Sunday, November 14, 2021

Things Cast Down Being Made New: A Sermon for Proper 28B at Christ the King, Valdosta

 Christ the King Episcopal Church needs prayers. 

They are in the midst of lots of transitions. Their founding rector, the Rev. Stan White, died last year right before Christmas at the time when churches were still navigating how to do their services in the middle of a viral pandemic of catastrophic proportions. The person brought in to steady the ship is my supervising priest and one-time spiritual director, the Rev. Galen Mirate. She was raised up from that congregation and has known them for at least two decades. In the time that she has been with CtK this year, she has steered them through the rough waters of letting go of their old building and moving into another downtown space. She's also had to break the bad news to them that their annual audit uncovered the need for them to tighten up their processes and procedures. 

The Sunday she shared that news I was the scheduled preacher. 

Today, she laid on the assembly at their new dual services of 10am and 2pm the fact that, on December 31st, she is going to say "Good-bye" to them. She has accepted the call to be the Rector of St. Paul's Albany. Albany is not that far, by Georgia standards, from Valdosta. But it is also not CtK. 

And, again, I was the scheduled preacher for the days this news was being delivered to the people. 

Mind you, there is also still a world in which the defense lawyer for the killers of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, GA, apparently complained about "too many black preachers" being in the courtroom (Arbery was the young black man chased and then gunned down by three white men back in February). So there's just lots of stuff swirling in the air. 

And I was called on to preach. And the text was the start of the "little apocalypse" speech from Mark this case vv 1-8. 

Below is the written form of my sermon. I actually did quite a bit of ad libbing at the start. I have also included the repeat I did of the Collect of the Day at the 10am service. That was my prayer in tribute to the memory of one of my most favorite priests, Fr. Lee Graham of St. John's Tallahassee. Fr. Lee always used these words as his prayer before he preached at the 12:10 Friday services. And he is a priest who endured many challenges in his career, beginning with coming to terms with his own prejudices as a white Southern man from Gainesville who was called to be a priest in Alabama during the early 1960s. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s campaign for civil rights left an indelible mark on Fr. Lee as he stood up to the white supremacist culture at that time. 

On a Sunday when I was so aware of all that was "out there" in the room, I needed the comfort of this least for the morning service. 


Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for
our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn,
and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever
hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have
given us in our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

 Listening to the start of today’s Gospel…I have to wonder if the disciples are EVER going to “get it.”

It seems as if every time I have preached here…the disciples are saying something that reveals how clueless they are.

Today we hear one of them saying, “Wow, Teacher! What big stones and large buildings!”

And I want to say, “All the better to distract you with, my dear!”

To be sure…the Temple in Jerusalem was apparently quite impressive. The stones were really about the size of a Toyota Prius…and this grand structure…which had already been destroyed once in history…was only half-finished at the time that Mark was writing this Gospel.

This brief exchange about the tearing down of the Temple has often been seen as an analogy about Jesus’ own human body, and how his physical body is about to be brutalized and destroyed in the crucifixion.

But there’s even more going on in this passage. The community who would have first heard this Gospel in First Century Palestine was in midst of a massive upheaval…and civil strife.

Non-Jewish foreigners had started moving into areas set aside for the Jews, which led to ugly clashes between the two groups. And the Jewish community was locked in a bitter struggle with each other over how to deal with their Roman oppressors.

There were several people running around Jerusalem claiming to be the Messiah. And some of those Messiahs were agitating and insisting on taking up arms to overthrow the Empire.

If I didn’t know better, I’d say that the culture wars of the First Century sound a little bit like our own, don’t they?

And becoming fixated on the building…it’s size, it’s magnificence…helps to distract from what is the central mission of Jesus, a mission that is going to lead to conflict with the ruling class.

This passage…sometimes called the “little apocalypse”…all sounds pretty doomsday.

Wars, rumors of wars, famine.

Things are falling apart.

The world…as they know it…is about to be rocked by earthquakes (there actually was one that hit in that region of the world).

This great huge temple…the center of their worship…and a place of pilgrimage…is going to be destroyed…again.

And even in the middle of all this chaos…Jesus’ message is not so much, “Don’t worry, be happy,” but more “don’t worry, because something new is coming.”

Maybe it’s because I’m slowly starting to put my mind to planning my ordination service, but the phrase, “things that were cast down are being raised up” has been rattling around in my brain and seems to be fitting for this particular reading…and especially at this time for our congregation.

I mean, here we are, in a building that’s not quite finished.

When folks have asked me if Christ the King has moved into its new building, I happily respond “Yes!”

When they ask what’s it like, I respond cheerfully, “It’s rustic!”

The building can become a fixation, but there is more to the life of this parish than whatever issues might be going on with the construction.

This is a time when we are moving from all things that have been familiar into lots of new…and unchartered waters.

There are two basic lessons of hope that I think might mitigate for all the talk of destruction in this passage.

The first is that Jesus is not one of those “Messiah” figures calling for a war with the Roman Empire.

It’s not that Jesus is down with the oppression. He definitely is not.

But the revolution Jesus is leading is not one fought with swords. He’s looking for the deeper more lasting change of hearts and minds. The new thing he has in mind will not happen by brute force, but by steadfast compassion. And in many ways, that’s a lot more dangerous to those wanting to maintain the status quo. It’s easier for an Empire to squash a rebellion that’s led with clubs and spears than one of the Spirit based in thoughts and ideas.

The other lesson I think we can draw out of this Gospel passage is contained in the last sentence:

“This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”

When we think about birth pangs…we get a sense of the intensity of sensation a woman experiences in labor…and the fear associated with childbirth. It’s not a given that a woman will survive giving birth. And this is serving as the metaphor for what happens during times of unrest in the world.

There is the pushing and struggling and stretching open as the world enters into the white-knuckled strain of giving up on old ways, outdated beliefs to make room for what is new. There is resistance to the changes that are coming…just as Jesus’ Love Revolution faced opposition. But when change is a comin’, it comes with abundance and you cannot push it back.

Once the world has moved through the topsy-turvy toil of labor…with all the huffing and puffing and gritting of teeth…new life emerges.

A calm descends.

Breathing is easier.

The tears shed are part relief, part joy, part exhaustion.

Life is now ready to journey on in a new way, and a new path.

And there is great rejoicing!

The difficulties we encounter through all those birth pangs aren’t necessarily forgotten, but they aren’t a punishment.

It’s a period of refinement and preparation for becoming something even better than what had existed before.

Change is not easy, but just as giving birth results in that breathtaking moment of a new life realized into the world…we can’t lose sight of the fact that the things being cast down now are being made into something new. There is good at the other end of this struggle.

The trick is for us not to get discouraged or give up in the midst of all this change.

God is still present.

May we keep hope for the future even when things might feel strange or unfinished and out-of-sorts.

And now let the church say, “Amen.”


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