Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost
November 18, 2001
The Gospel: Luke 21:5-19
The Rev. Dr. William H. Morley
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, "As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down." They asked him, "Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?" And he said, "Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!' and, 'The time is near!' Do not go after them. When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately." Then he said to them, "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls."
Sermon by the Rev. Dr. William H. Morley
Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost - November 18, 2001
St. Luke: 21:5-19
Jesus said . ..... I will give you your words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict... "
One of the privileges of my work as an executive coach is to travel to many different cities. It allows "this observer" of people's behaviors an opportunity to gather great sources of data for sermon stories as well as to confirm the incredible nuances that make up human behavior. God really inhabited this earth with many different and fascinating characters.
My story of human behavior, this morning, comes from the street corner of one of my former clients, MTV Networks. Some of you may know this Company through personal experience or the experiences of your children and grandchildren. MTV Networks is made up of MTV (cable music channel), VH- 1 (the music video channel) and Nickelodeon (kids shows and games and classic reruns of TV sitcoms). MTV Networks is owned by Viacom and is located right on Times Square in New York City. From the front door you can see the theatres of Broadway, the ABC and ESPN broadcast studios and the enormous NBC TV screen, Virgin Records, and of course the lights, sounds and "scenes" of a large international city. And, you will also hear street preachers proclaiming all sorts of prophecies.
One afternoon, about a year ago, I was preparing to head into the MTV Networks building when I heard through a loudspeaker words of "venom". This street prophesier was spouting phrases that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up and scream. He used biblical verses (often misquoted and most often misinterpreted) to rail against Americans and people who represent a variety of races and creeds.
It was definitely one of those times when you realized how incredibly foresighted the framers of our Republic were in establishing the principle of "Freedom of Speech." Because, at the top of his lungs he was arguing a point that at the top of my lungs I would want to counter vigorously. Not everything he said was untrue, but the anger that came through his voice was frightening. Then the moment of truth arrived: he paused, took a cleansing breath and proclaimed: "The end of time is coming and Armageddon is near ... come Lord Jesus, come!" The business suited gentleman standing in front of me turned to his colleague and uttered: "he may just be right ... are you prepared?"
On first glance, the Gospel reading for today speaks of this "end time discourse". The temple falling, false prophets spreading their words, wars and revolts, nations rising up against nations, kingdom against kingdoms, famines and epidemics, arrests and persecutions, families against families ... all questioning the beliefs of the Church of Christ Jesus and our relationship to Him. It begs us to ask ourselves some important questions: Are we prepared? Will we know and recognize the voice and words of God? Will we have the assurance of faith in Christ Jesus to know that He will "give us words and a wisdom that none of our opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. "
Last week, I was having a conversation with my sister who lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and she told me that her adult class at their Episcopal Church had read Bishop Claude Payne and Hamilton Beazley's book: "Reclaiming the Great Commission". She advised me to get, in her words, "one of the most powerful and compelling books on how to spread the Christian faith." So, I dialed into Amazon.com and ordered the book. To date, I have read about 40% of the book, and she is right. It is very powerful and compelling. It may prove to be one of the most important writings of our new millennium, and something we might consider reading as a congregation at St. Thomas' this Lent.
The very first chapter addresses the "Spiritual Hunger in America". It speaks to our topic this morning: "Are we prepared?" Let me share with you a few important insights from this first chapter. It beings with these words:
"In the final prosperous years of the 20th Century, no hunger seemed deeper within the American soul than an unsatisfied longing for spirituality. The new century and the new millennium have brought no end to this spiritual yearning. Surveys consistently indicate that a large majority of American adults remain dissatisfied despite the material rewards they have accumulated, the physical pleasures they have experienced, and the leisure time they have taken. Americans are reeling emotionally from daily life in a society traumatized by too much violence, too many divided families, and too little job security. The pain and isolation caused by reliance on material things and on human resources alone has grown unbearable. People are searching for something more meaningful and more enduring. Tens of millions of unchurched Americans are open to a set of spiritual truths that will free them from the burdens of materialism and the shackles of worldliness."
The authors go on to point out that even science has entered the spiritual arena by confirming the relationship between faith and healing. The Harvard Medical School sponsored a 1998 Houston conference on "spirituality and healing" in medicine, and physicians heard how "belief in a higher power and prayer can give comfort from suffering, speed healing and improve health." Consider these findings:
- Open heart surgery patients are 12 times more likely to survive if they have religious faith and support
- Mortality rates are 25% lower for men and 35% lower for females who attend religious services once a week or more
- People who attend church or synagogues once a week are more likely to live longer
- 1/3 of medical schools in the United States now have courses on medicine and spirituality.
- Bottom line: Jesus is good for your health!!!!
The noted religious writer Michael Novak, in a 1998 New York Times article, said this: "the 21st Century will be the most religious in 500 years .... the focus of the 20th Century has been on outer space, but the focus of the 21st Century may well be on inner space" as spirituality receives greater attention in the new millennium.
A 1997 Gallop poll found that 96% of Americans still believed in God (by comparison 95% in 1947), but a Barna Poll found that 33% of Americans who said they believed in God did not believe in the biblical God but in a "higher consciousness" or an eastern god or even "many gods". Here's an even more disturbing statistic: between 4 and 5% of Americans believed that they themselves are God! "
So, what is "spiritual hunger"? It's a deep yearning of the human soul for contact with God - the yearning for awareness of an ongoing relationship with the Transcendent, more profound than anything available in the material world. Out of this relationship with God comes a greater sense of satisfaction with oneself and with others in the world.
