Struck Down But Not Destroyed

Struck Down But Not Destroyed

Curtis Jones
Pastor, Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church
Baltimore

Sermon to the
2002 Covenant Conference
Opening Worship, November 7, 2002

II Corinthians 4: 7 – 12

We have a tradition in Baltimore. I stand before the congregation, and I say “God is good!”
[Congregation responds:] “All the time!”

I bring you greetings from the Presbytery of Baltimore and from the Madison Avenue Church that has so graciously allowed me to serve over these past fifteen years. I pray God’s blessings on all of you — to the wonderful pastor of the church and this host congregation, to Covenant Network, to some of my dear friends as I look out over the crowd, and to many of you who I hope to get to know a little better before we depart from this place.

For those of you who don’t know me, let me see if I can put you at ease. There is a story that is told about man who arrived late for a worship service much like this one. He slipped in and tried to take a seat so as not to cause a disturbance and sat down beside a very stately, elegant lady.  He opened the bulletin, and to his surprise he knew the guest speaker. He turned to this woman and said, “Ma’am, you are about to hear the driest, dullest, most boring sermon in your life.” The woman was obviously disturbed, and he took note of that, and she responded by saying, “Sir, do you know who I am?” He said, “No, I do not.” She said, “I happen to be the wife of that dry, dull, boring preacher.” With the appropriate pregnant pause he regrouped and looked her straight in the eye and said, “Ma’am, do you know who I am?” She said, “I certainly do not.”  He said, “Good! Good bye!”

I would like to speak today on the theme of “Struck down but not destroyed.” I, like some of you, may have been taken aback by the events of Tuesday night. I came here hoping to celebrate victory with Vice President Walter Mondale. I came here hoping that our country was, at least, moving in a different direction towards reconciliation, only to discover that we are as divided as we were during the time of the reading of the acquittal of O.J. Simpson — only to discover that this nation is still several nations; some black, some white, some brown, some rich, some poor, some gay, some heterosexual. Tuesday was painful in many respects. It was so bad that after listening to all the gloating I could not listen to the news anymore on Wednesday morning. I turned on my stereo: Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke. I needed some relief.

Then I realized that this is not a “they and them.” We are seated on the same side of the table hopefully trying to find solutions to what has become a perplexing dilemma. So, it is in that light that I have chosen a perplexing writer, for Paul has generated as much sadness as joy. He is about as clear as he is perplexing: Paul who sometimes waxes eloquent when he says there is neither east nor west, male nor female, gentile nor Jew, slave nor free, and then turns right around and says “Slaves, obey your Masters,” “Wives, be obedient to your husbands.” It is the sheer volume of Paul’s writing which dictated that the man cannot be ignored; and whether you attribute all of these varying and seemingly contradictory statements to the redactors or to later disciples who would compile his works, or whether you attribute them to the mystery of God, we find ourselves struggling inside of this earthen vessel — to use the RSV version. Paul captures the human predicament reaching all the way back to Genesis, making reference to having been made of clay. He says that inside the earthen vessel with all of its imperfections, we have the treasure to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.

I don’t know about you, but to me that is good news! It somehow says that I might be broken, there may be a hole in the bucket, a chip in the Corning Ware, but inside the earthen vessel we have the treasure. It is this treasure that gives us our common ground and our common purpose, even when we don’t act like it. It is this treasure that unites us, be we Democrats or Republicans. It is this treasure which helps us survive our common ground, be you from Mars or from Venus.

We have come to this point, and we acknowledge that our candidate does not always win, that our issue is not always paramount, and that our train does not always come in. We understand all too clearly that human beings have their ups and their downs, what Martin would call the vicissitudes of life. In fact it is suffering that is the norm in life. Oh, we act so surprised when suffering should somehow enter our living. We are so surprised when people don’t love us back the way we love them. We are so surprised that people do not tithe and maintain beautiful structures like this one. We are surprised when our children don’t call us as they should call us. We are surprised when we find ourselves like Job surrounded by friends who do not have the answer to satisfy the pain in our souls, and we look for an understanding that will help us and give us some sort of assurance that the Lord is still on the throne and still in the blessing business.

I want to greet you because of the work that you have done and are engaged in, the very difficult work of talking about the body of Christ and the love that we ought to have for one another. And when you talk about love, you will be crucified — that is the norm of living. When you try to do right you will be put down and rejected. That is the reality of living. My grandmother used to tell me, If you don’t want to be criticized, don’t say nothin’, don’t do nothin’, and you won’t be nothin’.

I stand before you as an Africentric African-American black male ­ that’s a mouthful — one who is familiar with what it means to be oppressed, one who has a trilogy of stories in my family history, one who laments today that our country is preparing for war, and Botswana has 39% of its population that is HIV-positive. Our enthusiasm for war has overshadowed many of the pressing issues of the day. The poverty level has gone to record numbers ­ 40,000,000 people are under the poverty line, and it does not make the headlines. We have the greatest resources, we are the legitimate superpower. We have a medical industry that can deliver and make a difference in the world.

We can set the trend for what should be; and yet what we do is build bigger barns to store greater wealth. Anybody who is under the illusion that we are inciting Saddam because he represents a potential threat needs to come to grips with the reality that Iraq is the second largest oil producer in the world, and George Bush who could not find oil in Texas has his eye on somebody else’s vineyard. Do you remember Jezebel, Ahab, and Naboth? We want Naboth’s vineyard, and the excuse is terrorism, as though our hands are clean. We prop up these individuals. We educate them, we finance them, and when we are finished with them we kick them to the curb in a self-righteous fashion. Somebody said you’ve got to be careful with self-righteousness, because sometimes self-righteousness is nothing more than jealousy with a halo.

