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September 17, 2011

To Live … To Die

by Rev. A. J. Iovine

(A draft of my weekly sermon)

I’ve been on an emotional roller coaster all week. The past eight days have been rather taxing. Whether is has been the physical deterioration of my vocal chords or the stress of fearing that the cancer in my throat has not been stopped has worn me down to a point of well, I can’t say. It is like I’ve been living in that dark tunnel and that light at the end has been getting smaller and smaller and smaller. In turn, my response to just about everything I’ve faced this week has had a negative tinge surrounding it. If you were on the opposite end of anything I’ve said or done, I deeply apologize.

We’ve all been through times when we hit rock bottom, either emotionally or physically. We reach a point in our lives where we are in that dark tunnel and no matter which way we turn, the darkness is all around us. Our minds play tricks on us, getting us to focus so intently on the negative that nothing else around us matters. All of us have faced times in our lives of being at the rock bottom, engulfed with an overwhelming feeling of being lost, where nothing in our lives can help us get up and out.

Sadly for me, these past days have put me in that situation. My sleep pattern has always been — how can say this — a bit odd. But add the worries racing around in my mind, the past couple of nights have found me sitting up reading, trying to make myself so tired my body would have no choice but to ignore the fears cascading through my head and just fall asleep.

Being at rock bottom is a terrible position for any one. There is this terrible internal feeling that there is no hope of things getting better. It is like those demons in our heads are telling us that we should just get used to feeling bad all the time, that life is not going to get easier, that you can’t change the bad situation you’re facing.

As I’ve gone through this struggle this week, it made it awfully hard to sit down and write a sermon. It is not an easy thing to do to speak of the goodness of God and of our Savior Jesus Christ while you really just want to stand up here and say, “Yeah, whatever.” And sorry to disappoint you, the sermon doesn’t here.

The fact is, in writing to the people of Philippi, Saint Paul was facing some rather difficult and emotionally challenging days himself. He was arrested for doing nothing other that preaching the Gospel of salvation about our Lord Jesus. Locked up in prison first and then under house arrest, Paul was a prisoner simply because he believed in Christ as the savior of the world, the one whose body was broken and blood shed at the cross for the forgiveness of sins. He was not free to do what he liked and was called to do by God because of Roman guards who stood outside his door or his jail cell prevented him from going to and fro.

His life was at rock bottom. He was facing trial in front of Caesar. Losing at trial could mean death. And the leaders of the Jewish Community desperately wanted him to face the sting of death by any means, including plotting to murder him. Paul was in that dark tunnel and Paul’s friends, compatriots, and fellow Christian believers feared for him.

Yet Paul didn’t fear.

He didn’t worry about his life, not for a moment.

No matter the darkness that surrounded him, he didn’t worry about what would happen to him.

For as Paul wrote to the worried Philippians;

(F)or I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.

Saint Paul grasped something we all sometimes forget one time in our lives or that we struggle to see this Godly promise when we’re walking through our dark tunnels — that our God in heaven loves us, that our lives are dedicated to Him to tell of His grace and His mercy shown through the death, resurrection, and ascension of His Son, Jesus Christ. Paul held so firm to this belief and conviction that no matter what he faced in his walk on earth, he knew that God would be glorified in whatever happened to him.

To Paul and to us, the goodness of the salvation won by our Lord for us, where our Father in heaven graciously pardons our sins, is that for which our lives are lived. Our faith in Christ is not a singular, personal faith that is to kept inside of us, but it is a faith that is to be expounded, expressed, spoken about, lived by, and lovingly shown to everyone we see during every moment, everyday of our lives. It is a faith grounded by God’s love and grace and mercy, as He has forgiven us we go forth to live and tell and show what it means to be one to be shown this Godly mercy and grace and love.

This is the heart of the Christian, not just in good times, but in all times, even in those times when we don’t know what the days holds for us or whether the cancer in our bodies is growing and spreading.

Take a moment to think back a few minutes to our Gospel reading where Jesus tells the parable of the workers. We’ve long time Christians have been working in that field all day. We’ve been laboring in the hot sun, our backs breaking from tireless work. We’ve all tried to live good lives, spoken about what Jesus Christ means to us as our Savior and Redeemer. And at the end of the day we’re tired and we expect to be paid. Through God’s love and mercy and grace, we’re paid with the salvation of eternity in heaven. We’re given the riches of God’s Kingdom not because we’ve worked all day but because God was gracious to call us into the Kingdom where would could work for Him.

And those whom we touched with the Gospel who are now with us, those who were in a dark place but now are in the light of Christ, our hearts are grateful that God’s Kingdom has grown. We don’t ask why should they receive the same grace and mercy as us. We just thank the Lord that they, too, want to serve in the Kingdom with us; to join us to reach out with their voices or their actions to show what it means to be a Baptized member of God’s family.

And we thank the Lord for their service. As we thank the Lord for the service of those around you here today.

As the church of his time was thankful to Paul, one who tried to snuff out the Christian Church but was turned to faith by Jesus Himself. The early church was a little weary and angry at Paul, just like the people where in our Gospel to those newly minted workers. But in the end, the church came together as one, centered on Jesus Christ and telling that Good News.

And facing everything that Paul faced, he very easily could have been where I’ve emotionally been this week, but Paul wasn’t. He never was. In fact, on Saturday morning when I sat down to rewrite this sermon for about the eleventh time, it was Paul that reminded me of what my faith in Jesus Christ means.

That no matter what my life may come to, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”

Amen.

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