Endurance is a song
A Sermon on Luke 21:5-19
Yesterday morning we had a Town Hall meeting. It was a time for people to ask any question they wanted to ask about All Saints', the Episcopal Church, and so on. I started with, "What do you want to talk about?" One person said, "Baptisms." Then, "Pledges for 2011." Someone else said, "Great Hall music."
The Great Hall music question had to do with the way Paul Kigenza, our new assistant music director at All Saints', uses repetition in some of the songs we sing. "He has us sing a verse not just once or twice, but three or four times," this person said. "The music starts to sink in, and I've learned that it goes deeper for me when we sing it a few more times." To repeat a phrase, to say it or sing it over and over again, can be really boring. But . . . if we stop thinking about it, if we just do it, something else can happen. If we let those words descend from our minds and lips into our hearts and souls, if we let the music carry the words way, deep down . . . we will not just sing them, we will also pray them.
This is an ancient technique, a method Christians and people of other faiths have used for centuries. This is what happens when we practice the sacred art of chant. It also happens when we sing something over and over as a child and end up remembering it, all our lives. When I was a chaplain serving in an Alzheimer's unit, I learned that I could go there and try to talk with folks, but the best thing I could do for them was to sing a children's song, like "Jesus Loves Me." No matter what they had forgotten, they remembered those words.
We're going to have a Town Hall meeting every three months or so. But today, in the Great Hall, let's think together about singing and prayer and the power of repetition, in both music and words. Please turn back in your bulletin to the Collect of the Day on page 4. Let's take another look at these words before we consider a word of Scripture. Would you pray that collect again, with me:
Blessed Lord, who caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. AMEN.
This is an old prayer, one that many people have come to love because it reminds us of how God calls us to go deeper with Holy Scripture: hear, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest. But wait a minute. ALL Holy Scriptures? Did you HEAR some of today's words from Scripture? From Malachi: The day that comes will burn them up. And from Luke: You will be betrayed even by parents . . . relatives and friends. . . . Now, I ask you: Who wants to remember that? Who wants to sing those words?
Years ago a wise woman, a Bible scholar told me there was a word in the New Testament, one word that was used over and over again to describe how to live the Christian life. There was one word to remember when following Jesus, she said, one word in the Gospels and in St. Paul's letters that came up more often than you might realize. What do you think that word might be?
That one word of discipleship, a word Christians need to remember is, in the original Greek, hupomone. It's pronounced hoop-om-on-AY. An easy way to remember this word is to sing it - to, say, the first four notes of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah: "HOOP-om-ON-ay! HOOP-om-ON-ay!"
It means ENDURANCE. "Endurance" describes what animals, including human beings, create when we exercise. When we run or swim or walk briskly, we exert ourselves over a period of time. Athletes use endurance training to strengthen their muscles for long distances, so they can endure it, "go the distance," "stay the course." We all benefit from endurance exercises, because they're good for the heart. And for the soul.
"By your endurance you will gain your souls" (Luke 21:19). That's the last verse of the Gospel we've just heard. And it's the one I want you to remember when you leave here today. How do we gain our souls and re-gain our hearts? How shall we live our Christian lives? HOOP-om-ON-ay! Endurance. Hanging in there. Going the distance. Staying the course.
There are reasons why these Scriptures have been chosen for us to hear today. After six months, the season of the church year is changing, along with nature's season. We are coming to the end of the long, green season after Pentecost and getting ready, in two weeks, for the very short season of Advent, those four weeks before Christmas. Another ancient practice of the church is to hear lessons from the Bible that remind us that there this is an end to all things here on earth. To everything, the book of Ecclesiastes says, there is a season. (Some of you remember a song set to those words: Turn, turn, turn . . . )
In our Gospel passage today Jesus is teaching his friends about God's seasons and changes. Some of God's changes are more difficult to accept than others. Some changes may even feel wrong. Take, for example, the temple people were talking about. In Bible times, the Jerusalem temple was built to last. It was King Herod's masterpiece. The inside of that remodeled temple took less than two years to complete, but the outer courts and decorations took more than . . . eighty years. I wonder: did they argue as much about remodeling in Bible times as we do? About sixty years after Jesus was born, thirty years after his death, that magnificent temple also died. The Jerusalem temple, in all its final glory, stood less than ten years before it was destroyed by the Roman Empire.
Today, we hear Jesus warn his friends that "the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down" (21:6). He was, essentially, asking them, "What do you think really lasts in this world? When things change, what endures?" Do temples of worship? Do churches? One of the things I heard over and over again when I first came to All Saints' was, "Whatever you do, don't move the Great Hall chairs!" Of course, this is not the first or second or twenty-second time I've heard something like that as a priest in all the parishes I've served. What ever you do, don't move the chairs. Don't move the altar. Don't change our times or places of worship. And don't you dare touch the music.
All Saints' has been in existence since 1742. That's a long time. But will it last? Will All Saints' endure? Will we endure? And if so, how will we endure?
Jesus says three things to his disciples in today's Gospel account from Luke. First, what's going on now is not the end of the world. It just feels that way sometimes. Every generation thinks that its time is or could be the last time, the end of all time. Our own generations, from Greatest to Boomer to Gen-Xer, we have all had our own experiences of war, natural disasters, political chaos. It's a hard course, an obstacle course, we might say, to live life today, to be a 21st century Christian. But I really don't think it was any easier in Jesus' day.
In the midst of chaos, when we experience changes, when it feels like the end of the world as we know it, the second thing Jesus tells his disciples is: endure - hang in there, go the distance, stay the course. But we cannot do that by ourselves. We cannot endure alone. We do things on this earth with God's help. Remember what our Baptismal covenant says? "I will, with God's help." And God helps us through other people. Christians are called by Jesus to do love one another and to do things together.
Finally, Jesus tells his disciples then and now, that when it gets personal - when our own disasters take the shape of things like a divorce or a diagnosis or homelessness or addiction or any kind of unwanted change, at church or anywhere else - when disasters get personal, we will have folks right where we want them. "This will give you an opportunity to testify," Jesus says (21:13). In terrible times, we have an opportunity to testify to the truth as we see it. And Jesus will give us the words. And people will listen to us. "I will give you words and a wisdom," Jesus assures us (21:15). Yet sometimes, there ARE no words to describe our disasters. Sometimes, it feels like there are no words. There is only wisdom. And wisdom may come in many forms, including music.
I want to close with a story about a song. Thomas Andrew Dorsey was born in a small Georgia town in 1899. He was the son of an African-American preacher. In Atlanta, Thomas learned about jazz and blues and how they grew out of the gospel music he had always heard in church. He attended music classes and before he was twenty, he was known as "Georgia Tom," playing barrelhouse piano in bands and even in one of Al Capone's speakeasies.
A few years later Thomas had a conversion experience and began writing gospel songs. Gradually his reputation as a Christian songwriter grew. One day, when he was thirty-three, he was handed a telegram while leading music far from home. It said, "Your wife just died." A friend drove him through the night, and he arrived home to discover that their baby boy had also just died.
"I began to feel that God had done me an injustice," Thomas said years later. "I didn't want to serve God anymore or write any more gospel songs." But the next Saturday, while alone in a friend's music room, Thomas had a "strange feeling" inside - a sudden calm and a quiet stillness. As his fingers began to run over the keys, words from Jesus began to fall into place. The song he wrote is called, "Precious Lord, Take My Hand."
Listen now to these words, and especially to the refrain. Listen to words that can descend, from our lips, deep into our hearts. Listen to the wisdom of Jesus. Listen to these words that show us again that, sometimes, endurance is a song. The refrain is, "Take my Hand, precious Lord, lead me home."