The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
September 20, 2015
"A vision that does not fade will one day become a reality." A friend of mine wrote those words in my senior year book fifty years ago when I graduated from college. I was young then, twenty-one years old. I ready to conquer the world. These words in my yearbook served to inspire me as I looked forward to my future. I have never forgotten them.
Although I did not forget them they soon seemed to leer at me with a sense of cruel irony. I was sent to a little stucco church on the eastern shores of Lake Michigan. The church was painted pink with yellow doors across the top of the front doors was a huge white sign announcing
Assembly of “od" (The “G” had fallen down from the sign and had not been replaced). It did not take me long to conclude that the name fit this congregation to a T. Yes, they were God’s children, but they were also greatest bunch of misfits I had ever met. I soon learned that they had five ministers in a period of six years, three of whom were still in town, two of whom worked actively to undermine any successor. Within three months the entire congregation was mad at me. Within six months they were accusing me of preaching heresy. I was unceremoniously sent packing!
I suspect I felt much like John Wesley, when after his disastrous mission to Georgia, was summoned back to London to give account of his failed ministry to the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge. I went into a deep depression that lasted for three years. I began to question the existence of God, but remained mad at Him. I was suicidal but remained enough of a fundamentalist to believe that the God I did not believe existed would send me to hell. It was the first of three major crises I have experienced in my life thus far. I simply could not comprehend what had happened. My vision was lying in the mud looking up to mock me (Someday, I will tell you of how God’s marvelous grace through the ministry of an Episcopalian lay lady, began the long process of healing and restoration).
I think what I experienced in Michigan fifty years ago, was not unlike what the disciples experienced after following Jesus for three years. In today's gospel, our Lord was trying to prepare them for what was about to come. He had just told them, for the second time, that he must suffer and die and that if they would be his disciples they too must take up their cross and follow him. Today’s reading tell us their response.
They did not understand and they were afraid to ask.
They were silent. They let it go. They went on with their own business. It was not that our Lord's words were not clear enough. Jesus spoke plainly. The disciples understood the literal meaning. And it was precisely this meaning that Jesus was trying to convey. But His words did not make sense to them because his message did not fit into their world view nor did they correspond to the disciples understanding of reality.
You will remember two weeks ago, I reflected on the disciples’ conviction that they were living out the fulfilment that they were living out the vision that Isaiah set forth when “the eyes of the blind would be opened and ears of the deaf unstopped.” A season when “the lame would leap like a deer and the tongue of the speechless would sing for joy.”
They had just seen their transfigured on the Mountain as he conferred with Moses and Elijah.
They were with him when he had healed the sick. They had seen him perform countless miracles and cast out demons. They had witnessed him bringing the dead back to life. Why even the wind and the sea had been subject to his authority. Surely He was the long-anticipated Messiah who had come to liberate them.
Everywhere he went the crowds had followed him. At His command, the disciples believed, His following would rise up in arms to throw off the yoke of Rome. To suffer and to die? That was not part of the plan. They had ignored the fact that Isiah had gone on to say that the Messiah would come as a Suffering Servant.
So after an embarrassed silence they went on with their own agenda. Like aides in a presidential campaign they began to argue among themselves. Which one of them would be Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense when Jesus came to power as King of Israel?
Why were they afraid to press Jesus’ statements further? Were they afraid that His answer would burst their bubble? Were they afraid that full comprehension would bring them pain?
I think so. They preferred to persist in their own illusions as if somehow by going into denial, they would avoid the reality that was speeding toward them.
It is tempting to look at the disciples from the perspective of history and to shake our heads. How immature, how lacking in faith.
But what about us? Are we that different? We who proclaim that Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. Are we open to embrace the pain that so often comes to shatter our illusions?
I am so aware that there is little I can tell you about the scriptures and about life that you have not heard a thousand times before or experienced in your own journey. But I am here to remind us all that if we face honestly the difficulties that come our way, our vision, far from being shattered, will be transformed and clarified in the crucible of life's experience. We may stumble and lose our nerve when our journey gets rocky or has unexpected turns. But we will find, as the disciples found, that in our weakness He is there as our strength.
Peter was not cast out when he denied the Lord. Thomas was not condemned when he expressed doubt in Christ's resurrection. Nor are we. What we discover as we follow our Lord on the Way, is that He is there to share our suffering, our disappointments and our hurts. He will turn our stumbling blocks into stepping stones. He invites us to join him in sharing the sufferings of others. We are called to be open, transparent, and vulnerable. We are invited to share our pain with Him and with each other. It is in the fellowship of His suffering that we experience the power of His resurrection and come to know true joy.
In today's Gospel our Lord confronted his disciples with this question: "What were you talking about while we were on the way?" They did not answer. They hung their heads in embarrassment and shame. Our Lord did not condemn them. He knew all too well what they were thinking. But He also understood. He knew that their thinking must be transformed if they were to follow in His steps. He took a little child in His arms and said "to follow me you must become as one of these." Questions? Certainly, a child is filled with questions. But children are also filled with trust. What I have discovered, and I'm sure you have as well, is that questions are not always answered. But they don't always need to be. We find Him there with us in our weakness and that is enough.
Our epistle today continues the letter from St. James, the brother of our Lord. What I have been trying to say this morning is nicely summed up in His opening words. I preached on this text three weeks ago and repeat it now. "Count it all joy, my brothers and sisters when you meet various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. Therefore let endurance have its full effect that you may be made perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
Fifty years ago, I left that little church in Michigan feeling overwhelmed with bewilderment and pain. But my life was not over as I had once thought. “A vision that does not fade will one day become a reality.” I have not abandoned these words my friend had written in my yearbook. Nor should you. Amen.