Amos 6:1a, 4-7
1 Timothy 6:6-19
First, let me just say thank you to James Noyes, who created the liturgy to celebrate this equinox, and to all the folks in the Equinox Liturgy Band. I think this is the largest group I’ve seen, and it’s great to see lots of new faces in this collaboration. And thanks to all of you for singing along with this liturgy. It’s good to participate as much as you can in the liturgy, and, of course, it’s good if the liturgy lends itself to participation. The word ‘liturgy’ actually means work of the people—your work of prayer and praise and thanksgiving and song. It’s an interesting thing, though because the only reason we do that work is because we believe God shows up here among us. We pray and praise and give thanks and sing because we hope against hope, we trust against signs to the contrary that God is here. And God is here—the proclamation of the word points to Christ, the Spirit has gathered us to encounter Christ in the Sacraments. When we come here, we look to the one who gives us life that is really life: life that cannot be swept away in a stock market crash, life that cannot vanish when you bet it all on black but it comes up red, life that cannot be counted, but only given.
This, I think, is a disturbing result of fear and faith. Marilynne Robinson has written about the gun violence epidemic in our nation, and says that we have become a nation of fear. It is a peculiar state for a Christian nation. “Fear,” she says, “is not a Christian habit of mind.” I wonder about fear—I wonder if instead of fear, we are a faithful people, people who have put their faith in weapons to keep us safe. Another way of saying this is that we have put our trust in the power of death to keep death at bay. And that faith, faith in death, does not make us braver, more responsible, more confident. Faith in death makes us more afraid. And this is logical, because if your faith is death, all you can do to your neighbor, ultimately, is kill him. The fruits of the power of death are fear and death. That is all death can do. It is not the life that is really life.
Sometimes I have a habit of waxing political up here, and I’m going to try hard not to do that today, because we are in church. We are in the middle of the liturgy. And one of my favorite theologians has said, “The politics of the church is to be the church.” By that I think he means that our task, not only when we are gathered here, but also when we are dispersed into the world, is to live by putting our faith in the life that is really life: the risen life of Jesus Christ that was given to us in baptism.
Our lives, if we want to feel combative about it, are fighting the good fight of faith in Christ Jesus. This means we shun greed and wealth, that we give what we have to serve others. Look at what 1 Timothy says: “But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.” The first task of the church is to be the church; see how in this passage, the godly person has made confession of faith in the presence of witnesses. This is the same thing we do when we are baptized here, or when we affirm our baptism at the Easter Vigil after Wayfarers, or at Confirmation, or any other time. God has called us here, to this liturgy, to do the work of the people of God, which is righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fear is not a Christian habit of mind; compassion is. Faith in death is not a Christian habit of mind; trust in life is. When we take hold of the life that is really life, we become people of open hearts, open hands, open minds, open because we rest on the death-destroying life of the risen Christ Jesus.
This past week the President was interviewed by Doris Kearns Goodwin, one of LBJ’s speechwriters and also the author of Team of Rivals, a history of Lincoln and his cabinet. Obama talked about how, as he was rising in political office, struggled between vanity and the desire for recognition and the call to service. And he recalled a trip to Egypt, a special visit to the pyramids. He said, “I still remember it—because I hadn’t been president that long at that point—thinking to myself, There were a lot of people during the period when these pyramids were built who thought they were really important. And there was the equivalent of cable news and television and newspapers and Twitter and people anguishing over their relative popularity or position at any given time. And now it’s all just covered in dust and sand. And all that people know [today] are the pyramids.”
There, in the tombs, were the remnants of people just as obsessed with status as we are, gossiping, plotting, planning. But all that remains are the pyramids. Their lives are gone. And, if you think about it, something else came out of Egypt—the Hebrew people, who live still, and from whom came the Messiah, Jesus Christ, who himself came from the backwards end of Israel, a day laborer and sometime teacher. The builders of the pyramids did not last; but their slaves did, and they held on to the promise of God, trusting in the life that was really life.
The aim of the liturgy, of our encounter with scripture, of our time spent on Sunday mornings, of our time spent in a quiet place in prayer, is to help our love for God and our trust in God grow, so that God shapes us. What we trust, we will serve, and if we refashion God in to a gunslinger, or the approver of gunslinging, we will find that we worship death, and that we will be shaped by death. Our end will be death, and our path there fear. But if we shun these things, if we master our wealth and remove from ourselves, we will find we have nothing to fall back on but the promises of God. And then we will see how God opens life to us—opens our lives like a book, a living love story.
Still, there is a warning in the Gospel that we should heed. At the end, when Lazarus pleads to Abraham to tell his brothers what awaits them, Abraham says, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” This is the power of death—it makes us despair that the resurrection could happen. It separates us from our trust in Christ. And we should know, that as the church, people who believe in the resurrection, our faith will often seem shallow, misguided, and even stupid to a culture and world that trusts in the power of death. The liturgy seems, for some, like a waste of time, prayer just meditation in another name, the Bible an antiquated curiosity. Our task is still the same: gentleness, invitation, compassion, forgiveness, the shunning of despair and fear. The Spirit of God testifies through our habits of mind and life to this world that groans under the fear of death, to say to it: you do not have to fear your neighbor. You do not have to believe that death is the only way. Instead, join us. Believe in life. Amen.
Reverend John Flack