I’m a great fan of Sesame Street. The generation after mine in the Funston family, my niece Saskia, my nephew York, and my own children, Patrick and Caitlin, grew up with that show and it taught them a lot of good things. The show taught my kids literacy, counting, simple logic, and social skills. It did so using a rapid-fire mix of puppetry, animation, and short films. Created in 1969, “it was designed to deliberately mimic the fast pace and style of TV advertising in order to ‘sell’ learning to kids: An Aesop-friendly story featuring the recurring characters on the Street would be intercut with rapid-fire ‘commercials’ for that day’s ‘sponsors’ (‘Sesame Street has been brought to you today by the letters A and S, and the number 7…’).”
Always, it was sponsored by two letters and a number. I thought about starting this sermon that way: “Today’s sermon is brought to you by the letters A and R, and the number 15.” But if I did that, you’d think I was going to, again, preach about guns and mass murder and the killing of children.
Well, you wouldn’t be wrong . . . but you wouldn’t be right, either.
(Note: This essay began as a Facebook post, but I thought I would put it here, too.)
Let’s get something straight. “Thoughts and prayers” don’t solve; they salve. “Thoughts and prayers” are not salutary; they are palliative. “Thoughts and prayers” don’t provide a cure; they provide comfort.
“Thoughts and prayers” are all well and good, but they are not an end in themselves. “Thoughts and prayers” must lead to actions or they are simply meaningless futility. “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. . . .[F]aith apart from works is barren . . . [F]aith without works is also dead.” (James 2:18-20,26)
So we once again find ourselves at the beginning of Lent, this Day of Ashes on which we are marked with a sign of death, grief, and penance, and encouraged to enter into a time of fasting, a time of “giving up.” What are you giving up for Lent? We have all heard that question; we have probably asked it of others.
Noting the coincidence of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day (something that apparently hasn’t happened for more than 70 years), Episcopal priest and cartoonist Jay Sidebotham recently offered some combined greeting cards for the day. Making light of the “giving up” aspect of Lent, one of Sidebotham’s mock cards reads:
Roses are red;
Violets are blue;
Lent is beginning;
No chocolate for you!
Preachers often focus on Peter’s unthinking outburst offering to make three dwellings for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses on the mountain of the Transfiguration. Such booths would concretize his all-to-human desire to experience continually the radiance of God. Life, however, is not like that; it’s not all mountaintop highs. Life is full of ups and downs, both high mountaintops and low valleys.
My favorite artistic depiction of the Transfiguration is that by the High Renaissance painter Raphael. The top of Raphael’s painting portrays the glory and radiance described by the Evangelists Mark, Matthew, and Luke on the mountaintop, while the bottom shows what’s happening down below, what our lectionary reading leaves out. If we read further in Mark’s Gospel we find (as Paul Harvey might have said) the rest of the story:
Listen to the word that God has spoken;
Listen to the One who is close at hand;
Listen to the voice that began creation;
Listen even if you don’t understand.
At the winter convocation this weekend our music keynoter, Ana Hernandez, taught us those words as a tract to chant before the reading of the Gospel. As we chanted them, I could not help but remember the first words of our lesson from the prophet Isaiah this morning, the pleading questions:
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is easy to read those questions, asked (says the Prophet) by God of God’s people, in what I call “the voice of parental frustration.” All of us who are parents have used that voice; all of us who are children have heard that voice. The people of God have heard that voice for centuries; it is the voice of what G.K. Chesterton called “the furious love of God.” It is the voice of what the often-maligned conservative Christian author Eric Metaxas once called “a love that pursues even when the pursued is hurling insults at the pursuer.” I suspect that a lot of parents have known that feeling, the feeling of being insulted by the one we love unconditionally.
You all know the truth of the statement, “You can’t take it with you.” What you may not know is that that sentiment is straight out of the New Testament! St. Paul, writing to the young new bishop Timothy, says, “We brought nothing into the world – it is certain that we can take nothing out of it.” Once upon a time a man who died was given a dispensation from this truth. Before his death he was given a very special suitcase into which he could put one thing to bring with him to heaven. He gave it a lot of thought and over a period of years, as he led a successful life, he made his final decision and loaded up his suitcase. He put it under his bed waiting for that last day. When he finally died, he showed up at the Pearly Gates carrying his special suitcase with his one important thing. Word spread through heaven and all the angels gathered around him wanting to know what he had brought. So he knelt down and, with great flourish, opened the valise to reveal bright shining bricks of gold. The angels were stunned; they just stood there, staring silently at the man and at his suitcase. Finally, Michael Archangel, the commander of God’s army and spokesman for the angels, in a disappointed and incredulous tone of voice asked, “Pavement? You brought pavement?”
“The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.” So said Moses in his farewell address to the Hebrews, to those who were about to enter the Promised Land and begin to become the nation of Israel. As that nation grew and developed it was ruled by tribal leaders and “judges,” by military leaders and priests, by kings (who were occasionally themselves ruled by queens), some of whom were mostly good and others of whom were mostly not-so-good. Throughout all that time, God raised upon not merely “a prophet,” but many prophets: Samuel, Ezekiel, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Hosea, Amos, and many, many others.
And there were others who claimed to be prophets but turned out to be either false prophets or prophets of other gods. These were the ones of whom God decreed through Moses, “Any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die.” The Hebrew Scriptures tell us of some of these prophets and their deaths: I think particularly of the 450 prophets of Ba’al who served Queen Jezebel with whom Elijah did battle. When their god failed them the people rose up at Elijah’s bidding and killed them.
A couple of months ago, I was part of a conversation among several parishioners about the set-up for our celebrations of the Nativity. We looking at our plans for Christmas services, and a member of our altar guild exclaimed, “That’s the problem! Things are always changing around here!”
A few days later at the November vestry meeting, as we were discussing our preliminary work on the 2018 budget and looking over the church’s calendar for the coming year, one of our vestry persons expressed some frustration saying, “That’s the problem! Nothing ever changes around here!”
Before I offer my homily this morning, I want to say something about a verse I have chosen not to address. Nathanael asks, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Many of my clergy colleagues this week have made note of the question the president has been quoted as asking about Haiti and other countries, and they have chosen to focus their sermons this morning on issues of immigration. I have not; I had already chosen my focus verse for today and decided not to make any change. Nonetheless, I want join my colleagues in pointing out that in the First Century, the hometown of our Lord and Savior was regarded in much the same way that Mr. Trump is said to have considered the countries of the Caribbean, of Latin America, and of Africa. Can anything good come from such places? I encourage you in your prayerful meditations on the Gospel, regardless of how you may feel about the president, about his immigration policies, or his alleged remarks, to remember Nathanael’s question and the answer that has echoed through the centuries.
Why do we do this? Why do we gather when a loved one dies and hold assemblies like this? Most human beings believe that death is not the end of the person who has passed away. Except for the few human beings who really strongly subscribe to an atheist philosophy, and they truly are a minority of our race, everyone on earth belongs to some faith group which teaches that we continue on, whether it is by reincarnation or in the Elysian Fields or the happy hunting grounds, as a guiding ancestral spirit or at rest in the presence of our Lord. So why do we do this?