Through Thick and Thin



Sermon Title “Through Thick and Thin” by Pastor Rosanna McFadden

Good morning!  This is the fourth Sunday of Lent and we are continuing to consider what it means to be travelers on the road with one another, as we make the journey of faith.  If you are paying attention this morning, you may have noticed something about the sermon title.  If you haven’t been paying attention, there’s still time to refer to your bulletin — and if that’s too much work, don’t worry, I’m gonna tell you.  The title is “Through Thick and Thin.”  This phrase is not one which I came up with: it’s an idiom which has been around for a while which means, “Through many times over a long period.”  It has echoes of the similar pairs in traditional wedding vows: in richer and in poorer or in sickness and in health, if you’ve ever said that or heard something like it.  Of course, it is also the title of the 2024 Lenten devotionals from Brethren Press.  I am confident of the Spirit’s inspiration for that writing, especially knowing that the author is sitting in this room, and I trust her forbearance if the Spirit leads me on a different track this morning.  I like to think of this as inspiration, rather than imitation, but they are both sincere forms of appreciation.

I don’t know exactly when the phrase “through thick and thin” came into usage, but one of the images it evokes for me is slices of bread: generous or miserly; hearty or meager.  It is a phrase which makes me think of fat and lean times.  It is my belief, and one which I’ve been sharing with you, that God is with us through thick and thin: through many times over a long period.  We are called to be with one another through thick and thin; to support and love one another when its easy and when it’s difficult.  We are also invited to love God and to follow Christ through thick and thin; and I believe that we may be more aware of God with us in those lean times when we are hungry and not sure where our next meal is coming from, than we are we have a fat slice of bread in front of us and we are full and contented.

I want to share a story about a thin time and what followed.  This is Terry Rassi’s story, and I was so grateful to hear it from him in person earlier this week.  I will do my best to represent his words. There are a pair of flip flops up on the chancel table: they are not the actual footwear Terry had on when this happened, because it happened 30 years ago.  Terry had lived on the Hawaiian island of Maui in the late 1970s and had come back to the mainland.  In 1989, he moved back to Hawaii and the island of Kauai.  In 1992, Kauai was hit by Hurricane Iniki, one of the most destructive hurricanes in US history.  Terry helped the locals by delivering food and diapers; he won their trust as a happe-haole — an accepted outsider — and was considered part of a local family.  Not everyone was happy about this.  A cousin of this family, who had been excluded because of his violent behavior, was jealous of Terry.

Terry was riding his bike down the mountain to his friend Mike’s house before sunrise one morning so they could watch sunrise together from the beach.  Terry got off his bike to greet some children he knew from this family of friends, but didn’t know their adult cousin was back in the shadows.  When Terry got back on his bike, the man charged him and tackled him into the guardrail at the edge of the road.  That impact broke four of Terry’s ribs and punctured his right lung.  He didn’t know that at the time, he just crawled back over the guard rail to get on his bike get out of there.  The man was waiting, and punched Terry, knocked him down, broke his nose and staring kicking him.  Terry realized this man wanted to kill him, and was well on his way.  Terry landed a punch, then rolled under the guard rail and down the hill. When he heard his attacker coming after him, he crawled into some thorn bushes, followed paths that pigs had made, and came out into tall bull grass on the other side.  There was a bridge he had to cross in order to get to Mike’s house: there was no cover on that bridge, and now it was light.  Terry lay in the grass as long as he could, but pain and shock were starting to catch up to him.  He dragged himself to his feet and across the bridge.  Mike’s children were horrified when they opened the door — Terry was a bloody, filthy mess.  He showered off and Mike drove him to the hospital.  After getting x-rays, the doctors told Terry to call his family.  He knew that meant they thought he might die. His chest was filling up with blood: one lung wasn’t working at all, and the other one might not be able to keep working with the weight of the blood to push against. Terry called his parents in Middlebury.  They put him on their church prayer chain, and started figuring out where they were going to get the money for two plane fares to Hawaii.  His parents didn’t know if they’d be picking up their son, or their son’s body.

Thank God this story has a happy ending.  Terry turned a corner that night in the hospital, and by morning, the doctors were sure he’d survive.  The internal bleeding had stopped, doctors were able to start draining out the blood, and Terry could breathe easier.  He had a lot of healing to do, but after 3 months or so, Terry left Kauai and returned to Middlebury on his own.  He weighed 105 pounds when he came home — a thin time, indeed.  Terry shared how that was a turning point in his life, when he realized there were activities and a lifestyle he had to put behind him.  It was, and is, a process, but music has always been important to Terry, and during that physical recovery he had spiritual recovery, too: Terry played guitar and wrote songs which affirmed the love and care of God. He and Irene shared one of those songs with me, and Terry is going to play and sing it during our Good Friday service.

This beautiful text from John chapter 3 is about salvation, God’s desire for the world and how Jesus Christ was sent to accomplish it.  Salvation is at the center of the Christian story and the season of Lent.  Each person’s experience of salvation and coming to believe in the love and power of Jesus is individual and unique: no one can believe in Christ for you, it is a decision we each have to make for ourselves, and we each have our own story which leads to that decision.  Sometimes, as it was for Terry, that is a story of getting to the place where we don’t know if we can live — actually survive — without God.  Jesus is a personal savior; a savior who knows and values each person.  Jesus is never less than this.  But Jesus is always more than a personal savior; Jesus came because God loved the world.  If Jesus’ only mission and purpose on earth was to save as many individuals as possible, then as long as I believe and have punched my ticket to heaven, I’m done. Mission accomplished.  The truth is, none of us would have even heard of Jesus if his disciples and early followers hadn’t told their friends, families, and even enemies about Jesus Christ and his death on a cross and his resurrection.  Even a personal savior is not a private one.

What I have so valued about the Lent devotionals is the dawning realization that the witness of these all these individuals is that we’re all in this together.  They are all part of Beth’s story of people with whom she has walked during her life.  They were not all believers, some have likely left this earth without ever seeing or acknowledging the light of Christ or recognizing what Christ did for their redemption.  All those people, and the ones who have been part of our stories are people whom Christ died to redeem.  Terry, and his friend Mike, and the man who assaulted him.  All of feet which have filled these shoes, and all people we have met along the way.  We’re all imperfect and broken and bloodied and beat up.  We all need Jesus Christ, and we all need each other — through thick and thin.  We learn about Christ from each other, and we experience Christ, in some imperfect way, through each other.  Let me be clear: only Christ can save us — even the people with the best behavior and the best intentions cannot save themselves or anyone else.  But we are called to share Christ with other people; certainly in the witness and testimony we speak, but also by not speaking hate and condemnation.  We share Christ in the forgiveness we extend to one another, and the compassion we have when others fail: not because we’re so much better than that, but because we’ve been there.  Maybe we’re still there.   When we practice that forgiveness and grace through many times over a long period — through thick and thin — we realize that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son for me, but also for us; and us includes a whole lot of people.  We haven’t always been good at us.  Next week district moderator Paul Thomas is going to preach about What does it mean to be Brethren?  I’m going to be at Mission and Ministry Board meetings in Elgin trying to hammer out that same question.   What does it mean to be US?  How do we believe and accept the salvation Christ offers to each of us, and how do we embody that priceless gift through thick and thin?