Summary: An empty niche above the church door, made for a statue of a saint, but now containing a hornet’s nest, suggests the choice of letting our lives be empowered by God or letting the sting of death and disappointment take over.
The other day I was hauling in a load of stuff from my car. I came in the Aspen Street entrance to the building, the entrance nearest my office.
For some reason, as I was carrying things through the door, I looked up above my head, probably to implore the Lord to give me an extra ounce of muscle to get all that stuff dragged in here. And when I looked up I saw a powerful image.
Up above that door, in the stonework, there is a little niche. It’s less than three feet tall and just a few inches wide. It has a little platform at the bottom and an arched covering at the top. If you know anything about church architecture, you recognize what it is. It’s a niche made for a statue. For a saint. In the medieval church or in contemporary Catholic churches, you would likely find in a niche like that the statue of some saint considered worthy of a place of honor in God’s church.
Now, of course, being Baptist, we’ve never been much on saints. We don’t get around to canonizing people. And we don’t play around with saint statues. In fact, a couple of years ago, when the Divinity School at Howard University moved into a building which had originally housed a Roman Catholic seminary, Dean Crawford asked me one day, "Would you like a saint? We don’t quite know what to do with all the saint statues that came along with this building!"
Well, I had to remind him that we Baptist folk would not know either how to store six feet of St. Francis. We don’t put saints in niches in our churches; and yet, for some unknown reason, we’ve got the niche, ready, waiting, and empty.
However, on this morning, as I looked up at it, the niche was not empty. The niche was occupied, or at least showed signs of very recent and very lively occupation. For there, up in the cap of the niche, underneath the arched cover, I guess right about where the saint’s golden crown ought to be, there was a hornet’s nest. Bold and brassy and ugly, happily no longer occupied, but right there, lurking above your heads as you have walked through that door, a hornet’s nest.
In other words, we didn’t put a saint there, but we did get a sting.
We good Christian folks would not have permitted a statue of a saint. But our failure to do so let in a sting instead.
And thereby hangs a parable. Thereby a truth is told. When you are unwilling to be a saint, you just may experience instead a sting, a powerful punishment. If there is a void in your life that could have been filled with godliness, with sainthood, but you never filled it, well, you are likely to get a sting. You are likely to feel gypped and cheated. You are more than likely to come to the end of it all with a feeling that it has been meaningless, empty, void, just a cheat, just a sting.
Either you choose sainthood or you end up knowing that you have been stung, cheated of what life could have been.
The apostle Paul saw that issue and met it head-on. In a classic passage, which I have read and used many times, but usually at the graveside, the apostle reminds us of what the choices are, what the consequences of the wrong choice may be, and, above all, what the outcome of the right choice will be.
Let me enhance Paul’s brave words to us and flesh them out with the powerful and frightening words of Jesus, who in Luke’s gospel issues a tremendous warning about what could happen to us at the end of it all:
Remember my thesis this morning: if you do not go for sainthood, you are likely to get a sting instead. If you do not choose the highest and the best that our God has to offer, then when death comes and life is over, you are inevitably going to feel cheated, stung.
What Paul calls the sting of death, which he identifies as sin, comes in lots of different ways for different people. The sting of death, this sin sting, might show up for someone as a grinding, gnawing feeling of meaninglessness. To arrive at the end of your days and feel as though your life had no meaning … that, to me, would be a sting of death. And it would have meant sin, if I could not show that my life made a difference.
This might have to do with your everyday work. I confess that it is hard, sometimes, to see real meaning in work. What some folks are called on to do every day seems shallow, useless, uncreative, even destructive. I feel certain that some of you have been in jobs or maybe are in jobs that feel meaningless.