Thursday, November 21, 2013

Like a Rolling Stone

A sermon preached at St. Andrew's On-the-Sound Episcopal Church in Wilmington, NC on November 17, 2013.  The texts were Isaiah 65:17-25 and Luke 21:5-19.

I didn’t grow up listening to the Rolling Stones, but I did grow up listening to my parents listening to the Rolling Stones.  Sometimes Led Zeppelin was on the turntable, sometimes The Isley Brothers.  I even remember finding a cassette (remember cassettes?) from a band called Supertramp.  But the Rolling Stones were always around when I was younger.  The first concert I can remember my parents going to when I was a young boy was a Rolling Stones concert.  They were so excited even though they only had seats in the nosebleed section…seats so high up binoculars were only useful if you wanted to find an exit sign two miles from your seat.  Forget actually seeing Mick Jagger slithering on stage behind his mic stand.  But they were so excited, and leading up to the concert they must have kept the Rolling Stone’s Greatest Hits on repeat.  And from my parent’s obsession with the Stones came a constant refrain I hear playing in my head to this very day: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime well you might find, you get what you need.”
“You can’t always get what you want,” Mick Jagger sings over and over again.  You know, the song actually begins with a Children’s Choir singing the chorus, almost like a choir of angels echoing some grand universal truth throughout the ages.  “You can’t always get what you want.”  Mick Jagger wrote the song in response to the cultural dissatisfaction and cynicism that permeated the world after the tumultuous 1960’s.  Illusions about love, security, and happiness were shattered by a sex-obsessed, politically divided, and drug-fueled atmosphere. And regardless of what drove Mick Jagger to wax poetically about a dissatisfied and cynical culture, his words are almost a grand universal truth.  It’s true, we simply don’t get everything we want.  From the trivial things, like wanting the perfect picket-fenced ranch home when we’re stuck in a one bedroom apartment, to the seriously life-changing, like wishing a loved one wasn’t taken in death before we had the chance to say “I love you” one last time.  We can’t always get what we want.  And I wonder if this “not getting what we want” has seriously impeded our ability to hope in the face of intense of even crippling frustration.
            Perhaps we all have a bit of Mick Jagger in us.  All the cynicism of the modern world has shaped us in such a way that hope is a virtue sitting on the shelf of our hearts collecting dust.  Phrases like “I’m not holding out hope” or “Don’t hold your breath” are such common responses to situations that fill us not with hopefulness but cynical, pragmatic doubt.  And then there are situations that emerge that make it nearly impossible to hope for a better world…to hope for a holier and more whole world.  As we look around us and see the chaos that rains down…quite literally in the case of this tragedy in the Philippines, and as we bear witness to a hailstorm of bullets in our own community, our ability to hope is crippled.  We see the evil and the carnage on a daily basis and perhaps we arrive at a similar kind of cynicism: A “lowest-common denominator” theology that doesn’t sing “All my hope on God is founded, he doth still my trust renew”, but rather sings this constant refrain: “You can’t always get what you want.”
            But that “lowest-common denominator” simply isn’t part of our Christian tradition, even in the face of pain, chaos, death and destruction.  From our Jewish mothers and fathers we've inherited the book of Isaiah, one of the great deposits of wisdom and prophecy.  Though scholars continue to investigate who exactly Isaiah was, or whether there was more than one "Isaiah" who compiled the book, what's constant throughout is the interplay between destruction and restoration, chaos and creation...and the conclusion that death is not the ultimate end...that life has a way of rising from ashen decay and taking flight like a phoenix.  These oracles were written in a time of great upheaval, when Assyrian warriors reigned down upon the people of Judah, when God's Chosen had turned away from worshipping the One who redeemed them from bondage and slavery.  They had lost their way as God's people, preferring to "sit inside tombs, and spend the night in secret places...and eat swine's flesh with broth of abominable things in their vessels." This accusation comes mere verses before the oracle we heard today, and it gestures towards a people walking aimlessly in the sight of the LORD, who have caved under the pressure of the assaulting army of the Assyrians. And so the LORD issues forth a judgment upon the people: "I will destine you to the sword, and all of you shall bow down to the slaughter; because, when I called, you did not answer, when I spoke, you did not listen, but you did what was evil in my sight, and chose what I did not delight in."
            The people had given up hope in the face of the pain and misery that came against them, and they lost themselves in return.  Those who once cried out for relief and cried out for deliverance...who desired to remain faithful to the LORD, who wanted to see the promised peace of the Messiah...those people stopped singing the song of the LORD's triumph, "I will sing to the Lord, for he is lofty and uplifted; the horse and its rider has he hurled into the sea. The Lord is my strength and my refuge; the Lord has become my Savior." Instead, they sang something that I would bet sounded a lot like, "You can't always get what you want." Despondent in the face of chaos, they gave up hope.
            But hope has a way of breaking through despair, much like even the smallest tree shoot can crack the thickest concrete.  In spite of God's judgment, in spite of God's frustration and anguish, God pulled back the hand of vengeance and painted a beautiful tapestry of redemption and restoration: "For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice for ever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress."

Let that image sit with you a moment.  No more tears.  No more death or wanton destruction.  No more agony or division.

Isn't a world reconciled what the people of God should be wanting with every fabric of our being?  A world without violence...where enemies use hands not to kill but to grasp in a warm embrace.  Where labor is not in vain, where we live not aimlessly but with the single task of working for the good of God and our neighbor, where viciousness is replaced by virtue, as in a wolf lying sweetly with a lamb in its bosom...where nothing hurts or is destroyed?

Search your heart....Dwell on the words of Jesus, our Good Shepherd: "You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls."

Perhaps this sounds a bit too cheery, a bit too hopeful, especially when one takes a good, hard look at the pain of the world around us.  But the truth is that in this Gospel of reconciliation and restoration I've caught a glimpse of something so beautiful, so pure, so magnificent that I've become convinced of its truth. My own life, as one who has risen from ashes himself, testifies to the power of the Gospel to actually make a difference, both in how I act and how I make sense of the world.  Friends, I want a new world.  I want to see pain walk out the front door and never return.  I desperately want that.  So if today, the perils of the world have damaged your ability to hope, and all you can whisper is a cold and broken Hallelujah, whisper it anyway. For this testimony from Isaiah and the words of Jesus spoken in the face of Roman domination promise me that one day, all of this will be put to rights.  Which is why, if Mick Jagger was here today, I'd say, "You're wrong.  By God's grace, and in God's good time, I think I am going to get what I want."

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