Christ Church Durham 350th Anniversary Sermon
The history of this place is absolutely fascinating, from the parish libraries sent by Thomas Bray, which your rector has researched, to the history of the rector who was jailed for bigamy in 1698. There have undoubtedly been times when the future of this congregation has looked very dire, but you have survived war and revolution, you have lived through lean years and lusher ones. You know something about dry bones, and the new life that God is breathing into them.
This congregation has been here for 350 years. Iâm guessing that you have never been terribly large in numbers. I doubt that there has ever been a much bigger population than lives in this area today. Making a living here is focused on the land and the sea, or people survive on what they earn elsewhere or earned earlier in their lives. Fewer than 3000 people live in this zip code. Yet there are more of you here on an average Sunday than there were 10 years ago, maybe even half again as many. The surrounding community is changing slowly â there are more African Americans and people of Latino heritage, and the percentage of each is increasing. The population is slowly shrinking, getting older, and itâs less educated and less religious than the rest of the state. As it has for centuries, the community here is changing. How are the bones of Christ Church going to live in the midst of this change?
Weâre in the middle of Lent, a whole season of remembering what it means to die and rise again. The gospel story about Lazarus is a challenge to anyone who thinks things are hopeless. God is forever turning death to life, if we are willing to ask, and hope, and see. Asking, hoping, and looking for new life are decisions about how weâre going to follow Jesus. Theyâre disciplines that we can get better at, in the same way that athletes strengthen their muscles. We donât call it practicing our faith for nothing!
Martha and Mary asked Jesus to do something about their brother. They sent a message when Lazarus got really sick, but Jesus didnât come â his response was, âthat illness isnât going to kill him.â When he finally comes to Bethany, each sister goes and makes her accusation and lament, âif youâd been here, he wouldnât have died.â Martha adds that she knows God will do whatever Jesus asks. That may have been as hopeful as either one of them could be.
What do we do when things seem hopeless? Last weekend I was walking down the sidewalk in NYC, running errands, when a young Chinese man towing a suitcase stopped me. He looked very puzzled, and a bit frantic, and asked âtrain? New Haven?â We were just a couple of blocks from Grand Central Station, so I said, âthe train station is over there.â He clearly didnât speak much English, so I offered to show him. He stopped again and said, ânot highway â train?â I assured him that âyes, the train station is in that building, over there, even if it looks like an ordinary office building.â He still looked very doubtful, but I took him in, showed him the board listing the departure for New Haven, told him he had 45 minutes before it left, and took him to the ticket counter to buy his ticket. He never would have found it without asking. When all seems lost, we have to ask, and sometimes go looking in places that donât seem particularly hopeful.
I have a friend whose partner died a year ago, after a four year journey with cancer. Sheâs written a little book, with a lovely collection of immensely practical suggestions about how to be most helpful to people who are seriously ill, and supportive to them and their families. It includes short chapters about what to do (make concrete offers of help), and what to say (no platitudes, but words of solidarity and understanding). The writing of it has been a very concrete act of hope for my friend. She has found that her sense of Godâs presence has been reinforced in the midst of the worst trial of her life. At the same time, her offering is going to bring hope to other peopleâs experience of death, illness, and despair.
We also have to practice seeing new life around us. Itâs not so hard in a beautiful place like this in the early flush of spring. The whole of creation is practically shouting at us, LIVE! REJOICE! for life has come again after a cold, hard winter. Imagine what it must have been like for people in this parish centuries ago. Winter was normally a time of want and suffering. People died of disease and hunger â quite a lot of people, particularly in the first decades of settlement. The return of the sunâs warmth and the greening of the earth brought hope for relief from that hunger and disease. How do we carry this very physical experience of new life into the depths of winter, or terminal illness, or being laid off, or declaring bankruptcy? It is possible, as our forebears knew, and as people around us continue to show us. We find new life mostly by looking for it in unexpected places, by training our eyes and ears and hearts to see glimmers of greenness.
Where have you seen newness in your life in the last week, or the last 24 hours? Did you re-connect with an old friend? Hear from your children? Meet a new friend, or learn something new? The word from Fukushima keeps changing â how is that news going to be transformed into new life?
We have a choice about how weâre going to meet the next surprise. We can ask for new life, hope for it, and look for it everywhere. In the midst of the aftermath of the tsunami it might be praying for the people of Japan, learning more about whatâs happening, or talking to people here to find some possible concrete responses. We are changed by knowing about it, and we can choose to be changed in hopeful ways, even if our response is to ready ourselves and our communities to respond to the next hurricane right here. We can help fund disaster response, we can pray, we can begin to understand more deeply the interconnections between ourselves and everyone whoâs suffered from the moving earth in recent months â in Haiti, New Zealand, Japan, and Myanmar. We are all brothers and sisters, offspring of the same creator, and even beginning to realize that is a remarkable experience of new life.
Jesusâ response to Lazarusâ situation changes when he meets those interconnections in a new way. When he first hears about Lazarusâ illness, he makes a pretty intellectual response â heâs not going to die; this is an opportunity to see God at work. After Mary offers her lament, and he asks where the tomb is, reality begins to sink in. When he begins to experience the suffering of his friends, compassion follows, and Jesus starts to weep. The onlookers say, âsee how he loved him.â It is that experience of compassion that brings new life into our midst.
How will the people of Christ Church continue to love the community around you into new and resurrected life? Youâve been doing it for 350 years â you do know something about how to bring hope to those in despair.
Ask, hope, see â and see deeply enough to notice the suffering. Do a little weeping â for compassion can be the best motivator to change there is. New life only comes out of a willingness to let go of our complacency that nothing needs to change, or the conviction that nothing can change. New life comes with a willingness to endure the discomfort of discovery, whether it is the suffering of a neighbor or the new possibility God holds out in front of us. Following Jesus means being willing to weep â and to keep moving down the road toward new life, even after four days in the grave, or after 350 years.
Blessings on your journey.