Choose Life: A Sermon Preached by Susan Allison-Hatch
September 16, 2016
Sometimes on Sundays during communion we at St. Michael’s offer anointing and prayers for healing. Last Sunday was one of those Sundays. Every time I watch from the pew or participate in those prayers I’m struck by how the world of hurt and the world of hope meet here in this place and in our daily lives as well.
You and I, we live in a world full of hurt. There’s no denying it. There’s really no avoiding it. Not when 100+ mile per hour winds and drenching rain saturate the Carolinas washing away trees and bridges and homes and lives. Not when tales of hurricanes past and the toll of indifference is paid in thousands of lives lost. Not when unprecedented fires swallow up trees and homes and lives and even interstate highways. Not when discourse and conversations turn into monologues and tirades with people talking not with each other but at each other. Not when hate speech becomes common fare and crosses burn and meanness stalks our land. Not when families are broken up at our borders. Not when over a thousand children are being held in detention camps here in the United States. Not when the bestseller of the week—both here and in Europe—is Bob Woodward’s latest book entitled Fear.
Our own lives, too, are marked by lines of pain and hurt and sadness. We yearn for healing and we yearn for hope—for ourselves and for the world in which we live. We are so hungry for hope.
Last Sunday, I left here with a heavy heart—the hurt of the world and the hurt of those who share this part of the world with me all crashed in on me. I so much wanted just to crawl into bed, pull up the covers, and block out the world.
But I was not done with my day. I had grocery shopping to do. Not much just a little fill-in for lunch and dinner—not even enough to fill a basket. I stopped at Lowes on twelfth and Lomas. It’s my last-stop shop. I grabbed my stuff and stood in line. There were two men ahead of me. One cashing out and the other just putting his groceries on the belt. The young man bagged his own groceries, got the bill, and opened his wallet. He counted out a few bills and said to the check-out person, “Keep the change.” Her face broke into a smile. It glowed—it really glowed with joy. She said to the young man, “I keep a stash of change here. There’s a homeless man who often comes at the end of the day. He never has enough to pay his whole bill. This will help tonight.” Then I saw that young man reach back into his wallet. He took out two more fives and handed them to the woman at the counter.
But that’s not the end of the story. What happened next is even more remarkable. The next person in line—a much older man—got his bill, paid in cash—two twenties I think—and when the check-out person, reached out with change, that man said, “Put it in your stash.” Imagine—goodness, upon goodness, upon goodness.
You and I, we live in a world not unlike the world of those who blocked their ears and covered their eyes when Lady Wisdom cried out to them. And yet that is not the end of the story. Or even the only story on the table today. Remember the words of the psalmist:
The heavens declare the glory of God,
And the firmament shows his handiwork.
One day tells its tale to another,
And one night imparts knowledge to another.
Although they have no words or language,
And their voices are not heard,
Their sound has gone out into all the lands,
And their message to the ends of the world.
Creation itself blessing the Creator whose teachings revive the soul and whose commandments rejoice the heart—the Holy One who is our strength and our redeemer.
The scriptures we hear today are punctuated with the notion of choice. We can choose to block our ears or we can choose to listen to Lady Wisdom. We can choose to join the psalmist in praise of our creator and redeemer or we can choose to still our voices and harden our hearts. We can choose to use our tongue to bless or we can choose to use our tongue for evil. We can choose to follow Jesus or we can choose to turn back.
I’m reminded of the words of Moses as he stood with his people poised to enter the promised land. Knowing he would not be going with them, Moses said, “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life….” Choose life; choose hope for that is the way of the cross.
19 August 2018
Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
Jesus said, “I am the living bread … Whoever eats this bread will live for ever.” (John 6)
After three weeks away, my head is spinning from all that has happened.
Three weeks ago: Bismarck, Annunciation Convent, Marcel Breuer
Two weeks ago: Fort Collins, parents’ 70th wedding anniversary (1948!)
Last week: wedding of my niece in a mountain valley near Taos
Meanwhile back at church: death of a beloved child of the parish
Armando released on parole (30 min response time!)
Trip to Indian Market: a new edge—activist, resistant
All this leads me to think about the question: is there a thread running through the events of our lives, both public and personal, both tragic and celebratory, that somehow holds them together?
And the thought toward which my mind turns comes from yet another event of the past week, when the author Jim Kristofic (who grew up on the Navajo reservation) talked with a group from the parish about that experience. One of the questions he reflected on was what gives a modern-day Navajo his or her identity? He suggested that it is not tradition (for too many traditions are of ambiguous meaning in the modern world, though many are still rich); it is not language (for too few Navajo are able to speak Diné, though many do); and it is not ancestry (for too often Navajo are of mixed blood, through intermarriage, though many are not).
