Friday, September 5, 2014

Power, Promise and Presence (Sept 7 2014, St. Albans)

Homily:  Yr A P23, Sept 7 2014, St. Albans
Readings:  Exodus 12.1-14; Ps 149; Rom 13.8-14; Mt 18.15-20

The Power and Promise of Presence

I really wish it was true.  I really wish that you and I could come together, and share our deepest concerns, and agree on something, anything, to ask, and that it would be done for us by our Father in heaven.  I’m thinking of the big asks.  I’m thinking about my friend who’s being treated for cancer.  I’m thinking about the conflicts and suffering in so many places that I’ve read about in the news lately.  I’m thinking about the things that we as a community often pray together.   I believe that there is power in gathering, and power in coming to agreement.  I believe that there is power in asking, and that there is power in prayer.  I’ve seen and experienced that power at work, in my own life and in the lives of others.  There are times when I experience prayers as answered – but there are also times when I don’t.  I really wish it was true that if two people agree on earth about anything they ask, it would be done for them by my Father in heaven.  But that’s not my experience.

And in that I’m sure I’m not alone.  The gospel we read today will be proclaimed by a billion Christians around the world.  I wonder how it will be heard.  I wonder how it will be heard in northern Iraq, where it will be read in the mountains and in the refugee camps of Christians who have been forced to flee their villages.  I wonder how it will be heard in Liberia this morning, by those who sit in quarantine suffering from ebola.  Surely in those places voices have been raised in union this very day asking, pleading with God for healing and for peace, or perhaps simply pleading for enough food and water to survive another night.  I pray that it will be done for them.  Perhaps it will.

These last months have been brutal.  The on-going civil war in Syria with hundreds of thousands killed and millions displaced from their homes and villages.  The ebola outbreak in West Africa.  The war in Gaza, race riots in Ferguson, the beheadings of two journalists by ISIS, the genocides going on in northern Iraq, the conflict in Ukraine with Russia, not to mention our own personal tragedies, things that never make the headlines but affect us just as deeply.  It’s been brutal.  What is going on in the world?  It is a question many of us are asking.  I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me during the past month to tell me how angry they are or how saddened they are or how perplexed they are by what’s going on.  We respond with rage, we respond with depression.  And sometimes we wonder, where is God in the midst of all this?

I understand, at least a little, why God can’t just do any and everything we ask.  Bishop John’s article this month in Crosstalk is entitled “Where do you put your rage?”  When we see a video of a brutal beheading, when we read news reports of children bombed on a beach, we are rightly angry, and just imagine what we might ask for in our rage.  We may well respond with words like today’s psalm in which the psalmist cries “let a two-edged sword be in their hand, to wreak vengeance on the nations and punishment on the people.”  Or perhaps we might choose the words of a modern psalmist like Bruce Cockburn:  “If I had a rocket launcher, some son of a bitch would pay.”

And yet, in our rage and in our sadness and in our confusion, in the midst of emotions that so often can isolate us, Jesus calls us to gather together, and to pray.  Justin, the Archbishop of Canterbury, put it this way recently:  “You can’t look at the pictures coming from Gaza and Israel without your heart breaking.  We must cry to God and beat down the doors of heaven and pray for peace and justice and security.” 

When we do, Jesus promises us that our Father in heaven is listening and will respond.

When will God act? How will God respond?  I don’t know, but I do believe it will be in more ways than we can ask or imagine. 

Sometimes we’ll be called to be part of that response. I have a friend, who found herself moved by the suffering in parts of central Africa, suffering caused by war and conflict, suffering caused by disease and inadequate medical resources.  She and many others prayed that those who were suffering there might find healing and peace.  Not long afterwards, a flyer from Medicins Sans Frontiers showed up in her mailbox.  Within months, she found herself on a flight to the Central African Republic to work as a nurse practitioner in the MSF clinic there, treating those who were sick and those who had been wounded as a result of the conflict.

But it doesn’t always work like that.  Sometimes, many times, we can’t see anything happening in response to our prayers.

Two weeks ago I was in Pembroke for a preaching workshop with some other priests of our Diocese.  While we were there, one of my colleagues received an urgent phone call.  She jumped in her car and rushed to the intensive care unit of a nearby hospital.  One of her parishioners was in the ICU, and he and his family had just made the difficult decision to end the blood transfusions which had been keeping him alive but were no longer working.  When my colleague arrived at his side, there was nothing that could be done.  There was nothing she could do.  There wasn’t much to be said.  And so for the time that she was there, she simply sat by his bedside, holding his hand.

Sometimes I think that we focus so much on what needs to be done that we miss the most important part of the promise that Jesus makes in today’s gospel:

For where two or three are gathered in my name I am there among them.

It is the promise of presence.  The promise of a God who chose to come into this world to be present as a human being, Emmanuel, God with us.  The promise of a God who raised Jesus from the dead so that he might be with us always, to the end of time.  There is power in presence, a power that too often we miss or dismiss in our habitual rushing around to get things done.

Whenever, wherever people gather in Jesus name, he is in their midst, comforting, encouraging, holding our hands.  Today once again, as he promised, Jesus is in the midst of God’s people:  on the mountains of northern Iraq, in the ebola wards of Liberia, in the home of my friend with cancer, here with us in our worship this morning.

For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.  That’s the promise that I’m willing to hang my hat on.  That’s the promise I’m willing to stake my life on. 


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