Wednesday, January 21, 2015

It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Based on observable patterns in the solar system, scientists are able to predict the exact minute the Sun will rise and set.  So a quick Google search revealed that we can expect the Sun to fall below our horizon tonight at 5:28 pm, Eastern Standard Time of course.  Now, for those of you who will be looking for darkness to engulf us at 5:28 and it doesn’t happen until 5:29, please don’t email me with a complaint.  I’m a priest, not an astrophysicist.  Plus, I don’t think I’d be able to handle that kind of criticism.  In some ways, it’s astounding that we have arrived at a moment in history where we can predict, to the millisecond, the revolutions of a star floating about in outer space, 92 million miles away, and our planet’s revolutions in respect to it.  But in other ways, once we realize that these predictions aren’t really predictions at all, but are actually mathematical equations calculated based upon observable patterns, it ceases to be ‘astounding’ and becomes something as ordinary as the ticking of a clock.  The sun rises, and it falls.  Every. Single. Day.  No surprises, no moments when the Sun has hit the snooze button one too many times.  The sun rises precisely on time, as expected and as calculated.

Expectations and calculations, two things we love as a human species.  And such a love is understandable, for there really is something comfortable about predictability.  We can wrap ourselves up in that blanket of predicability, satisfied that life is ‘going according to plan’, whatever that phrase actually means.  Ultimately, what lies beneath our love of predictability is a love of control. When things are predicable, when life is relatively unsurprising, when chaos seems to be stifled by a sense of calm, it is easy to become seduced and infatuated with the idea that life is ultimately manageable, surprises are only ever found in horror movies, and the best laid plans of mice and men never go awry.

Except, of course, the best laid plans of mice and men seem always to go awry. We can calculate to the millisecond when the Sun will fall below our horizon, and we can map out the next few years of our lives in flowcharts and graphs, but no one, past, present, or in the ages to come, has been able to predict when death would creep in to steal our fleeting and fragile breath.  But such is the dance we are locked into as finite, mortal creatures reaching towards something infinite, wanting to grasp hold of that which we can never get for ourselves, immortality.  And when that dark cloud of death presses itself upon us, as it seems to me has been happening these last few weeks, we cannot help but react out of fear and desperation.  When terrorists attack a newspaper or a Nigerian village, up come the cries of retaliation and vengeance…things founded as much on an attempt to control the chaos of the world as they are rooted in preserving a sense of justice or freedom.  Tragedies like these, and the countless others we experience either personally or on a broader scale…the tragedies dig at us and often make us feel two things, among others: a sense of desperation, which makes us grasp at anything we can to regain a sense of normalcy; and, when it seems that God is offering more silence than serenity, we get a sense of just how frightening the silence of God can be.  When what we expect to happen collides with the reality of an unpredictable world, life suddenly becomes overcome with an unsettling confusion, like a television program suddenly interrupted by an unsolicited static.  We can make out figures on the screen but we have no real sense of what’s happening.  And when this confusion, this static, seems like it’s never going to fade away, it’s easy to get used the tragedy, forgetting that we serve a God who loves to surprise his people who in an often chaotic and confusing world.

Think of how confusing it must have been to the Israelites, the people whose very name means ‘to wrestle with God’, that the God who led them out of Egypt, spoke to them from the mountain, etched his laws onto stones…suddenly this God falls silent.  “The Word of The Lord was rare in those days.  Visions were not widespread.”  Though the temple of The Lord was being serviced, the priests had fallen into corruption.  And Samuel, who kept watch in the temple, “did not yet know The Lord, and the word of The Lord had not yet been revealed to him.”  But then, like lightning out of a clear blue sky, The Lord speaks: “Samuel, Samuel!”  Out of the silence, out of the normalcy of God’s hiddenness, suddenly The Lord speaks and begins to raise up his chosen prophet.  Out of the silence, expectations are confounded, and the Lord’s chosen is lifted up.  But it first required an intentional listening on the part of Samuel to grasp that unknown voice.

And God speaks not just out of silence, but out of nothingness as well.  “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” A commentator referred to Nazareth as an “insignificant agricultural town”, going on to reference the writer Gertrude Stein when she said of Oakland, “There is no there there.”  Perhaps Nathaniel was saying of Nazareth, “There is no there there.  So how could the Messiah come out of such blandness, such brokenness, such nothingness?”  And I think that such a question is one we want to ask, or perhaps do ask, when our sense of control slips from us:  “Can anything good come out of this world of nothingness, brokenness, and pain?” And once again, the revelation of the God made flesh in Jesus takes the expectations of those around him and turns them upside down, but not first without Philip’s invitation to ‘Come and see.’

Out of silence, out of nothingness, out of brokenness, God speaks and acts.  A prophet was raised up to speak the words of a God long thought to be perpetually silent.  A Messiah born in a dirty manger and raised in a backwoods town.  Out of these types of situations, God speaks and acts.  But it often takes an invitation, in some form or another, for the goodness present in the world to shine brighter than the clouds and chaos, for the work of God to truly be seen.  When I was in Rwanda this past summer, I went to the Genocide Museum, a living witness to one of the most tragic episodes in human history.  I saw images I’ll never erase from my mind.  I read the stories of victims, survivors, and perpetrators.  But what I remember most is the story of a man who risked his own life to hide in his home some of the victims of the government sponsored genocide.  When he was asked why he did it, he responded with a Jewish proverb: “When you save one life, it is as if you have saved the whole world.” In the midst of an unimaginable but nevertheless real chaos, this one man was able to counter the surrounding cloud of death with his acts of goodness, and he will forever inspire me to be a vessel of grace in whatever confusing or hurting circumstances I find myself in.  He is someone of whom I will say, "Come and see."

And as I look upon you, the gathered people of God, the beloved of God, my heart is filled with the recognition that God can no longer be silent, for you speak the very words of God when you offer love to your hurting neighbor, when you speak peace in the midst of discord, when you do something as simple as hold the hand of a grieving friend and say, “I’m here when you need me.” When you save one life, it is as if you have saved the whole world. I’m filled with hope because I know Nathaniel couldn’t wonder if anything good could come out of Wilmington, for in this place are some of the most selfless, self-giving, and compassionate people I know.  When you save one life, it is as if you have saved the whole world. When you are living fully into what God has made you to be, suddenly the world isn’t such a dark place. “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you.” So be that which you were created to be.  Be a vessel of that same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead, that spoke out of silence, that confounded the expectations of Nathaniel.  Be something worth seeing.  Let's be a community of whom others will say, "Come and see" and perhaps the world will recognize that it really is being saved, even if it is just one life at a time. When you save one life, it is as if you have saved the whole world.

*A sermon preached at St. Andrew's On-the-Sound Episcopal Church in Wilmington, NC on January 18, 2015.  The texts were 1 Samuel 3:1-20, 1 Corinthians 6:12-20. and John 1:43-51.

The title of the sermon is a reference to Fred Rogers, who spoke time and time again about what it means to look for the good in a brutal world: "When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping."








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