Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, November 1, 2015: All Saints Sunday

Texts: Isaiah 25:6-9  +  Psalm 24  +  Revelation 21:1-6a  +  John 11:32-44

I think I have cried more in the last two weeks than I have in the last two years. Two weeks ago was the Sunday before our last Sunday in the old sanctuary. It was the Sunday we welcomed new members into our congregation; the Sunday we recognized Betty and Kay for their years of service to St. Luke’s; it was the Sunday Callie and Megan offered their stirring testimony to the ways our life together has strengthened and equipped them to live out their faith during times of radical change and deep loss. IMG_0158As I stood in the back of the sanctuary singing the final verse of the sending hymn it suddenly hit me that we’d just finished our last “ordinary” service in that space. The following week, last week, was an extraordinary service: there were dozens of visitors and guests on hand to assist with our leave-taking, special music planned and prepared for the day, rites to help us release those spaces where we’d heard the word, felt the water, tasted the meal. It was extraordinary in every sense of the word, but the previous week had been extraordinary in its own way because it marked the end of our ordinary pattern of gathering for worship together in that space — and I only realized that after it was already over. That was the beginning of the tears.

I cried that afternoon, after everyone had left the building, and then I cried pretty much every day of the week leading up to our final service. I would be reading the lyrics of the beautiful piece the choir sang,

“we are not yet what we shall be … but we are moving toward it, the process is not yet finished. This is not the end, but this is the road”

and I would break into tears. I would be packing my office and run across a picture or a news clipping or a binder filled with minutes from some Council meeting almost a decade ago, and suddenly I would be flooded with memories of all the late nights, all the arguments, all the victories, all the moments of deepening friendship and trust built in that place, and I would begin to weep.

Looking back, our departure from the building that had been this congregation’s home for over a century was stunningly fast. We’d been talking about it for a few years, but once the decision was made the time from listing to sale to moving out was unbelievably short. Still, there were so many decisions to be made and so much work to be done that there was no time to linger with feelings. I had a brief period of melancholy right after the building sold, but then we were all focused on crossing items off our many, many to-do lists.

Last Sunday we got to the finish line and we said our goodbyes so gracefully, so lovingly. I was so proud of you, of us. We did a very hard thing, and we did it well.

IMG_0111The moving trucks came the very next day and Gretchen and I watched as everything you’d spent the last three months packing was whisked away in just a few hours. Anything that wasn’t taken was hauled away as junk, and by Monday night the building was almost completely empty. It looked rough, like a strong wind had blown through the halls, leaving scuff marks and packing tape and leaves sucked in from the street. It looked like the emergency room of a hospital after the crisis has passed and the doctors and nurses have left, but before the custodians come in to clean. It looked like there had been a struggle between life and death.

Tuesday afternoon the cleaners came. They dusted the pews, they swept and mopped all the floors. They took their time with it. I thought of that woman who’d knelt at Jesus’ feet anointing them with oil before he died. Something lovely before the grave. Then they left, and I was alone in the building.

IMG_0140With the final walkthrough scheduled for 9am the next morning, this was my last chance to say goodbye to our home. I took my time with it, walking through each room and remembering the stories you’d told me over the years that filled those spaces. The Sunday School classes you have taught. The high school dances back in the old loft. The spaghetti suppers in the hall. I stood in the Lesher Lounge, emptied of all its furniture and remembered that board room table so many of us have spent long nights sitting around, wondering where the money would come from. I passed through the offices, hearing your voices again as you told me you were getting married, going through a divorce, leaving for school, worried about your children, searching for work, grieving the death of your loved ones, questioning your faith, and I wept.

IMG_0174Then I walked down those back stairs from my office to the sanctuary. It was night by then so I turned on the lights and listened to my footsteps echoing through that cavernous room. I climbed up in the pulpit one last time, feeling grateful that I got to learn how to be a preacher in that place. I laid my hands on the altar and remembered the deep honor it had been to preside at the Lord’s Supper in that sanctuary, to get to sing in a room that sang along with us. In the quiet dark I chanted the liturgy one last time, “The Lord be with you…” and listened to my voice echo back to me.

