St. Michael and All Angels
Fourth Sunday of Easter – April 21, 2013
Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30
What a week! How do we begin to process all that has happened in our world? The events in our country in the last several days are staggering. Meanwhile we are witnessing pain in the lives of our friends and neighbors as they face their own struggles. We carry our own stress each day. How do we make sense of the barrage of events we have witnessed this week in the context of our own lives that continue full speed ahead? I have to confess that I find it easier to simply put one foot in front of the other, to do the next thing on my list, to focus on tasks that are measurable rather than stepping into the vat of pain and terror that is plaguing our country. Our hearts go out to the people in Boston and to the people in West. My heart goes out to a colleague who has suffered too much in recent years and this week in particular. And on this day before Earth Day, my heart goes out to our planet. There is always the temptation to create some distance, to step back as if we are not directly impacted by the explosion in West, the bombs in Boston, or the destruction of our planet, but we are. Quantum physics teaches that we are all connected. Paul was onto something when he wrote, “When one member suffers, all suffer. When one rejoices, all rejoice.” This wasn’t metaphor. It is real. In God, we are not separate from one another. It is what the incarnation is about - God taking on human form to show us what embodied love looks like. We simply cannot escape God. Hear the words of Psalm 139:
“Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” (vs. 7-10)
There is NO place we can go to escape God. God is at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. God is in the fertilizer plant in West. God is in the remote corners of the earth where people do not have decent drinking water. God is in the hospital rom of the one we love. According to Quantum physics, we cannot escape our connection to one another. But we get tired of the pain and suffering all around us. It is tempting to feel grateful that the explosion and the bombing didn’t happen here. It is easy to say, “Well, at least we have enough clean water.” We have enough stress in our own little corner of the universe, thank you very much.
We gather in this place and hear sacred texts read each week. Today, Psalm 23 offers a powerful assurance of God in all things. But it is so familiar that we may no longer hear the message of God’s faithfulness and healing. It is most often heard at memorial services. I always found that curious because this psalm says so much more about life. Perhaps that is just what we need to hear when we gather to remember the one who has passed from this life. This Psalm follows the despair of Psalm 22 “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Psalm 23 transforms the despair into the assurance that we dwell in God our whole lives. Revelation asks, “Who are these and where have they come from?” and the answer is, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal…God will wipe every tear from their eyes.” (vv. 13, 14, 17) Those words were especially poignant this week. The Acts passage begins with the death of one of the great saints in the community. The people gather around Tabitha and they call for Peter to help. It’s a wonderful example of people unafraid to get involved in each other lives and their intervention results in Tabitha’s restoration to life. The love of a community is more powerful than any of us realize!
None of these texts say that in God, all will be easy and beautiful and good. They acknowledge death, evil, and “the great ordeal”. Life is easy and it is death, life is beautiful and it is evil, life is good and it is the great ordeal. To deny this is to deny the reality of life. Every day, our greatest act of faith is stepping into the fullness of each moment…even (or perhaps especially) those that we didn’t choose. Along with the stories of death and destruction this week are beautiful stories of those who jumped in and became hope in the face of suffering. My heart breaks with love for those who didn’t stop to consider the cost, but raced into the scene of need and opened their arms to a complete stranger. In the depths of despair, a human face bearing the love of God appears and nothing can ever be the same again.
While there are many for whom life will never be the same, there are others who seem to be unaffected. In the throes of grief, it can be alarming that so many go on with their lives. Yet we are not all affected in the same way by the same events. Faith communities have their own cycles of life and grief and hope and loss. After thirty years, Brian will retire from St. Michael’s in a month. It is hard to imagine this community without him. We wonder how to prepare for this transition.
There are people gathering weekly in Circles of Trust groups to pray and to share their lives. It is a strange response, perhaps, but it is what the church has done before it was even church. After the day of Pentecost, people were astonished by the power of the Spirit in their midst and asked the obvious question, “What do we do now?” Then they did what humans have done from the beginning of time: they came together and shared meals. They listened to one another and cared for one another and their care extended beyond their circle into the community where the hurt was great. Somehow, those circles of care, those circles of trust became the church. We are the church and it isn’t always perfect. The way ahead is not always clear, but we continue this pilgrimage together and we take the next step…together.
In 1994, I was preparing to go before the United Methodist Board of Ordained Ministry. My call to ministry had powerfully changed the direction of my life twelve years earlier. Now, I had fulfilled all the requirements for ordination and after examining me, the Board would determine whether or not I would be ordained. As the day grew closer, I found myself afraid that there would be some fatal flaw. I told my spiritual director about my fear and I will never forget what she said to me, “Do you honestly believe that God would bring you this far only to abandon you now?” Those words set me free. Somehow, I was no longer attached to the outcome because I knew that the God who had called me, would be with me always, and that was more than enough. I went home and listened to Bobby McFerrin sing the 23rd Psalm and let the words wash over me. I did that every day until I went before the Board. I walked into that meeting with great assurance that God was with me. I am committing myself to hear the 23rd Psalm every day for the next month. I invite you to do the same. How would it change us to hear these words of God’s love and provision every day?
This same God who called me, who breathes life into all of us, is the creator of all that is. The communion liturgy proclaims God creating this fragile earth, our island home. Tomorrow is Earth Day. It really seems silly to call one day a year Earth Day. Isn’t EVERY day Earth Day? Perhaps we simply need to be reminded that our fragile island home, this ground under our feet, the water we drink, the land on which our food is grown, is giving us so much. Can you hear the Psalm as if it were written by earth? Can you hear how our healing is tied up with our planet? We lie down in green pastures, we are led beside still waters, and wherever we are, God dwells with us on this beautiful planet we call home. We are not alone. We belong to God. We belong to one another.
Every breath we take is so precious. We get caught up in the tasks and forget that are dwelling in God right this minute. We hurry through our day and fall into bed weary without seeing the exquisite goodness of God anointing us until our cups run over. We rush ahead to the next task without looking back to see how goodness and mercy are trailing right behind us. God is here. God is all around. We are breathing in God’s love every time we inhale. Our task is to exhale that steadfast love into our broken world.
There are many places to turn as we live into the reality of this week…to the realities of each week. Tragedy and suffering are always with us and we are called over and over to enter fully into the human family. We are called to enter fully into the goodness of Earth, to allow it to bathe over us and to express our gratitude. This week as I struggled with all that has happened, I found Chris Heeter’s poem gave voice to the grief, the hope, the connection:
This living thing isn't for sissies.
Most especially when we dare to engage with each other
and risk our hearts with connection and compassion.
It sets us up for a full menu of feelings
from joy to outrage
from deep peace to staggering uncertainty.
Such is the state of collective hearts when other hearts
act from the darkest of places.
As grief and healing thunder through this land once again
may we be rocked by both—
the anguish of limbs and lives senselessly lost
and the relentlessness of hearts that
will. . . not. . . stop. . . caring.
May we find wild grace
in one another
in the songs of birds
the footprints of deer
and in this wild world we share.