Earlier this week, my son asked me one of those questions that gives you pause as a parent, even if you’re a father who also happens to be a priest.
“Dad,” he wondered. “Is the world coming to an end?”
How many of you have asked that question recently? Storms and hurricanes of Biblical proportions affecting so many in our area and the world. Earthquakes shaking Mexico.
Leaders on the world stage resorting to playground name-calling, men with nuclear codes and powerful weapons that truly could end the world.
“Is the world coming to an end?” Not a far-fetched question to be asking ourselves these days.
We don’t need to follow the news to know that we are, in the words of our opening prayer, “placed among things that are passing away.”
This week, we lost two saints of the church: Fr. Harry Douglas and Charlotte Watkins.
Fr. Harry, better known here at St. John’s as the “Voice of God,” is an irreplaceable child of God who shared Christ-like love with so many people through the years.
He served this church, along with his friend, Lee Graham, like a modern-day Moses during a time when we wandered in the wilderness.
If Fr. Harry was Moses, then Charlotte Watkins was Miriam, a woman of strong faith who founded, along with other visionaries, Church of the Advent here in Tallahassee.
A caring, beautiful soul, I will remember Charlotte as a gardener. She lived a couple of blocks away from me, and when I walked by her home, I often saw her out among her flowers and plants, tilling the soil like we’re called to do in the Book of Genesis.
In Charlotte and Fr. Harry, we’ve lost two pillars of the church and our community. We grieve their loss and the loss of so much in this transitory life:
The death of a loved one or of an important relationship . . . the loss of a sense of vocation or being treated like a valued employee at your place of work . . . the loss of faith or security.
The poet, Elizabeth Bishop, knew all about loss. She even called it an art form. Here’s a couple of stanzas from One Art:
“The art of losing isn’t hard to master; so many things seem filled with the intent to be lost that their loss is no disaster. Lose something every day. Accept the fluster of lost door keys, the hour badly spent. The art of losing isn’t hard to master.”
Except that it is. Bishop knew it. We know it. As hard as writing a masterful poem, as hard as living with loss. Losing is hard for all of us in this world in which we’re placed among things that are passing away.
But our opening prayer doesn’t stop there. Even as we’re placed among things that are passing away, we can hold fast to that which endures.
That’s the question that I want for us to reflect on today. What can we count on to endure forever? What can we hold fast to?
This week, as I pondered these questions and my son’s query about the end of the world, I thought first of a great hymn by Charles Wesley: Love divine, all loves excelling. The final stanza goes like this:
“Finish then thy new creation; pure and spotless let us be; let us see thy great salvation perfectly restored in thee: changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place, till we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love and praise.”
Wonder, love and praise: you could do a lot worse than beginning with those three in your list of things that will endure, of things we can hold fast to.
Let’s begin with wonder, with awe, with the people of Israel learning in the wilderness the art of losing. They’ve lost their homes and their Crock Pots brimming with Sunday roasts. They’ve misplaced their sense of self-sufficiency, and, on the way . . . they’ve also lost the chains of their slavery.
God’s people forget about their slavery in Egypt now that they’re struggling to live in the wilderness.
Immediately, they cry out: “God, take us now. We can’t live like this. Bring us back to Egypt, where we at least had food and shelter and Crock Pots but had lost all sense of living in a sacred world, a place of enchantment with soil so holy that our brother, Moses, took off his shoes in a spirit of awe.
What if the wilderness that God’s people find themselves in—perhaps the very same wilderness in which we find ourselves living in today—is a school in wonderment, a testing ground to learn the art of losing so that we can gain those things that truly endure?
And so we hunger. Hunger for freedom. Hunger for justice. Hunger for reconciliation. Hunger for peace.
And rather than relying on the bread we store up in our cupboards and bank accounts we learn, sometimes the hard way, to rely on manna from heaven, from water flowing from the rocks that litter the landscape of our lives.
As adults, we know that we can’t get completely lost in child-like wonder and imaginative play. We’ve lost that gift.
But we can, as people of faith, receive from the hand of God a “second naivete,” a new creative spirit that makes it possible to look at the world and the people around us with wonder, with awe, with profound gratitude.
This is what it means for us to be born again, to experience second birth.
