Text: 1 Corinthians 13:12-13
Theme Verse: "Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly.” (1 Corinthians 13:13 MSG)
JRR Tolkein’s “Leaf by Niggle” has been interpreted, by some, as a story of hope in our toil. He writes of a painter named Niggle who has a vision and desire to paint the perfect tree but life and work always prevents him from doing so. At the time of his death, he had only completed one leaf in the painting. In his journey into the afterlife, he sees ahead the tree of his vision in all its glory. In a state of complete marvel, he realizes that one day, everyone will see it too. What is the hope of our daily grind, our work? Christians can press forward, even in seemingly insignificant work, knowing that the ultimate transformation will one day be fulfilled. If you’re a city planner, there will be a New Jerusalem. If you’re a lawyer, there will be a time of perfect righteousness and justice. The way we view our work and all that is not yet as it will be will inevitably impact the way we respond to our work today. Paul’s word to trust God, hope always, and love deeply may be the very thing that sustains our work today and transforms it ultimately into the Kingdom of God.
preaching : Rev Mark Briley
(audio concludes with Chancel Choir anthem, 'When the Saints Go Marching In')
Last Sunday night, the Cleveland Cavaliers were on the verge of making history. They were vying to win the National Basketball Association Championship by beating the Golden State Warriors in the best of a seven game series. In thirty-two previous years when a team was down in the series three games to one, the team in that hole never came back to win the series. In fact, only two of those thirty-two teams had ever pushed the series to a deciding seventh game. Not only did the Cavs force a Game Seven but they’d have to win on the Warriors home court where they were virtually unbeatable. The Warriors had won more games in the regular season than any team in NBA history. Needless to say, there was not much hope given to the Cavaliers and the city of Cleveland who had not experienced a major sports championship in fifty-two years. Spoiler alert if you’ve spent the last week on a boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with no human contact – the Cavs won! They overcame every single odd and statistical reality that said they had no hope of winning.
Now, I was disappointed that our beloved Thunder didn’t make the finals after our devastating collapse to the Warriors in the Western Conference finals. But with OKC out of the mix, I threw my support to the Cavs. For starters, their coach, Tyronn Lue grew up forty minutes from my house. If you heard Lue’s shout out to Mexico, Missouri after they won the game, you heard him name a town that my high school played every year in baseball and basketball. When asked later why he called out Mexico, Missouri, he said, “I’m just so proud of where I’ve come from. I’m just happy that a small-town boy could do something positive and show kids there is hope. It’s an unbelievable feeling.”1 Lou has only been a head coach in the league for half a season so I’d say he’s had a good start.
Beyond Lue’s Missouri roots and the fascinating historical storyline, one of my favorite reasons to cheer on the Cavs in the series is because of this young man. This is Brendon Yu. He is in his second year with the team serving under the official title: Basketball Operations Special Projects. He does some scouting, salary cap analysis and the like. I know him as a kid I chased around in youth group for six years in Indianapolis. He was a youth pastor’s dream: humble, helpful, insightful, faithful. He was always fun and was sharp as a tack. He’ll get my vote for President someday. He posted this picture on Monday and I sent him a message of congratulations. I also said, “Hey – I’m finishing a series on Faith@Work, focusing the last sermon on Work and Hope. Your team overcame desperate odds to pull off something that had never been done before. How did you maintain hope that you could do it?” He responded: “Funny you should mention ‘hope’. For the past two years, I’ve been keeping notes on my phone or saving emails that I think could be of help down the road (I’m sure he has tons of notes from everything I taught him in youth group). “After we lost Game 4 and were down 3-1 to historically the best team of all time, our General Manager David Griffin sent an e-mail to all of us. It basically said even though no one in history had ever come back from that deficit in the Finals, we are a team that created history. It’s not the cliché of ‘Why not us,” but rather we’re a team that has been creating history all along. He proceeded to list all the record breaking performances we’d accomplished as a team over the past two years. This message came at a time when many were close to giving up hope and everyone responded with resolve.” Brendon said, “I saved the e-mail and wrote in my notes that Griff sending that inspiring e-mail rendered a sense of hope amongst the group and made me realize, that as individuals we can inspire hope in others in multiple ways.” I, just for fun, I asked Brendon about this picture. He said, “I felt like I was in a dream the entire time and that any second I was going to wake up and be on a plane to Oakland to face Game 7 all over again.” And then he said, “It’s a true blessing to be a part of it, especially in just my second year. One of our scouts has been in the league for 42 years and this was his first championship.”
