"Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this." Rev. 1:17-19.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

How to follow Jesus when it all falls apart: a "family sermon" for a difficult week

Proper 28, Year C

Isaiah 65:17-25;
Isaiah 12
Luke 21:5-19

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

        This will be easier for the children than for the adults, but I’d like for you remember a time when you had just finished building a fantastic Lego spaceship or a super-high tower of blocks. Picture for me how fine it looked. Remember how proud you felt putting on the final piece… How you wanted to keep your amazing construction there in the middle of the living room floor for everyone to admire for at least, say, ten years? And then a younger sibling or a neighbor’s baby came toddling in from the kitchen, a determined gleam in his eye. He zoomed straight over to your construction and before you could stop him, just as you were hollering “no …..!!!!” at the top of your lungs, his little hands lunged at the blocks, and the whole beautiful thing broke into tiny pieces. Remember for a minute how angry you felt at the little menace who had just destroyed your finest work. Remember the despair that you felt as you saw your dream spaceship reduced to cosmic dust in an instant. Maybe you jumped up and chased after your little sister, hoping to give her a good whack for what she did. Or maybe you just collapsed on the floor in a pile of sobs. Or maybe you ran with the speed of righteous indignation over to your mom or dad so that they would make everything right again.
“Why didn’t you at least TELL me that he was up from his nap, so that I could be ready for him?” you might have yelled.
          Even as adults, we know what it feels like to have our hard work, or our security, or our dreams, smashed before our eyes, seemingly without warning. Jesus’ disciples know, as they look with pride and love at their beautiful Temple, at the trustworthy place where they know that God can always be found, and try to comprehend Jesus’ words about its doom. Luke’s readers know, as they struggle to survive in a land occupied by the very Empire that has indeed already reduced both Jerusalem and the Temple to rubble. Isaiah’s readers know, as they return home and try to rebuild a life together in a country that had been totally wiped out by foreign powers. They know the sinking feeling of devastation, the numbness of displacement. They cringe to hear their Lord tell them that their comfortable lives and comfortable certainties can be ripped apart just as suddenly as if a two-year-old smashed them to smithereens, without warning.
As parents, we can’t promise our children that unpredictable toddlers won’t destroy their Lego creations. We can’t stop the ocean tides from rising inexorably to wash away their beloved sandcastles. But what do we do when our precious children come running to us, wailing and in despair? We take them in our arms. We wipe their tears. We kiss them gently on their damp foreheads. We encourage them to get back out there and build again. Maybe we even help them build. We comfort and console them.
          To comfort, in Hebrew, carries the image of removing a burden so that a person can breathe freely again.[1] That’s what we need, isn’t it, in order to keep on going, to endure? We need the loving kindness that will lift the crushing burden, so that we can breathe again.
          God yearns to give us that love, to lift the yoke and lighten our deadening load. So curl up today in God’s lap. Close your eyes, and with Isaiah, imagine God wiping the sweat of suffering from your brow, removing the sound of weeping from your ears. Imagine that there’s no need to feel the world on your shoulders anymore. Everyone has enough food to eat and a good place to live. No one is taken advantage of by another. All races and peoples can create, and thrive, and build without fear of loss. No one can hurt and no one can destroy. As our Presiding Bishop likes to say-- such a world is God’s dream for us.
          This comforting image, this wonderful new creation that God offers us isn’t just some “pie in the sky by and by” thing, either. No, we can see glimpses of the joy that streams from God’s dream every day, if only we are looking in the right places. Two years ago, I was a deputy at our Episcopal Church General Convention in Salt Lake City. For me, church business meetings are not the place where I expect to find abundant joy! But see it, I did, just like in our reading from Isaiah. On the evening before the Supreme Court decision on marriage, we were engaged, once again, in small-group discussions of same-sex marriage, and there was a lot of dark fear still lurking in the corners. The fear was expressed in hand-wringing “what-ifs”: what if we made the wrong choice; what if we were jumping the gun; what if the church didn’t survive. We sounded a lot like the disciples trying to pry out of Jesus knowledge of when the Temple was coming down. Faces were drawn, and voices were tense, and it was indeed hard to breathe.
The next day, however, after news of the Supreme Court decision filtered through the crowd, the fear seemed to have vanished into thin air. As people heard the news, there were extra smiles in the hallways, more clever repartee in the House of Deputies, and more voices singing during worship than I noticed earlier that week. Those who had stood in drooping solemnity during the past days’ Eucharist started clapping along to an impromptu, “We are Marching in the Light of God.” Young adults, grey-haired bishops, and collared clergy started dancing down the aisles, all waving their arms like a bunch of Pentecostals on fire. The funny thing was, the show of emotion didn’t seem forced or staged. There was none of that, “Oh-look-at-us-we-are-Episcopalians-but-we-know-how-to-be-cool-too” air that often accompanies mandatory innovation in worship. It was all authentic. In the hallways, I didn’t notice any of the self-congratulatory back-slapping that can accompany a political victory, either. It was just pure joy, an exhaling of breath held in too long. A burden removed. All of a sudden, we caught a glimpse of the freedom that God dreams for us, the freedom to soar, the freedom to love.
 Jesus can’t promise us that our beloved institutions, our churches, our government, our securities won’t ever face change or plunge us into adversity. He can’t promise us that there won’t be upheaval. But he shows us—in his own life and suffering—how to flourish in the midst of that upheaval, how to find life in the midst of death. He shows us--as he forgives the leaders who have sent him to die on the cross. He shows us--as he reaches out to the criminal outcast hanging beside him and offers him immediate grace and salvation. He shows us--as he hands his spirit over to God even as he takes his last breath.[2] He shows us—as he rises from the dead, guaranteeing that God’s way of self-giving love will always defeat worldly power and violent oppression.
At our Diocesan Convention this weekend, Bishop Terry reminded us that people are going to be coming to our churches looking for this Jesus, looking for his grace, looking for his forgiveness, looking for his abundant life. And do you know what they are going to find, he asked us? They are going to find us.[3] You and me. That’s how Jesus set it up. We are his witnesses here on earth. Empowered by God, it’s up to us to build lives that testify to his love, both with the blocks of word and deed, both inside and outside of the walls of our churches.
Martin Smith told us this summer at Sewanee about a little boy who kept trying to give a high five to his parents in church after every prayer. They thought that it was cute, if a bit strange. It was only later that his parents found out that he thought that they were all ending their prayers with the words, “I’m in,” instead of with “Amen!” Today, Jesus is asking us if we are willing to risk building a tower of love out of the very blocks of our lives, even though it will get knocked down. And then to rebuild it, over and over, for as long as it takes. To work to inch closer and closer to Isaiah’s vision of a just world for all of God's people. To remove the burdens from our neighbors' shoulders so that all might truly breathe again.  If you are willing, turn to the person in the pew next to you on both sides, give them your best high five, and say, “Amen/ I’m in.”
Image from piecesbypolly.com.

