18 March 2012

Almost there

I preached today at the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection in Greenwood SC.  Since I've not written here in such a long time, I'm posting the sermon as a way to restart (on a less than regular basis -- that I already promise) the discipline of writing.  Enjoy.

Almost there, we’re almost there …
That is the first line of a love song.[1]  In fact, it was the title song of the 1964 movie “I’d Rather Be Rich.”[2]  I was eleven in 1964, far too young to see that movie at the Rivoli, the only movie theatre in Myrtle Beach way back in those days.  But, my age didn’t prevent me from getting all dreamy over the song or over Andy Williams, who not only did the singing but starred in the movie as well.  I suppose that memory should have come as no surprise when I realized the significance of this particular Sunday. 

This Sunday, the fourth Sunday in Lent, is special.  It marks, more or less, the mid-point of our season of penitence.  It’s set apart from the rest and it has been almost from the beginning.  I’m not going to give you a liturgical history lesson, but among our friends in the Roman Catholic church today is known as Laetare (lā-tär-ē) Sunday, Laetare being Latin for rejoice.  In the early years of the church the word “rejoice” was interjected on this Sunday into the liturgy in various places to remind worshippers that they were well on their way to the light of Easter. 

Along the same vein and more central to the tradition we uphold, in some Episcopal and Anglican circles today is known as Refreshment Sunday.[3]  The message to the faithful is to take a deep breath, to relax the Lenten disciplines a bit, to take stock of the journey so far.  For certain, there’s more of Lent to come, there is more work to do for all of us, but we are making progress. 

Almost there, we’re almost there ...
Sometimes when we’re in the middle of something we don’t have the luxury of knowing the target.  But, we do know on Ash Wednesday how long the Lenten journey is going to be.  From the very beginning there’s light at the end of this particular tunnel.

For the Israelites in our first reading, however, it was a far different situation.  They had followed Moses out of Egypt without a timeline and the wandering was growing old.  Obviously disappointed, they are sounding anxious and impatient.  More likely than not they were murmuring among themselves.  “They spoke against God.”  They confronted Moses: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?”[4]  They complained about the food.  Milk and honey it was not.  The Promised Land, whatever that was and wherever that was, couldn’t possibly be worth all their present hot, hungry, thirsty misery.

They had lost sight of the purpose and the meaning of their journey.  The difficulties they were encountering had robbed them of perspective and hope.  They didn’t know – and neither did Moses – if they were almost there or not.  And, at least initially, it sounds as though they’d pretty much stopped caring.

That group of travelers, once so hopeful, had adopted a distinctly negative view.  What strikes me about this is how universal a phenomenon it is – from century to century, from civilization to civilization, from community to community.  There’s something about humankind that wants to complain, that wants to blame, that wants to point, that wants to judge.  Perhaps it’s the human condition.  Maybe it’s just the way we’re wired. 

Take the gospel reading for example, that beloved verse from John that we all know.  It appears in all sorts of places, doesn’t it?  I have a seminary classmate who jots “3:16“ under his signature on all his letters.  And probably every one of us has seen fans unfurl banners with “John 3:16” on them at baseball games and the like.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”[5]  That is the ultimate in reassurance.  I understand why we love it so.  It is good news.  It’s news that makes the heart swell and sing. 

How many of us, though, tend to approach that verse from a less expansive point of view?  How many of us, without even thinking about it, certainly not on purpose, qualify its message, making it seem almost as though the verse could read: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who doesn’t believe in him won’t have eternal life, but will perish.”[6]  We take something that is so hopeful, something intended to make us whole, to give life to us and to the world, and we turn it into something that instills fear, even condemns.  Without thinking about it, we turn the love song of John 3:16 into a mighty discordant threat.  “If you don’t believe the way I believe, you’re out.”

I know that sounds harsh.  I also know that we don’t mean to do it, that we do know better.  And, a case could be made that we have good reason to be watchful and wary.  Our entire globe is in the midst of a remarkably difficult and challenging time.  Whole economies stagger.  Some governments teeter on collapse; others are being overthrown.  So much of what once seemed stable now appears unreliable.  There’s lots of talk – endless talk – about restoring greatness.  We and everyone we know are full of fear.  And, the trouble is, like our wandering ancestors following Moses though the desert day after endless day, we don’t quite know where we are, we don’t know if we’re still close to the beginning of our troubles or if we’re nearing better times. 

I can’t answer that question.  But, while we indulge our fears and shake our heads at the awfulness of it all and blame our favorite bad guy, let’s not lose sight of what we do know.  We are gifted with “memory, reason and skill,” to quote the prayerbook.[7]  We have the capability for selfless generosity.  We can look at our confounding negativity and we can change.  Not because of who we are but because of whose we are.  Our getting beyond ourselves, however, isn’t an automatic sort of thing.  We have to want to and we have to keep at it. 

It just happens to be Lent, a blessing of sorts.  For that’s the very focus of this six week season:  to acknowledge our mortal nature, to engage in self-examination, to repent, to make a right beginning.[8]  We know where we are.  We’re a fraction beyond halfway through.  Easter will dawn before we know it. 

Refreshment Sunday couldn’t have come at a better time.  Now is the moment to ask where fear and uncertainty are getting the best of us.  Now is the moment to wonder – bravely and honestly – how, or if, we demonstrate in our lives God’s love for the whole of creation.  Now is the time to make our course corrections.

All of life is made up of middle points and transitions to which we attribute unique and special importance.  And, today is one of them.  We know where we started.  We know what we were hoping for when that cross was smudged on our foreheads nearly four weeks ago.  We also know that this is a finite season.  We are not wandering aimlessly.  Easter Day is on every calendar – a mere three weeks from today. 

How wonderful, wonderful that day will be …[9]
Although we are well on our way, take advantage of this Refreshment Sunday.  There is work still to be done and there is time in which to do it.  Reassess.  Take your own spiritual pulse.  Regroup.  Recommit.  Press on with determination and with quiet hope.

There is a love song being sung that is yours to hear. 

Almost there, we’re almost there …

[1] The words and music for the song “Almost There” are by Jack Keller and Gloria Shayne.
[2] The movie, directed by Jack Smight and produced by Ross Hunter, is a remake of the 1941 film “It Started with Eve.”
[3] These details about Lent 4 from Hegedus, The Rev’d Dr, “Sermons that Work,” 4 Lent (B), 22Mar09
[4] Both quotes are from Numbers 21:5.
[5] John: 3:16
[6] Read in Clavier, The Rev’d Anthony FM, “Sermons that Work,” 4 Lent (B), 26Mar06
[7] “Book of Common Prayer,” pg 370, Eucharistic Prayer C
[8] “Book of Common Prayer,” pg 265, invitation to an holy Lent
[9] The actual line from “Almost There” is “how wonderful, wonderful our love will be.”