Faith and work and love and hope. What is the right mix to make life matter? How do you deal in hope when it comes for some in half a season, or two years or forty-two years? How do we do what Paul encourages the Corinth Christians to do? How do we trust in God steadily, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly? It all sounds nice and looks good on a bumper sticker but come on, right? I mean why does it matter if I cook a great dish at the restaurant or hang aluminum siding well or rent a home fairly? So what? That always comes back to us – how do we view our place in the world? What worldview do you hold to frame all of this anyway? What is your master narrative? A worldview is not merely a set of philosophical bullet points. It is a fundamental story about what life should be like, what has knocked if off course, and what can be done to restore the course? This is the biblical framework we’ve been discussing in the series. This movement from Genesis to Revelation that takes us through creation, struggle/sin, redemption, and restoration. Today we consider the restoration – the hope of it all. You have to process this stuff in order to make sense of it all. Creation is a given – boom, here we are – created in the image of God; designed to be creators ourselves. So we venture out and create and experiment and bring life to our curiosities… until… dun, dun, dun…. We get in over our heads. The struggle, the sin, the reality that ‘Oh my, things are seriously out of whack.” There is wrong among us: poverty, war, suffering, injustice – something has knocked the whole world off balance – is it us? Is it me? Life has you down three games to one in a best of seven series. Can you come back? Then redemption comes – as Christians – we see this in the redemptive mystery of Christ who reframes a worldview and dies for it. But… and the biggest but in human history (please don’t take that out of context) … but death does not have the last say. Restoration… resurrection… everything is now viewed through that new lens, new worldview, new framework, new covenant.
Jesus did something that is not ours to do. But Jesus did something so that we could all do what is ours to do. And when we do what is ours to do within the framework of Jesus doing what was his to do… restorative hope is ours to own no matter what we face in this time and space. We name this grace. You view your life through some lens – and when Christ is the lens through which you see – trust comes steadily even in the trials, hope doesn’t swerve even when the minutia of the menial seems to be winning out, and extravagant love is the only possible output. Christians can press forward in transforming the culture over time knowing that all will one day be fulfilled. That’s living and practicing Easter even when peeps are out of season.
The band Switchfoot has a new record coming out soon called, “Where the Light Shines Through.” In their excitement they put out a thank you to those who are “fighting for these songs of hope.” They wrote this: “We sing because we’re alive. We sing because we’re broken. We sing because we refuse to believe that hatred is stronger than love. We sing because melodies begin where words fail. We sing because the wound is where the light shines through. We sing because hope deserves an anthem.”2 Hope deserves an anthem. Hope deserves a work of art.
J.R.R. Tolkien had been working on writing The Lord of the Rings for some time when he finally came to an impasse. He had this tremendous vision of a tale the world had never seen but found himself at a spot where the narrative had divided into so many subplots and characters finding their way into many complicated chains of events. He loved the work so much but grew harder and harder to find satisfactory resolution because he was so invested. In addition to his own sense of personal restlessness with the work, World War II had begun and though he, at fifty years old, wasn’t called into the military, the shadow of war fell heavily on him. He had experienced firsthand the horror of the first World War and Britain was in a precarious position with invasion imminent. Would he even survive as a civilian? His growing anxiety had him wondering if he could complete the work of his life. Between his research and study and story development, this had been decades of work at this point. The thought of not finishing was a “dreadful and numbing thought.” At that time, there was a tree in the road near Tolkien’s home that had been lopped and mutilated by a neighbor. He began to think of his life-time labor as his own “internal Tree” that might suffer the same fate. He had run out of “mental energy and invention.” (Ever run out of mental energy and invention?). One morning, he woke up with a short story in his mind and he sat and wrote it out in no time flat. He titled it, “Leaf by Niggle.” It was about a painter, a perfectionist. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word ‘niggle’ as “to work… in a fiddling or ineffective way… to spend time unnecessarily on petty details.” Niggle was Tolkien himself of course – a perfectionist always unhappy with what he had produced and distracted by getting the details just so.
Niggle had one picture he desperately wanted to paint – it was of a beautiful tree. His imagination held the whole image in view and it was the most beautiful thing he could ever imagine. No other work mattered to him anymore. This was his to paint and it would be perfect. So he worked at it – “putting a touch here and rubbing out a patch there” but never got much done. There were two main reasons for this. First, he was better at painting leaves than trees and he spent forever on a single leaf… getting the shadowing and sheen and dewdrops just so. No matter how hard he worked, very little appeared on the canvas itself. His second hindrance from completing this work was his kind heart. He was constantly helping his neighbors as they had need. When the time came for death to find him, Niggle wept – “Oh dear,” he thought, “My work is not finished.” As the story goes, death does come, his work incomplete. After death, Niggle is put on a train toward the mountains of the heavenly afterlife. On the way he hears two voices. One is Justice, the severe voice, which says that Niggle wasted so much time and accomplished so little in life. The other, gentler voice (though it was not soft), which seems to be Mercy, counters that Niggle had chosen to sacrifice for others. As the train reaches the outskirts of the heavenly country, something catches his eye. He gets off the train and run towards this vision – there it is: “Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished; its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind that Niggle had so often felt or guessed, and yet had so often failed to catch. He gazed at the Tree, and slowly he lifted his arms and opened them wide. “It is a gift!” he said.
