From the earliest days of the church, the unpredictability of our lives and actions has been the crucible for our faith, which aimed to teach us how to live and how to die in such a world, a world in which “we see as through a mirror, darkly,” and yet must make choices grounded in love. (I Cor 13:12) The Book of Revelation — no Episcopalian’s favorite – presses these questions with great urgency. Its images make us uncomfortable because it is weird and unpredictable,
- because it uses strange imagery and metaphor
- to speak of a world that is all too much like our own.
Today’s reading occurs in the middle of passage describing the ultimate destruction of the world we have known,
- a world governed by the greed and cruelty of the most powerful,
- in which material resources, even the earth itself, is recklessly squandered
- and even human lives are reduced to mere commodities from which the global elite profit;
- this world is perishing to make way for the Kingdom of God.
- The forces of destruction have been unleashed:
- Faced with this chaos, the terrified people of earth cry out, “Lord, who is able to stand?” Lord, who is able to stand?
The great fear of early Christians was that they might die without warning, without the time to repent, to ask forgiveness, to say goodbye, to pray. Our own Great Litany, the first piece of liturgy written in English, includes this petition: “from all oppression, conspiracy, and rebellion; from violence, battle, and murder; and from dying suddenly and unprepared, Good Lord, deliver us.” (BCP p.149)
We don’t spend much time these days talking about preparing to die. For that matter, we don’t talk about dying much, either. We assume we’ll have our threescore years and ten, and probably a bonus ten or more if you live in Maine, which like that crazy village in Russia in the old Dannon yogurt ads, boasts a population renowned for its longevity. But let’s try it. Take a moment to think: if you knew you were going to die in two days, what would you want to do? [silence]
If you’re like most of us, you just thought of some people you’d like to help,
- some you’d like to forgive,
- some you’d like to ask for forgiveness.
- Maybe you thought of someone you’d like to call to account, remonstrating with them in the hope that it would help them lead a better life.
- You probably thought of some people you’d want to see one more time, just to enjoy their company.
So my question to you is, what’s stopping you? Why not just go and do it?
The strange thing about the preparation for a good death is that it’s much the same as living a good life: it’s about our relationship with other people. And much of that is about forming good habits, good loving habits.
- Like a person trying to learn to play the violin, or an athlete training for a grueling marathon, we need to practice the way of Christ,
- learning the movements,
- trying on generosity,
- testing forgiveness,
- We play at living Christ-like lives until those strange gestures and words become our own.
- so that, some day, with Christ’s help, we can be better than we now are.
Every Sunday after at least two of the Scripture readings, we say “Thanks be to God”.
- The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
- The Scripture can be reassuring or frightening but every time we say “Thanks be to God”
I’m convinced we do it here so that it becomes knee-jerk out there. God or bad, welcome or not, all of life is a gift from God. Thanks be to God. And we practice on Sunday and in times when there is no trial, because the world is unpredictable. Because someday we might be faced with trials.
- Do we really need a pope to remind us that the refugees have not stopped pouring out of Syria and we should extend a welcome?
- Do we really need an Earth Day (this Friday is the 46th such day) to remind us of the reality of patterns of systemic global destruction, which will be felt by all but which harm the poorest of this planet first, most, and fastest?
There are trials. And what we have been practicing here each Sunday are the habits that will help us through trials.
- it is precisely for when we are tempted to turn to rage or vindictiveness,
- when we wish to walk away from the demands that are made of us,
- when everything in us cries out to protect our selves and let others fall by the way, that we need the words of Christ.
- that we need those habits in place
In the novel Jane Eyre, Jane learns on her wedding day at the altar that Mr. Rochester is already married to another woman. When the day has broken up in horror, Rochester tries to persuade her to stay with him anyway and be his mistress.
- Jane, who has no family,
- no one else who loves her,
- and who loves Rochester with everything in her,
- is sorely tempted,
- but replies that she cannot, saying “Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent they are; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth? They have a worth — so I have always believed… this is all I have at this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot.”
When the early disciple Tabitha died, a community gathered around her: a community of people she had assisted with her good works and acts of charity. They testified to a lifetime spent in helping others.
The people in Revelation cry out, “Who is able to stand?” We have, now, our answer.
- Gathered around the throne of God are an incomprehensible multitude, from “every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages,” crying out in praise to our God.
- These are the ones who have been steadfast,
- who have lived with integrity,
- who have not given up or given in,
- from whom every tear is wiped away and who suffer no more … forever.
- And the very description of them — all tribes, all peoples, all languages — points out that God’s love is so much more comprehensive than our own.
- There is no person, no matter how small, who does not dwell in that love.
- There is no person, no matter how alien, who cannot become a beacon of hope.
- There is no danger on this earth that can tear us from the heart of God, if that is where we desire to live.
- For the Good Shepherd, even now, is guiding us to springs of the water of life.
- In him, we are able to stand, come what may.