Church: In all of what is before us, the challenge to love and to try and find the common ground once again requires that we speak truth to power and be unapologetic for having done so. There is a saying — “I sought my God, and my God I could not see. I sought my soul, and my soul eluded me. I sought my neighbor, and I found all three.” We come to this critical kairos moment in time, and we find ourselves beaten up and broken down, but within this earthen vessel we still have a song, a sermon to preach and to live, we still have a friend that we must go to, and there are still bridges that we must cross and mountains that we must climb, and giants that we must fight. And still within this earthen vessel the Lord God has given us the strength and what we need to press on.

I remember Reinhold Niebuhr writing about an incident that took place when he was much older in life. He had already been stricken by stroke, and when he spoke he no longer spoke with the vigor and the energy and the excitement, and his face was twisted, and the saliva would run down the side of his cheek. And one of his students had gone to hear him speak, and afterwards he went back to talk to this great man, and he said, “Dr. Niebuhr, why do you continue to preach? You have accomplished so much. The world is indebted to your accomplishments.” And you know Reinhold preached that the great sin of humankind is pretense, the sin of pride, to believe that we are something other than who we are; and the student asked the great teacher, “Why don’t you just retire and rest easy in comfort in the latter years?” And Reinhold said, “If I were to stop preaching right now because of my stroke, if I were to stop because of my physical condition, it would be antithetical to everything that I have ever believed in and written about. As long as the Lord God gives me breath and gives me strength, I am going to proclaim the glory of the Kingdom of our Lord God Almighty.”

Church: within this earthen vessel we sometimes look like we are defeated, and our troops have been scattered. It looks like our fields are plundered; but the Lord God has given us the ability to stand on holy ground. Moses was 80 years old. He was trying to retire. He did not want to go back to the place of his beginning. But the Lord God will sometimes fix you. You know, God will identify your fear and send you back to the very place of your failure. It seems sometimes like you can’t be of use to God unless you demonstrate that God is greater than your fears. That is what the songwriter meant when he said we must “lean on the everlasting arms of God.”

Church, church: there is an illustration in my childhood. My parents one Christmas purchased for me a punching bag. It was a transparent punching bag, the kind that you blow up, then you push that little nipple in, and hope that it doesn’t pop out., and once you have inflated the punching bag you hit it with all your might, and it rolls over and comes back up. I was determined that I was going to knock out this punching bag and hit it so hard that it would stay down, and so I hit it again. It rolled over, came back up, and this time it hit me!

When I asked my parents after several attempts to knock out this punching bag, Why won’t the punching bag stay down? my parents said to me, “Do you see the little man on the inside?” — (it very possibly could have been a little woman) — and I said, “Yes, I see it.” I didn’t realize that it had been weighted and anchored so that it would defy gravity when inflated and roll back up and stand erect. I didn’t realize that something on the inside is greater than that which is on the outside. I hadn’t yet made the connection that Paul seems to have made here when he said, “We have the treasure inside of this earthen vessel.” We sometimes confront life, and we are afflicted, but not crushed; we are perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed because of the something that we have on the inside.

Let me see if I can make this theologically more sound. What Jesus says in the 14th Chapter of the gospel of John, in the 18th verse he says, “I will not leave you desolate” or “comfortless” — depending on your translation; and then in the 20th verse of the 14th Chapter he says, “Then that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” Do you understand where I am going now with this? In the 23rd verse he says that if a person loves me and keeps my commandment, then my father will love them, and we will come and make our home in them.

Paul, this great writer of clarity as well as perplexity, says that if God is for you who can be against you? One of the realities that the church has got to come to grips with is that we have got to stop acting like the victim. We have a victim consciousness when we look around, and we say, “Woe is me.” I am the only one standing, everybody else has left. Our churches are dying. We pretend that the numbers game constitutes hell; but if we understand the story of Gideon, it is not the number and not the troops in your army, but who stands with you.

Oh church, if I had a word for the Democrats and the Republicans, if I had a word for those who point the finger at the diversity of God’s creation — it is interesting how our response to difference is fear. Difference does not mean deficiency. It just means difference. God made us and said that we were good. If someone has a problem with a black person, with a poor person, with a Republican, with a Democrat, with a gay person, with a lesbian person, see, your problem is not with that person. They can’t help who they are. Your problem is with the God who made them. What we have come to know and to appreciate of our creation is that God is a God of diversity. Nowhere in Scripture does it talk about cloning. This is a God who doesn’t even make the snowflakes identical! God takes great pleasure in creation. God has made us who we are.

There is a sign over the temple at Karnak that says, “To thine own self be true.” Oh, we’ve got to be true to the Lord God that has made us. E.e.cummings has said, To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best night and day to make you everybody else, means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight. Never stop fighting for who you are. We are a people of love, and we haven’t been the best lovers. The African-American community has not yet embraced the struggle of injustice against gays and lesbians in the ways that many of you have struggled against racism. Our church has yet to stand with all of its members. We cannot seek purity in the church by excommunicating people that we don’t like and believe should not be there.

There is a dimension of peace and harmony that gets worked out over time, over time. The contradiction that is before us is that if we put people out of the church because they are not like us, we make a critical mistake, because families and family members are not all the same. God forbid the day when we start putting our children out of the house because they failed to live up to our expectations. Instead let’s greet them where they are and love them and not be the judge over them, knowing that we, too, have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and no one, no one is God but God alone.

My vote and my faith are for the Lord; and sometimes when I do that, I vote against myself.

God bless you and keep you.

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