Finding the Sacred in the Middle of the Profane

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Dear Friends,

All of you are welcome here. This is a sacred assembly. We are here to pray, to worship God, and to learn to see the sacred in the middle of the profane stuff of life. We want to learn to encounter the love of God and share it where it is most needed.
The Apostle Peter says, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:9)

Dear Lord,
We come to you seeking light. We come asking to be able to experience your love right here, where we are, in a world that seems so dark, so profane, right where we become convinced that all we will know is great suffering. Show us your Self. Bring your holy Word to life before our very eyes. Do in us what we cannot do for ourselves.
In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

I don’t know about you, but I often get very uncomfortable with titles. People call me mister, sir, chief, boss, captain, pastor or even Reverend. I’d rather just be known by my first name. That’s not because I’m especially humble, but maybe rather because like a lot of you, I know that a title carries responsibility. I don’t want people to look over at me and say, “Ask him, he’s the guy. He knows what’s going on.” But some titles are really important, like Dad, for instance. I don’t want my kids calling me Chris, because we have an important relationship. I want them to know that I’m their only dad, and that their mother and I love them and are interested in everything they’re into.
One title that is very important to me as a Christian is that word, “Holy.” Because of Jesus Christ I belong to God and am called holy. I’m not any holier than you, I am holy together with you, and all others across time who are the Body of Christ. Now if you come up to me and yell out, “Hey, Holy Man of God!” I might just jump out of my skin. I am that, but I don’t often think of myself with that title.
You are sons and daughters of God. You were bought with the ultimate price, that God paid Himself because He loves you. That being the case, our speech, our conduct, and what we regard affectionately must all reflect the greatness of this gift God has given us.
The words sacred, or holy have many different meanings these days. What the Bible means with these words is simply that something or someone is set apart for the Lord’s use. The first of the Ten Commandments is “you shall have no other gods before me.” To be holy is to be devoted exclusively to one Lord.
We may not think that polytheism is really an issue to us, but in truth, this age is full of many little gods that vie for our affections. To be holy means to acknowledge only one Lord and to serve only one Lord. And there is only one way to serve the Lord: the way He says. God doesn’t bargain or negotiate. Either our sins have been washed clean by the blood of Jesus Christ or they have not.
So that is the sacred, what does profane mean? Profane things are unclean, unholy. In the case of worshiping God for instance, you just wouldn’t come in drunk and use a lot of cuss words to describe how much you love Jesus. That would be profane. It would not lead anyone else to respect you, the Lord, or the place of worship.
It seems like its getting harder to live a holy life in Christ these days. This world is full of a thousand and one things that cause us to question God or forget him. But the world was not a much more innocent or godly place when it crucified Jesus. The same words that were given to his first disciples, “if they persecute me they will persecute you also”, and “Be of courage, I have overcome the world” are meant for us today. We must not imagine that we are in any more control than they were. We must not expect any better reception for doing God’s will.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “We read Scripture in order that our hearts may be moved. It will lead us into prayer for the church, for brothers and sister in the faith, for our work, and for our own soul. Prayer leads us into the world in which we must keep the faith. Where Scripture, prayer, and keeping the faith exist, temptation will always find its way in. Temptation is the sign that our hearing, prayer, and faith have touched down in reality. There is no escape from temptation except by giving ourselves to renewed reading and meditation. So the circle is complete. We will not often be permitted to see the fruits of our labors; but through the joy of community with brothers and sisters who off us spiritual care, we become certain of the proclamation and the ministry.” (Spiritual Care, pg. 69.)
One of the things we might misunderstand about holiness is to think that in our service of God somehow we can keep ourselves sheltered from the temptation, suffering, and profane things of this world. To live in this world is to cry out to God in the midst of its real state, not to try to climb to some higher plane on which to hope God is looking. The Love of God places us right where it is needed the most.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta said, “Today God loves the world so much that He gives you, He gives me, to love the world, to be His love, His compassion. It is such a beautiful thought for us—and a conviction—that you and I can be that love and compassion.
