All posts by tdd42

Advent 1 Sermon

Hello all! Because our service this week was reformatted to House Church, and because I didn’t deliver the sermon I wrote I wanted to share it here. For those who were at the House Church service this past Sunday: perhaps this will add some clarity to the meandering thoughts I shared then, too!

Sermon – ECC-Epiphany – 12.1.19
Advent 1 – Year A

Matthew 24:36-44

Jesus said to the disciples, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Welcome to the season of Advent. Welcome, also, to a new Church year.

It’s interesting to me that this passage is the first Gospel we read in the new liturgical year. It’s one with deep roots in our region’s history, my own personal history, and also in my imagination. In particular, the verses that read, “then two will be in a field one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.”

This bit of scripture has been used for purposes of terror. When preached and promulgated with enough conviction and energy, the idea that faithful and holy living are necessary not simply for the sake of a good life in the here and now – but because of impending rapture, because of impending apocalypse, and to ensure the fate of our eternal souls – has been enough to scare generations of people into conformity.

In the 19th century, this region of Central New York was known as the Burnt Over District, because of its peculiar susceptibility to new, often radical religious movements. It was said to be “burnt over” because the flames of holy furor, holy terror, afflicted communities like wildfire. By the time later proselytizers found their way to the region, they’d encounter towns that had already been swept up and spit out into multiple fiery new sects – and townspeople exhausted by failed predictions of the rapture, dubious for generations to come of anything smelling of religion, fire and brimstone.

The image of the two workers in the field; one taken, one left – was instrumental in these 19th century religious revivals. This is not to say that other pieces of scripture were not equally well-quoted when inspiring fear (and hope and fervor) into the hearts of converts, but I think it’s hard to overestimate the visceral power of this image.

Imagine going about your day – busy with whichever of the many mundane tasks that take up so much of our time – maybe reading in a group study area in the library or in line at the salad bar. In the blink of an eye – the person next to you is just gone. Or maybe you’re the one: vanished.

When I was in third grade, I had my own visceral encounter with this image. My brother and I had a baby-sitter from a nearby Baptist Seminary, called Gordon Conwell. Though Rich was a super-fun babysitter in many ways, taking us on lots of hikes and trips to the pool – he was also devoutly attached to the idea that only some people are welcomed into God’s eternal kingdom, while others are destined for… the bad place.

Even as a kid, this didn’t sit well with me. But even so, I’ll never forget the deep penetrating hold the image of the two workers in a field – holding their scythes in a field of yellow wheat – had on me when he told me. He was a good storyteller, and this was a frightening, vivid story. I started thinking about the rapture all the time. The idea that there was nothing I could do – that God simply saved some people and not others – was horrific.

But eventually, I also couldn’t help coming to the conclusion that under those circumstances – if God were so mean as to save me but not my brother, for instance, maybe it would be better to be the person left in the field. Would I want to be swept up into those everlasting arms? What would heaven be without my brother – the primary locus for my fiercest love throughout most of my life.

So, although I remain compelled by these images – they are literary in nature. And indeed, there’s a lot of good literature that plays with these ideas. [I for one, loved the HBO series that came out a few years ago, the Leftovers – not to be confused with the highly flawed Nicholas Cage 2014 vehicle, The Left Behind, based on a series of books of the same title.]

In any case, for our purposes as Christians living our lives here and now, I want to insist that the rapture should not be understood literally, but allegorically or figuratively. Don’t get me wrong – there is literal truth in them: the very real fear or awe the image of a neighbor in a library carrel disappearing from thin air inspires. This feeling, though, can help us feel the core of truth that this passage highlights: the allegorical truth – the parallel we can draw to our own world.

For instance, there’s no denying that some of us seem inexplicably lucky in our lives. Inexplicably healthy, well off, and loved. Inexplicably born into circumstances that provide us with an easier path through life than others have. Meanwhile, others of us seem inexplicably and unjustifiably far from this wellness and stability. Far from financially secure. Far from psychologically secure and stable. Far from safe. We might feel like we are destined to be “left behind” in the imaginary scenario set up in this Gospel. For all we do: God does not seem to summon us into the miraculous kingdom.

But I think this is a misreading. A misunderstanding of how God’s love works. A misinterpretation of what it means to watchfully await the Son of Man.

The good news in this gospel is not that we deserve our sense of security. That one farmer deserves rapture while the other must toil on. Or that others somehow have “earned” their sorrow or fear. That children born in some parts of the country or world are simply less “worthy” of God’s love than children born in other places because one group is almost certain to have more material resources than the other. That structural inequalities are just God’s will for some of us. That debt is God’s will for some of us. That mental or physical illness is simply God’s will for some of us.

No. The good news is that a loving savior (somewhat cryptically called the Son of Man) has not forgotten us. Has not forgotten those caught in a cycle of addition. Has not forgotten children exposed to lead in their water and in their homes. Has not forgotten those still grieving for loved ones who have died.

It’s easy to create a list of all the many unjust imbalances that make some seem “blessed” and others “cursed.” But through the interstices of all this lack, all this pain and suffering, and all the joy too, enters a God who understands us to our core, and who agrees with the voice within us who cries out: this is not fair. This is not right. And who promises us, even in ways that are currently beyond our grasp, a peace and love that cannot be contained by human-made injustice.