If spirituality is absent, we could describe this metaphorically as a "hole in the center of one's being" that not even fame, power, wealth, beauty or intelligence (the greatest prizes in the material world) can fill or repair it.
The spiritual hunger in America, the authors suggest is a reflection of faith relationships centered on material concerns rather than spiritual truths. It is so beautifully summed up in St. Matthew's Gospel with Jesus' words: "It is written, One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God. "
Bishop Payne goes on to say that the hunger that drives this search for spirituality in America has several sources:
1. One source of this famine of the soul is the absence of a meaningful relationship with the eternal God, the living Christ.
2. Another source of spiritual hunger is the deeply felt need among the unchurched for hope and healing. As human weakness is exposed in the trial and tribulations of life, we feel overwhelmed, and intuitively we turn for assistance from a higher power. Hear the words of the Psalmist (30:2): "O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you healed me." What a great source of joy than for this community to know that St. Thomas has healing services on Wednesdays.
3. Spiritual hunger is found in those who have felt, however briefly, the divine presence and want to experience more of it: in prayer groups, at the bedside of an ailing friend, at the birth of a child, in the breaking of the bread at the Eucharist, at the waters of baptism ... when God is called upon to truly be in our midst, we will feel His presence.
We, as the body of Christ--the Church, can foster this transcendent presence of God in our midst by focusing ourselves on Him, on his unconditional love of Grace, and on His call to serve Him by serving others. "I have said these things to you," Jesus said, "that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete."
My sisters and brothers in Christ, you need to be aware of this fact: the life of Christian spirituality recognizes that suffering and struggles are part of psychological and spiritual growth, AND that God's assistance and comfort are available to strengthen and encourage the faithful. Christ's Resurrection, after Jesus' acceptance of HIS death on the cross, illustrates the blessing that results from a commitment to the attainment of something larger and more significant than oneself. This lesson of struggle and sacrifice is a primary lesson of Christianity, and its validity is confirmed daily in our Christian lives.
Christianity is not a way to escape the trials and tribulations of life, rather a way to overcome them, to handle them effectively and meaningfully, and to find purpose in the pain they being.
- Christ Himself was not denied freedom from suffering ... he embraced it for the purpose it served. The way of the cross - of acceptance, love, and transformation - Christ exemplified a pathway to fulfillment and shares with us the realization of OUR potential as God's children. This is one of the great promises of the Christian faith.
- We can find countless examples in the stories of God's transformation in the early Christian Church:
- Pagans became disciples because of what they heard from the Christian community-the sharing of the stories of faith - the words of Jesus, the parables, the inspired Words of God through His faithful --- all of it would eventually be written down and form the basis of the New Testament
- They experienced the awesome power of the love of God expressed through the community of believers who felt that love in depth of their souls and it manifested itself in the miraculous changes in their lives and attitudes about their neighbors
- People were converted to Christianity because they saw and felt the power of God, were loved, and were healed.
So then, what is the Role of the Church today?
- It's not to create a demand for religious experiences with people, RATHER it is to address and effectively satisfy the demand that already exists
- We must see that sharing our Christian faith is not intrusive, IT'S RESPONSIVE. Spirituality is faith carried into the world.
- Our spiritual development is not an event, but rather a way of life that leads to a deeper and more powerful relationship with God. Spiritual growth is not a retreat from the world, rather a BOLD VENTURE into it.
- Spiritual development takes time, effort and patience. It is both a commitment and a dedication.
- It's doing what God wants for us, NOT what we want for ourselves.
- The Christian community needs to REASSERT itself in all aspects of our lives:
- In BUILDING UP this community of faith,
- In our homes, in our schools, And in our places of work.
- People want to hear stories of hope and healing.
- They want to hear "OUR" good news about the faith that directs our lives and ministries.
So, let me end this sermon with a story about one man's spiritual development. Earlier this week I was in Houston to work with the chief legal counsel for a multi-billion dollar energy services firm. One of the tools I use in my leadership assessment and feedback sessions is a form that allows the individual to share key learnings from life's experiences. With Brent's permission, he shared this story with me on "responding to a hardship situation", he wrote:
"At seven months into her second pregnancy, my wife's OB/GYN detected what he thought was an abnormally large weight gain. Testing revealed medical complications with the fetus, which were ultimately traced to a virus that attacks the central nervous system of developing fetuses and which, more often than not, leads to a combination of deafness, blindness, mental retardation and lack of motor control. Given other complications internally, the doctors told us not to expect our daughter to survive more than a few days after birth, and if she did, then expect her to be institutionalized for life. The night my wife went into labor was one of the saddest nights of my life.
He described his feelings as: lonely, dejected, betrayed, hopeless, despair (but never bitter or angry)
The end of the story is a story of hope, strength, faith and tremendous medical work that could fill a book by itself. My daughter was featured on the cover of Texas Children's Hospital monthly magazine as the "Amazing Caroline". Today, she is a bright, happy, well-adjusted 11 year old whose only medical problem is that she is deaf-and I couldn't be happier!
The lessons: never give up hope (even though I had), have faith (which I didn't then) and to make the most out of what has been given to you. My daughter certainly has."
And when your friend asks you where your source of strength came to overcome those trials and tribulations, just remember: "... I will give you your words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict... "