Sermon at Trinity Cathedral, Sacramento
Proper 28, Year B (rcl)
by The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
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 Lord's 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, "FORGIVE US OUR TRESPASSES, and LEAD US NOT INTO TEMPTATION." I wonder if that's what Hebrews means by: "consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds." 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 we're 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 we're 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.
That's what Jesus is talking about. This little "end of the world" part of Mark's 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 - they kill him. Then Jesus responds to silly questions about avoiding taxes and who owns a wife in heaven when she's 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 it's 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, "illegal aliens don't deserve health care (or welfare, or education, or you name it)?" 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, isn't 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 we've got, then maybe change isn't quite so threatening. But when the disciples talk about what a great building the Temple is, Jesus warns them that it's all going to fall down. And then he says, don't worry, don't be afraid, even if the collapse of the temple and all it represents looks like the end of the world. Don't be afraid - it's really the beginning of God's new day.
Change isn't 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, we're 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. We'll 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, that's going to mean changing how we live our lives.
We're often afraid of what that change is going to do to us. Jesus talked about war, earthquake, and famine - and change often feels like that. Yet I'm always amazed at the good deeds that erupt in the midst of those disasters. When there's a flood or a forest fire or an earthquake around here, people remember what's most important, and ultimately, it isn't the stuff in the safe deposit box. It's 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? We're talking a lot about the need for health care reform here in the U.S. That has people riled up because they're 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 - 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, we're 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. It's already harder to grow crops in an increasingly arid sub-Saharan Africa. If we're going to confront the changes in our global climate, we're going to have to change the way we live - like kicking our addiction to carbon-based fuels. It's already possible to produce all the power we need in this country with renewable energy - without nuclear power. But it's going to take a common mind and the will to change. Some folks will think it means the world is ending - and they're right, if we're talking about a world built on fossil fuels. God is already inviting us into a different future. The question is whether or not we're 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 - religion as people in his world knew it was shifting. Both Christianity and modern Judaism were the result. We're 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 - 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 Lord's Prayer. Joy and laughter were certainly a sign of God's presence. And my friend's 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 - we should all be shouting, YOUR KINGDOM COME.
What will you do to provoke love and good deeds, and the change that's necessary to make them happen? How loud can you pray?