In our reading today, Moses and Aaron tell all the Israelites: “In the evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord.”
In this re-enchanted world, in the morning and the evening, you will take off your shoes in reverence. God is present wherever you turn.
There is new freedom. All of creation glows with holiness, and in the faces and lives of each other you see God’s glory. Nothing, no one is disposable, for God loves and cares for all of creation, which is a sacred mystery.
How would a vision like this change how you view the people close to you? The child or grandchild you help get ready for school, the co-worker down the hall, the spouse who brings you coffee in the morning, the plants and trees in your backyard or the park just down the road . . . all of them aglow with God’s glory.
That’s what the wilderness is for: to master the art of losing, to know what we can let go of in this world of things that pass away and to learn to hold fast to that which will endure.
Things like wonder, and don’t forget about love, a word so common that’s it’s hard for it to mean much to us. But that word gets to the heart of our life in the Living God in whom we live and move and have our being. To live in God is to live a life full to overflowing with loving relationships.
To grasp this, go no further than the Holy Trinity. Our God is a community of loving relationships, three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who love each other, who move in a dance of humble self-giving.
I had a chance, a while back, to visit with Fr. Harry and his wife, LiAnne at their home. By that time, Fr. Harry was more or less bound to his bed. As I sat by his bedside and talked with him, he shared with me that he spent a lot of time each day thinking about God. Ever the theologian, he was still puzzling about God and wondering.
We both had a good laugh when he shared with me that he was still composing sermons, preaching to the angels and archangels and whomever would listen.
But mostly, he connected with God in unceasing prayer. In this world of things that pass away, he was holding fast to his relationship with our Triune God, to his relationships with his family members and friends. Those relationships, held together by love, are the things that truly endure.
When you leave here today, I want you to be mindful of your relationships at home and work, with neighbors close by or far away. Consider all of them a foretaste of the relationships to come when we will live eternally with God and each other, lost in wonder, love and praise.
That’s the note I want to end on today: praise. Because that why you’re here today. To praise God. To offer up your life and labors, your body, mind and soul to the One who doesn’t pass away, to the One whose love and mercy endure forever.
We can praise God by ourselves, but the fascinating thing is that God assembles us to praise God together. God won’t rest until we rest in God as a community.
We see that in our Gospel reading today. This is a parable about a God who won’t rest until we’re all working side-by-side in the vineyard serving and praising God.
God goes out looking for laborers at sunup, 9 o’clock, noon, three and five o’clock. Every time God goes out, God finds people standing around.
God asks one group: “Why are you standing here idle all day?” They answer: “Because no one hired us.” He said: “You also go into the vineyard.”
No one is disposable. God desires everyone to go into the vineyard to labor, to work side-by-side, to praise God.
This story was on my heart as I met for the very first time with our strategic planning team this week. We already have a theme: the very appropriately-named Fruits of the Vineyard.
You might remember that our plan six years ago, a Spirit-led dream that we fully lived into, was called Visioning the Vineyard.
You can have confidence in the team of more than twenty committed lay leaders and staff members, which includes two high school students and two college students.
Over the summer, the team worked their way through a reading packet, some of which had to do with the fastest growing segment in American society: the None’s, as in those who claim no religious affiliation.
Many of these individuals were once part of religious communities but found them to be places consumed by power, greed or divisive issues. In short: wilderness places devoid of God.
Here’s the thing: God, in God’s gracious generosity, wants all of us working in the vineyard and praising God together.
And so while I have no idea where we’re heading with our next strategic plan—that’s something that you and I and the strategic planning team will discern together over the next year—this much I do know: the plan will have special concern for those standing idle outside the vineyard.
Church should be a place where we encounter the living God and grow closer to our neighbors, a community where we can practice the art of losing ourselves in wonder, love and praise. Fr. Harry and Charlotte knew that and they lived it faithfully day-by-day.
Which brings me back to my son’s question. It took me all week, but I think I finally have an answer to his question:
Yes, the world is ending. Every day we are placed among things that pass away, and we grieve those losses. They break our hearts because our hearts are filled to overflowing with love. Yet, we are not to be anxious or fearful, because we can through faith hold on to what endures: to wonder, love and praise of a God who will never let us go.
A sermon preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Tallahassee on Sunday, September 24, 2017.