Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Tending the New Creation:  Living Out Loud

Rev. Kathy Donley

 6/24/18

 

Scripture Lesson:  2 Corinthians 6:1-13

 

Not too long ago, I learned the expression “living your best life”.  I learned it from one of you.  I didn’t ask for a definition, but I took it to mean embracing life as in your own unique ways, being your most authentic self, doing life on your own terms and finding all the joy possible. If I misunderstood the expression, don’t tell me because I really like my definition now. 

In the reading to the Corinthians, particularly as we hear it in the Message version, I think that Paul is inviting them to live their best lives when he writes “I can’t tell you how much I long for you to enter this wide-open, spacious life. . . Your lives aren’t small, but you’re living them in a small way.  I’m speaking as plainly as I can and with great affection.  Open up your lives.  Live openly and expansively!”

It is strong encouragement to be ourselves, with all our gifts and quirks, and to be joyful.   We could revel in that message, as a gift of God to us, particularly those of us who tend to be hard on ourselves or hard on others.  Those who tend to see the glass half full could be encouraged to find the joy in every glass, no matter how full.  These words are a gift from God.

But they are difficult words for me to preach right now.  It does not seem appropriate to focus on how we, in this room, can live our best God-given lives when we know that so many others are being prevented from doing so.  Do we seriously think that God wants us to be joyful when there is so much pain and trouble and evil in the world?  Things were not so different in Corinth in Paul’s time either, so how are we to understand these words?

Our understanding might begin with the notion of sin.  Sin is present in the Corinthians’ time and in ours.  In his letter to the Romans, Paul describes sin as “a great evil force in the universe that brings death and has all of humanity in bondage.  Human beings are slaves to sin, unable to live as [we] long to live.  Our sinfulness includes individual moral failings [like stealing, lying, cheating, physically harming another person,] but it is greater than that.  It is the force in the world that creates human slavery, divisions and hatred among people, [systems of] bribery and corruption, war and violence, etc.  And it has us all in bondage.”[1] 

So sin can keep us from living our best lives, our own sin or the sin of others.   The early Christians believed that Jesus lived so freely and fully that he was not in bondage to sin.  In other words, he defined “living your best life” every day.  And through his life, death and resurrection, he enabled other people to break free of that same bondage. 

Jesus was radically free, so free that he willingly suffered death for the benefit of humanity.   Fear, even the fear of death,  did not enslave him.  He lived his best life by being obedient to God, even obedient unto death.

As he invites the Corinthians to live their best lives, Paul describes what his own life as a Jesus-follower has been like, including beatings, imprisonments, sleepless nights, hunger.   Some of us believe that our best life is found in participating in God’s work in the world.  If Jesus and Paul are typical, then living our best life may actually bring us more hardship.   

More hardship does not sound anything like “living your best life”.  Entering a wide-open spacious life seems to involve freedom from fear, especially freedom from the fear of death.  It seems counter-intuitive, but maybe it is true that we gain that freedom through hardship.  In his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”  (Romans 5:3-4)

Kayla Jean Mueller was a Christian human rights activist and humanitarian aid worker from Arizona.  In 2013, she was abducted by ISIS and held captive for 18 months before being killed. Throughout her short but full life, she modeled living her best life in hope.  Kayla studied political science and world religions in college, earning a bachelor’s degree in 2 ½ years.  She planned to go on to graduate school, but first she wanted to learn directly from the people who were most profoundly impacted by our economic and social structures.  She worked with orphans in India and African refugees in Tel Aviv.  For a year she worked at an HIV/Aids clinic by day and volunteered at a women’s shelter at night. 

Then in December 2012, she went to the Turkey-Syria border to work with Syrian refugees.  In March she wrote, "I want to tell the world about the situation in Syria ... There is no fuel, no electricity, no food. This is the situation.  There is shelling, explosions, gunfire ... violence, death. No one is working, there are no jobs. People are just surviving day to day, living for the sake of living . . . Every human being should act; they should stop this violence.  It is killing women and children .People are fleeing . . . This, this is too much . . ."[2]

Before she went to the Syrian border, her mother asked her why she had to go to the most dangerous place in the world.  Kayla’s answer was “For as long as I live, I will not let this suffering be normal, not something we just accept.” 

Her words came to me this week, as I heard the reports of children crying and acting out and refusing to be consoled, as I learned about anguished fathers, mothers unable to eat or sleep and detained teenagers on suicide watch – all because of an unnecessary, evil policy enacted by our government.  Her words came to me and I said, “We cannot let this suffering be normal.”

