Sermon at Trinity Cathedral, Sacramento
I remember being in church many years ago, when our daughter was about five years old. She was sitting a couple of pews in front of us, with our friend Bruce and his son who was about the same age as our daughter. When it came time for the Lordâs Prayer, Bruce challenged the two of them to see who could say it the loudest. They stood on the kneelers, bouncing up and down, and egged each other on until they were shouting, âFORGIVE US OUR TRESPASSES, and LEAD US NOT INTO TEMPTATION.â I wonder if thatâs what Hebrews means by: âconsider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.â I remember being both mortified that my child was part of this spectacle, and trying not to laugh out loud.
Provoking love and good deeds often does elicit complex reactions. We know weâre supposed to act in loving ways, but changing our behavior can be pretty doggone hard. I think we can all agree that healing sick people is a good idea, but figuring out how to ensure that everybody in this country has access to health care is a lot tougher. We hope for a better world, but when weâre faced with some of the realities that lie between that hope and what we see around us, we quail and tremble and sometimes give up.
Thatâs what Jesus is talking about. This little âend of the worldâ part of Markâs gospel comes right after a whole series of reminders about change and how we try to avoid it. Jesus tells about what happens when the son of the vineyard owner comes to ask for part of the harvest â they kill him. Then Jesus responds to silly questions about avoiding taxes and who owns a wife in heaven when sheâs had to marry a whole series of brothers in succession; and finally he ends the questions by reminding his hearers that all they really have to worry about is loving God and loving their neighbor. The very last interchange is the one we heard last Sunday about the widow and her two pennies. I understand that story as a critique on the religious and political systems that collude to keep widows poor. Somehow itâs easier to build structures and requirements and even religious institutions than it is to respond to the reality of suffering.
All of us try to avoid change. It seems a lot easier to not act or avoid dealing with a difficult situation than it is to move into constructive action. We tend to revert to rules rather than address the human suffering on our doorstep. How many times have we heard, âillegal aliens donât deserve health care (or welfare, or education, or you name it)?â Where does loving God and our neighbor enter in?
The fact that we live by rules, the ones we automatically employ to keep life a bit simpler and more efficient, isnât the problem. The problem is the content of the rules we choose. If those rules we live by are the summary about loving God and neighbor with all weâve got, then maybe change isnât quite so threatening. But when the disciples talk about what a great building the Temple is, Jesus warns them that itâs all going to fall down. And then he says, donât worry, donât be afraid, even if the collapse of the temple and all it represents looks like the end of the world. Donât be afraid â itâs really the beginning of Godâs new day.
Change isnât the problem; our fear and anxiety about it is. Yes, death is coming, but there is no new life without it. If we want light in the darkness, weâre going to have to change the burned-out light bulb, even if it is an heirloom from our grandmother. If we want to see the kingdom of God, we need to figure out how to feed hungry people and get people out of prison. Weâll see it sooner if we begin to eliminate the injustice that leads to hunger and if we start working to ensure that all children receive the love they need and deserve. And yes, thatâs going to mean changing how we live our lives.
Weâre often afraid of what that change is going to do to us. Jesus talked about war, earthquake, and famine â and change often feels like that. Yet Iâm always amazed at the good deeds that erupt in the midst of those disasters. When thereâs a flood or a forest fire or an earthquake around here, people remember whatâs most important, and ultimately, it isnât the stuff in the safe deposit box. Itâs the human connections, and the realization that we matter to each other, and that if we pull together this world can indeed be a far more divine place.
What part of your world needs change the most right now? Weâre talking a lot about the need for health care reform here in the U.S. That has people riled up because theyâre afraid that it will cost them money or involve change in their own health care options. The reality is that if nothing changes, fewer and fewer people in this country will have access to adequate health care. The more people who seek care in emergency rooms, the more expensive medical care becomes for all of us. Yes, there is a short-term cost, but the benefits are both practical and divine â a healthier economy if more are ready and able to work, and a healthier society when all are treated with dignity. Do we have the courage and hope to change?
More globally, weâre talking about changes in environmental conditions, the warming of our planet, and the consequences of continuing with business as usual. Those climatic changes are already having significant consequences, most of them hardest on people with the least capacity to cope. Sea level is rising and already displacing the peoples of south Pacific islands. Itâs already harder to grow crops in an increasingly arid sub-Saharan Africa. If weâre going to confront the changes in our global climate, weâre going to have to change the way we live â like kicking our addiction to carbon-based fuels. Itâs already possible to produce all the power we need in this country with renewable energy â without nuclear power. But itâs going to take a common mind and the will to change. Some folks will think it means the world is ending â and theyâre right, if weâre talking about a world built on fossil fuels. God is already inviting us into a different future. The question is whether or not weâre willing to look for hope in the midst of these cataclysmic changes.
Even the church is changing, and it always has. The conversation Jesus has about the stones of the temple coming down is about a structural change â religion as people in his world knew it was shifting. Both Christianity and modern Judaism were the result. Weâre working through another round of change right now. Lots of people still call this prayer book new, but very few of us would go back to the old one. Almost none of us would go back to the world of hats and white gloves and no girl acolytes.
Change is part of life, and it can feel like the world is coming to an end. In spite of our fear, we hope and pray for that change because we know that God has a better world in mind â that dream called the kingdom of God, or the reign of God. We can deal with our fear when we remember that death never has the last word, and that resurrection is already erupting in the face of death.
I saw a glimpse of the reign of God that Sunday of the loud Lordâs Prayer. Joy and laughter were certainly a sign of Godâs presence. And my friendâs willingness to have those two kids shout out their prayer was a remarkably creative upset to all the stuffy adults around him, including me. He had it exactly right â we should all be shouting, YOUR KINGDOM COME.
What will you do to provoke love and good deeds, and the change thatâs necessary to make them happen? How loud can you pray?