Sunday, September 20, 2009

20 September 2009 Sermon - "hold fast to the things that endure"


The Rev. Peter M. Carey

Sermon – 20 September 2009

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, VA

We are to hold fast to the things that endure, says our collect today.

A few years ago I went on an Outward Bound trip to North Carolina and the element that held the most interest for me was the rock climbing. I looked forward to the rock climbing with equal parts of excitement and dread. The day arrived for rock climbing, and somehow, I found myself upon the rock. Some cracks in the rock might be adequate for an expert climber, but for this beginner, I needed ledges and cracks that I could grasp and ones that could support me. And so, I found myself somehow moving my way up the rock, always on belay below from my trusted fellow pilgrims. I looked to the rock to find those places where I could hold fast but at times I did feel anxiety and fear – even though, I knew cognitively that if I fell, the rope would hold me. At moments my mind turned to anxiety about falling to the earth, about the unnatural place in which I had placed my body – 50 feet off the ground, 75 feet off the ground. I was not meant to be up here! And then I would feel my arms tighten, and I would feel my back tense up with fear of earthly things, fear and anxiety crept in when I forgot that I was always supported by a rope above, and my friends below. And I forgot that I was able to hold fast to this rock, this enduring rock that has crags and ledges seemingly made just for me.

And so it is for us, our minds and hearts turn to the earthly things that cause us anxiety, and of course this is totally understandable, we are concerned about our families, we are concerned about our jobs, about our environment, about the leadership of our communities, locally and nationally. We have concerns about our friends, colleagues and neighbors who are struggling, and we are concerned about our own selves, and whether we have the stamina to take on the challenges that life throw us. You see, anxiety is an understandable response – and we all have experienced it. But we are offered something here in todays readings which offer images which can help us to see that while we may experience anxiety, it will not stay for long.

The psalm is the first psalm of the book of Psalms and offers us an image of the righteous , the blessed, who are rewarded with happiness:

1

Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, *
nor lingered in the way of sinners,
nor sat in the seats of the scornful!

2

Their delight is in the law of the LORD, *
and they meditate on his law day and night.

3

They are like trees planted by streams of water,
bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; *
everything they do shall prosper.

And so, in the midst of anxiety and confusion, of living in the midst of the earthly things that occupy our hearts and minds, it can be a refuge and a strength to turn to the Lord. Their delight is in the law of the Lord, and they meditate on his law day and night. In the midst of the anxieties of life, and the anxieties of climbing whatever rock we are climbing, it can be a help to turn to our breathing, to turn to prayer, to turn to the Bible – and the psalms are a great place to turn. They were on the lips of Jesus as he walked the roads and paths of Galilee and Nazareth and they were on the lips of monks and nuns throughout the ages. There is a gift of patience and love given to those who delight in God, who turn to God in the midst of the anxieties of life – turning to the things that endure, like a solid ledge on a rock of granite, God has provided for us, and will provide for us still.

And so James also reminds us that we should “draw near to God, and he will draw near to you,”

Isn’t this the thing that we forget in the midst of things? In the midst of the climbs, we may get into thinking that it all depends on us, that we are the ones in control; that we are the ones who have to solve all of our problems, that we are individuals and we must surely pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. However, we are reminded by a church community such as this one that we can count on our neighbors to hold the rope for us, to catch us, to provide for us when we stumble. And beyond our neighbors and fellow pilgrims on the way, we can count on God to be the rope that holds us, the rope that will not ever falter, but is strong and supple enough for every one of us. Beyond being a rope, God is also assisting us, God is drawing near to us, God is lifting us, and ever holding us in his hands. He’s got the whole world in his hands, after all! But he does, and we can see and experience God’s grace in our lives through the work of one another, through the meals that are provided, the care that is given, the welcome that we feel, and the bridging of prejudice and distance. God holds us each in his hands and gives us the strength and compassion to turn to others when they need support, when they are on the climb and we are below encouraging and helping them.

The passage from Proverbs sings praises to the image of the capable wife who is highly to be praised, and in the midst of a culture 5000 years ago which was male –dominated and offered little in the way of opportunity or choice for women, this passage is quite fascinating.

She opens her mouth with wisdom,

and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.

She looks well to the ways of her household,

and does not eat the bread of idleness.

Her children rise up and call her happy;

her husband too, and he praises her:

"Many women have done excellently,

but you surpass them all."

Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,

but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.

Give her a share in the fruit of her hands,

and let her works praise her in the city gates.

Though this passage may tout the unreachable and overly-idealized picture of any spouse, we know how hard the work is of a household – I know how hard the work is of a household, and it is often quite unheralded work, like the work of the one who is on the ground, holding a rope watching the one who climbs the rock. She is there, ready at any point to stop the rope, and save the person above from falling. This work of hospitality and householding is praiseworthy and should be heralded. Here, it may be the one who makes us coffee, or who sets the table, or teaches our Sunday School, or who sorts dusty treasures for the yard sale.

Our Gospel reading reminds us in even more telling imagery that the first shall be last and the last shall be first.

As much as we might be able to buy into the aspect of selfless and humble work when it comes to our work here at church or even when we might go on Outward Bound and need to be the one who belays (there on the ground.) It is quite a bit harder in the “real world” the other 6 days of the week, isn’t it? Jesus rebukes the disciples who are arguing about status, and we could sit here and say, those silly and bad disciples – after all, they had JESUS with them and they were worried about who was the greatest. But isn’t this us, isn’t this really us. Lord knows I still check where Bates College is ranked by U.S. News and World Reports, and I know that Wahoos were a bit saddened that while they were still ranked #1 as the best public university, now UCLA had moved up into a tie. And don’t get me started on football rankings – while I was at Bates, we were (at one point), ranked as the worst team in the United States (this is why I stuck to lacrosse and soccer). (is there a spiritual benefit to losing, perhaps…) But seriously, don’t we live in a world of status, of where we fit in our work, how are our sales doing, where is the Dow Jones, and all the rest.

Jesus said:

"What were you arguing about on the way?" But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."

I sometimes wonder how Christianity caught on at all, “the first must be last of all and servant of all”! What? And then he takes a child, which in Jesus time was not seen as a cute and revered and loved and cared for being, but rather a child was a person of no status – a person not yet able to earn any living, and also likely (30% of the time) to not make it to adulthood. So, Jesus took this person of little or no status, and told the disciples to welcome this one – this little one of not status and in this person of no status, here is where God comes in, as we are reminded that Jesus himself came into the world as a lowly and fragile child of an unwed mother in an occupied land. While we are prone to dwell on status, we will encounter God when we can leave aside this anxiety about earthly things, and hold fast to the things that endure. No matter what climb we are on, no matter how rough the going may be, we can draw near to God, and he will draw near to us.

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