Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, Connecticut
The Fifth Sunday after Easter – May 22, 2011
One day God was looking down at the earth and saw a lot of really bad behavior. God decided to send an angel down to check it out. When the angel returned, he said, “Yes, it is BAD down there; a full 95% of them are misbehaving and only 5% are not.” God was not pleased. So God decided to E-mail the 5% who were good in order to encourage them and give them some inspiration to keep them going. Do you know what the E-mail said? Oh, you didn’t get it either, huh?
Given all the publicity and commotion last week about Judgment Day, I thought a little humor was in order.
As I’m sure you all heard, Harold Camping, who runs the Evangelical network Family Radio predicted that yesterday would be Judgment Day when the earth would be destroyed because of mankind’s sins and all Christian believers would ascend to heaven. Those who buy into this call it the “rapture.” Well, we’re still here. That mean that either, Camping was wrong or we’re the bad guys left behind. I pick door #1.
Camping originally used his mathematical system to predict that Sept. 6, 1994, would be Judgment Day. In his book “1994?” which outlines his predictions for that false prophecy, he spends over 500 pages telling us when the end times would come. But it only takes about five seconds to read verse 36 from the twenty-fourth Chapter of the Gospel of Matthew: “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” By the way, that includes Harold Camping.
For me, the most alarming things that emerged from this debacle are the story of the young mother who suffocated her 4-year old child in advance of the rapture or the 60-year-old Staten Island man who spent his entire life savings promoting it on New York subway bulletin boards. In fact, I heard that more than 140 million was spent to promote Judgment Day—not Camping’s money, mind you—he may have been wrong but he’s no fool— but the hard earned money of thousands of people who have supported him in his craziness by sending him cash.
What’s wrong with this picture? An 89-year-old fanatic in California—someone who has made this outrageous prediction about the end of the world at least once before—asks people to give him money to spread fear and hysteria throughout the country and they do it—without batting an eye; yet over and over in the Gospel, Jesus asks us to do simple things like feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, welcome the stranger, love our enemy—that is to build a better world— and, while there are exceptions, we all know how well that’s working.
What a different message we hear from Jesus this morning—no reason for fear or hysteria: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” Then, in this same passage which is his preparation of his friends for his imminent departure from them, he says something that I think is far more astonishing and remarkable than Camping’s predictions about Judgment Day. “You are going to do greater things than I have done.” Greater things than even Jesus has done? Wow!
How much, I wonder, are we willing to invest in that prediction? Jesus is telling the gang who would be responsible for starting his church—and, by the way, we’re that gang today—Jesus was telling them to expect a power surge of God’s Spirit that would transform them and the world.
In her weekly e-news reflection this week, Sister Joan Chittister, a prolific writer and totally modern nun, wrote: “On the 160th anniversary of my great-grandfather’s birth, I stood on the ruined foundation of the small Irish house and mill in which he had been born in Donegal. A piece of granite from that foundation now sits on my desk — a monument to both the past and the future. It was a long time coming. I’ve wondered for years where my family was really from and how we got here and what happened to the families our ancestors left behind. Then one day in December I opened my email to find a letter that began, “I am your fourth cousin.” Thirty-two pages of single-space type poured out of my printer, describing one generation after another, down to my own birth date. Most of them were people I did not know but for whom I felt a great deal of fascination, admiration, and gratitude. At that moment, looking at the long chart of my own becoming, the whole notion of what history actually is all about began to simmer and bubble in me — a very living, a very real thing.
A piece of granite from a foundation. In the second reading today, the author of that Epistle refers to us as living stones to be “built into a spiritual house.” We are called “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” That’s an amazing description of who and what we are called to be as a community.
Like Sister Joan’s revelation through a piece of granite and a letter, what these words tell us is that our own history as the church is a very real and living thing. Do we believe that? Do we believe in that wonderful and tangible connection through history, through so many years and centuries, to that small band of ill-prepared anglers and tax collectors and schlmiels who sat in that room and heard Jesus tell them that they would do greater things than Jesus had done? Do we believe that, for all our imperfections and human failings as a church that we are empowered to do even greater works than Jesus did?
As someone who has served here for 18 years, I can testify to this promise of Jesus. Yes, Jesus raised the dead but I have seen you raise yourself from the heart break of a dying relationship you were in or from the death of some dream in your life and embark on a new life. Jesus gave sight to the blind. I have seen you open the eyes of someone who walked in the darkness of depair by giving them hope where they could not find it themselves.
Jesus cast out demons. I have seen you fight for justice and bring goodness to situations where evil was attempting to overcome it. Jesus fed the five thousand. I have seen you feed one another, both here and in the world, by your generosity and acts of selflessness. Jesus changed water into wine. I have seen you transform what could be dull worship into a spirited celebration where we all drink the new wine of God’s presence with us. You are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.”
Harold Camping was able to convince a lot of folk to invest in his prediction about the end of the world. Jesus, on the other hand, invites us to give from our resources to build a better future tigether. “You are going to do greater things than I have done,” he says. What are we willing to do to continue to bring life to that prediction?
In his weekly online reflection, the Reverend Bill Tully, Rector of St. Bart’s in Manhattan—the church after which we have modeled our renaissance—offered this: A wise leader once said that we humans in community are glorious but far from perfect, rather like porcupines in a winter storm. We huddle together to keep warm until we start poking each other. Hard work, like anything worth doing, takes both thick skin and deep commitment. Anything worth doing is hard work. Growing up is hard work. So is finding and staying with someone to love, or finding your calling and making something of it. So is deciding change is necessary — and living through change with beliefs and relationships intact may be hardest of all. All of those things, and more, are part of church life. It’s possible to reduce your church life, your relationship to a spiritual community, to that of a consumer. God knows we see that more and more. But nothing good comes of it in the end. The real business of being the church is transformation: growing and changing and loving in response to something bigger and deeper than we can ask for or imagine.
That’s a great deal for us ordinary people to claim. Do we believe it? It we are daring enough, passionate enough—maybe even crazy enough to say “yes,” to that question, we will give life to God’s power surge and it will transform us and the world. Harold Camping predicts destruction and obliteration; Jesus, on the other hand, wants us to expect resurrection and restoration.