Saturday, November 20, 2010

Tales of a Country Parson, Vol. VI

I've been thinking a lot about death lately, since there's been so much of it around my part of the world.  I myself have conducted 4 funerals in the not-even-three months that I've been here, and there have been 2 others that have taken place in my church building but that I wasn't responsible for leading/preaching.  There were another 4 or 5 over the summer, too, before I got here.  Part of what has made these deaths so hard is that they haven't all been the 90-year-old grandma who's been in the nursing home for 10 years and finally dies peacefully.  No, a lot of them have been younger people dying of cancer or other freak things, and that's harder on people too. 

Frankly, I'm getting sick of it, and so is my congregation.  Last week as I was chewing over the "end-of-the-world" texts in the lectionary, and trying to put together a sermon, it suddenly hit me.  So, so many people in my congregation had been saying to me all week, "There have been way too many funerals lately," or something along those lines.  And on Thursday morning, I made the decision to throw out the lectionary texts and go all-in on what this community is going through - so I preached on Isaiah 40, Galatians 6, and Matthew 11.

I'm fairly certain that I just replicated the 2nd Sunday of Advent in doing that, but oh well, I'll cross that bridge when I come to it, I guess.  That and the Sunday School kid who was reading the lessons was not at all pleased that he got stuck with like 20 verses out of Isaiah and another 10 from Galatians, and I read 2 whole verses in Matthew...  :-)

Nonetheless, I think it was the right decision.  It feels to me like preaching on that, like saying, "let's take a moment here and deal with the real crap of life instead of just blindly doing what the Revised Common Lectionary tells us to do" really was a sign to the community that "I'm here, and I get what you're going through, and I'm part of it."  Even just right after the service, it seemed like everyone was kind of breathing a sigh of relief, knowing that the fed-up-with-ness of death around here was out in the open.  Hugs were a little longer, handshakes were a little firmer, smiles were a little more sincere.  And as I said to a friend, it felt good to actually have something pastoral to contribute to the general atmosphere around here. 

Sermon after the jump:

So, here it is 9:30 on Sunday morning, and I’m tired. Are you tired? I’m tired because I’ve been hanging out with my family all weekend and we’ve been staying up late and eating too much junk food. I’m tired of having 100 TV channels, and still, there’s nothing good on. I’m tired of the fact that it’s already the middle of November and it still hasn’t snowed yet. (What the heck did I move to North Dakota for?) But I’m tired for a lot of other reasons, too. If I had to guess, probably some of the same reasons you’re tired. (Ok, maybe not the snow…you people all look at me like I’m crazy…)

But how about this? I’m tired – I’m absolutely sick unto death – of death. This community has been through a lot of death lately – too much death. It started before I got here, and it’s continued apace. I can’t count the number of times in the last week people have said to me, “Man, we’ve had a lot of people die this year.” Or, “This has been a tough, tough year.” And I have to agree. Because even though I haven’t been here for all of it, and I haven’t really known all of the people who have died, it’s starting to wear on me too, just like I think that it is you. And for each death that we’ve experienced in this community, as a part of this congregation – it seems there is always at least one or two more that impact each of you individually.

Death is hard. It is hard, hard, hard. Because you come to church on Sunday morning and we preach the resurrection, that in God all things are possible, that there is healing and new life, that death – and sadness and darkness and sin and evil – don’t have the last word. And then you go home – and off to work and school and the café and out in the fields and wherever else you go – and you’ve got (I hope) the gospel message echoing in the back of your mind, and you just are starting to settle into a “new normal” without…whoever. Someone from this community, someone in your family, an old friend, someone you didn’t even realize how much you cared for until they were gone. And before you know it – when you least expect it – you turn around and hear about another one. “But it’s only been a week…or two weeks…or a month…” you think. And you find yourself back at church on a day that’s not Sunday peeling potatoes or vacuuming the sanctuary or ushering people to their seats. Singing hymns you don’t want to sing, praying prayers you don’t want to pray, traipsing through a cemetery you don’t want to be at.

Don’t get me wrong. Funerals are good and honorable things. They are a forum to grieve, and a place to find hope. They are the way that the Church, for thousands of years, has given a last moment of Christian dignity to our brothers and sisters as we lay them to rest. And for me, it is an honor to be invited in – by you, and by God – to be part of the grieving, and part of the hope. Please don’t misunderstand me – this is not me complaining.

