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Rev. Sarah Buteux
August 22, 2021
Proper 16, Year B
“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Has life always been this hard?
I’m not asking for a friend. I am really looking around at the state of the world and the church, my life and your lives, and wondering: has life always been this hard? This overwhelming? This sad?
Most of you know that I came back home this week after leading my father-in-law’s memorial service up in Maine. It was beautiful and fitting and good, and I thank you all for giving my family the time and space to honor him and mourn his passing. That time was a gift.
But it also took a lot out of me, and I knew it would. I knew I would be coming back to a church in the thick of transitioning from two pastors to one.
I knew I’d be low on energy and many people would need to talk this week, so part of my re-entry plan involved reusing an old sermon so I could devote my energy to meetings, pastoral care, and just getting my feet under me again.
But when we got home Monday night, I looked at the news. Afghanistan. Haiti. The Delta variant. The most recent U.N. report about climate change. And I don’t know what I felt, but it wasn’t despair. I think I just felt numb. I read over my sermon from 3 years ago, the one I was going to read to you today, and I felt almost nostalgic for the worries and cares of 2018.
Back then I spent most of my time worrying and wondering about how the church would survive. Now… I’m honestly starting to worry about our species.
One of the things I noticed this summer as I was trying to be on vacation – which wasn’t easy this summer, was it? It wasn’t just me, right? It is actually hard to relax right now in the midst of so much uncertainty – one of the things I noticed was the sky. Give me a big nod out there if you noticed it too.
The sky was almost never blue during the day; not the “blue true dream of sky,” I’ve come to associate with summer. The stars were barely visible at night. And the sunsets were spectacular and weird, even eerie, all because our sky here in the east was so full of smoke from the wildfires out west.
Wildfires that are getting worse every year as the earth heats up and dries out. The pictures of dry riverbeds from California to Colorado are distressing. While in other news, we’re bracing this morning in western Massachusetts, – not eastern, western – for a hurricane.
That UN report about our planet indicates that we can no longer avert climate disaster. All we can do now is mitigate it. Which feels both glaringly obvious and seriously depressing.
And friends, I admit, there are days when I feel the same way about the church. Our hope when I came on staff 7 years ago was to help this congregation grow large enough to justify our presence in this big, beautiful, old building.
And we have grown. Maybe not as fast as we needed to or would have hoped, but unlike most churches, we were at least moving in the right direction. Common Ground and the co-pastorate, choir and centering prayer, Sunday school and book groups and young adult gatherings…what we were doing was working and it was powerful.
And yes, we did our best during the pandemic to keep it all going and we did a whole lot of good. Honestly, I am so proud of you all. I am so proud of how we have shown up for each other and our city during this time… but look around you. For all our efforts, Covid has set us back… hard.
20 months of not being able to gather the way we are used to, 20 months of not being able to sing, teach our children, break bread or even just share a cup of coffee in Lyman Hall… 20 months of not being able to do so many of the things that bind a community together has set us back. And I’m just going to say it, losing Todd sets us back too.
Life, the world, the church, it all feels really hard right now.
I mean if there was ever a time to stay in bed, pull the covers up over your head, and tell everyone to go away, this would be it. If there was ever a time to give up and walk away, now would be the time.
But here’s the good news. (I hope you knew I’d get there eventually ; ).
Whenever I start to think that way, whenever I feel myself giving into the despair of this moment or allow myself to imagine where else I might go or what else I might do with my life, I hear a little voice in my head.
Not the still, small voice of God – as lovely as that would be – but the cheerfully resigned, hopelessly faithful or maybe faithlessly hopeful voice of Peter, shaking his head even as he plants his feet: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
I think of Peter and the 12, standing on that hillside in Capernaum, watching all those people walk away from Jesus. 5000 people. 5000 potential disciples who were this close to joining up. 5000 people who could have constituted a real movement. I think of them watching 5000 people walk away from their best hope for a better world – how depressing and demoralizing that would have been.
And yet they stayed.
The disciples had every right and reason to walk away with the rest of them, but they didn’t. They stayed together with Jesus.
And I think I understand – on a visceral level -why.
I think they stayed because as crazy as Jesus sounds with all his talk about eating his flesh and drinking his blood,
as mad as Jesus’ plan for a better world seems with all his talk about loving your neighbor and your enemy, and blessing those who persecute you,
as unsustainable as it would be to give away all you have to the poor and not worry about the future,
as unrealistic and unworkable and downright foolish as it is to love and forgive and share without reservation…
If you stop and really look around…
….you start to realize that what we think makes sense, what we think is realistic, how we continue to conduct ourselves as citizens on this planet and members of this human race is the real madness?
I mean if you stop and really listen… is it possible that Jesus’ way might finally be worth trying after all?
Think back to the headlines this past week. I know it’s complicated….always complicated. But imagine if we had taken a fraction of the 2 trillion dollars we spent at war with Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11 and with the goodwill of the entire world at our back had reached out not with shock and awe but with aid and understanding.
I can’t promise it would have been any easier or safer or better, but I’m pretty sure it couldn’t have been worse.
Imagine where Haiti would be today – or how Black and indigenous people of color would be faring in the rest of the Americas, Africa, Australia, India – if the “Doctrine of Discovery” written by “Christians” back in 1493 was about getting to know ones’ neighbors around the world the better to serve them rather than enslave them?
Imagine if we treated the earth as a gift to be treasured rather than a treasure to be exploited?
We’ve made such a mess of our world doing it our way. What if we finally listened and starting doing things God’s way? What if we incorporated Jesus’ teachings into our lives the way we take food into our bodies, so thoroughly that – to borrow a phrase from Martin Copenhaver – “Jesus could no more be taken from us than yesterday’s breakfast?”
Standing on that hillside, watching 2 days of miraculously hard work fade away to nothing, Peter and the 12 could have walked away with the rest of them, but the disciples stayed. They stayed because as counterintuitive as it all seemed, they knew the way of the world wasn’t working, and trusted that the way of Jesus just might.
And friends, that’s why I plan to stay too. I don’t know if we will survive, as a church or a species right now, but I am going to keep showing up here because I believe that the answers for me as a Christian are here in the words of Jesus. I believe that the blueprint for bringing heaven to earth is here in the words of Jesus.
The way forward is in here, and we still haven’t fully ingested it or put it into practice yet. We are still learning what it means to follow in his way, processing how to think like Jesus, digesting what it means to live and love like Jesus, and I want to get better and better at it, with you.
I’m not giving up because I think what we do here matters. I think what we learn here can make a difference. I still believe in the power of church and community, prayer and song, bread and wine, to pull people out of themselves into something larger; that what the whole world needs right now is for each and every one of us to start right where we are and be as like Christ to one another as we can possibly be.
Because life is hard, and I don’t think it’s going to get any easier any time soon. Life is hard, but there is no one I’d rather face it with than the people of this church.
So friends, I’m staying put in this place where I have come to believe… and I hope with all my heart, that you will too. Amen.