[1] Ruthanna Hooke, found in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010,) 298.
[2] John Shea, The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers: Year C (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2006), 215.
[3] From the November 11, 2016 diocesan convention homily by the Rt. Rev. Terry White, Christ Church Cathedral in Louisville, Kentucky, who borrowed the image from a sermon by the Rt. Rev. Jake Owensby.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016


This is not my sermon for Sunday! Before I could summon the strength to open my heart and my bible in preparation to preach, I had to dig out the despair that has been growing in my soul ever since an early premonition that Donald Trump would win this election. Poets will find here mixed metaphors that I don't have time to smooth out ....  but I do know that they are there! :-)

So for those of you who need to wallow just a bit longer, here's the Bad News. The Good News will follow later:

The snow has been falling
for quite a while now,
frozen ash from belching
chimneys, and burning
towers, and sobbing
crematoriums covering
a landscape sharp and broken
as our frozen, fear-gloved
fists begin to dig and root,
scooping, scraping,
piling, pushing a snowball
like a frantic Sisyphus
on a mission,
looking over our shoulders
for an enemy
and building a monument
to hate, surprised
when it begins to roll
back, faster and larger
until we cannot stop it
yet I stand at the cliff’s
edge with my icy idle
hands and gape
as it lurches
beyond my control
spewing scraps of destruction
like blind wheel-spokes
that cut away the ground.