The world before death – his old country – had seen his work as unfinished and helpful to only a few. But in his new country, the permanently real world, he finds that his tree, in full detail and finished, was not just a fancy of his that had died with his earthly life. No, it was indeed part of the True Reality that would live and be enjoyed forever. This short story, crafted at his own hand, was the thing that released Tolkien’s fear and anxiety of his work of a lifetime and allowed him perspective on finishing The Lord of the Rings – his life work.3 People have spent $5,895,819,745 to see the movie versions of Tolkien’s work. His buddy, CS Lewis, shared a joint influence on one another as well.
Why does this matter? Is Niggle found in scripture? No… and yes. He’s not a named disciple but he’s in there – just like you and I are in there too. Everyone wants to be successful rather than forgotten. Everyone wants to make a difference with the one wild and precious life they own. If there is no God… no kingdom come… then it is futile – there’s ‘nothing new under the sun.’ But if there’s a God with a kingdom come on the horizon then every good endeavor, even the simplest ones pursued within the heart of God – matters. Forever. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:58, “In the Lord, your labor is not in vain.” If your framework is Christ: trusting steadily, hoping unswervingly, loving extravagantly, the fruit is promised to come. Tim Keller says, “So you go into city planning as a young person because you have a vision for how a real city ought to be. You’re likely to be discouraged because throughout your life you probably will not get more than a leaf or a branch done. But there is a New Jerusalem, a heavenly city, which will be realized one day. Or let’s say you’re a lawyer and you have a vision for justice and a flourishing society ruled by equity and peace. In ten years you may be disillusioned because you will find that as much as you are trying to work on important things, so much of what you do is minutiae. Once or twice in your life you may feel like you have finally “gotten a leaf out.” And then he says what is key: “Whatever your work, you need to know this: There really is a tree. Whatever you are seeking in your work – the city of justice and peace, the world of brilliance and beauty, the story, the order, the healing – it is there. There is a God, there is a future healed world that God will bring about, and your work is showing it (in part) to others. Your work will be only partially successful, on your best days, in bringing that world about. But inevitably the whole tree that you seek – the beauty, harmony, justice, comfort, joy, and community – will come to fruition.”4
It is why TPS Superintendent Dr. Deborah Gist fights for kids in our city. She’s had moments that didn’t go as planned, opportunities that passed years ago but she said to me, “Everything I’ve done has prepared me for this.” She lives by the motto, “To this you are called, go and be worthy of the calling.” There’s a tree ahead. It is why Dr. Bob Flint sees his work beyond caring for teeth but caring for lives and posts the Walt Disney quote in his office, “Tomorrow can be a wonderful age.” There’s a tree ahead. It’s why Teacher of the Year at Key Elementary, Rebecca Morris puts in the extra time with a student who is struggling and opens space for our men’s group to give “High Fives” to kids to start their day because it’s more than a high five: it’s painting leaves. There’s a tree ahead. It’s why Jan Forthman makes time and space for a differently abled young woman at a Goat Judging event to say, “You matter. There is a place for you here.” There is a tree ahead. It’s why Darita Huckabee goes office to office, representative to senator to say, “Consider this need,” and passes a long battled 911 bill that will truly save lives. There’s a tree ahead. It’s why the team of Burton and Briggs says, “There has to be a better, more inventive, way” and with awe and humility they pursue it. There’s a tree ahead. It’s why Colleen Ayers-Griffin teaches a course, “Bridges Out of Poverty” because she believes there is a way, and why in her same office Wayne Kindrick is fighting to end homelessness. There is a tree ahead. It’s why Principal Liz Martin serves Traice Academy with resilience and Easter hope. I met a young man there on my “take your pastor to work” visit with Liz. His name is Daniel and he is what we technically call “a ward of the state.” Daniel, a sixth grader, has handled life much on his own when he’s not in school. He’s experienced the ‘almost’, ‘just might be possible’ Easter miracles of a forever family but nothing has stuck. Each promising moment has found new challenge and he remains without a family to call his own. But Liz saw him last week watering plants at the school, smiling, happy, a ready for a hug from his principal. He said with a smile that he was having a good summer. One of the counselors takes him to Sonic once in a while to touch base and catch up. Why? Because Daniel’s most important title is not “Ward of the State,” it is “Child of God.”
Liz so brilliantly said, “Putting together this mosaic is tedious and messy, but the final portrait just might be beautiful!!” She’s right. There is a tree ahead. The Tree of Life – the promise of Christ for one and all. Friends, put your faith to work at work. Frederick Buechner wrote, “The life I touch for good or ill will touch another life, and in turn another, until who knows where the trembling stops or in what far place my touch will be felt.”5 Your labor is not in vain. Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. There is a beautiful tree ahead. It is revealed by God one leaf at a time.
3 The story of Tolkien and excerpts of the “Leaf by Niggle” story come from the introduction of Timothy Keller’s work, “Every Good Endeavor.” Penguin Group USA publishing. 2012.
5 Found numerous places. Here is one: goodreads.com/quotes/201206-the-life-i-touch-for-good-or-ill-will-touch