IMG_0169I sat down in the cathedral chair where I’ve sat for the last nine years and spent the next forty minutes in prayer. When my thoughts finally turned to plans for this morning’s worship, I knew I’d begun to move on and that it was time to go. Walking one last time down that center aisle, I saw you in your usual places. There’s Bev, in the pew behind the piano so she can get to it quickly. There’s Katie near the aisle. Hope is three pews in on the left; Charles and Marco used to sit in front of her. Dea and Betty across the aisle to the right, with Bill and Judi just behind them. A couple rows back is where Ben and Heather used to sit, with Scott and Kenneth toward the side aisle. Closer to the back Justine has slipped in next to Christa and Kerry, who’s ready to slip out. Behind them in the back corner are Pat and Dorothea, and on the very back pew — the one with the little brass placard designating it for the “men of the usher board” — are Iván and Victoria and Níco, or Cathy and Alex along with Soli, Isaiah and Hanna. Standing inside the frame of the back door I look down and see Eugene sitting there, and I check reflexively to see if there are offering plates for the ushers. Then I cry some more.

Our lives are filled with spaces where the living and the dead, the present and the absent, meet. At this time of year in particular we are sensitive to the grief of loved ones who will not be with us for Thanksgiving or for Christmas. Some are removed from us by distance or by conflict, others have died and their absence is as real as the person sitting next to us. We are people filled with tears, people with so many reasons to weep. Even if her words aren’t our own, we understand the sentiment, the pathos, behind Mary’s painful accusation, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

So often when we speak of God, we speak of life. We focus on the miracle stories where Jesus heals the blind and raises the dead. It creates in our imaginations a false parallelism between good and evil, life and death. Death itself, however, is not evil or a sign of God’s absence. Death is the price of living, it is an integral part of the gift of life. God, who creates all that is out of nothing, is not confined by death. Instead, in Jesus, God demonstrates a passionate solidarity with all the pain and mess of life and death. God does not skip over the hard parts, the heartbroken parts, or the painful parts. God does not avoid the questions grief asks. God can take the anguish and the anger behind all our “whys.” Why does everything change? Why did we have to leave? Why have things turned out so differently than we planned? I was going to be buried there. We were going to be married. He was going to be a grandfather. Lord, if you had been here …

Jesus’ response to Mary’s hard words is not to take them away from her, but to join her in her grief. The translation we’re given is far too tepid, “he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved,” keeping Jesus somehow stately in the middle of this moment of suffering. The Greek suggests something more like, “he churned with anger and anguish.” In Jesus, God has an entirely human response to the death of his friend Lazarus. He is distraught, and he weeps.

Even when Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, it is not a repudiation of death. Jesus does not put an end to dying. Scripture doesn’t suggest that Lazarus won’t go on to die again. Jesus himself explains that this sign is intended to stir belief. Instead of denying death, this sign is intended to demonstrate that our God is the God of the living and the dead. That there is no state of being, neither life nor death, that can separate us from the power and presence of God. Having raised Lazarus from the dead, Jesus will next go to his own grave. Death is not to be feared, but grief is real and must be embraced. So Jesus weeps.

IMG_0218Friends, we have been working very hard for a very long time. Now we have arrived at the first of what may be a series of interim locations on the way to whatever our future holds. There will be new challenges in the new year, because that’s simply what it means to be alive. We are constantly being changed. But now it is time for a season of rest. Now is the time to turn towards one another and weep with those who weep, to rejoice with those who rejoice. Now is the moment when our memory and our imagination come together so that we can still see the faces, remember the names, hear the stories. Now is the time to worship God, who holds our past in trust and prepares our futures with hope. God, who does not abandon us in times of sorrow, but joins us in weeping, and gently wipes away our tears.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, November 2, 2014: All Saints Sunday

Texts:  Revelation 7:9-17  +  Psalm 34:1-10, 22  +  1 John 3:1-3  +  Matthew 5:1-12

