Grace to you and peace from God the Father and from our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
I could spend a lot of time this afternoon extolling Mark’s virtues. His list of accomplishments are many. Successful business man. World traveler. Philanthropist. Loyal alum and supporter of his alma mater. Faithful husband. Artist. Thinker. Poet. I could fill up this entire sermon talking about such things–easily. But it is not a pastor’s job to simply lift up the virtues of a man who has died. It is the job of a pastor to bring a word from God into the midst of human situations–a word which comforts those who grieve and gives insight into how God’s love effects our lives.
And now, with that being said, I would like to turn to Mark’s own words to begin that process of perhaps hearing what God would tell us this day as we celebrate Mark’s life. In his book An Artist Writes, there is an interesting little poem entitled “Dis-satisfaction.” It reads:
Take a look–I’ve got it all
A great wife, health
Bank account that’s not small
Yet what is that sporadic, niggling burr
that nestles underneath my saddle?
Is it the ebbing of the physical
or a flaw in my gear box?
Maybe nature’s perverse trick to ruffle my feathers
Or one last long squall before the water calms.
I wrestle with this wisp of unease
It pins me more than not
A twinge of craziness asks
Am I a gerbil on a treadmill?
A captive in a cosmic joke?
A malcontent without a cause?
Is my chain being yanked because I care?
Maybe it is a plague of self absorption?
Blind faith would–could–be a lifeline
But for whatever reason no solace there.
Is the question unanswerable?
A maddening changing of the guard
An accelerating slide down a slope
To a place I don’t want to go.
It’s a challenging poem because I think it raises one of those items of truth that hits many of us where we live. We may seem to have it all, according to worldly standards, but within there is still discontent. There is still something that makes us uneasy. There is something which makes us dissatisfied with life and the way things are going. Mark felt it, and he was seeking an answer to the problem. Blind faith could have given him consolation, but it wasn’t enough. There was no turning off his brain and simply accepting things. Mark had to question. He had to ask. He had to delve deep.
And he roped me into this quest–and for that, I will be forever grateful.
Several years ago, Mark handed me a book at church. It was entitled, A Place for Truth: Leading Thinkers Explore Life’s Hardest Questions. Mark struggled with the book. He wanted to talk about many of the things written in its pages. Little did he know, he was contributing to his pastor’s conversion.
Yes, you heard that correctly. Mark’s gesture of seeking started me on a journey of conversion, and it is not too often that a pastor can stand before a congregation and say such a thing. But never-the-less, I can assure you, it is true. For the book Mark handed me caused me to delve deep, deep within the Christian faith. It caused me to examine myself–my core beliefs and convictions. It confronted me with the truth. Far from a blind faith, it helped me see something tremendously important; something I had managed to give consent to with my head but fail to grasp within the depths of my being. You may be having two thoughts at this moment: #1. What was that thing? And #2. Isn’t this gathering supposed to focused on Mark?
The answer to number one is forthcoming. The answer to number two is, of course, and I’m coming right back there. Because that thing is an answer to some of the things Mark was wrestling with deeply–not only in his poem “Dis-satisfaction” but another poem which I would like to read to you now. This one is entitled “Guilt for Less”:
Once I threw a Canadian coin
into a Salvation Army bucket–clunk
Another time I fell far short of loving my neighbor as myself
After each incident I felt bad
A moral misfit
That I might be the guest at a very hot bar-b-que
No question of immutable truths when I was young–
My brain washed
The conscience, gate keeper, or party pooper
let me know when I’d been bad
Numerous immutable pitfalls await.
The moral electric fence restraining our base instincts
Occasionally we slip under the wire
only to be Tasered by guilt
we come scuttling back seeking forgiveness
How do we escape this scourge?
Heaven’s answer, at least on Sunday morning
Bountiful succor if you prostrate yourself
give up sin forever or at least until next time
a nagging conscience demands that promise
A bar so high, failure foregone
Humanness guarantees a repeat performance
Has this niggling failure diminished us?
Deflated egos: unquestioning sinners in waiting
No one escapes the wide net
Even the sanctimonious one in the front row
You’re guilty of–pride
Wretches all–give it up
The drill: sin–seek forgiveness–absolution–repeat
Seamless–better than a six pack
Strangely, I feel guilty for writing this
How do we escape this scourge? How do we escape guilt? How do we escape this cycle of sin, seek forgiveness, receive absolution, and repeat? This poem reminded me of another author who once wrote about the same sort of thing. St. Paul lifted up this in the letter of Romans so long ago. Addressing the human condition, Paul said much the same thing as Mark–just using different words:
18For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? (Romans 7:18-24)
Hear Paul’s final question again. Notice the words Paul uses. Who will rescue me from this body of death? Who will rescue me from this cycle of sin? He does not use the word what. It’s not what will save me? It’s who will save me. Mark hit upon how we normally address things in the church. We focus on the what: attend church; ask for forgiveness; try not to sin; fail; repeat. That’s the what. But the what doesn’t save us. It’s the who that does.
“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Paul exclaims. Thanks be to Jesus, for it is He who offers us the answer.
It took me a while, but the process that Mark started with giving me that book found its endpoint in Jesus. It found its endpoint in the heart-felt realization that it is Christ alone who saves. Christ alone. Not our effort. Not our actions. Not our coming to church. Not our asking for forgiveness. Sin is a given. I am a failure, but Jesus died for me anyway. Jesus loved me anyway. Jesus redeems me anyway. Just as Jesus died for you, loves you, and redeems you. Just as Jesus died for Mark, loves Mark, and redeems Mark. If we can pull off our own salvation, we have a reason to feel haughty. We have a reason to feel superior. We have a reason to feel guilty because we should be capable of doing and being better. But, if salvation is only from Jesus–if salvation is only by the grace of God, we are humbled knowing that we are no better than anyone else. We are humbled knowing that despite our sinfulness God loves us tremendously. And we don’t have to feel dissatisfied any longer. There is nothing we have to accomplish to prove our worth. There is nothing we have to accomplish to make ourselves better in the eyes of the world. Christ has done all for us, and He becomes our All in All.
This realization; this conversion within me has deeply affected my teaching and preaching. It has deeply affected the way I view my role as a pastor. And a few have noticed. Mark noticed. The week before he suffered his first stroke, Mark said the following as I took prayer requests from the congregation, “I pray that we come to understand the theology you are preaching.”
I pray that prayer often. That we may understand our salvation is from the Lord. For that is the most important thing. Mark is experiencing that salvation right now. He is with God basking in eternal glory. The promised hope of the resurrection is fulfilled. That hope is also extended to you and to me–not only for when we die, but for our lives right here and now. When Christ becomes the center of our lives and orients our hearts toward Him, we live in that hope daily. We know our worth comes from God and that we will go to God. We know peace of heart and mind. And on days like these, we know there is no saying “Goodby.” There is an acknowledgment that death is not a period. It is a comma, and one day we will join Mark at God’s side. Amen.