This is but the beginning…
November 15, Proper 28:
Draft text of the homily, please do not cite without permission.
Trust me. The irony of preaching a sermon on this particular passage, when we all had to walk through scaffolding to get into the church is not lost on me.
We’ve done a LOT of work on our buildings and grounds in the last couple of years. A lot of good, necessary, faithful work. There’s lots more that could be done, and still needs to be done.
There’s also not a day that goes by when I don’t encounter stories in my news feed, or talk to people who have all kinds of anxiety and ideas about what’s happening to “the church” and whether it will be here or not in the future. I’m not talking just about All Saints, I’m talking about “The Church.”
Across the US religious landscape: Attendance is down… or maybe it’s just shifting. Giving is down… or maybe we’re not doing enough teaching about stewardship. Commitment is down… or maybe people are dissatisfied because “the church” is too liberal, or too conservative, or too loosey-goosey, or too stuffy; or maybe we’re all just way too busy now. Every day I hear some version of how we’re rearranging deck chairs on a sinking institution, or we’re not going far enough, fast enough. Everyday I’m reminded that the church is not the building, the church is the people. Every day in my newsfeed someone has put together a list of the 5 or 10 or 7 or 12 things that we absolutely should or shouldn’t be doing in order to simply survive —if not thrive— in this world. So believe me, I get how odd it is to walk up a brand new accessibility ramp, or under a scaffold doing repairs on our century old “temporary” stained glass window and then hear, “not one stone will be left upon another.” But that’s not what stuck out for me in the Gospel this week. Not this week.
Two words caught me up and made me pay attention today, and they both start with the letter “B”. Birthpangs, and beware.
What Jesus is describing today sounds like the end: Nations rising against nations, earthquakes, famines …it sounds apocalyptic… of course, it also just sounds like every morning’s newscast. But he also says, “this is but the beginnings of the birth pangs.” Not the end, but the beginning of something else that is coming. Something amazing.
Hannah goes to Shiloh and out of great “anxiety and vexation” she prays. And out of her great anxiety and vexation, God provides a son. And not just any son, but no less a figure than Samuel, the prophet and last of the Judges who oversaw Israel’s incredibly painful transition from tribal groupings to a more centralized authority under David. Hannah’s song, which we read together as our response today, prefigures the song of Mary —the Magnificat— which we’ll hear in about a month, toward the end of Advent, just before we celebrate another son who also comes in the midst of great turmoil to reconcile and restore and renew.
In both Hannah’s time and Mary’s things were ending. But in both of these women, something new was being brought to life. We’re in one of those periods again …have been for awhile. Things are ending…changing… Birth pangs are painful. Incredibly painful. And dangerous. And living through them requires tapping into a deep well of faith and courage. They are also how new life emerges.
As Christians, and as the Episcopal Church, we’ve lived through some decades that haven’t been pleasant. We’ve endured a lot of very public inter-family arguments about human sexuality, about the status of marriage, about whether or how much religion should or shouldn’t be involved in politics, about declining numbers and shifting giving patterns, about what being church really means… or if it even means anything now.
We’re now at a point where there’s a lot of confusion about what being Christian means. On one hand we have a lot of people claiming to be Christian but not behaving in ways that others recognize as Christian. And on the other hand there are many who are very reluctant to say they’re Christian because they don’t want to be labeled as “a that type of Christian.” The craziness of this shows up in the manufactured discontent of the farcical “war on Christmas” that we have to endure every year.
Our culture as a whole is living through a period that some strategists and business leaders describe as one of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and unpredictability. [link] Jesus calls it “birth pangs.” And birth pangs means that something is coming… And so the other B word… Beware.
Yes, beware that no one leads you astray. Many will say, “I’ve got the answer.” Just follow these 5, 7, or 10 points and everything will be solved. Beware—be wary of all the loud voices trolling for attention. But also, beware in the sense of be AWARE. Pay attention. Stay focused on what’s real and true.
I hope you all have had a chance to listen to our new Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. In the sermon he preached at his installation a couple of weeks ago, he talked about what is real and true about our faith. He used the example of Jesus and the conversation he has with the lawyer and the scribe in both Matthew and Mark’s gospels. The lawyer comes to him and says…what’s real? what’s true? He says: (and I’m quoting Michael Curry, I can’t preach like him but I can quote him…) The lawyer asks, “Great teacher, in all of the massive legal edifice of Moses, what is the greatest law? What is the cardinal principle on which it all stands? What is the goal? What is the point of it all? In other words, what is God really getting at? Jesus answered, bringing together a teaching of Moses from the Shema in Deuteronomy 6:4 and a text from Leviticus 19:18. Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” “This,” says Bishop Curry, “is really a stunning declaration. On these two — love of God and love of your neighbor— hang, hinge, depend ALL the law and the prophets. Everything Moses taught. Everything the prophets thundered forth about justice. Everything in the Bible. True religion. It’s about love of God and the neighbor.” And he summed this up by saying something that has since become an Episcopal meme on the internet… and it applies to all the great faith traditions, He said: “If it’s not about love, then it’s not about God.” “If it’s not about love, then it’s not about God.”
So beware. Be aware. Yes we live in a world of endings and beginnings. We live in a world that is volatile, uncertain, complex and unpredictable. So be aware, because God isn’t done with us. In her anxiety and vexation Hanna prayed and God sent Samuel. In the midst of an imperial occupation Mary said, “here am I, a servant of the Lord,” and God gave us Jesus. In the midst of this world that is far too often drowning in fear and anxiety and vexation, in the midst of these birth pangs beware, because God is sending something new. God is sending us what bishop Curry calls the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement. God is sending us, and all like us who hold to the truth that if it’s not about love, it’s not about God.
Do you see these great buildings? Yes, in the fullness of time they will not stand, very little made of human hands will ultimately last. But love will. So be aware. We care for these buildings and the all the people who pass through them —not just us but all the 12 step groups and all the choirs, and all the community groups— we care for these buildings and the people who pass through them because of love. And because our care of this building is based in love It is a ministry of presence for the community. Because of all of the ministry —all of the love— that goes out from here it’s also a very large and visible sign that God is not done. A powerful sign that God is not done with us and God is not done with the world. This is but the beginning…