Give us faith to be steadfast…

Sometimes the assigned lessons for the day don’t seem readily connected to current events. And sometimes they do. This week happens to be one of the latter. We have readings from Daniel and Mark of apocalypse. Often we think of apocalypse as horror movie stuff. But actually, apocalypses were often written by and for people living through horror movie stuff. The apocalypse (or literally, revelation), was an attempt to reveal where God was still acting in spite of the trauma and grief all around them. So, may God give us faith to be steadfast…

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

“Give us faith to be steadfast amid the tumults of this world.” That is the plea from the Prayer of the Day. Give us faith to be steadfast amid the tumults of this world. The prayers of the day are meant to, for lack of a better word, summarize the main themes of our readings for the day. Their main purpose of course is prayer, us thanking and asking God for guidance, for help, for faith and reassurance. But the prayer of the day especially also helps us to center ourselves for worship, gives us hints about what is to come in our lessons.

“Give us faith to be steadfast amid the tumults of this world.” Our readings today deal with tumultuous times and events. Especially Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the Temple. It’s Holy Week in our story, and Jesus and his disciples have just exited the Temple, right after last week’s reading where they watched the scribes at their prayers, and the widow giving her offering.

And as they’re leaving the Temple, this unnamed disciple just can’t help sharing his awe and wonder at how impressive it all is. “What large stones and what large buildings!” he exclaims! I always get a little bit of a laugh out of this disciple, who sounds like such a country bumpkin. Also, hasn’t he been paying attention? Jesus has just been pointing out the ways that this impressive structure has been utterly failing to live up to its ideals and intentions. And here he is, distracted by its grandeur and size.

Jesus offers a swift rebuke: Don’t be distracted by things that have the mere appearance of greatness. But not only don’t be distracted, but be prepared, because the things that seem great, that seem eternal and unchangeable, they won’t always be that way. This temple will fall.

And the community that is first hearing Mark’s Gospel knows that only too well. By the time Mark written story is being spread around, the Temple has fallen. There has been a failed insurrection. Thousands upon thousands of Jewish rebels have been crucified by the Romans. And the Temple has been burned to its foundation stones. There is war, and there is great unrest. In the midst of all of this, hearing Jesus say, “Do not be alarmed at these things” must have seemed crazy.

“Give us faith to be steadfast amid the tumults of this world.” Those first-century hearers of this word are not the only ones living in tumultuous times. We can claim our fair share of that ourselves. Things that once seemed to be stable no longer feel that way. Sometimes it feels like the world is tearing apart at the seams. The wildfires in California are just the most recent, devastating example. Jesus’ words saying that these buildings, which we built to be long-lasting and secure will all be thrown down have an eerie and troubling ring. And on top of societal upheaval and unrest, we have our personal tumults. Events in our lives that turn everything upside down, that make it seem as if nothing will be right again.

And in the midst of all this, Jesus says: “Don’t be alarmed.” Don’t be alarmed, he says to his disciples on the precipice of cataclysmic change. Don’t be alarmed, he says to those first hearers of the gospel, living through war and destruction. Don’t be alarmed, he says to us, feeling adrift in the midst of large scale natural disasters, in the midst of hatred and violence feeling more present and threatening than ever. Don’t be alarmed in the midst of dealing with personal tragedy and grief.

Do not be alarmed. Put your trust, not in buildings that will crumble, not in humanmade structures that will fail, but put your trust in God. “Give us faith to be steadfast amid the tumults of this world.” Is a Christian to sit peaceful and calm while the whole world falls apart around them? By no means!

Jesus’ words are not meant to keep us from caring about the tumults we face, nor are they meant to prevent us from acting in response to them. They are a reminder that our hope is in something greater than this world’s struggles and tumults. That we live in joy and confidence, trusting the promise that the God who raised Jesus from the dead will also raise us, and will continuously bring new life out of death and destruction.

Do not be alarmed does not mean “do nothing.” As to how to live in the midst of tumult and uncertainty, we can turn to our reading from Hebrews. We’ve been reading from Hebrews for several weeks, and we’ve finally reached the crux of the argument. The “therefore.” Because we believe these things about God and about Jesus, “therefore.” Because we trust that God is always with us, because we believe that God is more powerful than hatred, than evil, than even death itself, therefore…

“Therefore,” Hebrews says, “let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” Provoke is usually a word we use to describe bad things. If we’ve done something we’re not proud of, we might say that we were provoked. But here, we’re asked to provoke one another to love. To provoke one another to care. To provoke one another to good deeds.

In the face of uncertainty, sometimes we don’t know how best to help. Sometimes we can feel powerless to actually accomplish anything, or feel like what we might offer is too small or too insignificant to make a difference.

But it’s not. Small things done with great love are not small things at all. Our stewardship theme this year is “Faith in Action.” When we put our faith in action, sometimes in small acts of love and kindness and generosity, we not only make a difference with that one act, but we provoke love and good deeds in others.

What do we do as Christians in the face of unrest and tumult? We don’t seek to ignore or escape, but rather we seek to provoke. Provoke this world and each other in the best way possible: to love and good deeds. Provoke one another to care for each other. Provoke one another to comfort each other in times of trial. Provoke one another to be passionate in seeking the best for our neighbors. Provoke one another to confront hatred and bigotry. Provoke one another care for God’s creation. Provoke one another to love like Jesus.

Almighty God, give us faith to be steadfast amid the tumults of this world, trusting that your kingdom comes and your will is done, and always provoking each other to love and good deeds. Amen.