If only there were a simple way out of the cycle of cruelty and pain. The incarnation of Christ, which we anticipate in this season of Advent, and which this week’s passage foretells through the idea of the coming of the Son of Man, is one such way. It’s simple to say: God loves us so much that God became one of us.

But what this means, we can spend a lifetime deciphering. God suffered, so we are not alone in our suffering. God saw and loved and ate with and prayed with people cast off from the center of society. Poor people. Sick people.

And if there’s a denouement (a sequel) to this story of the farmers in the field, or the women at the mill in this Gospel passage: it’s that those who are “left behind” are the ones Christ is particularly concerned with. We who have not figured everything out. We who are sad. We who are in pain. We are waiting with hope, for the promise of love the Christ’s presence in our midst presents.

We wait for this. But we also have it already. We have it in community. We have it in breaking bread together. We have it in kindness toward one another. We have it in seeking help when we need it. We have it in the ear of a friend. We have it when we pray. We have it when we turn our attention to how we can be instruments of God’s peace: how we can, through our small but infinitely important lives, be part of the incarnation of Christ, making his dream of a world more just than the one he found, real. Little by little and person by person. One farmer in one field at a time.

Amen.

Hurricane Season

Providence by Natasha Trethewey

This poem, by former poet laureate Natasha Trethewey, is about Hurricane Camille, which made landfall some fifty years ago. As we enter another hurricane season and track the terrifying path of Dorian, the sentiments Trethewey’s poem communicates feel present and prescient. The poem’s meandering line breaks seem equally to map the unpredictable path of the storm – Camille traveled from Cuba to the Gulf Coast, up through St. Louis, then east through the Appalachian Mountains – and the pell-mell devastation it left in its wake.

In particular, the poem’s final stanzas speak to the truth that loss of land signifies much more than a loss of material property. Disasters like Camille and Dorian uproot families and homes, literally and figuratively. Even when no lives are lost, the social and economic upheaval leave people adrift:

in the flooded yard: no foundation
beneath us, nothing I could see
                          tying us                      to the land.
                          In the water, our reflection
                                                               trembled,
disappeared
when I bent to touch it.

 

Like water trembling and disappearing,  these catastrophes have the capacity to sweep away the “reflection” – the sense of self-determination, connection and identity – of the communities that called that place home. From Katrina to Harvey to Maria, this is a familiar story in the United States, as is the truth that vulnerable people are disproportionately harmed by these weather events.

As a community of faith, we are faced with the challenge of what to do, how to respond. Our prayer – our holy attention directed toward the people affected – is important. Arousing compassion through poetry is one means to engage this way. But also important is our commitment. Our commitment to educate ourselves on the structural factors such as racism and classism that make these events particularly catastrophic. And our commitment to  provide material support such as we can.

Here are some organizations collecting funds for hurricane relief:

Episcopal Relief and Development

Global Giving

With prayer,

Taylor+

 

Back to School 2019/20

Dear Friends,

Though its exact date varies from year to year, the first day of school has become a kind of secular holiday–complete with rituals, special costumes, and lots of companies trying to sell you stuff. I still remember the clench of dread and disbelief that would grip my stomach when I was a kid as soon as the “back to school” ads started appearing on television. How could summer be nearly over already? These reminders of the coming transition always felt cruel and premature.

Like many of us, as I got older, especially once I made it to college, my feelings about the transition from summer vacation to the academic year became a little less full of foreboding. And yet, even during the few years of my adult life that I haven’t spent as part of a school or university–I still felt the special tinge of sadness and expectation that I associate with this time of year.

"The Library of Babel" by Jorge Luis Borges, illustration by Erik Desmazieres
Back to the books. “The Library of Babel” by Jorge Luis Borges, illustration by Erik Desmazieres

Now, in  my role as Episcopal Chaplain I have cause to consider this first day of school feeling anew, using a different lens than that of an anxious student or teacher. Rather than seeing the transition from summer relaxation into scholarly busyness as a mere shift in activity and stress levels, I see it as a particularly lucid movement of the spirit–a call to notice changes and to trust in God.

For instance, at the start of a new school year we are uniquely able to look out on a span of time–the two semesters ahead of us–not just as minutes, hours, days, weeks, and months, but as a period of possibility. An envelope of time that we’ll always file in the same folder–2019/20–with its own cohort of as-yet-unknown people who will become important to us, decisions to be made, personal and global events that will be tragic or hopeful or groundbreaking, new foods to try and new memes to be forgotten, another Christmas, a new shirt we’ll keep until it disintegrates in twenty years, a new apartment or dormitory, a Lenten promise, a different and deepened relationship to God and our neighbor. In May, we’ll look back on this school year and say: I can’t believe all that happened. And now, here we are, poised on the edge of it. And with God’s help, we’ll make choices that reflect our love of him.

On the brink of all the possibilities of the new school year, I am particularly looking forward to worshiping with the Episcopal community once again, starting this Sunday at 5PM. The Eucharist is an event that changes very little and very radically, not just from year to year, but every time we gather to celebrate it. Christ’s gift of transformed life will always be available to all who seek it. And yet, as with all the other changes of the new school year, we will find that we have a particular relationship to holy communion as individuals and as the Episcopal Community at Cornell in 2019/20. I invite you to join me to begin to discover what God has in store for us on September 1 at 5PM in Anabel Taylor Chapel.

 

In Faith,

Taylor+