A Sermon for the 25th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 28)
by Louise Browner Blanchard, Associate Rector
Earlier this week, on Veterans Day, St. Mary’s Seniors welcomed World War II Army veteran John Burke as the speaker at their monthly luncheon. Mr. Burke participated in D-Day, the largest air, land, and sea operation in history. The June 6, 1944 invasion of Normandy, France by the United States and its allies was the beginning of the Battle of Normandy. It would definitively turn the tide of the war with Nazi Germany and its confederates, a war that had seen the destruction of Pearl Harbor, the bombing of London, the decimation of European Jews, and the occupation and control of Western Europe.
As Mr. Burke described it, everything that could go wrong with the D-Day invasion did, starting with the weather. When the invasion finally began, tens of thousands of soldiers, including Mr. Burke, jumped into the icy waters of the English Channel. Carrying heavy equipment, they did their best to swim, run, and crawl to the beaches. Artillery and small arms fire rained on them from all sides, and casualties were heavy. Those soldiers who reached the shore faced steep cliffs and razor wire. Yet the participants remained steadfast, and their persistence paid off. The defeat of Nazi Germany was underway.
We were transfixed by Mr. Burke’s recounting of that momentous day. Planning and preparing for D-Day took over two years. It required ingenuity and innovation…and the patience it took to get things right in the face of a formidable enemy. When he reflected on how he made it through that awful time, Mr. Burke said, “Training. We trained, and we trained, and we trained. And we encouraged one another. Once we were on the move, we encouraged the people in front of us, ‘Keep going. Keep going. Keep going,’ and the people behind us encouraged us, ‘Keep going. Keep going. Keep going.’ And we did.”
You might say that Jesus is giving similar advice to the disciples in today’s gospel. They have all arrived in Jerusalem, which is quite likely the biggest city the men from Galilee have ever seen. Some of them are especially impressed by the temple, which was a huge complex and certainly unlike anything they had ever seen. Jesus, however, summarily dismisses their admiration with a warning by telling them that the buildings will be destroyed.
Not surprisingly, this comment grabs the disciples’ attention. When will this happen, and how will we know that it’s going to, they ask. Jesus doesn’t answer their question, but he gives them the answer they need. Be wise about who you listen to, he tells them. Lots of terrible things will happen in addition to the destruction of the temple–wars and earthquakes and famines. But, Jesus says, the disciples should not be alarmed. Once again, he is reminding them that they must see the world in a different way than the Jewish authorities and the Roman rulers and those who follow their old ways. Once again, he is reminding them to be cautious about whose voice they listen to, to be patient in the midst of calamitous times, and to remain hopeful. Remember, Jesus essentially says, and encourage each other the same. Be cautious, be patient, and stay hopeful.
Little did the disciples realize that Jesus would be crucified within a few short days. Their world would turn upside down. In fear and despair, they would even hide. But they had trained and trained and trained, and very shortly they would realize that things were indeed different than they had ever been before. Yes, Jesus had been crucified, but also yes, he was still with them. In the waiting and the watching, the glory of the resurrection would become apparent–in the Upper Room, along the road, on the beach, and through the ages. Keep going, keep going, keep going.
We live in our own calamitous times, as Friday night in Paris reminds us all. Today’s gospel (surely not just a coincidence) reminds us what we have been trained to do. Be cautious–especially in the face of chaos. Be wary of people who claim to have the solution. They may well do more harm than good. Pay attention, because even in the midst of upheaval, God is present and engaged. And be hopeful. As the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews says in the other lesson for today:
Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as your see the Day approaching.
The other day, before the horrors of Friday night, I was talking to a friend who is working on a project to gather different types of prayers from around the world. My friend told me that, interestingly, the hardest types of prayer for people to write are prayers of adoration. Most of us are comfortable, for example, praying for other people and other situations (prayers of intercession), praying for what we want (prayers of petition), and even praying our gratitude (prayers of thanksgiving). But for some reason, telling God how wonderful he–and she–is is daunting. And yet, my friend said, people who are participating in the project report that once they get over the hurdle of praying in adoration, they are changed. Their perception of God’s presence expands, even in the midst of despair and tragedy. They may not understand how God is involved in their lives and the life of the world, but they’re assured that God is indeed present. Keep going, keep going, keep going.
The promise of today’s gospel is that the more we seek to discern God’s presence, the more clearly we will see it. That is our training, and that is our task. We encourage each other, and we rest in the hope of God’s presence and God’s triumph. In the meantime, we become changed in ways that we could never imagine. We see possibilities in what seemed impossible or overwhelming or hopeless, and we see them become reality.
The D-Day invasion took years of planning and practice. The disciples could not begin to imagine what they were about to face. God only knows how long we will endure the trials and tribulations of today, on whatever level of our lives they occur. But we have been trained in the wonders of Jesus’s life and death and resurrection, we hold fast to the promise of the good news, and we embrace and hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life.