In every conversation I had with one of you this week, this issue came up.  I didn’t bring it up – you did.  The only conversation where it was not mentioned was when I was at Hospice Inn with M’s family, which is understandable.  I believe that we are all outraged and heartbroken about this.  I invite you to claim Kayla’s words as your own.  Will you say them out loud with me?
“We will not let this suffering be normal.”

Many have recognized that separating children from their families is not new to our country.  Children of enslaved people were taken from them.  Children of native Americans were also abducted by the government and put in boarding schools where they were deprived of their own language and religion and culture, in addition to their families.  And right now, families of color are being separated by the policies of mass incarceration and by the systemic racism within our police force that is murdering young men and women.   It is not new, but let us recognize it in all its forms and let us mean it when we say that we will not let it be normal.

Kayla was taken captive in August 2013 in Aleppo, Syria, after leaving a Doctors Without Borders hospital. She was tortured and abused, held in isolation for long periods.

There were some other Western hostages in captivity near her.  When they were about to be released, she was brought to their cell so that they could report that she was alive.  One of those men, Nicolas Henin said

“She explained a bit about what she had been through. She looked extremely brave. She was incredibly courageous. She spent several months in isolation. She was impressive. She had a beautiful inner strength. I mean she was strong inside. She obviously had been through some tough moments. She managed well to overcome them. I was just impressed. . . . She was strong. To the point that [our torturer claimed]  that she converted to Islam and she said, ‘I just want to correct you. I have not converted.’ I mean nobody would have dared to contradict him. But she did. She was not aggressive but ‘No, please let me correct you. I did not convert.’ Very calm, but very decided. She was very impressive." [3]

Some years before her capture, she spent a summer studying with the Buddhist leader, Thich Nhat Hanh.  In her journal in 2011, she recorded his words, “The gardener knows how to turn garbage into compost.”  And then she said, “Therefore our anger, sadness and fear is the best compost for our compassion.”

This week, I remembered these words of wisdom.   Let me invite you to do something.  Take a minute and think about the last week.  What have you felt most often?  Was it sadness? Peace? Fear?  Joy? Outrage?  Take a minute and think about that and name it in your mind.  Name it in one or two words.  . . .

What are those words?  Speak them out loudly so that everyone can hear you.

What if all those emotions swirling around us could be transformed?  What if instead of distracting us or holding us back, they could be part of the energy that propels us forward into a wide-open spacious life?

Kayla wrote a letter to her family which was smuggled out by a released captive.  In that letter, she said,  “I have surrendered myself to our creator because literally there was no one else....  and by God and  by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in freefall.”

 

“I have been shown in darkness, light, and have learned that even in prison, one can be free. I am grateful. I have come to see that there is good in every situation, sometimes we just have to look for it.[4]

 

As a white, well-educated Christian living in America, Kayla had all kinds of opportunities to live a life of comfort and peace.  Instead, she stepped into the wide-open spaciousness of the life God called her to.  In a birthday letter to her father she said, “Some people find God in love; I find God in suffering.  I’ve known for some time what life’s work is, using my hands as tools to relieve suffering.” 

 

Jesus saw the suffering of those around him and refused to accept it as normal.  Following Jesus to a place far from her home, Kayla also said, “I will not let this suffering be normal.”

 

And in the face of the evil around us, we say together 

“We will not let this suffering be normal.”

 

Immigrants and refugees are welcome here because

“We will not let this suffering be normal.”

 

We partner with  Karen and Kachin congregations because

“We will not let this suffering be normal.”

 

We affirm the value of every single human being, gay or straight, rich or poor, male or female, young or old, every one made in God’s own image and therefore

“We will not let this suffering be normal.”

 

We stand with Standing Rock and the people of Puerto Rico  and Flint and Syria because

“We will not let this suffering be normal.”

 

Our hearts break for families from Honduras and Guatemala and El Salvador, fleeing violence and grinding poverty only to be further traumatized by our government as they seek sanctuary here.  Sisters and brothers,

we will not let this suffering be normal.

 

I share Kayla’s story in the hope that she will inspire you as she has inspired me. She stands in a long line of faithful followers of Jesus who lived in radical freedom, participating in God’s work in the world.    May her life and witness encourage us to live our very best lives, openly, expansively, living beyond our fear, anger and sadness into compassion and justice and true peace.  Amen.

 

 



[1]Mitzi Minor, 2 Corinthians:  Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary, (Macon:  Smyth and Helwys, 2009), p. 119.

[2] https://holyseemission.org/contents//events/5723cc24e92a84.35067264.php

[3] https://holyseemission.org/contents//events/5723cc24e92a84.35067264.php

[4] https://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/us/kayla-mueller-s-letter-to-her-family-the-full-text-1.2098841

 

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