It’s sort of become a thing, a tradition even, to ring in the New Year with my brother and sister and our spouses. My big brother had his 40th birthday last Friday. It sort of caught me in a way I didn’t expect. I reflected on it often this past week – the four decades of his life and all but two-and-a-half years that I’ve shared with him. He’s a good big brother and I love him but he certainly worked me over sometimes. A brother knows what buttons to push more than anyone else.
When we were kids, he knew he could push my worry button and get me going quick. I was your classic middle child – a worrier, peacemaker, one who always had to make sure everyone was okay and things were in their right place. Shout out to the middles! But he knew he could work this angle on me and did often. There were countless times that he’d do the dead man’s float in the pool and I’d panic, giving all my strength to pull his head from the water so he’d breathe again. When we were really little, probably 7 and 5 or something like that, we were playing outside in the snow. Around the back of the house there was a long concrete stairwell that went down to an exit from the basement. Matt was the architect behind a plan to dump a bunch of snow in the bottom and then jump into it from the top. If he was the architect I was the grunt worker and we got it all set up. Matt was going to jump first and he decides to work me over saying, “Brother, if I don’t survive the jump, know that I love you and that you’ve been a great brother.” He keeps working the drama and I start fearing that I’m about to watch my brother die. My pleas for him to stop didn’t help and sure enough, he launches the six or eight feet (seemed like the Grand Canyon to me) into the pile we created to soften the fall and sure enough, he’s not moving. He jumped to his death. I rushed to his side and attempted any MacGyver maneuvers I could to rescue him from the pit to no avail. He drug it out for far longer than he should have before his ornery grin spanned his face while tears were freezing to the side of my cheeks. Then there was the time after church when he and I went down to the winding creek bed behind the church while we waited for my parents – we were always the last ones to leave the church. My brother led the adventure of course and made his way into a swampy looking island of goo. I was behind him enough that he turned to face me before I reached the spot where he was. He yelled, “Stop!” and I froze in my tracks. Matt’s feet had already disappeared into this muddy pit and he was slowly sinking further. He sees my panic and turns it on: “Brother, I think its quicksand.” Once again, I think I’m about to witness the death of my only brother. I’d seen Indiana Jones, however, and I managed to pull him to safety with a large stick. By the end we were both covered in mud from head to toe… in our church clothes mind you. Not my mother’s happiest moment. But in that sinking moment in the mud, there was power. Now I’m not God – you knew that already. But that moment brought to light the words printed on your bulletin from the 40th Psalm – “He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.” These are King David’s words about his Maker, his God, who rescued him from the miry mess of his own life. This passage of scripture is titled, “To the Leader of David.” This leader of his life was the one, true God. The one who delivered him from the hellish moments of his life and redeemed him from his messiest sins – and my were there some messy moments for King David.
We’re giving that same God our messes today as we find ourselves in week two of our first sermon series of the year, “You Have My…” I love a good ellipsis – so many possibilities. Last week those three little dots invited the word, “Word” as our focus. You have my word. If you were with us last week, you were invited to draw a word that you might surround in prayer for the year, that it might focus and shape you in some important way and I’m loving the buzz around it already. My word is “Wonder!” and it has me dreaming already. No two words alike – if you didn’t get one last week, we have a few remaining and you can grab one on the welcome center just outside of this space. We’ll add more next week if we run out today. It’s just a word – but just one word in the hands of God can move mountains. Speaking of mountain moving, our nation remembers the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, tomorrow – one who moved the mountain of racism in important ways. We still have work to do toward his dream that all of humanity would be seen as the beloved children of God they are. It may be fair to say that he didn’t have the dream as much as the dream had him. What vision! We still have much work to do in this regard. May that same dream capture each of us. So… last week we said, “God, you have my word.” Today moves us to the dirt as we consider what it means to offer our messes to God. What are we talking about, “Mess… you have my Mess?” What’s that all about?
It’s more than sinking in quicksand with your brother. We know that. It’s more complicated than that. It’s that moment when you’re ready to submit your resignation, suffocating under the stress of the job, and its only Monday. I read recently that most heart attacks in America occur on Monday morning around 8:00 AM. I don’t know if that’s accurate but it made sense to me. Work can be a mess. You have my mess. There’s the moment we realize everything our mom said was right or the moment our toddler’s vocabulary is limited to the word “No!” There’s the moment the car is making weird noises under the hood, the garage door decides to derail the one night you’re out of town or the bank account costs more to keep it open than money exists within it. There’s the moment we muster a forced smile at someone else’s seemingly easy success when our life is crumbling all around us. We’ve all been there. But how do we get out of the mess?
