Sermons

Falling Upward

I picture it as a beautiful day when the disciples, those small town guys, stood outside the Temple in Jerusalem and admired its workmanship.

It wasn’t Jesus’s first visit to the big city, according to Luke, who tells a story of 12-year-old Jesus going with his parents to Jerusalem for one of the high holidays. On the way home, his parents assumed he was hanging out with the other kids, somewhere in the throng of people on the dusty road. When they realize he was nowhere to be found, they went back to Jerusalem and searched for him for three days. Three days! Imagine how distressed they must have been. Finally they discovered he had been at the Temple all along, talking to the priests, discussing the Holy Book with brilliance well beyond his years.

This visit is different. This time the priests do not admire him. He’s turned over the tables in the Temple, one of the stories that finds its way into all the gospels. He arrives at the Temple and he absolutely goes off when he sees how his Father’s house is being used and misused.

This time they not only don’t like him. They decide he needs to die.

The Temple was in the process of being rebuilt, a huge public works project under Herod’s rule. You might remember that this second Temple, built after the exile, never felt quite like the original in spirit, and certainly was less elaborate. Herod set out to create a legacy for himself by making it more elaborate. So it’s fancy new construction that the disciples admire, only to have Jesus tell them that it won’t last. And it’s not a huge leap to take him literally, because it was only about forty years later that the Temple his companions admired would be laid waste, never to be rebuilt.

Everything’s going to fall down sometime.

Whether they want to hear it or not, Jesus is warning his friends of the troubles about to come. They will be challenged after his death and have to testify to their faith. Their families no doubt disassociated from them, perhaps because of genuine disagreement, but maybe also just to keep themselves safe from political danger. The only hope he offers is that if we endure, we will gain our souls.

It’s important to note that Jesus spoke to the very particular situations of the people around him that day, but that he also speaks to us, so many years later. It’s happened to me, and probably to you, too. Life is going along on the accustomed path, and then without much warning, or perhaps with hints you missed and can only see in hindsight, everything goes smash. It can happen at work, or school, or in our relationships.

We’re all going to fall sometime.

If our faith really matters to us, if we are truly committed to the values that go hand in hand with our beliefs, then we will almost certainly face times when we will be on the unpopular side of arguments, when we will have to speak up for what we believe and identify ourselves with Jesus at great cost.

The cost was certainly great for Jesus, in human terms.

Next week’s gospel reading will find him on the cross.

We all going to fall down sometime. Even Jesus.

It’s the human experience, one he shared with us.

In his book, “Falling Upward,” the Franciscan priest Father Richard Rohr writes,

“Failure and suffering are the great equalizers and levelers among humans. Success is just the opposite. Communities and commitment can form around suffering much more than around how wonderful or superior we are.” (Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, Jossey-Bass, 2011, p. 158)

Out of what looked like failure to the world’s eyes would come a movement following Jesus, a movement passed down to us over millennia, continually formed and reformed in the face of loss and death and endings, continually born into new expressions of faithful testimony and action.

I’ll be honest. When I planned ahead for this sermon I expected a different outcome for this week’s election. I worried about the aftermath, but I worried about a different set of people being upset and disappointed. Maybe the signs were there, as they should have been for the disciples, but I didn’t see them, or I didn’t want to see them.

Now I’m concerned about my family’s future, and for others who wonder if we will lose rights we gained so recently. At a medical appointment the other day I found myself stammering, hesitant to name my relationship to my wife. We’ve had to reassure our son that no change in a law can unmake our family. And maybe we’re catastrophizing; maybe there is nothing to worry about for us. But the same racism and misogyny I named in recent weeks has been on display for the past five days, making the world seem less safe for some of Will’s classmates. He’s worried about whether kids will bully his friend,

STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Rosario Jaime, a Penn graduate student from California, signs the "wall of solidarity" sponsored by the United Minority Council. (philly.com)
STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Rosario Jaime, a Penn graduate student from California, signs the “wall of solidarity” sponsored by the United Minority Council. (philly.com)

Meyhar, and we’ve talked with him about sticking up for the students who fall into the category of “other,” labeled for their race or religion or national origin. It breaks my heart for children, for anyone, to be at risk simply for being who they are. You may have read the story about the racist messages sent to all the black freshman at Penn this week, and that is just one instance. For me this feels like the Temple falling down, the structure I built around my beliefs that everyone could have a place in America.

