Rev. Annich’s sermon begins at the 26 minute mark.
Tomorrow morning my husband and I are taking off for study leave with our beloved teacher, Richard Groves. Richard is the founding Director of The Sacred Art of Living Center in Bend, Oregon. A former priest, chaplain, and hospice executive, Richard, along with his late wife, Mary, founded the center to provide workshops and professional development focused on whole person caregiving and especially training people to walk with others through death and bereavement. Clergy, doctors, nurses, and other caregivers take a variety of courses through the center and travel with Richard to sites that are rich in spiritual history.
Last year, you may remember that my husband and I went with him to the west coast of Ireland where people believe that the veil between heaven and earth is extremely thin, where living and dying are all of one piece. Indeed, that’s the gist of what Richard Groves teaches– life is a sacred, very beautiful journey that can only be understood when the mysteries of life and death are held in one loving embrace, when we understand and accept how intimately entwined life and death really are.
That’s pretty much the gist of what Paul was getting at in today’s portion of his letter to the church at Corinth. Paul was always keenly aware of the suffering we encounter in this earthly life. He knew tribulation and persecution in an up-close and personal way throughout his years of ministry. He couldn’t wait for this earthly life and earthly body to be “swallowed up,” as he put it, in immortality.
This is a large part of Paul’s theology–a yearning for the limitations of our earthly life, of the death that stalks us all in a variety of ways, to be completely transformed by God. He was so eager to be fully in the presence of God, rather than here on earth where we can at times feel far from God, much like the iconic alien in the movie ET whose lament some of you will remember and maybe even relate to, “ET, call home.”
And yet, Paul was balanced. He counseled patience as we wait for that final transformation. He wasn’t about whisking us out of this life as much as being faithful in it. In Romans 14 he wrote, “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”
Our text this morning begins, “So we are always confident.” Always confident because–wait for it–“we walk by faith and not by sight.” Now I don’t know about you, but that actually can make me feel less confident because I am far from perfect at walking by faith. I’m a planner. My “To Do” lists are epic. I like things spelled out for me in huge letters, every ‘I” dotted and every “T” crossed, knowing how and when things are happening. And, of greater significance, the news that assails us on a daily basis threatens to overwhelm whatever trust and confidence we may have. Sometimes I get really angry with God about this walking in faith/not by sight thing and I yell, “You’d better come big, God, or I may not see you!”
Fortunately, I am surrounded by many souls who are also doing their best to walk by faith. I give thanks for all of you in this community and in the Twelve Step program to which I belong where I am regularly reminded to “Let God and Let God” and to stay very much in the present, “One Day a t A Time.” But even there I hear my friends struggling with the all too human tendency to want to clamp down on reality, to grasp at certainty, even though we all know that nothing in this life can be held that way. Yes, walking by faith and not by sight is a way of living that challenges our most basic human strivings for control and certainty.
Writing this sermon has been a challenge, as I’ve pondered how hard it is to walk by faith and not by sight. What would I say to you who struggle to remain faithful in the midst of this nation and world? Even as we celebrate Juneteenth, what would I say to you about America’s original sin of slavery and its poisonous fruits that we all still reap on a daily basis? What would I say to you who routinely live with injustice and inequity? What would I say to you about the current immigration crisis and the horrifying pictures of traumatized children and parents that fill our screens and haunt our dreams? (And let’s remember that this is the latest iteration of tearing children away from parents–African Americans and Native Americans can tell us of the horrors of tearing families apart …)
What would I say to you who are facing health crises, vulnerable or broken relationships, and terrible grief? What would I say to you who fear the future for any number of reasons? You all know my passion for “keeping it real.” How do we keep it real while remaining faithful? That may be one of the most important questions we can ever ask ourselves as we seek to follow in the way of Jesus.
I received some help with these questions as I meditated on today’s text. These words leapt out at me: “We regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” Suddenly I got it–St. Paul is talking about seeing differently. Like when I went to the opticians last week complaining about the old sunglasses I could barely see out of only to discover that the lenses were an outdated prescription that needed to be made new. Or even more appropriately like the gorgeous picture the dear people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church gave my husband last Sunday on his retirement. It’s a picture of the church that looks like it was taken from the heavens because in fact it was taken from a drone. This stunning photo is so wide angled that you can actually see little details of Cleveland Heights, but more importantly you can see a huge picture of Cleveland all the way up to, and including, Lake Erie. It’s a big, new point of view.
Paul is telling us that we need new lenses. We need that wide angle that puts our lives into perspective, not by minimizing or trivializing our struggles, but rather by lifting them up into a larger context. We need to remember that if we are in Christ we belong to him who knew suffering and death, and rose again. If we are in Christ we are part of the new order, the order that prays and works tirelessly for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven.
That new order is present smack dab in the middle of all our struggles and we have to open our eyes to see it. I confessed earlier to being grumpy and telling God to “Come Big!” but maybe the real issue is that we need to “See Big!” We need to see big, even in the midst of our daily lives and all the horrible news. We need to watch for God’s presence in the people who surround us, in the events and what I like to call “God-incidences” rather than coincidences, that frequently surprise and delight us. We need to call to mind the way God has been weaving tapestries with all of our lives, tapestries that include shiny threads and ugly ones, but which in the end, are spectacularly unified pieces of art we could never have created on our own. We need to see in the many different talents God has given us, and is continuing to develop in us, the means by which we can be faithful, fierce, builders of God’s new realm of justice, compassion and love.
So Richard and I will be taking off tomorrow for, among other places, the Vatican and a 15th-century hospital and hospice that was dedicated to caring for the poor and destitute in Beaune, France. What an interesting contrast! The opulence and power of the Vatican, and the frailty of the French peasants who were considered of no account by those in power who constantly crushed them under foot and left them to live and die in misery and poverty. We will be seeing all of the sites through the lenses of being “Anam Cara,” the Irish term for soul friends, for people who walk with others through life and through death. We will be walking through history and remembering that the sacred art of living comes fully alive as we name, grieve, and finally claim victory over the many deaths, literal and figurative, that surround us.
This life is hard. St. Paul knew that and you and I know that. We will face death over and over again, but we do so as people who claim God’s ability to bring life out of death. One of my favorite parts of our communion liturgy is the following prayer, “God, we thank you for your son, Jesus, who lived with us, sharing joy and sorrow. He told your story, healed the sick, and was a friends of sinners. Obeying you he took up his cross and was murdered by men he loved. We praise you that he is not dead, but is risen to rule the world; and that he is still the friend of sinners. We trust him to overcome every power to hurt and divide us, so that, when you bring in your promised kingdom we will celebrate victory with him.” We trust him to overcome every power to hurt and divide us…
Make no mistake—the powers of death are always trying to hurt and divide us—in big ways, and also in small, aggravating ways that eat away at our peace and strength. But we trust Christ to overcome those powers. That’s our way of looking at life.
Those are the lenses God intends for us to wear as we walk in this world, taking one step at a time and trusting God to guide us every step of the way.