Do we know who our own poor are? Do we know our neighbor, the poor of our own area? It is so easy for us to talk and talk about the poor of other places. Very often we have the suffering, we have the lonely, we have the people—old, unwanted, feeling miserable—and they are near us and we don’t even know them. We have no time even to smile at them.
Tuberculosis and cancer are not the great diseases. I think a much greater disease is to be unwanted, unloved. The pain that these people suffer is very difficult to understand, to penetrate. I think this is what our people all over the world are going through, in every family, in every home.
This suffering is being repeated in every man, woman and child. I think Christ is undergoing his Passion again. And it is for you and for me to help them—to be Veronica, to be Simon to them.
Our poor people are great people, a very lovable people. They don’t need our pity and sympathy. They need our understanding love and they need our respect. We need to tell the poor that they are somebody to us, that they, too, have been created, by the same loving hand of God, to love and be loved.” (Mother Teresa, Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the “Saint of Calcutta”, pg. 296)
Here at New Life Evangelistic Center we share our resources, our time, our energy, our faith with thousands of other people on a monthly basis. Depending on your vantage point that is a very profane, even dangerous thing, or it is a very sacred thing that continues only by the grace of God.
Remember that NLEC’s theme verse comes from Paul’s words “And He died for all, so that all those who live might live no longer to and for themselves, but to and for Him Who died and was raised again for their sake. Consequently, from now on we estimate and regard no one from a [purely] human point of view [in terms of natural standards of value]. [No] even though we once did estimate Christ from a human viewpoint and as a man, yet now [we have such knowledge of Him that] we know Him no longer [in terms of the flesh]. Therefore if any person is [ingrafted] in Christ (the Messiah) he is a new creation (a new creature altogether); the old [previous moral and spiritual condition] has passed away. Behold, the fresh and new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:15-17, Amp.)
At one time Saul of Tarsus (later known as Paul) could not understand how Jesus of Nazareth was anything more than a blasphemous teacher who got what he deserved, whose followers were a dangerous, profane, unholy threat to the true worship of God. He believed that hunting them down and killing them was what he was called to do. He only knew Jesus by this world’s values. But then he got to know the resurrected Jesus and everything changed!
What Paul is saying is that every person we encounter has this same opportunity to get to know the resurrected Jesus, and that we can’t judge anyone by this world’s values. All people are worthy of the same attention that we received in leading us to the grace of God. In short, the Holy Spirit does not lead us to discard, hurt, write off, or call anyone fool or enemy who can be made into a new creation in Christ.
For the last several years developers in downtown St. Louis have been talking about our headquarters building at 1411 Locust Street. NLEC has owned its headquarters since 1975 and many changes have taken place in downtown since that time. The city’s parks have never moved. The city’s main branch of the library has been here all that time. The social security office branch has always been here. But in the last two years there’s been an increase in the number of people seeking shelter and basic services who cannot find them elsewhere in the region.
There are more homeless travelers, more people released from prison, more people unable to pay medical bills released from hospitals. The police move people from the parks and other areas of downtown after dark and they position them down the street right outside our building. There is one portable toilet available for them three blocks away. City hall does not allow us to keep portable toilets around our building. At one time we placed them there anyway until the city began telling the companies they would remove them as rubbish.
As you can imagine, with so many people using the same two block area to sleep in, it starts looking like images of the third world. On different mornings I’ll hear a man singing Sam Cooke’s version of “A Change is Gonna Come” on the front porch.
“It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die/ cuz I don’t know what’s up there beyond the sky/it’s been a long, a long time coming/ but I know a change is gonna come/ oh yes it will.”
I know exactly what he’s singing about. Every morning that I come to work and I see a crowd of men, women, and children huddled under blankets on the concrete it wounds me. City hall says that it is our fault that these people lay here. They say first that we allow too many people to stay in our shelter, and then they say that we should not allow these people to congregate outside our shelter.
They know that when people call the Housing Resource Center they are told that no beds are available. We are wrong for the way we run our shelter. We are badly located, they say. It’s a “quality of life issue”.