For him, the essential factor is a way of life—a certain orientation toward the world that is based on a sense of the sacred (both of land and people); a commitment to the wider community and of one’s obligations to it; and a distinctive patience with time (for there is always time enough for whatever needs to be done, because time is endless).
And out of that third element—patience with time—Kristofic drew an important point. If we have a sense that life extends beyond physical death into an eternity (however we conceive of that), then we are as close to eternity in the present moment, as we will ever be. If time is infinite, then we will be no closer to its end in 100 years, than we are now. We already live life eternal.
Now, take that thought and bring it to bear on today’s gospel, where Jesus describes himself as the bread of life, by whom those who partake will live for ever. We tend to hear that as descriptive of something in the future. But what if Jesus is saying something more like what Kristofic said of the Navajo: “I offer you a way of life, and those who choose to follow it will find themselves swept up here and now in the life of God, which knows no beginning, and no end?”
What if Jesus is inviting us to see ourselves not just as finite, physical beings who are born, live our lives, and then die—but as part of God’s creative drama in which all things are interwoven in one tapestry of living, and creating, and loving, and sharing, and giving? And what if the key, the point of entry, is to commit ourselves to living as he lived: always on behalf of the other, always on the side of mercy and compassion, always along the trajectory of peace and relationship?
Now, that’s not a new thought, I know. But at moments when we find our heads spinning from all that has happened, both good and bad, it is important to be reminded that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. We are part of the community of creation that both gives us everything that we have, and asks of us everything that we are.
At my niece’s wedding, I was asked to be one of two officiants. I wasn’t sure I was supposed to give a homily as part of the “ceremony” (this was a very secular wedding), but just in case, I gave one anyway. I talked about how a wedding celebrates two things in particular: the life that two people are creating together in their marriage, and the familial context which gave them birth and shaped them into who they are. It was a moment to recall that day was both about them, but also about my niece’s grandparents (my parents), who were celebrating 70 years of marriage; her other grandparents who were celebrating 60 years of marriage; and each of their parents, who were celebrating 32 years.
The point is, that who we are as individuals is shaped by the bonds of relationship and commitment that we make and with which we are surrounded. And so, I said, the recipe of “Me first” and “Me alone” is not conducive for human flourishing, either for individuals or for nations. A wedding, therefore, is in this day and age a truly prophetic act: not me first, but us together. And then, since I wasn’t sure whether I was supposed to be speaking or not, I just left it at that.
But this summer for me has been a time for reaffirmation of these primordial truths: that (as an old prayer puts it) life is eternal, and love is immortal, and death is only an horizon—and an horizon is nothing, save the limit of our sight.
Proper 12B (29 July, 2018)
St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church
The Rev. Carolyn W. Metzler+
1 Samuel 11:1-15; Ps. 14; Eph. 3:14-21; John 6:1-21
There is so much about King David to love! Plucked from the fields to rule when he was a very young man after countless hours of silence, tending sheep. The Bible goes to great pains to tell us it had nothing to do with how handsome he was, and then goes to great pains to tell us how handsome he was! He leaves the fields and wins battles for King Saul. After Saul’s death this tender lad was made king over a people impossible to rule. He made good choices. God was pleased with him. He wrote some of our most beloved psalms. He built a magnificent palace for himself. He had at least seven wives, with slaves and concubines as well. In gratitude to God, he brought the Ark of the Covenant to Israel and offered to build a Temple, a task that went to his son Solomon. He danced for joy before the Lord wearing nothing but his ephod! God made a covenant with David, that David would be faithful all his days and God would bless David’s descendants forever. Nobody in the world had as much power as David. Everybody wanted to be his best friend. He was the envy of every other ruler. It went to his head. He made bad choices. And this story is about a whopper of a bad choice. Let us speak a truth that is not often spoken in Christian churches: This is entirely David’s sin. Bathsheba was wronged. I recently heard a sermon preached in an other denomination on this text where Bathsheba was labeled as a temptress, an adulterer, seducing David. I was furious, and confronted the preacher about it. I gave him a conversation NO preacher wants to have at the door to the church. David was the most powerful person in the world. Bathsheba was just a woman, though she came from a good family and was one of the few woman actually named in the Bible. The power differential was completely stacked against her. Deny her king his pleasure and she could lose her life. People like David are why we need the #MeToo movement. Bathsheba has a story too. It needs to be heard. I for one, want to hear it.