But aside from all of the “arrangements” that must be made, and the bars that must be baked, and the sermons that must be written, and the funerals that must be attended, death itself is indeed wearisome, isn’t it? Especially when it seems to happen over and over and over again. It just kind of gnaws at you, it hangs like a mid-November-ish, thick, gray cloud over those of us who remain. Last week we talked about what heaven is like – or perhaps not like – for the saints who have gone before. But we didn’t talk much about what earth is like for those of us still here.

Or maybe for you, your weariness, your tiredness today, comes not from constantly being surrounded by death. Maybe it’s just that death around here is sort of the icing on the cake for whatever else you’ve got going on. Maybe it’s your own health, or maybe it’s financial stress, or a situation at work or school, or an issue in your own family. Maybe you don’t even quite know what it is, you just feel…down.

So, but, the Lord gives and the Lord takes away, and in either case, blessed be the name of the Lord, right? Right. Sure. The Bible says that, yes, but it also says that the Word of God is like a sharp, two-edged sword. And there are days, there are times, there are moments, there are whole segments and areas of our life where that word, that “blessed be the name of the Lord,” stings and slices. Where it seems to mock our pain more than it proclaims the goodness of God.

If that’s you – and my guess is, at some level, at some point, it’s all of us – then I’ve got good news for you today, so listen up. The promises, the resurrection, the beauty, the new life that we talked about last week on All Saints Day belong not just to the saints in heaven. They belong also to us, in the here and now. St. Paul writes, “Christ died and returned to life so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.” But if you can’t see that, if you’re just not feeling it, at the moment, let me tell you this. You have a God who says, “Come to me, all who are weary, and I will give you rest.” You have a God who says, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” You have a God who says, “Yes, indeed, pick up your cross and follow me…but I am with you every. step. of the way.” You belong to the God who tends his flock like a shepherd, who gathers the lambs – that’s you, by the way – gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart.

You belong to a God who says, “You may be tired, you may be weary, but I am not. I do not grow tired or weary; no, in fact, I am the one who gives strength to the weary. Put your trust, your hope, your faith in me, and I will give you rest, rest for your souls, and your strength will be renewed.”

Some of this I say as sort of a vaccine, an inoculation, if you will. Because we’re not done with the funerals. Tonight we have Jerry’s prayer service, and the funeral tomorrow. And then we’ll start to try – again – to settle into a “new normal.” But we know not what tomorrow, or next week, or next month might bring.

But one thing is certain. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “Whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.”

So whatever it is that is wearing you down, that is making you tired, that is burdening your soul, please, please, please remember that God has got you gathered in his arms. Rest in that. Don’t be afraid to stop what you’re doing – whenever, and wherever – and let God remind you of his presence. Don’t be afraid to cry, or just to sit quietly, picturing yourself literally sitting in His lap.

But also know that one of the ways God works, one of the ways that he gives strength, that he allows us to feel gathered close to his heart, is through other people. And so I want to remind you, also, that you are part of a community here. Whether you’re wading through, and wearied, by events that we share in common, or whether your burdens are more individual, please lean on others around you. I’ve never been a fan of the little cliché, “God never gives us more than we can handle.” If that were true, why would he tell us, in the words of Paul today, to “bear one another’s burdens”? It is perfectly okay, whatever you are going through, to say, “I can’t do this alone. I need God, and I need other people.”

And as you are leaning on others, be prepared, also, to help bear their burdens. Be actively looking, and listening, to what’s going on with your friends, neighbors, and relatives. Ask how they’re doing – and mean it. If someone says, “fine,” and you don’t quite believe them, stop and say, “No, really. How are you?” Offer to pray with someone – not just, “Oh, I’m praying for you,” but actually say, “Can I pray for you right now?” Give someone a hug, offer to take the kids for a couple hours, or simply sit and be…with someone. “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way, you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

We are all weary, we are all tired. But as Paul says, “Do not become weary in doing what is good.” Let others lean on you, and all of you, lean on God. Rest in his arms, let him give you strength for today and hope for tomorrow. Because it is in Christ that all things hold together, even when it feels like the whole world is falling apart. And for that, we can indeed say, “Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Amen.

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