The sermon before the sermon: remembering what's true
Sunday, June 17
Children are being taken from their parents at the borders of our country. They have been ever since the beginning of April. It's excruciating to contemplate, abhorrent and terrible.
When something terrible happens in the world, or something terrible that has been happening suddenly comes onto our collective radar and we all start paying attention to it, it demands that we don’t turn away. Because of technology, and social media especially, we are now connected to everything everywhere; we know it all and can feel it all in any moment. And because that is impossible and would crush us, the collective gaze often turns like a brief and powerful laser on one thing at a time. It’s often, (not always, but often), something important and worth paying attention to. It is often something that brings great despair and sadness. But we are bad at bearing great despair and sadness, so we try to fix it by focusing on it harder, talking about it more. We pass around articles and post memes; we express outrage and spend our time hand-wringing and worry-praying, so we feel like we are doing something. We feel so helpless and hopeless that we give it more attention, all the attention we have. And when we are not giving it enough attention we feel guilty, and make others feel guilty for not giving it enough attention, the attention they would be giving it if they really cared. We tell ourselves and each other that when we give attention to other things, we must not care about the big thing everyone is caring about at the moment. So the attention we give becomes a measure of caring, and now by measuring, we might also feel like we are doing something. Because we must do something to stop the pain, to end the terrible situation.
Here’s what that means for preachers. Every time something sad or awful comes to our collective attention a wave of advice goes around social media, usually on a Friday, and usually with several versions of this: “Preachers, you’d better rewrite your sermons for Sunday.” And, “If your pastor does not preach about this situation, find another church.”
And it tugs at me. I feel swayed. Should I switch texts? Is God calling me to preach something different than I thought? And sometimes that might be the case. But most of the time, it takes stepping away from the noise and taking a deep breath and sinking back into myself to remember some things that are true. Here is what is true.
Tyrants have risen and fallen since the beginning of time.
Horrible suffering is happening at any and every moment.
We are part of this story. It is our story too.
We need to recognize it and own it. But it doesn’t get to own us.
Because there is a deeper truer story that holds us all.
And the reason we come together as Church is to tell and hear that deeper, truer story.
We come to be rooted and grounded in love. To be called by God and sent into the world as people grounded in love, with deep, strong roots, ready to bear the suffering without being swept up in it.
The litany that sustains me at times like these is this:
This is part of the story.
But this is not the whole story.
The world belongs to God.
I don't hesitate to say it several times. To look at the pain and say it again and again.
Maybe it feels helpful to you too. You're welcome to use it too if it is.
If you want to hear or read a really good sermon about immigration, about Romans 13:1, or 13:10, or law and love, there will be dozens available to you today, and many will be really well done. I plan to read some later myself.
If you want to hear people talk about what’s going on with substance and insight I commend Jim Wallis and Sojourners (see here), and people like Stephen Colbert, and Trever Noah whose job it is to talk about what everyone is talking about. They are talking about it really well. (See here, and here, and here).
There are also lots of articles going around about how to get involved, places to donate money, and most significantly, it has been proven that non-violent protest is the most effective means of resistance and change, so I encourage us all to get involved in whatever ways God is prompting us to do so. (Ideas here and here and here).
But as far as our worship service today goes, today we are continuing our series on grace – because the love of God that has come near and claims us in love and for love and sends us out to live that love is still the most powerful and subversive thing in the universe.
And no matter what, that does not change.
In fact, in the face of tragedy it is even more important to remind each other of this reality that holds us all.
Because beyond our feeble human attention spans, when the alarm we raise and the energy we amp up becomes unsustainable, when compassion fatigue sets in, or we get distracted by the next celebrity or presidential scandal, or the next terrible tragedy arrives, when we forget the people who right now seem the most pressing, God remains with them.
And God also remains with us in our own struggles and weakness, and doesn’t say, like we sometimes do to ourselves, Buck up! Your suffering is nothing compared to theirs!
No. God comes into all weakness, because God comes in weakness.
It’s who God is and what God does.
Jesus Christ is always with those who suffer, with the broken down and the locked up. Jesus is right now alongside the children who’ve been taken from their parents, and the terrified, grieving, helpless mothers and fathers. And he’s with those whose memories are disappearing, and those whose cancer is spreading, and those who can’t find jobs, and those who’ve lost their homes, and those whose children are trapped in addiction, and in all the places we feel helpless and afraid, that is where God is and will always be.
Being rooted and grounded in love is slow, and steady, and intentional work that God does in us, in order to move through us that love and grace into the world. So come be church with each other today; come remind one another what's true. Come and share in grace, so we can bear the world's needs and suffering with courage and compassion.