Editor’s Note: The following sermon was delivered by Association president Emily Rova-Hegener at the closing worship of the 2018 pastors and spouses conference in Athens, Greece. The sermon text was 2 Corinthians 12:7-9: “even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given to me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” (NRSV)
Again from verse 9, “My grace is sufficient for you.”
Many of you know I was privileged this past October to go on a five day pilgrimage with my dear friends Kim Herr and Jodi Fondell, from the American Church in Paris. Kim had organized the journey for the women of their congregation and as time neared for us to leave at the end of October, eight of us would make the 108 kilometer pilgrim walk from Paris to Chartes. Personally, I had high expectations for this pilgrimage, as it had been a dream of mine to go to Chartes Cathedral because I’ve led numerous retreats centering upon spiritual formation and the labyrinth. Chartres Cathedral is a sacred and holy place containing for me, the mother of all labyrinths and a deep rooted history of pilgrimage from the middle ages. I was taking this opportunity to walk for myself, but I also wore my pastor hat, as Jodie and I were leading devotions and providing a pastoral presence as well. I knew the other women were parishioners of the American Church in Paris, even if they weren’t mine, they belonged to Scott and Tim and I felt responsible for them in some small way.
Prior to our departure date, several e-mails went back and forth between the women in the group and being that I was from Oslo, Norway, was really curious to see how this would all go; you know, walking with women who I didn’t know and who didn’t know me and most of them didn’t know each other all that well either. I was assuming that this was going to be a quiet, reflective, and perhaps even silent pilgrimage as we walked on this holy road together. Recognizing that this would be an international community of women, I knew that there would be a lot diversity, so what was it that we were all seeking to find on this road together? I wondered and pondered this question and then thought to myself, “This is going to be very interesting.”
I was very excited when I arrived in Paris at ACP late one evening and then got up at the crack of dawn on Reformation Day to head out with Jodie and Kim to meet our pilgrim group. The sun was shining and it was one of those perfect and beautiful fall days where the skies are blue and there is a crisp bite to the air. Being that it was the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, that day held great meaning for me, as I thought about this incredibly Catholic notion of pilgrimage that this Lutheran was doing with a bunch of Presbyterian, Covenant, Baptist, and non-denominational women. That’s just the denominational diversity, that’s not including the occupational, ethnic, cultural, financial and age diversity that gave color to each one of us. Before we headed to officially begin our pilgrimage at Notre Dame where we got our credentials stamped, we gathered together in a small apartment of one of the pilgrim women for a brief cup of coffee, pastry, and devotional time. With the St. Jacque shell tied to our backpacks we headed out the door and into the cool autumn sunshine.
We started getting to know each other, walking and talking. It was loud as we exited the city and yelled to hear one another over the traffic. It took us awhile to get out of the inners of Paris, but after about four hours, with each step and every corner we turned, the sounds gradually became softer and our conversations quieted. Again, I had this pastoral need to reach out to each person on the pilgrimage, so strategically figured out in what order I would walk with everyone. The person I didn’t want to talk with right away, was the person who found me quickly and clearly wanted to talk. I was reminded how annoying people can be and how annoying people can pose deep challenges for a group.
The following day, we had been walking for a few hours and I was really in a mood to be quiet. We went through this lovely wooded area with green trees that folded over like a great canopy, inviting us inward. I wanted desperately to not talk and just be reflective, but this same women came up and said to me, “I think we should be grateful for the beauty that surrounds us. Emily, why don’t we share what we are thankful and grateful for until we run out of things. That ought to take awhile!” It lasted about 5 minutes when I said, “I am grateful for peace and quiet.” And proceeded to walk ahead.
On day number four, I walked with the eldest in the group. It took me a long time to get the courage up to speak with her, as she was the perfect French woman, make up and lipstick on, with a scarf around her neck and she smelled really nice. I was always walking behind her, you see, so I was always getting a good whiff. She hadn’t said two words to me for the first couple of days and I decided I would see what I could learn about this well-put-together-fashionista. I used all my pastoral skills to pull what I could about her life story and I listened for hours. Her life could be made into a major motion picture.
I journeyed intensely for five days with each of these pilgrims and what I discovered was that each one of these women on the journey, brought something to the road we walked on, but it was not always what I had hoped for or expected, but it was who they were.
As I listened to their stories along the way, what I discovered was this: the cracks, fragments, and shards of brokenness in their lives was what we were all trying to make sense of. Like me, they were seeking God in their own way and strongly desired restoration. Despite our theological, ethnic, language, financial, and age differences, our commonality was in our brokenness, sorrows, sadness, aches, pains, and tears. Just like the congregations we serve, whose people’s lives mingle with ours week in and week out, our commonality is in our brokenness and our faith gives us hope that Christ will restore us.
Brokenness and restoration has surrounded us this week, hasn’t it?! On Wednesday, as we were walking around the Acropolis, Mandy and I were taking pictures looking down the fenced in archeological area with all of these pieces of columns, steps, and pillars and she turned to me and said, “How do they know how all these pieces go back together?”
Like the pieces of rock at the Acropolis, laying around the outside, with visible signs of scars from long histories of war and tragedies, we too stand together, with visible and not so visible scars from our own histories. We too, long to be put back together and restored. We long for those cracks to be filled with something that will hold us. Half the time, we prefer to fill those cracks and broken places that hurt and are painful with a whole lot of other stuff. We fill ourselves with things, money, status, and power. We work at the outside, trying to make it perfect, so it looks good and we try and make it something that it isn’t. It is stuff that holds for a little bit, but then, we fall apart again. It’s like using Elmer’s glue when we need cement. The problem is that we can’t fix the brokenness ourselves; only God can do that, from the inside out.
Perhaps God is the master archeologist, who works hard to put us back together, wouldn’t you say? He knows the treasure in the clay pots that we are. He looks at us, broken, with all those visible scars from our stories and past, things that we’ve done and left undone, and says to each one of us, I love you and because I love you, my grace is sufficient for you.” God’s grace comes to us in resurrection abundance. We were reminded in the Gospel this morning when Jesus says, “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Resurrection is new life and it is all a part of God’s love story touching our own, making us new again and again and again.
God’s grace is the Good News this morning. God’s grace is what fills those cracks up and gets into those broken places that hurt and are painful and restores them. God’s grace is what fills those deep, dark, cavernous spots in our lives. God’s grace is light in the darkness of the tomb. God’s grace is what meets us on the journey of life and reminds us we are not alone. The thing I love about God’s grace is that we only have to do one thing with it; receive it. It is a gift to each one of us, a free gift that we do not have to earn or be perfect for or be anything for. Like those ancient columns, steps, and pillars, is to receive the grace from the master archeologist, our God and creator. God finds the fragmented pieces, gently puts them together and slathers that grace in between as we are made whole again.
All of our stories are witnesses of brokenness and restoration in Christ. That is really the heart and soul of it all, isn’t it? We are called to share the road of life and who who we are with each other, as God’s grace leads us forward and is most definitely sufficient. In the coming two to four days, we will go back to the places and communities we live and serve in and where brokenness lies, like the columns and pillars outside the Acropolis. But the Good News is that God will use us to work alongside, encourage one another, and pour that amazing grace into a world that desperately longs to be put back together. God’s grace is most definitely sufficient.
Copyright © 2018 by Emily Rova-Hegener. All rights reserved.