I keep icons in my office of the saints that inspire me. I have one of RLHENHenri Nouwen, the Dutch priest who wrote beautifully about the connection between spirituality and social justice and who lived in community with adults with developmental delays. I have one of RLSTBSteve Biko, the South African anti-apartheid activist who said “Black is beautiful” and who reminded all of us who live with oppression on a daily basis that the first step to liberation is to “begin to look upon yourself as a human being.” I have one of RLHRMHarvey Milk, the gay activist and San Francisco politician who didn’t enter the public arena until after he’d turned forty, and who paved the way for wider social acceptance of LGBTQ people long before anything like the modern movement existed by speaking into the enforced silence of the closet and insisting that “you gotta give them hope.”

These particular icons were painted by robertRobert Lentz, a Franciscan friar who lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, a northern neighborhood in the Washington, D.C. metro area who studied traditional Byzantine iconography in a Greek Orthodox monastery, but whose own passion is depicting the ordinary and unacknowledged saints whose lives are not always recognized as holy. In his collection of saints there are images of RLCCZCesar Chavez and RLDRDDorothy Day, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Mother Jones, Albert Einstein and Mohandas Gandhi. None of these people have ever been “canonized,” or recognized RLECSRLMOJas saints, by the Roman Catholic church to which Lentz belongs, not all of them are even Christians, but taken together they help me imagine the “great multitude that no one could RLABERLMOGcount, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” described in the passage we heard read from Revelation this morning (7:9).

I also keep photographs in my office of Kerry, and my parents and sister, and close friends who have accompanied me through life. These are my personal saints on my private altar, my reminder that all life is holy and that my life is holy too. I’m sure you do the same, whether they be school photos stuck to your refrigerator with magnets, framed portraits hung on your walls, old prints organized into albums, or pictures taken with your phone and posted to Facebook. It’s almost instinctive how we surround ourselves with images of the people, past and present, who remind us of who we are and who we want to become.Christmas, 2009 014

In a world before smartphones and Polaroids, before even photography, the most accessible way to preserve an image of a person wasn’t with a camera but with words. Families passed favorite stories, paradigmatic tales, of one another down through the generations as they gathered around tables for sumptuous meals, or as they worked side by side in the fields. Just as with photographs, we could see our family resemblance to one another in the attitudes and actions taken by our ancestors in similar situations.

It’s interesting to think about the Beatitudes as photographs of a kind, word pictures crafted so succinctly that you could memorize them like a poem and carry them with you the way I used to keep senior pictures taken in high school in my wallet to keep faraway friends near to me, the way we whip out our phones to share pictures of our children, or nieces and nephews, or students.

To the crowds of people who’d followed him, hoping for a word of teaching that would put his acts of healing and liberation into a form they could carry with them wherever they went, Jesus said:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

What pictures come to your mind when you hear the names of those Jesus calls blessed?

Is there a face from your past or present that represents “the poor in spirit”?

Who in your life is the one who mourns?

Do you have a picture in your mind of “the meek”?

Do you keep company with “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”?

Do you have a story to tell about the person in your life who has shown mercy?

Do you know anyone who is “pure of heart”?

Is there a name or a face that defines for you what it means to be a peacemaker?

Can you identify with those who are persecuted for their attempts to live a righteous life?

Do you have a story from your own life when your commitment to a life of discipleship has evoked harsh words and condemnation?

We surround ourselves with these images from our past and our present, names and faces of people who have lived by faith in the hope of a new heaven and a new earth, of a resurrected life, where the blessings of God would be shared equitably among all people. They sit not only on our desks, but next to us in these pews, all around us in this neighborhood. We have welcomed them into our congregation at the font, as we did this past year with Deacon Adams and Isaiah Swanson. We have given thanks for the witness of their lives at the time of their death, as we have this past year with Ramon Nieves, Lila Voss, Louise Ambuel, Andy Miller, Ernesto Garcia, and now our brother ST_LUKES_PORTRAIT_Select-0144Eugene Walawski. We have shared dinner with them, family style, around tables blessed by homemade food. We have met them at the Logan Square monument to cry out for peace, to mourn the murder of a homeless man, to march for affordable housing. We have danced with them on the Boulevard under late summer skies, and we will celebrate with them once again on that final day when we all gather before the throne worshipping God and giving thanks for the blessings of this life, “singing, Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” (Rev. 7:12)

