250th anniversary of St. James, birth of Grace Church - Advent 1C
What are the latest disasters on your mind? And I don’t mean somebody forgetting to start the coffee. What about Sandy, or the tornadoes in Springfield in 2011? The aftereffects will be with you for a long time. The cleanup and the economic impact will continue for months and maybe years. Is that one of the “signs in the heavens, the roaring of the sea and its waves”? Are people fainting from fear and foreboding? They certainly have been in other places up and down the Eastern seaboard. Whole communities have disappeared.
The Bishop of Long Island told us yesterday that 90 of their hospital employees lost their homes to the fires that erupted in the midst of the storm. A rabbi friend of mine in New York told of entire congregations that are displaced – every member now homeless, and their synagogues unusable as well. Both are gathering ordained and lay leaders to figure out how to support people in this massive displacement. My friend the rabbi has worked on the particular needs of children, like how to bring them back to Hebrew school once there’s a space to meet in again, and how to respond to their questions in the face of disaster – the same questions ones people of all ages ask. She’s reminding others of a prayer that sounds much like today’s psalm, and encouraging them to pray it with worried children:
“I place my spirit in God’s care;
my body too can feel God near.
When I sleep, as when I wake,
God is with me; I have no fear.”
This community here has been through something like the end-of-the-world events Jesus is talking about. A collapsing building must felt like the apocalypse for the people of St. James. For St. George, it may have been harder so see slowly collapsing finances as a crisis, but each community must have experienced a good deal of fear and anxiety over months and years.
What happened to bring you to this place? It was the beginning of the end for both communities, yet now is abundant new life to celebrate. The passing away of what you knew of heaven and earth has brought new energy to your earth-shaped ministry in Gideon’s Garden, as well as vitality to the Lee Pantry and nursing home ministry. A new and vibrant community is being built here at Crissey Farm, by the grace of God.
How did you get here?
How do we move from fear to confidence, knowing that God is near?
Rabbi Jesus reminds his friends to stay alert, and pay attention, for help is coming. The word he uses for help – redemption – means literally, “buying back,” like taking something back to the store and getting your money back, or turning in your winning lottery ticket for the prize. In Jesus’ day it was more often used to mean paying a ransom to liberate a captive, or buying the freedom of a slave. Mostly in the New Testament it means setting people free, through the saving work of Jesus. What does he say about his purpose? I came that you might have life, and have it abundantly.
That abundant life is grounded in hope and expectation that even in the midst of world-ending disasters, God is doing a new thing.
Yet that’s not always our first response to the threat of death and destruction. We tend to cower in the dark for quite a while when the lights go out the first time. Maybe for those with more experience, it’s only a second or two, but there is still a shiver of fear and doubt before we go hunt down the flashlight and candles. It does get easier with practice, which is one reason we call what we do in communities like this one, “practicing our faith.” It includes teaching our children night-time prayers, and it includes telling the stories of our own deliverance and redemption.
I’m standing here today because of my own experience in the dark. The bottom fell out of my possibilities as an oceanographer 25 years ago, as federal research funding was diverted from basic science to other ends. I felt like a complete failure – what had I spent all those years doing in graduate school if I couldn’t find a real position and a lasting job? In the midst of that dark night three people in my congregation asked me if I’d ever thought about being a priest. Those challenges came out of the blue, and they made little sense to me at the time, but eventually they became a sign that God might do something else with me if I could find the guts and the hope to cooperate.
We all have stories of new life, but most of us have to practice telling them, or telling more than one such story. I had somebody else challenge me along the way by asking what the hardest thing was going to be in exploring this vocation. From somewhere deep inside came the response, “learning to be vulnerable in public.” Telling the story is an act that claims the confidence that help is on its way, remembers that help is already present, and that we’ve already seen God in action in our own lives! Telling the story also creates more hope, and more confidence – practice may not make us perfect in this life, but it leads us closer to God.
What does Jesus say in this morning’s gospel? “Stand up, pay attention, because your redemption – your experience of new life – is coming. All you have to do is look for the signs. But don’t let your guard down – your heart has to be open and not completely filled with anxiety or unimportant things. New life is on its way – keep watching for it, don’t miss it or ignore the signs, even when they’re tiny.” That’s what he means by praying that you have the strength to escape these disasters, especially the invitation to hopelessness that often comes with darkness and disaster. Don’t give in.
Call on your friends to tell their stories of hope, or to ask you to tell yours. What story would you tell your neighbor about hope? Take a few minutes to bring that story to mind, and then consider where you might tell it today, and this week. Come next Sunday, reflect on the stories you’ve heard and told, and take the measure of your hope and confidence. God is indeed doing a new thing. Can you see it?