Yesterday morning I re-read the sermon I had written on Friday and decided it wasn’t enough. It was perfectly adequate, but it wasn’t enough for the world we were reminded we live in after the attacks in Paris Friday night. Of course, it’s the same world that people in Iraq and Beirut and Afghanistan know all too well, but we who see ourselves in the people of Paris only seem to acknowledge that world when people who look like us and our children are victims of such horror and violence.
All of a sudden, those apocalyptic scenes from our Mark reading–where great stones and buildings are toppled, there are wars and rumors of war, where nation rises up against nation, kingdom against kingdom, there are earthquakes and famine–all those scenes of things falling apart don’t seem quite so wild-eyed and crazy. And Jesus’ warning about not being led astray by false messiahs also comes to mind. Let’s not rush to conclusions, not be too quick to hurl the bombs in return. Let’s try not to make the same mistakes over and over again.
Mark’s community lived in times no less uncertain than our own. Tensions with Rome were leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem and the toppling of all those impressive stones of the Temple, or perhaps already had. Those early Christians still expected Jesus to return in equal power and set all things right. The problem of living in times of confusion, challenge, and distress is that we are tempted to be impressed by the wrong things–like fire power, like prestige, like glib answers, like economic wealth, like over-the-top presentations, like the promise of somebody else coming in to clean up your life, make it all better.
“This is but the beginning of the birthpangs,” Jesus said. Yippee. So much for making everything right. Uncertainty and insecurity is the name of the game apparently, so you’d better know who you are and Whose you are in the midst of all this–beloved children of God. “The antidote to uncertainty, it turns out,” David Lose says, “isn’t certainty, but courage; and the best response to insecurity is the confidence that comes from knowing that God esteems you worthy of dignity, honor, and love.” [inthemeantime, 11/15/15] You are a beloved child of God. And we know that it is fear–not courage– that is exactly what the false messiahs and powers that be of the world are counting on.
A classmate of mine in my Positive Psychology course has started an organization in Cleveland, OH called “Thrive Cleveland,” which is doing all sorts of creative things to help people in Cleveland–you guessed it–thrive. Right now, they are in the third and final day of a “Scare Your Soul Challenge.” “At least once in your life…[their promotional website says] you did something that was brave and generous and important. The only question is…when will we care enough to be brave again?” (Seth Godin) “Sometimes, being happy isn’t all about being comfortable. Sometimes, being happy is all about being brave.” “The science of happiness teaches us that we really maximize our happiness when we push our comfort zones, and do those things we know are holding us back. Taking on challenges reinforces what is good in each of us,
and the result is amazing–we are LIT UP by our successes and we want to take on even more.”
So the Scare Your Soul Challenge is this: “For one 3-day period (Nov. 13-15) we invite you to conquer some of the fears and obstacles which hold you back. Fear that is preventing you from writing that novel, launching that business, taking on the next fitness challenge, or even connecting with the people you love the most.” One young girl is going to the top floor of a tall building. Another man is making some long put-off medical appointments. An older woman is going back to physical therapy after 4 years. What if you brainstormed to think of 3 actions that would scare you, excite you, or inspire you? Start with one small thing. It doesn’t have to be sky-diving! One of those scary, but maybe inspiring, things might be taking the first 5% of every pay check and giving it away–to help light up the world, to give to the church or wherever you see God at work in the world. Scare Your Soul Challenge.
Those of us who are white have the privilege of not living everyday with the fear that our skin color or bone structure will be an issue, and more, will be the subject or object of violence, verbal or physical. Knowing that so many of their brothers and sisters will never have the privilege of going to college, the students of color at the University of Missouri might have settled into their fear or simply “counted their blessings,” simply said, “It’s enough that we’re here.” Instead, when the university president and administration responded with a stunning lack of empathy to the racial slurs hurled at the black student body president and black student organization, and when a swastika painted in human feces was smeared on a residence hall, the students said “Enough!”. A 25 year-old graduate student, Jonathan Butler, sensing the deep disconnect and even hostility from the white students, announced that he would go on a hunger strike until President Tim Wolfe resigned or was removed from office. He signed a DNR [do not resuscitate] order and updated his will. Jim Wallis of Sojourners wrote, “His extraordinary action was exemplary of how non-violent action that risks an individual’s safety, security, and even life can inspire others to act–even a football team.” [Sojourners, 11/12/15] Black members of the football team, supported by their coach, refused to practice or play until Butler started eating again, and when it became apparent that the university would have to pay Brigham Young University a million dollars if they refused to play the upcoming televised game, the president resigned. Enough was not enough. We have to something, start somewhere. Systems will not fix themselves.