Brothers and sisters, we are all saints of God, we are all wearing the white robes of our baptism, we are all inheritors of God’s vision where the people of God are a blessing to those who are poor in body or spirit, those who are meek or who mourn; where the promises made at this font to work for justice and peace throughout the world are honored together so that the peacemakers and the activists and the persecuted and the outcasts are never alone, but always surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses of saints and martyrs of every time and place and also by us, here and now.

We, who are still in the middle of the great ordeal, have been given to each other as a blessing. Look at each other. Memorize the faces you see here. Learn to look upon the face of your neighbor as though you were seeing their image through the light of these votives, as though each person you encountered was among God’s elect. Carry these faces with you wherever you go, knowing that God’s face is revealed among us.

“Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2)

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, November 4, 2012: All Saints Sunday

Texts:  Isaiah 25:6-9 and Psalm 24  •  Revelation 21:1-6a  •   John 11:32-44

Forty years ago this month, Marlo Thomas and “friends” released an illustrated book and album titled, “Free to be… You and Me.”  Aimed at reinforcing children’s beliefs that each can become most fully themselves, whoever they are, no matter their gender, ethnicity or background, it’s exactly the kind of book I would’ve expected my parents to read to me.  Astonishingly, I arrived at college in the early-90s having never heard of it.

It wasn’t until I joined the men’s a cappella ensemble on campus and we learned the song sung by Rosey Grier, “It’s Alright to Cry.”  Grier, who’d been a defensive tackle for the LA Rams and the New York Giants was something of a giant himself at 6’5”.  After leaving professional sports he was, briefly, a body guard for Robert Kennedy during the 1968 Presidential campaign and was present on the day of his assassination, wresting the gun from the shooter.  A big part of Grier’s public persona, however, derived from the way he played against the stereotypes of what a large, athletic, black athlete ought to be.  Around the same time he recorded “It’s Alright to Cry” he also published a book, “Rosey Grier’s Needlepoint for Men.”  His autobiography was titled, “Rosey, an Autobiography: The Gentle Giant.”

Forty years later, on the other side of “Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche” and other cultural responses to increasing flexibility in gender roles, we might suspect that telling men, or women for that matter, that it’s alright to cry would be no big deal.  Surely, in our therapeutic, talk-show saturated, catharsis-oriented media culture we’ve all figured out that it’s alright to cry.  We cry at Hallmark commercials.  We cry at romantic comedies.  We cry all the time, right?

Then there’s a week like this last one, when life’s storms break along the coastline of our lives, leaving us powerless.  When Hurricane Sandy hit the Jersey Shore just  south of Atlantic City and blew up through New York City and the five boroughs, it brought ample opportunities for tears as it claimed the lives of over a hundred people in the United States alone and left an estimated $50 billion in damages.  Yet, in our shock, it wasn’t immediately clear that we knew how to feel.  For days, Mayor Bloomberg reassured registrants for the New York City Marathon that the race would go on, that things would be restored to normal.

In the privacy of our homes, in darkened movie theaters, we know it’s alright to cry.  In public, however, we still too often treat death as something to be hidden and grief as something to be managed.  Life, like the race, goes on regardless of the emotions swelling subcutaneously, crashing against our hearts and flooding our throats.

The gospel reading assigned for All Saints Sunday is drenched with emotions.  Mary, the sister of Lazarus, weeps.   Jesus, despite the best efforts of translators to deny it, is angry.  Like many English translations of the scriptures, the one we read this morning translates the Greek embrimaomai as “greatly disturbed.”  “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed.”  And later, “Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb.”  Embrimaomai, which the translators have rendered “greatly disturbed,” literally translates as “to be moved with anger” or even, “to snort with anger.”  As it turns out, we are just as uncomfortable with Jesus anger as we are with our own tears.  So, translators and friends and coworkers try to help us out by covering those feelings up, by giving us “space” to grieve in private, by glossing over our anger at the power of death to disrupt life.