So David, who was used to getting his way, began to manipulate others which gave him what he wanted. And then he forgot about her. He did not give Bathsheba another thought until a message arrived that his pleasure had resulted in a pregnancy. David got scared. He probably knew Uriah, one of his own “mighty warriors.” They probably had fought side by side. Uriah was off in battle, making it clear the child was not his. So David began a conspiracy of attempted deception and coverup worthy of any headline today. As the conspiracy got more complicated due to Uriah’s unwillingness to play along with the charade, David brought more and more people into his scheming to do his dirty work. Finally he realized he just had to get rid of Uriah, making Bathsheba a widow, meaning he could marry her and legitimize the child as his own.
This is not the David of a few chapters ago. This is not the gentle, ruddy faced, clear- eyed boy tending sheep and composing love songs to God. This is a man whose power had gone to his head. He believed himself to be above the law of God and civil society. He had lost his way spiritually, caught up in a complicated web of greed and coverup. He was now hard, calloused. He did not feel anything but his own need. He had lost his moral compass.
We may not go to the lengths that David did, but there is not a person alive who has not betrayed their own heart for some lesser desire of the mind. We use people. We choose more of what we don’t need just because we can. Recently I saw a scarf in a thrift shop. I have about 30 of them. This was lovely. So are the others. Every voice in me told me this was just greed. I bought it anyway. It was a scarf, not a human being. But the root was the same. Also the coverup. I could use it in an altar for a retreat! That made it ok! When I make my confession, it generally includes the all ways I try to pretend I don’t need to make my confession! We excuse excess as individuals and as a nation. When did greed become a national status symbol? When did the coverup of “alternative facts” become acceptable?
Fortunately, the story does not end with the last line of our lesson today. Next week we’ll hear the conclusion of the story. Spoiler alert! I won’t give you the brilliant way it happens, but suffice it to say David is literally brought back to his knees. Then we see a David we can remember loving. Richard Rohr says that people do not evolve spiritually without some great love or great suffering. David is made to see the horror of his ways and his guilt and shame become unbearable outside of grace. He knows he deserves to die. Repentance doesn’t bring back Uriah who he killed. It doesn’t undo the evil David did to Bathsheba. There are still severe consequences to pay for his actions, and even then some of us might think he got off too lightly! But a profoundly repentant David experiences the grace and mercy of God. No it’s not fair. No it’s not just. Mercy is never fair! That’s why it’s mercy. Grace is never just! That’s why it’s grace. Those of us who have been violated and wronged may have a hard time with this part of the story. People who need a tit-for-tat world sometimes struggle with the grace and mercy of God. Many people I see in spiritual direction rail against a God who can forgive even abusers. And so David is a stand-in for each of us who use our privilege and agency for our own selfish gain, and David also is the stand-in for every person who is horrified by our capacity to betray the higher nature and longing of our own heart.
The story goes on even beyond next week’s lesson: the David saga continues. God knows David, knows his human flaw, and uses him anyway. “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid…” That, friends, is the good news. We are more than our mistakes, more than our moral failings. When we turn again, allow mercy and grace to transform us into people who are aligned with the kingdom, we go on serving God’s purposes. Bishop Steven Charleston writes: “One of the great blessings of life is that we are always standing on the threshold of being something new. Whatever our past experiences may have been, however they may seem to define us, each time we open our eyes we look out on unclaimed territory of the heart. No matter what our current circumstances may be, the present does not own us, for the next step we take is always our decision.”
The Gospel reminds us that no matter who we are, what we have done, how puny our resources in the face of the enormity of world need, God takes us exactly as we are to use all that we might offer jn love. David’s sin was his using others to support his insatiable greed. Jesus does the opposite. He begins with a pittance of an offering - a few loaves, a few fish, and however it happens, people are fully satisfied. David just feeds himself. Jesus feeds the multitudes. David uses others as possessions. Jesus serves others with himself. David loved no one but himself. Jesus uses love as the means by which a little becomes more than enough. It is excess opposite of David’s excess. God’s strength begins with and is made perfect in our weakness. All God has is us. All God needs is us. What is broken and small in us is made whole and abundant. That’s the miracle. And so we can sing with Leonard Cohen,
“And even though it all went wrong I’ll stand before my Lord of song
With nothing on my tongue but ‘Hallelujah!
Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah. hallelujah…”