Monday, November 14, 2022

Head Up. Hear Open. To Better Days!


Proper 29 / Year C

Lue 21:5-19

This morning’s readings take us on a wild rollercoaster-like ride of highs and lows – from promises of restoration and long-life to warnings of imminent destruction and persecution.  Of these two visions we might want to ask, well, which will it be: the best of times or the worst of times?  The answer is both.  Life is rift with harsh realities, but there is always something hopeful which lies beyond.  Our readings direct our attention to this Gospel hope.

It is about 33 AD when Jesus makes his startling claim about the future destruction of the Temple.  By the time Luke writes down Jesus’ words some four decades later, it has come to pass.  The Roman army has sacked Jerusalem and torn down the spiritual and political center of Jewish life.  Christians, who initially functioned as a subset within Judaism, now are being persecuted for their faith.  It is the worst of times.

Isaiah writes some 600 years earlier to a people living in exile.  They too have seen their Temple destroyed – this time by the Babylonians.  Jerusalem is ruins and, of those not killed, everyone with any value has been forced from their homeland to live in servitude in Babylon.  But some time has passed, again about 40 years, and a new thing is about to happen.  An army from Persia is defeating the Babylonians and with each liberated city exiles are allowed to return home.  Isaiah foresees the best of times on the horizon.

So, our rollercoaster readings take us from destruction to restoration.  Did you notice what connects the two experiences?  It is the last thing Jesus says in today’s readings, “By your endurance you will gain your souls.”  While we cannot avoid the worst life throws at us, there is a possibility we will be transformed by these experiences. 

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote he wished for all he cared about “suffering, desolation, ill-treatment, [and] indignities” because he believed the only way to know what a person is worth is to observe how he or she endures.  Well, I would never wish adversity for anyone, but I do recognize how these experiences in my own life have developed capacities and characteristics I could have received in no other way.

The Rev. Sam Wells is a visiting professor in Christian Ethics from Kings College in London.  Earlier this year he spoke to people at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Vestavia Hills, Alabama.  Four months later, on June 16, a gunman opened fire at an event in the Parish Hall and killed three parishioners before being subdued.  Four months after this devastating incident, Wells returned to help the people of St. Stephen’s make sense of what they have experienced. 

Wells highlighted four words which he believes describes how this tragedy has affected the people of the congregation:

·       Powerlessness – the realization we are vulnerable and, while some measures can be put in place, nothing can ensure our safety. 

·       Violation – what happened goes against everything the community holds dear.

·       Humiliation – becoming the people everyone pities or wants to avoid because they don’t know what to say.

·       Wells says, “Once these dramatic storm clouds have begun to separate just a little, what abides is a profound sadness” – the forth word.

He went on to make a distinction between the words hurt and damage:

When someone has been murdered, there’s the grief, fear, dismay, anger and harrowing loss among those left behind.  That’s the hurt, and, while it’s profound, permanent, and powerful, it can over time begin to find a place among other hurts in one’s own life and in the world.  But there’s also the physical reality of a person no longer being alive.  That’s something no one can do a single thing to change.  It’s unalterable. That’s the damage.

When it comes to hurt, he says, healing can happen, but depending on the severity of the wound, may take a long time.  The notion of healing is not an appropriate or helpful when applied to damage.  No amount of healing will bring back to life three dear souls who were killed.  Still, Wells suggests horror can turn into wisdom:

A broken limb can heal; a severed limb can’t.   That doesn’t mean we have to be stuck forever…  We need to recognise, painfully and slowly, but soberly, honestly and realistically, what can change and what can’t, and put our energies towards where transformation can still occur, ghastly as this situation is and will in many senses always remain.

Wells finished his talk with these words:

My real prayer is that [you], like Martha and Mary, will see the glory of God.  I pray that [you] will one day look back on this time as a season when [you] were most fully alive, more grateful than ever before for the birds that chirrup each morning, the taste of water or milk or cornbread, the wonder of having been born; that [you] will be in this time closer to [your] family and friends than ever before, able to express affections and articulate sentiments [you’d] never previously found ways to share; that [you’d] feel God’s presence in a wholly new way, that [you’d] recognise [yourself] as God’s child, created for God’s enjoyment, fulfilled in enjoying God in return…  A disaster or terrible setback can be the beginning of something wonderful, good and true, and not just… the end of all hopes, dreams and plans.

In all of this I hear the words of Jesus, “By your endurance you will gain your souls.”    

Orson F. Whitney, a 20th century leader in the Church of Ladder-day Saints, said this:

No pain that we suffer, no trial that we experience is wasted.  It ministers to our education, to the development of such qualities as patience, faith, fortitude and humility.  All that we suffer and all that we endure, especially when we endure it patiently, builds up our characters, purifies our hearts, expands our souls, and makes us more tender and charitable, more worthy to be called the children of God.

T.J. Hodge, author of the book From Within I Rise, has developed a saying which has grown in him through all he has endured in life.   He lives his life based on this simple motto: “Head up.  Heart open.  To better days.”  I invite you to ponder this wisdom and to consider how your endurance through tough times has helped you to gain you soul.