We don’t know exactly what happened to David that landed him in such a pit of depression. David was this tremendous warrior and leader. His business card said so: “Warrior. Leader. Man after God’s own Heart.” Saying he made some calculated and reckless decisions, however, is an understatement. Adultery, murder, both listed on his rap sheet. We’re not sure if the whole Bathsheba entanglement was part of his despair shared in Psalm 40. We can’t be certain of what stress has besieged him in this moment but what we know is that his life was certainly threatened. This is always true of someone in a position like his. But we have our own messes to consider today. How do we get out of the mire? We may be tempted to blame someone else for our messes, thereby freeing us from doing some hard work ourselves. Blaming somebody else frees us from the responsibility of the whole thing and may even allow us to feel okay about moving along in the murkiness because, hey, “Not my problem!” Somebody else is going to have to step up. But the blame game is never healthy or helpful. It bypasses the mess and generally only leads to complications later on.
Gayle Boss wrote an article called “Natural Medicine” saying, “Of course we try to make sense of things, that’s human nature. Logic doesn’t usually help much in shoring up our hearts,” however. To restore our hearts, poet Mary Oliver says, “Step out to the shore or the mountainside or the riverbank or the desert. And pay attention.” Parker Palmer took this word literally. Palmer is an author and educator. He founded the Center for Courage and Renewal which offers retreats and workshops and generally helps people grow through tough stuff. He was assigned reading for me in seminary. Interesting guy. In his forties, a while ago now, Palmer had reached some level of success; he’d achieved some things but wasn’t sure where his life was moving. And so he took his mess to the outdoors and intentionally signed up for one of those Outward Bound programs – which is a Bear Grylls sort of challenge-yourself-in-nature deal – ‘Man vs. Wild,’ kind of stuff. And so he’s out there in the woods and the guides take his group to a big cliff. They put him in harness and say, “You’ve gotta get to the bottom.” Parker wasn’t happy about this but before he knows it, he’s all strapped in and dangling from this cliff. One instructor hollers at him from the bottom, “You okay? Lean out further.” He’s thinking, “This lady is insane.” He starts down timidly trying to listen and follow the instructions but finally reaches a moment where he’s just stunned still, absolutely paralyzed. Couldn’t budge. “What’s the matter?” she says again. “You’re alright!” And then, as Palmer writes about this later says, “I don’t know why I used this childlike voice to say what I said but I did. And all I could muster was “I just don’t want to talk about it.” The instructor piped back at him, “It’s about time you learn the Outward Bound motto.” “Great,” he thinks, “I’m about to die and she wants to tell me their motto.” She hollers up at him: ‘If you can’t get out of it, get into it.’” Sounds a little cliché perhaps but I’ve pondered on it a bit and wonder if there’s not something to that idea. We try to avoid the mess; find a way around it; certainly don’t want to talk about it. We don’t want the mess to grow so we’d rather just not talk about it. So we sweep it under the rug.
I flew to Chicago this past Wednesday and back home on Thursday – just a short trip for a day meeting with the Week of Compassion strategic planning team. Such good work happening with that ministry it’s always an honor for me to be at that table representing our HACC family. The flight there was on a little puddle jumper of a plane but the flight home was on a brand new plane. So nice and so many gadgets that the old plane didn’t have. Each seat had its own screen with movie options so I scrolled through the comedies and came across a movie starring Robert De Niro called “Everybody’s Fine.” Huh. I hadn’t seen it before but Bobby D is always pretty solid so I gave it a watch. De Niro’s character is newly widowed. He has four grown kids and the movie opens with him prepping to welcome all his kids home for the first time since their mom died. He’s got the yard all cleaned up, assembles a new gas grill and gets some big steaks for the feast. But last minute, one by one he gets messages from his kids – something’s come up and they aren’t going to make it. So, even without travel clearance from his physician for his own heart trouble, De Niro sets out to make surprise visits to each of his children. The travel is heart wrenching even though there are some sprinkled moments of redemption along the way. I’m not sure what made it a comedy to be honest. The crux of the film depicted a dad who expected perfection from his kids and then grown kids who made up stuff about their lives to hide their adult imperfections from their dad. “Everybody’s fine” became a mantra of sorts and the pain of it all grew throughout the movie. The hard part for me was that we had to de-plane with about 13 minutes of the movie left to play and so I don’t really know if everybody’s fine or not. But it pained my heart as a father myself. What am I demanding, expecting of my own kids all in the name of wanting the best for them? It pained my heart as your pastor for the many stories I am privileged to hear of the messes we all find ourselves in that bring us shame or disappointment or fear of the future. And yet what do we typically say, “Everybody’s fine.”
