November 13, 2016
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
After last Tuesday’s election, perhaps we are more ready than ever to hear an apocalyptic gospel, such as we have today. Whatever we may think about the election results, they amount to a political earthquake. Familiar circumstances and ways seem to have been swept aside, or at least challenged. We seem on the precipice of changes we cannot predict, which make some uneasy, if not fearful.
An apocalypse is a revelation or uncovering of something, often in the midst of unsettled circumstances. When Jesus presented the apocalypse in today’s gospel, during the last week of his earthly life, Jerusalem could not have been more unsettled. He had long predicted that his own people would betray him to their Roman overlords, who would kill him. The imminence of this was finally dawning on the disciples as they stood marveling at the temple’s grandeur. Instead of offering them illusory comfort, however, the Lord told them bluntly that everything to which they might cling for security would be shaken or undermined—the temple itself; leaders or would-be leaders; their physical well-being; their freedom; and even the support of family and friends. It was like someone telling us that the Capitol in Washington and this Cathedral, which symbolize what we love most, the things that seem to promise security, will be reduced to dust and rubble. It would shake us just as the death of a loved one shakes us, profoundly threatening our sense of security and even our sense of identity.
Nevertheless, thank God, today’s biblical apocalypse points to something beyond destruction. It ends with the amazing promise that we will be given the words we need and that not a hair of our heads will perish. That last bit must have seemed astonishing considering what Jesus had just said. Jesus does not sugar-coat his and his disciples’ situation, but he offers them hope, even as he highlights the earthquake that was taking place. “By your endurance,” he promised, “you will gain your souls.”
What does this mean? It does not exempt us from losing literal hairs or from suffering. Like Jesus, we who follow him will indeed suffer in this broken world. But also like Jesus, crucially, we will have help from above, from God within us and among us, that is so powerful it can overcome all that threatens us, including death itself. As one commentator put it, “no part of [our] real being will be lost or be brought to nothing.” The Jesus who would soon overcome death and the grave gives his followers access to a heavenly dimension that is unshakeable, even in the midst of a rapidly changing, threatening world.
Given this hope, Luke the evangelist, and Jesus himself, encourage us to live a life based on radical trust in God alone. Paradoxically, following a crucified Lord is the only true means of security, the only way to build our lives on rock, rather than on shifting, sinking sand. We must give up clinging to material things, to institutions and traditions, and even beloved family members and friends as sources of security in and of themselves. As Jesus said a little earlier in Luke’s gospel, “those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.” Again and again, particularly in Luke, Jesus urges his disciples to have such an absolute trust in God that they could divest themselves of all possessions, knowing that the one who provides for the birds and clothes the lilies will certainly take care of them. Their fundamental well-being is in hands infinitely more capable than their own. There is no need to worry, he says. (Imagine the results if we took that to heart!) This doesn’t mean that we should necessarily give up planning and managing and so on, but it does entail a change in heart in which we recognize that we are not ultimately in charge, and shouldn’t be.
When Jesus taught the disciples his classic prayer, which we pray at every single service, he had them, and us, express radical trust in God which is, of course, the essence of faith. We begin by acknowledging God’s sovereignty and pray for that to manifest itself fully on earth. We look to God for everything we need, summed up in the words “daily bread.” We then express commitment to God’s way of reconciling love, for which we need God’s help, and we ask God’s protection so we might not follow false, hurtful paths in the future. Only God’s is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, we conclude. When we say the Lord’s Prayer, we turn over our lives to God, trusting, ultimately, in God alone.
Have your ever known anyone who lives this way? No one, other than Jesus, totally succeeds at it and few, including clergy, come close. Nevertheless, we know of some and actually know others who greatly exemplify a life of hope and trust in God alone, rooted in a loving relationship with God. In every case, I would say, these are people of prayer, prayer in which they continually offer themselves to God and seek God’s help and guidance. In the best cases, the Church’s nuns and monks model this life for the rest of us. More explicitly than most, they have divested themselves of all that the world looks to for security and have committed themselves to a life focused on prayer and service. Sadly, in my book, King Henry VIII ended English monasticism, rather than reforming it, at the Reformation, but it was revived in the Anglican Communion in the 19th century and still plays an important role in enriching our common life. These are limited human beings, like the rest of us, but the fruits of their radical trust and commitment, grounded in prayer, are considerable. I have known a number of monastics in, for example, the Community of St. Mary at Sewanee, Tennessee, and the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge, Massachusetts (one an order for women and the other for men). On the whole, I have found them to be wise, giving, peaceful people who accept, love, and minister to others just as they are. One is reminded, of course, of monastics beyond Anglicanism who exemplify these qualities, such as Mother, now Saint, Teresa, of Calcutta. Intentional prayer communities outside of traditional monasticism also bear similar fruit in people’s lives and in the world around them. For example, the Archbishop of Canterbury now has a group of young adults called the Community of St. Anselm, living at his home, Lambeth Palace, and who commit themselves to a disciplined life of corporate prayer for a year, even as they hold regular jobs. Next summer, on our Trinity pilgrimage to England, we plan to visit with some from this community as we try to see the fruitfulness that regular, intentional prayer can bring.
Monastics who lead what has traditionally been called the religious life would be the first to tell us that life wholly dedicated to God is not limited to the monastery or the convent. This is something to which all of us are already committed, in one form or another, by our baptism. God calls us all to offer, as our traditional eucharistic prayer puts it, “ . . . ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice” to God.
As we prepare to focus on Christ’s Lordship next Sunday, on what we sometimes call Christ the King Sunday, and then as we focus in Advent on the coming of our King in an amazing, unexpected form, today’s apocalypse helps point us to the one thing that is ultimately important—our Lord’s call to a life of radical trust in him and to lives of love rooted in this faith. There is no reason this Cathedral community cannot exemplify this way of life, which is eternal, spreading faith, hope, and love in the world around us. May we pray for grace to flourish more and more in this way.