Resurrection Right Now

All Saints’ has to be one of my favorite days in the church calendar. I’ve heard it described as “a little Easter in the middle of fall.” It is like a little Easter–but without all the extra tiredness that accompanies Holy Week. It is a chance to celebrate the resurrection and what that means in our lives and in the lives of those who have died. Often, we talk of God’s promises for “after we die.” But those promises ought to affect our lives right now, too.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Many of you know, from conversations in Bible Study and other places, that I’m not a huge fan of the King James Version of the Bible. It was written back in the seventeenth century, and, well, it sounds like it. I appreciate its beauty and its poetry, but sometimes I feel like that very beauty often obscures what the words are trying to get across.

But with this week’s gospel from John, I have to say the King James gets it right. When Jesus tells them to take away the stone from Lazarus’ tomb, instead of his sister Martha replying “already there is a stench,” in the King James, she simply blurts out, “But Lord, he stinketh!”

He stinketh! Truer words were never spoken. Death really stinks. It literally stinks, as bodies decompose. Martha would know this better than most, as she and her sister Mary were probably the ones who prepared Lazarus’ body for burial. They washed him, they wrapped him in his burial shroud. They knew what state his body was in. These are tasks we no longer do ourselves, leaving them to professionals.

But no matter how far we distance ourselves from the literal stench of death, we cannot escape the reality that death still stinks. Even if we don’t have to smell the body, death stinks. Losing ones that we love is painful and heartrending. Even if it’s what we call a “good death,” someone who lived a long life and died peacefully. It still stinks because they’re still gone. And when the death seems to just be wrong—sudden, unexpected, gone much too soon—well, then it really stinketh.

All Saints’ Day, a day when we remember all of the faithful departed, and especially remember those we loved who have died this past year, this a day to acknowledge the reality that death stinks. That death hurts. That in death we lose something very dear to us.

It’s okay for us to weep with Jesus. It’s okay for us to wish that it had been prevented, like Mary and Martha. It’s okay for us to feel blame, to feel anger, to feel resentment. It’s okay to grieve. There’s so many emotions in this story of the raising of Lazarus. Because grief brings out our most honest, most visceral feelings. And that is a part of what All Saints’ Day is about.

But All Saints’ is also about something more than grief. It is about more than just the reality of death. It is about the promise that right there in the midst of death, God is at work bringing new life. We mourn those who are lost to us, but we also celebrate that in God we have the final victory. That death does not get the last word.

All Saints’ Day is a day to be honest about the reality of death, but it is also a day to be honest about the reality of God’s promises. And those promises come right in the midst of the reality and pain of death. In these beautiful passages that we heard from Isaiah and Revelation, where they say that God will destroy the shroud that is cast over the people, that God will swallow up death forever, that tears will be wiped away, that death will be no more, that mourning and crying and pain will be no more, and that God will live in our very midst.

Both of these passages, with beautiful words of hope and reassurance and comfort, both of them were written in the middle of death and grief and tragedy. Isaiah was speaking to a people who had just been conquered, whose holy temple had been destroyed, whose loved ones were scattered to the winds or lying dead in the ground. And yet he speaks words of hope of the day when all peoples and nations shall come together.

The church that Revelation was written to was being persecuted by the Roman Empire. Everyday more of their companions were being killed for being Christian. It was not safe to be a member of the church. But John still writes of a day when all creation, all peoples, will be renewed, will be restored. John writes of God entering into this world of persecution, and brokenness, and pain to bring new life.

Our world is full of death. Some of it, we experience on a personal level, those people whose lives have touched ours, that we now no longer have. But death hangs over us all, as we live in a world that seems guided more by hate and by fear than by love. Every day people seek to use fear and hate to divide us, to demonize other human beings, and to justify inconceivable acts. We do not have to look far or hard to find the stench of death.

But Jesus interrupts death with a word of life. He says to Lazarus, “Come out.” Come out of the tomb, and he says to the community to release him from the very shroud of death. Isaiah and Revelation they interrupt the death and destruction all around them to say that there is something more than this. That God is stronger than even this.

God’s promise of resurrection does not mean that we can deny the reality of death. But it does grant us the power to defy it. To defy death’s ability to overshadow and distort our lives. To defy death’s threat there is nothing else, no other way of being. Death does not get the last word. And we do not have to wait to live as resurrected people. God’s promises of life, of comfort, of all creation being renewed, they are for the here and now.

Isaiah and Revelation and even Jesus offer us visions of what will be. But they are visions that we cling to as God’s promise for us, right now, not someday. Right now God calls us from our tombs of darkness and fear to be renewed people. In Christ we see the God who is victor over death, and we are able to live as though the eternal were right now. Because in life and in death, we belong to God. We live as resurrected people right now. We live as people who hold to God’s promises of life, right now. We live as gift to a world that desperately needs to hear that death doesn’t get the last word, that death does not win.

I will leave you on this All Saints’ Sunday with a poem by theologian Jan Richardson:

So may we know
the hope
that is not just
for someday
but for this day–
here, now,
in this moment
that opens to us:

hope not made
of wishes
but of substance,
hope made of sinew
and muscle
and bone,

hope that has breath
and a beating heart,
hope that will not
keep quiet
and be polite,
hope that knows
how to holler
when it is called for,

hope that knows
how to sing
when there seems
little cause,
hope that raises us
from the dead–

not someday
but this day,
every day,
again and
again and