Who knows how many years Hannah put up with the looks, the comments, her own self-loathing, before she walked past the priest Eli and laid her heart open to God. “Count your blessings,” someone might have said to Hannah. “Count your blessings–you’ve got a husband who loves you, who even gives you double portions of meat. You are cared for, with food and shelter. Isn’t that enough?”
But being barren in those days meant having no future, for children were thought to be the only security–the ones who would care for you in your old age, the ones in whom at least your memory would live on. Simply existing wasn’t enough. Plus, it didn’t look like there was much of a future for Israel. At the end of the book of Judges, which describes the setting at the beginning of 1 Samuel, the tribes had all dispersed to their own territories and, the conclusion of Judges says, “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.”
Writer Anais Nin wrote poignantly and powerfully, “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” So Hannah risked the scorn of the priest, the consternation of her husband, and went straight to God with her vow. And Hannah, having unburdened her soul, left the temple radiant in her faith. Indeed, her request was granted, and some time later, she gave birth to a son, whom she named Samuel. At last, not only she had a future, but so did Israel, as Samuel would ultimately become a judge and the priest who anointed Israel’s first king, Saul, and finally David.
“Count your blessings.” Isn’t it enough that you have a loving family, a comfortable place to live, reasonable financial security, fairly good health? Of course, our culture doesn’t know the meaning of “enough,” and bombards us with all sorts of messages that keep us chronically wanting something more–a nicer car, a bigger house, or a house with a more open floor plan, a smarter smart phone, more channels on our tv, a faster time in our races, a higher ranking in our sports league, a few less pounds, a few less wrinkles and gray hairs.
That’s the kind of life that makes sense to others, but does it feel right to us? Even when we’ve got the raise, or moved into the house, or won the race, is it enough? Is the approval of others enough for us? What would it take for you to blossom? ” The path to enough,” writes Anna Shirey, “begins when we decide to quit settling…when we risk being vulnerable with God with [our] heart’s desire.” [Anna Shirey, thelabyrinthway.net] Have you ever allowed yourself to identify your heart’s desire?
There is a powerful shift when we give our heart its voice, Shirey says, when we let go of the predictability of life, perhaps being misunderstood by others, even the jealousy of others who are stuck. “And somehow in our deepest selves we intuit our life becomes more about sacrifice, about letting go, than in building up.” (Op cit.)
What if we did that as a church? What if we let go of the predictability of what we do? That is, in part, what Doug Pagitt suggests being “Church in the Inventive Age” is about. What if we opened up our building at night to house homeless people for a month or two or three during the winter? What if we supported and worked in an afterschool program for kids who have nowhere else to go? What if we didn’t worry so much about what others thought of us?
Hannah’s longing to have a child was ultimately not merely a selfish desire. “Our desire, our longing for freedom,” writes one woman, “is an expression of all of Creation waiting to be born–this time through us.” [Shirey, op cit.] When you see these things,” Jesus said to the disciples–nations at war, structures unraveling–”they are the birthpangs of the future.” God is alarmingly free to act,” as one writer puts it. [Micah Kiel, workingpreacher, 2012] When she dedicates her son to God, Hannah sings a song that would become the model for another woman’s song when she becomes pregnant unexpectedly. “Magnificat,” we call that song of Mary, “My soul magnifies the Lord, because he has thrown the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the poor.”
So even into our troubled world, a world of bombings and suicide bombers, of refugees streaming from countries made unbearable by violence and cruelty and poverty, even into our world the song is still being sung. “Listen,” one prophet writes, all those wars and rumors of wars?
Listen: It’s all true, or it’s freaked out fearful chatter, or who knows,
but then what anyway? All is prologue and prelude, lift up your
heart to the universe: the ultimate word and song are yet to come:
sonnets of peace, grace notes of lovingkindness, rumors spreading
of Spirit filling up the desolate space between when all this
cosmic crucifixion will rest and then rise a sanctified singularity.”[Michael Coffey, Ocotillo Pub, Nov. 14, 2012]
“All is prologue and prelude. Lift up your heart to the universe: the ultimate word and song are yet to come.” May we live into that world with hope, with courage, with generosity, and love.
Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark