Pentecost 24 November 15, 2009

Daniel 12:1-3                                                                      

Hebrews 10:11-25                                                              

Mark 13:1-8

Life is strewn with unfinished projects: that tractor you bought off a neighbor and have been meaning to fix up for years but is still sitting behind the shed under a blue tarp; that sweater you started knitting for your daughter years ago which she could never fit into now. I conceived a wonderful project once: to write a kind of day book prayer journal. It was inspired by a New Age book someone showed me, but mine was going to be orthodox, working with the readings for daily Morning and Evening Prayer. I even had a publisher interested in it, but they wanted me to include a lot of collects and I was more interested in stimulating people to do their own praying. So that was the excuse for laying it aside.

When I was working on it though, I had a small focus group to whom I gave the drafts – a page for each day, with brief readings and sections of psalms, then space to jot down what came to people as they prayed with the texts. There was a young mother in the focus group, the wife of a successful businessman with two young kids, living in a nice house, singing in the church choir. She told me she couldn’t use the book because all the biblical readings were so grim. Particularly the psalms; they all seemed to be written by people in deep distress. It didn’t connect with her life, which was easy and happy, or with her experience in church, singing in the choir.

I think of that woman all the time, as I read and pray with those same texts every day in my Morning and Evening Prayer. What I wanted to tell her, but was not bold enough to do, was that if the Bible didn’t speak to her, maybe she was leading too easy a life. Maybe she needed to find some volunteer work at a homeless shelter or, instead of taking a cruise with her family for their vacation, go and work at an orphanage in Africa or Central America. Maybe instead of singing in the choir of our comfortable suburban church, she and her family should seek out a poor parish in the inner city and worship there.

You see, the Bible is written almost entirely “from the edge.” It’s written by and for people who were persecuted, poor, in danger, always faced with the imminence of death. The Bible is written to give people like that comfort, to give them courage. It is written to give them strength and guidance to live in this life. But it is also written to give them the assurance that this life is not all there is. Because if you are on the edge in this life, you need to be reminded that God has for you something more.

Actually, I think that young mother’s problem was not that her life was so comfortable, but that she didn’t want to look at it very deeply. Her businessman husband, who never came to church, later ran off with another woman.  But even if he hadn’t, even if their marriage had been a perfect one, just under the surface of the dance lessons and the soccer games and the choir rehearsals and all the household tasks that occupied their lives – just under the surface were things like global warming, economic injustice, a world waiting to explode – as it did on 9/11 just a few years later. For we don’t need to go to Africa or the inner city to find “the edge” of life. It’s all around us. We just close our eyes to it in order to survive from day to day.

Some of that is understandable. But not when it leaves us blind to reality, shuts out the suffering of others, closes off the depths of our own souls. And not when it leaves us disconnected from God. Last Sunday Anne and I worshiped in a grand and historic church in Newport, Rhode Island. Built in the early eighteenth century, it had box pews that originally belonged to families like the Vanderbilts and Astors, each upholstered by their owners in silk brocade and needlepoint. In the style of that era, when the sermon was the thing on Sunday and Communion celebrated only a few times a year, an enormous and beautiful pulpit occupied the center of the church. The altar, a modest table, was almost entirely hidden behind it, and even smaller, behind the altar, was a plain silver cross – overshadowed by huge and expensive floral arrangements.

It made me wonder what people thought their worship was all about. Where was the Body that had died upon the Cross, the “single sacrifice for sins” that the reading from Hebrews tells us about? The Body with its wounds – those wounds “the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain [of] his flesh”? Where was testimony to the cosmic battle between good and evil depicted in the Book of Daniel, St. Michael the Archangel, “the great prince, the protector of your people,” slaying the dragon Satan?

Anne and I were at the early service; only a dozen or two of us scattered about in those brocaded pews. Maybe there were more people at 10:00; I hope so. But I couldn’t help thinking that the days of churches like that one – “what large stones and what large buildings,” as the disciples said, gawking at the great temple in Jerusalem in the gospel passage we heard this morning – that the days of churches like that one are numbered. Not numbered because they will be torn down by persecutors. Numbered because they have nothing to do with the living God of Jesus Christ, nothing to do with the reality of the broken world outside them that their very elegance denies. “Beware that no one leads you astray,” Jesus says in the gospel. Well, we can be led astray, can’t we, when the critical importance of salvation is lost because a Church is too afraid of disturbing our comfort to proclaim the truth?

You and I have built a lovely building here – not a museum to a lifestyle but a house for living worship and a center serving our community. We have just concluded a gratifyingly successful pledge campaign. We have much to celebrate. But let our celebrations of that kind of thing always be secondary to our celebration of the thing that really matters: the death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Let us commit ourselves to live lives that proclaim the importance of him.

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