 

Father Rohr says,

The genius of the gospel was that it included the problem inside the solution. The falling became the standing. The stumbling became the finding. The dying became the rising.  (Rohr, p. 159)

We all fall down sometime. Sometimes, even when we try not to, we mess it all up ourselves. It’s human to want some reassurance that everything will come out all right in the end, and this speech from Jesus that stirs up our anxieties gives us only an eternal hope. He doesn’t promise us our lives. He won’t get to keep his own.

Next week, you’re going to take a vote on the future of this church, and some of you already have ballots ready to return to be counted as absentee. One of the ideals of our congregational polity is the give and take that happens in the meeting itself, the noble principle that we give equal consideration to each speaker, letting each opinion be heard, and counting each vote equally. We reach our conclusions in our own ways. Maybe we’ve prayed long and hard about our decision – whether in church business or national politics – or maybe we go with our gut.

Up in Maine, the last community I served still has an annual Town Meeting where decisions are made. It can be scary to share our thoughts that way, right out in front of everybody, but in this case, it’s so important for discerning how you will vote in the end. That’s why there have been so many opportunities offered for conversation with the Consistory, in hopes that all voices will be heard, and there will be one more chance in the meeting itself. If you haven’t spoken, or feel worried about making your voice heard, remember that Jesus promised his disciples words and wisdom for the moment they would be most needed.

And if you get it wrong, well, we’re all going to fall sometime.

But don’t let people tell you falling down means everything comes to an end.

As Father Rohr puts it,

I fell many times relationally, professionally, emotionally, and physically in my life, but there was always a trampoline effect that allowed me to finally fall upward. No falling down was final, but actually contributed to the bounce! (Rohr, p. 158)

Believe me when I say this truth is hard-won for me right now. I haven’t come around to it through platitudes or sentiment. I’ve been down in the abyss having words with God this week, and I know it’s true God was right there with me because Christ has been in the abyss of hell himself.

I am disillusioned and disappointed and even distraught, yet I still believe this is the truth. We are people of the Good News. We are people of God’s Hope. We are people of Christ’s Resurrection.

So we do not despair.

We do the work of letting go, and the work of building up again, and the work of arguing with God, and the work of listening to God, which for most of us is a lot harder. We try, knowing another fall will come, another disappointment, another loss, but remembering that whatever happens, we are not alone. It’s the truth, even in the moments when we’ve fallen, and especially when we’re falling upward. In the name of the Creator and the Christ and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Living in This World, Political Theology, Politics

Feel the Burn

The grown-ups at my house don’t watch a lot of TV outside of baseball season, but this being a presidential election year, I have been drawn into watching some cable news coverage. I’m undecided most days; my spouse is not (sorry, I won’t tell you more); our voting age children #FeeltheBern.

When I turn on the foolishly big television intended to make us feel like we’re sitting at the ballpark, and I punch in the channel for the latest debate, press conference or expert analysis, I often find myself watching and listening to distressing behavior at what feels like an unsafe distance. It’s up too close, the red-faced hostility, the fallacious allegations, and the self-aggrandizing claims.

I wonder what the world is coming to, how we will avoid destroying ourselves, and things that matter to us. I feel some mixture of frustration, apathy, and despair. I exercise my privilege, therefore, to press the mute button, or I change the channel to see what’s on HGTV, or I turn the darn thing off and go to bed.

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Daddy, Tommy and me – Monumental Methodist Church, 1966

It’s the truth that I grew up starry-eyed about politics because the politician I knew best was my daddy. We practiced our own civic religion; our polling place was at the Methodist church where he learned about faith. I remember vividly walking there from our house and going into the booth with him before I was old enough to read the names on the ballot. I associate goodness with the sound of that lever being pulled to register his vote and open the curtain that revealed us again to the world. Everything about his speech was thoughtful, careful, strong, but gentle.

I wonder how I would have felt if I had been in the Temple courtyard that day Jesus came in and started turning over the tables, knocking over the cages and freeing the birds intended for sacrifice, shouting that his Father’s house had been turned into a den of thieves? Did he not raise his voice? Did he not cause a disturbance? Did he not protest the way things were?

How do we discern the difference between righteous indignation and attention-seeking tirades?

We ask ourselves, what is the underlying intention of the person raising his or her voice? What is the agenda of the person causing the disturbance? What is the desire of the person protesting the status quo?

If we’re people of faith, we ask ourselves, do these loud voice do more than invoke God? Do they align with the values Jesus lived and died to teach us? And, perhaps even more importantly, do they express our Resurrection hope?

I’m not looking for a savior among political candidates, nor do I think that only certain varieties of church-going Christians can express that hope. I am looking for an affirmation of what matters to me, which will allow me to be faithful as I mark a ballot. I hope I’ll feel that burn.