Sermon given at St. Bartholomew’s Church, October 16, 2016
The monarch of Thailand, King Bhumibol, died this week, ending a respected and popular reign of seven decades. For most of the people of that land, he was the only king that they had ever known. It is a time of deep grief (so much so that there was a report that demand for black mourning cloth has led to price gouging) but also one of anxiety. For the death of their beloved king has set in motion a succession that many Thai people say they wish they could avoid. King Bhumibol had been a force of unity in a country that is torn by deep division of class, religion, and politics, and is currently ruled by a military junta. People wonder if the crown prince, not as highly esteemed as his father, can hold the country together. In this interregnum, everyone is holding their breath to see what is in store in this vulnerable time. Sixty-seven million people find themselves completely dependent upon the next steps of a very small group of people, especially the crown prince, if he chooses to ascend. The entire structure, the entire order of that kingdom is just waiting, waiting to see what is next, whether it will be the same, whether it will be different, whether it will be.
I don’t have to tell you that our nation is in this same period of transition, waiting to see what is next as the election approaches to determine the nature of our presidential succession. Coincidentally, our parish of St. Bart’s is in a similar period, our rector’s search and appointment process is accompanied by the same kinds of hopes and anxieties, yet on a smaller scale. In every transition of institutional power, a veil is lifted. We tend to see clearly that our beloved institutions are precious, reaching deep inside us to make us who we are. And, no matter how large they may become, our beloved institutions are delicate, requiring constant maintenance, and, at the transition, at the joint, they are especially vulnerable.
It’s quite similar to individuals. We are at our most raw and exposed when we are transitioning from one chapter of our life to the next, even more so when it is not on our time table. It could be a loss of a relationship or a job or a death of a loved one. Or it could be a good thing, like the coming of a new person to the family, or a move for a new opportunity. Any shift is a stressor. I don’t why we’re made in this way, but we are like cars with bad transmissions. We’re fine when the car is in gear and all is well. But if we have to change gears, there’s this horrible noise, as the gears rotate faster than you can imagine, moving on their own, not together, unable to find one another, causing friction and heat, longing to unite again, and every moment they aren’t together, the gears grind and wear each other down. They corrode. And so much is at stake for those gears, for if they don’t meet, and kiss, and work together, they won’t be gears for long. They’ll be just tiny discs spinning alone, going nowhere.
The instinct and development of the church has been such that it, and other faiths, have ordered their lives around the shifts, when people are transitioning from one stage to the next. The church springs to life at these shifts, say when a person enters life at baptism, or leaving life at the last rite of anointing. The church ushers some of us through the transition to being married or ordained, or perhaps through a medical crisis in prayer and visitation. But every week it ushers all of us through that ever present in-between time, the weekend, a pause to many of our working lives. The church gathers and surrounds us at these special and holy times. And so we take the highest care to be appropriately joyful or appropriately sorrowful, but in all things providing dignity and expression of God’s presence and loving support.
This is crucial work, not only for individuals, but for our common life, as parishes, cities, nations, and international alliances. These are times for great tenderness and the full flowering of our good-will and prudence because these are the precise times when everything is up for grabs, all is at risk. Unfortunately, as adversaries know, it is at these times when you can do the most damage, cause the most disruption. During a great shift, it would be one of the worst times to throw a spanner in the works, to attack, to exploit. But it is also one of the best times to promote the most healing. It is during these times that we are most receptive to new options, and most poised to reset what had been formerly broken, to get our lives on a new track. And it is during times like these that good works shine ever brighter in a darkening landscape, perhaps they even have a little more kick, a little more oomph, in times like these.
Unfortunately, you don’t always know when the shifts are in process. Sometimes it is obvious, like this election season, but most times the shifts in people’s lives are invisible. And so, displayed by the widow in the parable that Jesus told who cried for justice day and night, we are to be vigilant in our virtues of justice, mercy, and kindness. We don’t know a lot of the details of the scenario that Jesus conjured up for our edification. We don’t know what injustice the widow had been subject to. It could have been any number of things: neglect, abuse, theft. But we do know that things had gone wrong, and she was not going to stop until things were set right. But she was, then, the epitome of powerlessness. She had no power, only the wisdom to situate herself by the powerful, the judge, both an individual and an institution, and cry out again and again for justice. Who knows what changed the judge’s mind? Was it just annoyance, or had he reached a breaking point? He announces that he was worn out. Had he reached a shift in his life that made his armor come down, allowing him to hear what she was saying, making him vulnerable for some shred of truth to make its way into his life? For whatever reason, the widow’s persistence in the truth paid off. The most powerful man in town caved in, and a new order was established, one of greater justice, and greater truth.
This was a key part of Jesus’ advice to us. He told us to stay awake, for we don’t know the day or the hour of God’s coming. He warned us to not be like the bridesmaids who didn’t have their lamps trimmed and burning when the bridegroom came, and so were left in darkness. He grieved when his friends couldn’t stay awake with him in the Garden of Gethsemane, for it was his last night he would share with them. His teaching and his life were a cumulative counsel for us to keep vigilant, to keep at works of justice, to keep at works of kindness and mercy, for we don’t know the day or the hour of those delicate times when our love, as powerless as we may feel, will be magnified by circumstance, endowed with the strength to move mountains, or heal millions, or guide a single wondrous soul out of the fog and into the light of God’s way of mercy and love.
It’s all in the timing. But, unfortunately, the times move where they will. And we never know when we matter most. So, the trick is to be like that widow who never quit. It is our calling to persist in justice, to keep our hearts beating the drum of mercy, to keep our hope alive. The widow found her cry that she could give day and night. Instead of a cry, for us, how about a song?
Is there some song we can keep singing with our lives, not even that, is there, for starters, just one sustained note we can hum, one clear beautiful note that we can offer to the world as long as we have breath? For this is a world of hardened hearts and institutions, but at the interregnums, at the crises, at the shifts, God’s song has ever more power to break through. What note of that great symphony is yours to sing, as long as you have breath?