responses to the question every person of faith must ask and will ask: Where is God in a world so filled with unspeakable pain?

The Bible addresses that question, of course.  The entire Old Testament book of Job wrestles with a variety of answers to the age old question; suggesting, for example, that suffering is divine punishment for sin, or that suffering is the way God gets our attention, or that suffering is just part of human life so suck it up and keep marching.  Job isn’t really satisfied with any of these answers and concludes that it’s a great mystery before which patience and faithfulness are required.   The Psalms express in poetry and song both the assurance of God’s presence (“The Lord is my rock, my fortress and redeemer”) and the experience of God’s absence (“My God, My God why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me?”).    But I didn’t have to think twice about what text to use for this sermon!  The apostle Paul’s hope-filled affirmation that “all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose” is followed by a resounding hymn of praise to the One whose love for us is absolutely faithful, no matter what.  Listen for God’s promise to you and me and all God’s beloved children in the reading from the letter to the Romans, chapter 8 at the 31st verse. [ROMANS 8:31-35, 37-39]

No wonder this text is often read at funerals!  The assurance that nothing—not even death— can separate us from God’s love is comforting. It’s more than that—it really is the heart of the good news.  God is for us; Jesus loves us; the Spirit intercedes on our behalf.    And yet, can you imagine the way the reality of death, fear about the future, or personal tragedy might block our trust in that good news, making it difficult or even impossible to believe?   That’s exactly the premise of The Shack:  it’s the story of a person whose tragic losses have embittered him toward God and caused him to feel utterly separated the very One who could heal him. A mysterious, miraculous experience we later learn takes place while he is in a coma following an automobile accident provides a stunning opportunity for Mack to encounter God and learn firsthand how nothing can ever separate us from God’s love.

Mack is a middle-aged, church-going man for whom the platitudes of friends and what he understands as the church’s teachings have not touched his unspeakable pain; specifically, the murder of his youngest daughter four years ago.  Mack is engulfed in what he calls “The Great Sadness,” as he and his wife and their two other children struggle to cope with this horrific loss.   Then one day Mack receives a note in his mailbox inviting him to the shack in the woods where his daughter’s murder took place.   Despite deep offense, fear, and anger, Mack decides to go . . . and there meets Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit “in the flesh” so to speak.    Mack is comforted and cared for, even as he asks hard and troubling questions.  The conversation cuts both ways, and Mack also must confront his own secrets and assumptions.  He experiences redemptive healing not only for his grief but also for the unacknowledged abuse he had suffered at the hands of his alcoholic father.  He learns how to forgive and how to accept forgiveness.  And Mack comes to see how his own transformed sadness can be shared with others to assist them in their own healing.

I’m grateful to the women whose names are listed in the bulletin (who participate in one of our regular book discussion groups) with whom I discussed the book in order to get a broader range of perspectives.    We all appreciated the use of a novel to convey spiritual truth and thought this medium might attract people who are not religious or who struggle with traditional theology.  The writing style is awkward and one-note, straying into lecture mode more than once. Nevertheless, we were able to accept the premise of Mack encountering the Divine as a parable or extended metaphor.  As one of the women said, “The Shack isn’t a theological textbook, but a story about a really needy person who got helpful attention from God.”  Our discussion touched on three vital affirmations and one whopping disappointment.

Overwhelmingly, the book testifies that God is love:  not just that God loves, but that God IS love.   Unconditional.  Deeply personal.  The Shack reminds us that this isn’t simply a pious platitude, but something integral to each human life.  “Oh, I am especially fond of you,” God is always exclaiming to Mack and others, accompanied by warm hugs and delicious meals. This personal, visceral intimacy offers a distinct counterpoint to a picture of God as distant, removed from the messiness of human life, vaguely hovering over the world from afar.   The book explicitly names God’s desire that the whole creation know and live in that love, and the conviction that it will be accomplished through the power and perseverance of God’s loving.

Second, God does not cause suffering.  “Just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn’t mean I orchestrate the tragedies,” God tells Mack. When Mack accuses God of trying to “justify” the bad things that happen to people, God answers without a trace of defensiveness: “We’re not justifying it.  We are redeeming it.”  We have precedent for that in Jesus, who took the very worst that human beings could offer:  abandonment, betrayal, hatred, jealousy, and all the rest, and absorbed it into his very being, in order to stop it, once and for all.  The buck stops there, on the cross.  The power of evil has been overcome.  The empty cross stands in silent testimony that all things do work together for good… by the grace of God.

Finally, Mack is helped to understand our human dependency upon God’s grace.  Human sin and selfish choices have distorted our ability to see the connections uniting us all, and even more have broken those bonds. We can’t “fix” ourselves or others.  At one point, Mack says with resignation “I don’t know how to change that.”  And God responds gently “You can’t, not alone.  But together we will watch that change take place.  I just want you to be with me and discover that our relationship is not about performance or your having to please me. . . .I am good and I desire only what is best for you.  You cannot find that through guilt or condemnation or coercion, only through a relationship of love.  And I do love you.”

By and large that’s the message of The Shack—which on balance provides a fair translation of Christian theology into a contemporary story of redemption.   But what troubled us about the book wasn’t so much its theology as its psychology.  Mack is finally able to be lifted out of the Great Sadness when he is granted a vision of his murdered daughter in heaven.  Though she cannot see him, he is given a glimpse of the smiling young girl now fully and radiantly alive.  This scene restores Mack’s trust in God’s goodness and even frees him to forgive her murderer.    And that’s where the book stumbled.  I have known so many people who prayed for assurance of their dead loved one’s continued life, some evidence that the friend who wasted away from cancer or the child whose body was broken beyond repair in a car accident are all right, restored and whole.   And there is no vision, no portal through which to see into heaven.  There is only faith:  “the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen.”  [Hebrews 11:1] 

I have seen the faith of those who were granted no special spiritual insight, and witnessed how God is nonetheless real and redemptive in their lives.  Mack’s experience in The Shack ultimately feels like wishful thinking; the way we might want God and heaven to be.  But we really don’t know; we really can’t know.    Better, instead, to connect one’s individual life to the community of faith called by Christ’s name.  To entrust yourself and your beloved ones to God as we come to know God through the fallible church—[10:  as Andrew’s parents have done today].  I know of no better place to be shaped and transformed and yes saved than in this place where there is a font of rebirth, a table of nourishment, and a family who is learning to love as we have been so greatly loved.

Friends, the Church helps us become “culturally competent” in the language and reality of God.  In that spirit, I offer some words which may be new to us, to learn, to take into our hearts, and to live:
Discern: the practice of seeking awareness of God’s presence, and the trust that God is here, whether we know it or not.
Disciple: a way of life in which we consciously commit to following Jesus in love and service toward others. 
Delight:  the deep wellspring of joy and the bright clarity of purpose discovered in relationship with the lively, loving Spirit of God to whom we all belong, in life and in death.

Thanks be to God!