Are we? The mess is a given. It’s always going to be a part of our story. The message of the psalmist and the message of Christ is one of beauty from ashes, of miracles from messes. There are some out there who speak about “dirty theology.” Dirty theology describes a God who is always using dirt to bring life and healing and redemption – a God who shows up in the most unlikely and scandalous ways. The theological concept is mostly just an image but we have the literal examples of scripture to back this up. The whole story begins with God reaching down from heaven, picking up some dirt, and breathing life into it. And there’s Jesus. Remember when, at one point, he takes some mud, spits in it and wipes it on a blind man’s eyes to heal him? Dirty theology. You’ve got to know the company that made all of the anointing oil in Jesus’ day had to be ticked about that. Who needs oil when dirt will do? You and I may find ourselves in mess from time to time and many times that mess may feel like a dead end. But the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, is nothing if not a sign that says, “There are no dead ends.” King David says the same in this Psalm. I’ve been through the mire of life. I know life’s pit as well as anybody. But I also know a God who doesn’t give up on me… a God who actually walks with me through the mess to the other side. And what else do we learn from David about messes? It actually helps to talk about it. Hiding it in some stained glass masquerade doesn’t help you, or me, or anyone else who feels like they’ve reached the dead end but we had covered the “No dead ends” sign so we wouldn’t have to talk about it. David just puts it out there. Mike Yaconneli was a pastor and writer who was in favor of this too. He was big on the idea of messy spirituality – wrote a book with that very title. He says, “One of the mistakes we make in the church is that we too often think that we have to clean up the mess before God will love us.” Mike loved to say that such wasn’t further from the truth. “What really happens,” he’d say, “is that it’s in the midst of the mess of your life and mine where God does God’s best work.” So give God your mess. It turns out that God specializes in messes. He doesn’t erase it. God wades through it with us and teaches us something important that can shape the rest of our lives: humility, gratitude, understanding, mercy, grace, love.
New Year’s Eve… remember, I was with my siblings. 2016 vanished in a moment and 2017 had been cheered into being. I was driving and was alone with my brother. That night and wee hours of the morning has become a sanctuary of sorts for the two of us. Lots of reflecting on where we’ve been, where we’re going. Brothers cut through the nonsense and shoot straight with each other. At some point in the night each year it happens. This year on the drive home. Matt will say, “Brother, I’m proud of you.” We’ll grab hands in the brother-shake-style and I’ll say to my big brother, “Brother, I’m proud of you too.” And do you know what that means? We’ve never really said but I’m pretty sure I know. It’s not about things we’ve achieved or any success we’ve had. It’s much deeper than that. It’s a word of gratitude that simply says, “We’ve been through it and we’re still here. We’re still brothers through it all. We’ve carried each other through the messes of four decades – from the muddy messes of childhood to the challenges of adulthood — a new year has come and I’ll still be here.” As much as I love my brother, God’s love is exponentially greater. David knows it. Maybe you know it too. If not… if you never remember anything else I might ever preach from this pulpit, please accept that unconditional love of God. God, you have my word… and today… you have my mess. In your hands, may my mess become a beautiful message of your redeeming grace. Amen.
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 Exegetical support and quotes from Boss, Oliver, and Claiborne come from “The Happiness of Being Dirty” by Bob Kaylor, Senior Writer of homiletics online and Senior Minister of the Park City United Methodist Church in Park City, Utah.
 Palmer tells this story in several different places. Here is one: http://www.couragerenewal.org/parker/writings/leading-from-within/
 Shane Claiborne, “What if Jesus meant all that stuff?” Esquire, November 18, 2009.
 Messy Spirituality. Mike Yaconnelli. Zondervan. 2002.