the 23rd Day after Pentecost
17 November 2019
Today’s readings are:
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Click here to access these readings.
Goodness, those were some grim readings, weren’t they? There’s a bit of fire and brimstone in our readings this morning, and though they were tempered a bit with the beautiful psalm, there was some grim stuff there. And it’s not just grim stuff like on Ash Wednesday or Good Friday, but some gut frustration and anger and destruction. When I read these readings at the beginning of the week, I thought, man, how are the kids going to hear all this? Maybe I should ask Tina to keep them in Sunday school the whole time so they don’t have to hear any of it.
But, but, that wouldn’t have been a good idea. It’s important to hear the whole of the Bible. It’s important that we Christians read and hear, in our own study and here in the gathered congregation of the church, the whole Bible, not just the nice, happy, and joyful moments, but those moments where the sins of the human heart and the world are laid bare. Someone once said that the Bible is like a map of the human response to God – the whole human response, the good, the bad, and the ugly. And we need to take it all as God’s word to us in Scripture. It’s kinda, in a way, like marriage: if we want only the good parts, we’re going to have a pretty rocky marriage. But if we are with our spouses through sickness and in health, in joy and sorrow, through those nasty fights and those times when our hearts are lifted together in joy to the very gates of Heaven, then maybe that marriage will last. The Bible is kinda the same.
And now, in the darkening time of the year, we read some of the tough parts of Scripture. And the lectionary is designed this way. Starting around All Saints, when we remember those of our beloved who have entered into the joys of Heaven, our readings focus more and more on the end. Or, perhaps it is better to say that Scripture, through our lectionary, asks important questions: what do we do with endings? What do we do with death? What do we do with little ends and little deaths, like the end of the year, or the parting of friends, or the ending of a relationship? And what do we do with those big ends, the death of loved ones, our own deaths, and that day when all things will end, and the world turns to look God face-to-face?
Now, we humans can get pretty caught up in endings, be they small ones or big ones. And some of us Christians can get really caught up in the end times. We can worry about when, or how, or where, and who. We can take the Scriptures and work out the math to figure out when Jesus will return. And this sort of thing has been done with our Scriptures since the beginning of Christianity, but Jesus’ word to us is this: do not worry. Don’t get all caught up in all this calculating, because I am with you. I will guide you and remain with you, whatever may come to pass. I will love you and hold you, Jesus tells us, even when you try so hard to forget I’m there. Rest in me.
Now, this sort of talk, I think, can easily lead to a “don’t worry, be happy” sort of theology. If we don’t have to worry about bad things, if Jesus will be with us and, hey, how can things go bad with Jesus as my co-pilot? We can just sit back and let the chips fall where they may, because Jesus has our backs. But we Christians don’t really have a “don’t worry, be happy” theology. Our God, our beloved Jesus, was crucified on a cross, a fact we’re reminded of every year during Holy Week, each Sunday at the Eucharist, and every time we ourselves die to our own sin and are lifted by God’s grace into his presence. We can’t get away from a bit of tough thinking, and that’s one of the reasons the lectionary prepares us for such thinking at this time of year.
There is a difference, though, between a happy-go-lucky, all’s right with the world kind of attitude and the attitude that God calls us to through Scripture and the Holy Spirit. We are called not to throw up our hands in grief, nor to throw up our hands in shallow joy, but to live. We are called to be present with the joy of the world and its suffering. We are called to be present to hatred and grief, calm moments of peace and deep, deep anger, and all the range of human emotions and actions. We are called to be followers of Jesus – Jesus, who did not turn his eye from the despair of his people, but walked straight into it, eyes wide open, because his love was so great and his life so grounded in God the Father, that he could do nothing else.
Now, our collect this week reminds us to do something very important with Scripture, and I want to add to it that we should do the very same thing with life. Our collect reminds us that holy Scripture was written so that we may learn from it to understand more fully and more deeply the world around us and the very lives we lead. And we pray through the collect that God might grant us to hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest all that we encounter. And this is all to say that we should not take the joys in our lives, nor the sorrows or griefs or deaths, however little or however large, for granted. For deaths should not just be endured with gritted teeth but should be lived.
This might sound strange, that deaths should be lived, but it is true. Whatever the ending we are brought to, be it the gentle fall of the year or the end of our own lives, we are to live them, as Jesus lived his own death. And to live them is to see them, to mark them and know what they are. For our Lord God leads us through many deaths in our lives, through many endings. And we can shut our eyes and ignore them, we can grasp and covet those things that should have been laid to rest, we can forget the passing of those who have gone before us – or we can open our eyes to the love of God.
For me, it works like this: I think of all those people who I never said good-bye to. Helene and I have moved around a lot in the past ten years, and we’ve met a lot of good friends. And those who, when we parted, I was able to say good-bye, many of us have remained friends, and if nothing else, they’ve remained a deep and abiding part of me. I learn from them, if they’re still around, I seek them out for their council, their advice, and their joy, and I am sought out for the same.
But there are those, for whatever reason, be it that I didn’t think they were important or because of a hardness of heart, who I did not say good-bye, or at least said it poorly. There is a grief in my heart about them. There’s something unfinished. There is a hole in my heart, or a tearing, or a sore. And rarely, at least for me, is that sore healed by not thinking about it.
This is, at least, where my mind goes when I think about endings, both good and bad. Your mind might go elsewhere, to hopes you’ve had that you have said good-bye to well or poorly, or even how you’ve been able to work through the troubles that come with aging. But whatever the case, our word from Scripture is not to look away in grief and despair but to see those deaths, however small, however large, as they are, and to walk through them with endurance and with hope.
And we can do this, we can pass through these deaths because Jesus, who came before us, who passed through the great death on the cross, Jesus is with us in every death, every grief, and every sorrow. By dying on the cross Jesus broke death, destroyed it, and remade it to be something that, through him, leads not to despair and darkness but to new life. For death is not, not ever, the last word. Life, is the last word, and it is an eternal word.
And we know this from our own lives, don’t we? When we have come to an end, and we have come through it, by the grace of God, with our minds and hearts open, and Jesus within us, there is new life on the other side, isn’t there? We are still in this world, where darkness and sorrow run rampant, and there is often still grief on the other side of death. There is a sense of loss for what has died. But above all there is a newness of life, a rekindling of something deep within us, a rebirth and a resurrection of something essential and free. This is something we see in the natural world, where the fall of leaves in the autumn and the bare branches of winter lead to the renewed life of spring. And we see it in our lives in our healing, be it in mind or body or spirit, as we are led through the small deaths of life by the hand of God, until we come to that last and final death, our own death, when Jesus will carry us on his back, like a shepherd carrying a lost lamb, into the eternal glory of Heaven. And then, there, will all deaths finally die, and we will live the life eternal.