One of the reasons I think we cover Jesus’ anger up with the euphemism “greatly disturbed” is that we’re unsure who he’s angry at.  Some translators have suggested that he is angry at Mary and Martha’s disbelief.  Others have wondered if he’s angry that this intensely private moment has been made public.  Still others have suggested that Jesus’ anger is at those who are already preparing to hand him over to the Roman authorities.  If any of these are the best reading, then it easier to understand why we’d want to downgrade Jesus’ anger to a deep disturbance, because if Jesus’ anger is reserved for people’s ordinary and predictable responses to death, then we have to wonder if Jesus would be angry with us.  If Mary and Martha’s understandable grief at the loss of their third sibling was cause for Jesus’ anger, then what room is there for us to grieve the death of our own sisters and brothers?  If the natural desire to have this private grief acknowledged in public is the cause of Jesus anger, then how can we even gather on a day like today, All Saints Day, to mourn our dead even as we give thanks for their lives?

The reading I find most compelling is that Jesus is angry with death itself.  Read in the context of the verses that precede the ones we read this morning, it is clear that Jesus has delayed coming to Bethany, where Mary, Martha and Lazarus lived, precisely so that he could demonstrate his power over death.  For him to be angry at the very people who are suffering on account of his delay would be a cruel judgement.  Likewise, in the Gospel of John, Jesus has no difficulty naming a lack of faith when it occurs, so the fact that he says nothing to condemn the onlookers for faithlessness might suggest that this was not his concern.

Instead, everything about this scene reads like a showdown, like a boxing match between opponents.  On the one side, a death so complete the body has already begun to decay.  On the other side, a contender against the powers of death.  The match looks unbalanced, surely this is not a fair fight.  Like a boxer in the ring, Jesus is not simply greatly disturbed, he is moved, his is snorting with anger at death, the foe.

This makes more sense to me, especially in light of the passage from Revelation and the one from Isaiah, passages that reassure me that God is not waiting to gather us up and away from this earth, but that the new heaven and the new earth are coming down to meet us where we are.  That God comes to us in the midst of our suffering, and grief, and tears, and does not shame us but, instead, sets a table before us overflowing with rich foods and choice wines, and consoles us.  Wipes away our tears, but not our feelings.

Of course, All Saints Sunday is about more than our feelings, more than our tears.  It is about the promise that when God enters the ring in the form of Jesus, that death is defeated and resurrected life is won for all of creation.  There are big truths and big doctrines to be named and proclaimed: that we are all saints; that the candle lit at our baptism and the candles that will one day be lit in our memories and placed on altars such as these cast the same light; that we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witness, who call to us across time and space encouraging us as we run this race.  But many of those doctrines and themes and big ideas arise from other scriptures read in other years.  The scriptures assigned for this year’s All Saints Sunday are filled with tears, they affirm the grief-drenched cries of sisters and brothers and the snorting anger of family and friends — and they promise us that death does not have the final word.  There is a new heaven and a new earth coming to meet us, here, in this life and in whatever lies beyond this life.

So, in the spirit of Jesus, who did not cover over his anger; and Rosey, who was man enough to cry; I want to share with you the song I learned back in college:

It’s All Right to Cry (from Free to Be… You and Me; as sung by Rosey Grier)

It’s all right to cry / crying gets the sad out of you / It’s all right to cry / it might make you feel better. (C – Dm7 – G – G/ C – Dm7 – G – C)

Raindrops from your eyes / Washing all the mad out of you / Raindrops from your eyes / It’s gonna make you feel better. (C – Dm7 – G – G/ C – Dm7 – G – C)

It’s all right to feel things / though the feelings may be strange / feelings are such real things / and they change and change and change. (Am – Em / F – C / Am – Em / F – F – G)

It’s all right to know / feelings come and feelings go / It’s all right to cry / It might make you feel better. (C – Dm7 – G – G/ C – Dm7 – G – C)

Amen.

 

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