It is Well With My Soul – November 18, 2018

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Sermon Preached by the Reverend Peter Thompson
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
November 18, 2018

Daniel 12:1-3; Psalm 16 

Let us pray.
Take our lives and let them be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take our moments and our days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise.

I was not the kind of teenager who was eager to learn to drive. From a young age, I struggled to do any task that required a modicum of adequate motor skills. Tying my shoes was always a difficulty. My handwriting was atrocious. I definitely could not pass that football. So, as much as I hated being chauffeured around by my parents, I was terrified to get behind the wheel myself. I couldn’t imagine it ending successfully. I was convinced that I would cause an accident. Driving was something that billions of people did every day and yet I was sure that I was incapable of doing it—or, at least, that if I did it, I would cause something horrible to happen.

Nevertheless, getting my driver’s license was an inevitable rite of passage, or so my parents determined, and they prevailed upon me to take a driver’s ed class between my junior and senior years of high school. In the state of Virginia, driving instructors administer driving exams directly to the students who pay them, which is why, I think, I entered my senior year, much to my surprise, with my driver’s license in hand.

I somehow emerged from my practice driving unscathed, and I navigated several trips as a real driver without anything too amiss occurring. But my family still owned only two cars, and driving had not yet become a part of my daily routine when, for a week in early November, my mother went on a business trip, and, so that I could get myself to school and back, she lent me her keys to her gold Lexus SUV.

It was over eleven years ago now, but I still remember it vividly. It happened on a late afternoon in the first week or two of November. Sports had ended early, and my friends and I had just enough time to make it to Chipotle—which then was a newfangled culinary phenomenon—and return in time for choir rehearsal. Since my two friends were younger than me, I was the only one who could drive and I conveniently had access to a car. I was nervous—I didn’t like to drive and I wasn’t convinced I was very capable of it—but I was also excited—because I had the opportunity to be the cool one, to make something good happen for me and my friends.

I drove slowly at first because I wanted to be careful. My friends made a joke that at this rate we certainly wouldn’t make it back in time for choir. I kept driving slowly, thinking to myself that I’d rather make it back alive than on time. But what my friends said must have registered with me. About a half of a mile from the school we approached an intersection where I would have to make a left turn. It was a bit chaotic since it was rush hour. As I continued driving towards the intersection, I could see the countdown clock, recently installed at the crosswalk for pedestrians. It displayed a red flashing hand and seemed to indicate that I only had a few seconds to clear the intersection if I didn’t want to wait for another light cycle. While I was contemplating whether to enter the intersection or to stop, I heard my friend shout from the back seat, “Go!” And so I did—as did the car coming down the hill towards me from the other side of the intersection. It slammed right into us.

My initial reaction to the accident continues to surprise me to this day. In the very first moments after the impact, when we were still reeling from the blow, before I had moved the car to the side of the road or called the police, before I even really had figured out everything that had transpired, I didn’t feel fear of what the consequences of my actions would be; I didn’t feel guilt about the damage I had so recklessly caused; I didn’t feel anger over the goading of my friends. What I felt was relief. One of the things that I had most worried would happen did and I was still alive to tell the tale. The world kept turning.

To be sure, I was exceedingly fortunate. There were no serious injuries. Both cars were covered by insurance, and one was able to be repaired. I knew that if I needed medical or financial or legal help, I would be able to obtain it easily. Many accidents turn out a lot worse, and many teenagers don’t have access to the resources I did. The very fact that I was driving my mother’s Lexus SUV tells you something about the types of privilege I enjoyed. I didn’t have to face the kinds of fears and challenges that so many young people do.

I did, however, have some fears, and that November afternoon one of my deepest fears was realized—my fear that, through my clumsiness and lack of ability, I could cause harm to myself or others. I experienced pain and difficulty as a result, but I was not defeated entirely. I lived on. I survived.

Someone I respect observed not long ago that “things are never as good as we think when they’re going well, and never as bad as we think when they aren’t.” Our minds, this person suggested, naturally exaggerate the magnitude of both the joys that we feel and the problems on our horizons. Because fear and anxiety are emotional states and not rational thought processes, it is rarely easy for us to stay level-headed as we confront impediments and dangers. Hence we are naturally susceptible to people and ideas and institutions that seek to exploit our fear and anxiety in order to advance a particular agenda. Over and over and over again, we are told: “just buy this product or join this organization or vote for this candidate and nothing bad will ever happen, everything will turn out all right.”

Jesus warns against following after these false Messiahs: “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed.” Not everyone who claims the mantle of Jesus, he says—not everyone who professes to act in the name of goodness—is telling the truth. He goes on to claim, more remarkably, that no one is able to prevent disaster entirely: wars “must take place,” he asserts, “nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines.” “The end is still to come…this is but the beginning of the birthpangs.”

Jesus certainly never assures us that everything will be all right. To the contrary, he promises that difficult times are ahead. But embedded in his message that “this is but the beginning of the birthpangs” is a note of hope, for, while the birthpangs will be long and they will be agnozing, they presumably will result in something being born, in new life. After a time of great anguish, Daniel is assured, “those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake…[then] Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.” There will be pain; there will be anguish; our fears will be realized—and on the other side of all of our pain and anguish and fear we will live and we will thrive.

It’s important to note that the early Christians, as well as some Jews, like Daniel, who lived close to the time of Jesus, believed that the end of the world was coming very soon, that they might even see it in their lifetimes. The imagery and rhetoric they use can thus be extreme. But how different are they from us, really? Don’t we stay up at night thinking about our jobs and our families and our relationships or about climate change and violence and political instability?   Don’t many of us also worry that the end is coming soon?

I’m not sure, then, that we can scoff at the ancients as much as we might like to. They offer to their original audiences a path forward that just might work for us as well. They push them and us to trudge through the troubles of tomorrow, having confidence that what awaits us will not ultimately break us if we commit to not surrender to our fears. “Do not be alarmed,” Jesus advises; “your people shall be delivered,” Daniel is told; “let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering,” the writer of the letter to the Hebrews declares. They tell us to persist in living our lives as if the world will not end even though we know it in some way will. “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds,” Hebrews goes on to instruct, “not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” In other words, keep on keeping on. Or as Martin Luther was once incorrectly thought to have said, “even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree today.”

Horatio Spafford knew quite a bit about calamity—about things falling apart. He was a wealthy and successful lawyer and businessman who lost a significant amount of his fortune when the Great Fire of Chicago destroyed most of his real estate holdings. Two years later, Spafford planned to travel to England with his wife and four young daughters, but at the last minute he stayed, intending to follow shortly behind them. Partway through its journey, the ship carrying Spafford’s family sank and, though his wife survived, all four of Spafford’s daughters drowned. Soon after hearing the news, Spafford left for England to meet his wife, and legend has it that, as his ship reached the place at which his daughters died, he wrote this hymn:

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
when sorrows like sea billows roll;
whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
it is well, it is well with my soul.

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
let this blest assurance control,
that Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,
and hath shed His own blood for my soul.

My sin—oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!—
my sin, not in part but the whole,
is nailed to His cross, and I bear it no more,
praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

And Lord haste the day, when my faith shall be sight,
the clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
the trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
even so, it is well with my soul.

It is well, it is well with my soul.

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