The answer to all of downtown’s problems with the homeless is simple to the powers that be. Provide housing for those who can be easily placed, through the state department of mental health, or federal funds available through special programs. But for those who don’t qualify for a variety of reasons, well, don’t feed them, don’t give them bathrooms, don’t give them blankets, get them to move along.
This reasoning says, “Be grateful for all the people who do qualify for programs, but it’s got to be cut off somewhere. If we show too much hospitality then we’re enabling homelessness and encouraging vagrancy.”
It is amazing to me how reasonable this sounds to people who do not do any advocacy or casework with the homeless. It even seems reasonable to some people who work only with those who qualify for certain programs. But someone has to ask, “How bad does it need to get before our community actually opens more shelter and direct services (transportation, access to bathrooms, shower and laundry, hygiene products)?” Why is there never enough?
How can we be holy followers of Jesus in the midst of such a profane situation? People come to us desperate, tired, angry, suicidal, and in denial about the true extent of their problems. How can living a holy life make any difference?
Jesus spoke of a poverty of spirit in his Sermon on the Mount. Now if you work with poor people everyday you know that not everyone without money is what Jesus would describe as “poor in spirit”. Jesus was describing a humble person whose posture is not toward what they can get, but longs for their significance in the new kingdom.
The nine “Blesseds” of Matthew 5:3-12 all refer to sacred states that make no rational sense in a world without God. The poor, mourning, meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, purity of heart, peacemaking, and righteous persecution all point to a status before God that is not assumed by the individual.
Jesus called his disciples “blessed” for being a people whose real worth was not determined by the figure in their bank accounts. It was not determined by how long the funeral procession would be to remember them. Neither was their state as truly blessed determined by how well they would be liked and praised for their good deeds. With them our true state of blessedness is in our long obedience to God in the same direction.
It is important to recognize that any attempt to appear holy without true communion with Christ is actually hypocrisy. Doing good things for people without real love from Jesus might look holy, but does not win us favor. The only way to BE holy is to be IN Christ.
Romans 14:7-12 says, “None of us lives to himself [but to the Lord], and none of us dies to himself [but to the Lord, for] If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or we die, we belong to the Lord. For Christ died and lived again for this very purpose, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.
Why do you criticize and pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you look down upon or despise your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written, As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to Me, and every tongue shall confess to God [acknowledge Him to His honor and to His praise]. And so each of us shall give an account of himself [give an answer in reference to judgment] to God.”(Amplified Bible)
Doing the works of mercy shows us what we are really made of. Sometimes being a helper feels really good, but often it feels really exhausting, emotionally, physically, mentally. Genuine care is met with dishonesty, deceit, profanity, accusations, and resentment. This is where the sacred and profane meet. Can I overcome evil with good?
Thomas a Kempis offers this wisdom: “If all men were perfect, we should meet with nothing in the conduct of others to suffer for the sake of God. But in the present fallen state of human nature, it is his blessed will, that we should learn to “bear one another’s burdens:” and as no man is free from some burden of sin or sorrow; as none has strength and wisdom sufficient for all the purposes of life and duty, the necessity of mutual forbearance, mutual consolation, mutual support, instruction, and advice is founded upon our mutual imperfections, troubles, and wants. Besides, by outward occasions of suffering from the conduct of others, the nature and degree of every man’s inward strength is more plainly discovered; for outward occasions do not make him frail, but only show him what he is in himself.” (Thomas a’ Kempis, The Imitation of Christ)
To conclude, to find the holy in the midst of the profane is to agree with God that this world is worth loving. It is to find the image of God in all people. It is to have eyes open for beautiful spaces not as they could be if they were changed with money and labor, but as they are in the present. Redeemed lives are messy lives, because we are drawn back into the suffering spaces where God is about his work of redemption.
Let’s pray the Lord’s Prayer together now:
Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name. Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. Thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever. Amen.

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Filed under bonhoeffer, love, Pastoral Ministry

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