Proper 28C November 12, 2016
As we come toward the beginning of a new church year – Advent Sunday in two weeks - we hear Isaiah’s vision of the new creation – “new heavens and a new earth - Jerusalem a joy; its people a delight.” In the canticle in place of the psalm Isaiah reminds us, “Surely, it is God who saves me; I will trust in him and not be afraid. For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense, and he will be my Savior.” In the Gospel Jesus tells the disciples about the end time, assuring us, “not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.” Many of the hairs of my head have in fact perished, but for all who continue in faith, by his death and resurrection Jesus opens the gates of heaven – today and forever – until he comes again in the new creation.
In the meantime, as St. Paul told the church in Thessalonica, we are do our “work quietly and to earn our own living. Brothers and sisters do not be weary in doing what is right.” “By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
We begin today with the collect about the importance of Holy Scripture in our lives and in the life of the church. We feed our souls on “God’s word written.” The idea of eating the word of God is from Jeremiah 15:16, Ezekiel 3:3, and from the Revelation to St. John 10:10, “I took the little book out of the angel's hand, and ate it up; and it was in my mouth sweet as honey.” Anglicans believe the Holy Scriptures are the Word of God and contain all things necessary to salvation. Our doctrine is contained in, or can be proved by, Holy Scripture. And we pray for grace “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, given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.”
The Book of the Prophet Isaiah might be called the Book of the Prophets Isaiah. Its writings span 200 years. The first 39 chapters (including our Canticle) were written before 586 Before Christ when Jerusalem was captured, the first Temple destroyed, and many people sent into exile in Babylon The next 15 chapters were written to the exiles, and the last 10 chapters were written after 515 BC when some of the exiles had returned to rebuild the Temple. Times were tough. The descendants of the exiles – old children, middle-aged grandchildren and young great-grandchildren – engaged in continuing conflict with the descendants of those who had remained and with the immigrants of the past 70 years.
They needed the assurance that God was doing in and through them “a new thing.” The new Jerusalem would be healthy. “No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime.” The new Jerusalem would be secure. “They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. . . . They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord--and their descendants as well.” The new Jerusalem would be holy. “Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent-- its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.”
The returned exile were strengthened and empowered by Isaiah’s vision of the new Jerusalem. They endured the hardships of their return, of political control by Persia, then Alexander and the generals who succeeded him, then a time of independence, and in Jesus’ time Roman military occupation. But there were constant small scale revolts, and 40 years after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection – 70 AD - in a major revolt the second temple built by the returned exiles of Isaiah 56 was destroyed never to be rebuilt.
All the gospels were written down after the destruction of the temple. The early Christians remembered Jesus’ prediction of the persecutions many had experienced. Christians had been arrested, had been handed over to synagogues and prisons, had been brought before kings and governors because of Jesus’ name. They had been given “opportunity to testify.” Some had been “betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and” some had even been put death.” They took comfort in Jesus’ prophecy, “not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
In our political life, for almost two years we have endured a long, nasty, campaign. We have finally elected a president and others to serve in offices of public trust. Some of us are happy about the results; some are not. As practical endurance, I offer this for all who suffer loss.
In 1969 Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wrote Death and Dying. She introduced a model of emotional reactions to diagnoses of terminal illness and other forms of personal loss. Let’s review. Five stages: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and finally some degree of Acceptance.
The model helps us deal with feelings of loss. The stages of grief are not easy or time-limited. We frequently cycle back and forth through the stages. The original form relates to a diagnosis of terminal illness.
The first reaction is Denial. Somehow the diagnosis is mistaken. We cling to a false, preferable reality.
The second is Anger. – We become frustrated, especially at people near us. We say things like, “Why me? It's not fair! How can this happen to me?; Who is to blame?; Why would this happen?” Sometimes we are angry with God. “How could a good and loving God let this happen?” It is OK to be angry with God. God can take it.
The third is Bargaining. We hope to avoid the cause of grief. We try to negotiate for longer life and reformed lifestyle. Many of us have prayed, “Dear God, get me out of this mess and I’ll never do it again.” A Holy Cross church in Chicago recently posted this ad: “You made promises in the bottom of the 9th inning. Redeem them Sunday at Holy Cross.”
The fourth is Depression. “I'm so sad, why bother with anything? I'm going to die soon, so what's the point?; "I miss my loved one, why go on?” We despair as we recognize we are going to die. We may become silent, refuse visitors and spend much of the time being mournful and sullen.
The fifth stage is called Acceptance. We think or say things like, “It's going to be okay; I can't fight it, I may as well prepare for it.” In this we come to embrace the inevitable future - our death, or other tragic event. People who are dying may come to this conclusion before others do. Acceptance brings feelings of calm and peace and stability.
We all suffer loses in our lives. The spiritual and emotional danger is getting stuck in one of these stages of grief. I recognize that for some of my losses I am still stuck in anger. I think I see that anger expressed in some of the emotional reactions to the recent election. I know I need to move on. But telling me that doesn’t help.
The God who made me made all of me – body, soul, emotions, spirit. God the Holy Spirit is at work in me – and in all of us. He will help me work through my feelings; he will help me get unstuck and move on. He will help us all if we ask him to.
We are all sinners saved by grace. We are all called to exercise the Christian grace of humility in all areas of our life. And Jesus calls us in today’s gospel to endure. Endure comes from the Latin word for hard. We do the hard things for Jesus’ sake, in Jesus’ strength, to help accomplish Jesus’ will in the world he has redeemed by his death and resurrection.
As St. Paul wrote the church at Philippi, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” And as St. Paul told the church in Thessalonica, we are do our “work quietly and to earn our own living. Brothers and sisters do not be weary in doing what is right.” “By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
When I was a boy I had a card in the corner of my bathroom mirror - by an unknown author: “Why were the saints, saints? Because they were cheerful when it was difficult to be cheerful,
patient when it was difficult to be patient;
and because they pushed on when they wanted to stand still, and kept silent when they wanted to talk,
and were agreeable when they wanted to be disagreeable.
That was all. It was quite simple and always will be.”
I’ve lost the card, but the thought remains. “By your endurance you will gain your souls.”