Transcribed from the audio recording.
In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
A theologian said that a preacher should preach with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. And during this week, as I’ve attempted to do that, I’ll confess to you that it’s been pretty overwhelming. Just a quick review of the news within the past week or so: we could reflect on the second anniversary of the August 23rd earthquake that shook this Cathedral literally to its foundations—shook it physically, shook it spiritually, shook it financially—and we can still see the vestiges of that all around us and feel its effects. A few days later we remembered the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, reflected on the eternal truths of the powerful words that day of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The truth of the words that day, what’s happened in the past fifty years, and of course, how much is yet to be done to bring about the change that he so eloquently spoke of. Then, if you’ve been following the news, there’s the super black budget. Thanks to the leaks of Snowdon, learning a little bit more about the activities of our national security agencies and confirming probably for some of us our worst fears on how much we don’t know. Then we could consider the fact that it’s Labor Day weekend and reflect on those among us who are still struggling with unemployment or underemployment and the ripple effect that that has on all of us. Right around the corner is the twelfth anniversary of September 11 and all that’s happened since then. And then of course, there’s Syria. It is enough to make any one of us want to roll over when we wake up in the morning and pull the covers back over our heads.
There are at least fifty sermons in that quick reflection. So, knowing that I was only allotted one, I moved to our Scriptures. The Letter to the Hebrews lifts up for us a bit of a mini-catechism, if you will, a teaching on moral imperatives and instructions on what it means to be a follower of Christ, how to be and to do good. Well, there are at least ten sermons in that. And then looking at our Gospel lesson, Jesus lifts up for us, yet again, the bright light on what radical hospitality looks like and the challenge in that. So as I reflected on the newspaper in one hand and the Bible on the other, part of what I sensed was perhaps some of what you may be feeling. We are in a time of incredible change and uncertainty. And for many of us, that is anxiety provoking—raw fear for many—and understandably so.
It begs the question, where do we, in the midst of what’s going on all around us—over much of which we don’t have control—where do we find our grounding? Where do we find our stillness? Where do we find our security and the unchanging nature of being a follower of Christ when everything around us seems to be uncertain? Well, for me, I found my answer in part of the passage you heard from Hebrews. You know it, we all know it. We’ve heard it so many times; but do we embrace it? Do we claim it—that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever? And what would it mean if we really lived into that and found our source of guidance and strength and security in that eternal truth? That there is One, One in our lives who is unchanging and always as near as our next breath.
What do we do when we get anxious or nervous? What do we reach for? How do we try and deal with the uncertainty and uneasiness in our lives? Some of us go for comfort food. Now, I would be the first one to say, I love mashed potatoes, too. But it’s been my experience that the only lasting effect to mashed potatoes can be found on my hips, not in my spirit. Some of us may reach for a glass of wine; some of us may go shopping; some of us may pick up the phone to call a close friend and discover that their anxiety matches or exceeds our own which is not terribly helpful when we’re trying to be still and live into the promise of the One who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
We have habits; we have routines that when we have a particular circumstance in our life, we have a particular pattern that typically follows. What would it take for us to change the habit of mashed potatoes to maybe a holy habit of seeking Christ in those times? I’m in the midst of reading a fascinating book by Charles Duhigg. It’s called The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do and How to Change. He posits the view that we as individuals, we as organizations, we as societies have particular habits and patterns that we follow. He cites his interest in the topic from the time when he was a reporter in Iraq and heard that there was an Army major who was trying to modify behavior. He was trying to figure out how to keep a group that would gather in open plazas, over a period of time, from predictably turning violent. And so he watched hours and hours and hours of videotape looking for patterns, looking for what triggered the next thing. What were the habits, what were the routines and patterns that were being followed? And he thought he finally figured it out. So he asked the mayor of that city if he would keep food vendors from arriving on a scene when a group of people gathered and the mayor agreed. So, sure enough, a group started to gather and as the pattern always happened, more people came. The chanting got louder; the crowd got more restless. It was growing and growing and growing in numbers and intensity; it was at a fever pitch. But the people got hungry and there were no food vendors to be found. So rather than violence ensuing because people had fuel for their fury, they got tired and hungry and went home. We all have habits, whether we recognize them or not.
What would it take for us to establish holy habits in those times when we most needed the grounding in Christ, the One who’s the same yesterday, today, and forever? When and how do you feel closest to God? What moves you closer to the presence of God? For some of us, it’s music and if you think about it—think about sacred spiritual music over the centuries that in its own way speaks to the things that are most familiar to us—some of those favorite hymns and spiritual songs underscore the same point that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Going back a few centuries, in the words of Isaac Watts,
O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home.
Fast-forward two centuries to one of the most beloved Negro spirituals that Marian Anderson recorded in 1924,
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen
Nobody knows but Jesus
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen
Fifty years forward: gospel music by the Gaithers—Bill and Gloria—
Because He lives, I can face tomorrow,
Because He lives, all fear is gone;
Because I know He holds the future,
And life is worth the living,
Just because He lives!
Music transports many of us. Prayer transports many of us. Meditation transports many of us. But we remember and we forget. We’re in a constant cycle of remembering and forgetting. What would it take for us to change our habits that, in those times when we most need the One who is unchanging, that’s what we seek and not mashed potatoes. I leave you with that challenge. We gather as community to worship God. We gather as community to be reminded that God in Christ is as near as our next breath. We never need to feel alone. We never need to give into the anxiety and the unease and the unrest in the world that would seek to overwhelm us. We have our grounding in Christ. “O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, be Thou our guide while life shall last, and our eternal home.” Amen.