Lectionary for June 22 (Laity Sunday) –
Genesis 21:8-21 — Abraham casts out Hagar and her son, God saves them — Jeremiah 20:7-13 — the Lord is a dread warrior (with me against all that makes me cry out — Psalm 69:7-10, (11-15), 16-18 — I have borne reproach for Your sake/draw near to me, redeem me — Romans 6:1b-11 — if we are united with Christ in a death like His, surely we will be reunited with Him in His (overcoming) life! — Matthew 10:24-39 — So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven.”
Sermon — After the After
We all know how to handle the high moments of life. It’s Easter, let’s sing! It’s Pentecost, let’s celebrate! Here’s a wedding coming up! There’s a high school commencement! Get some balloons! Buy some barbecue! Let’s have a party!
Those moments of joy make us want to come together and hug and sing and play. There is no difficulty in knowing what to do.
The dark times of life, however, are another matter. Tragedy and misery are hard to grasp, let alone to manage. And here’s a secret. Life can be even harder than anyone lets on.
And there’s a reason this secret stays secret. We don’t like to stop and think about how scary life can be, We don’t like to admit that we can be overwhelmed. But we can. It’s true. And this is not a flaw of modernity; it’s always been true. Just listen to the psalm.
(R)escue me from sinking in the mire; let me be delivered from my enemies and from the deep waters. Do not let the flood sweep over me, or the deep swallow me up, or the Pit close its mouth over me. Answer me, O LORD, for your steadfast love is good; according to your abundant mercy, turn to me. (Psalm 29:14-15)
These are the words of someone who knows fear. When overwhelmed by life’s complexities and twists and turns, the psalmist has nothing left but to turn his palms to the sky and beg for answers from the Almighty One. Have you ever been there? I have. In our community, just recently, we’ve lost a beloved volunteer because of a car accident. And that’s just a visible and obvious example of unfairness and hardship — How many people are out of work but don’t like to talk about it? How many families are stressed to their breaking points? How many children are being bullied? How many people suffer with mental illness, emotional problems, addictions, haunted memories, and all the other ills that can slow us down, make us stumble, and suggest to us that there is no way to fit in? How many suffer day after day through miserable situations that aren’t so easy to see?
We don’t often talk about all this because we know it’s important to keep hope thriving. We know life requires us to keep going — even through the ‘valley of the shadow of death’ and other miserable places — so we focus on faith and hope and unity and second chances, and anything else we can hang on to to get us through. Like the psalmist, we turn our empty hands up and beg for any help that can be had.
Picture Hagar, hungry and stumbling through a barren land. Finally, even hope goes dark and all she can think of to do is put her starving baby under a bush so that she won’t have to watch while he takes his last breaths. She had reached the end. First there was life in Abraham’s camp. Then came the time after when she tried to survive as an outcast. Now, she was dealing with “after the after.”
Imagine the disciples and other early followers of Jesus. They had to deal with watching their beloved leader crucified and entombed. Then they had to deal with what came after — He was resurrected and returned among them and teach them again! They knew what to do with this glorious, amazing good news. They celebrated the after!
Finally, however, Jesus ascended , to be seen on earth no more. Then, His followers had to find a way to deal with after the after. What were they supposed to do when Jesus’ teachings and miracles — His very being — was gone from them? They simply didn’t have answers. Like Hagar in the wilderness, they retreated and raised their empty palms to God. Help us!
Answer me, O LORD, for your steadfast love is good; according to your abundant mercy, turn to me. Do not hide your face from your servant, for I am in distress–make haste to answer me. Draw near to me, redeem me. (Psalm 69:16-18)
It’s hard for me to read those heartfelt words of supplication without getting choked up. I’ve prayed prayers like that. I’ve been there. There is the life we get used to with its highs and lows running along a line we can foresee and appreciate and manage. There is the after, where things fall off the rails or change directions. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes it’s not, but we can at least adjust and start figuring out a direction to keep walking. Then there is after the after, when you have no answers and your feet no longer seem to have blood and bones in them, and all directions look dark and hopeless.
Still, we all know that sitting by the side of the road and refusing to look at just how bad things are isn’t an option. Life demands that we keep going. Hope demands that we keep trying. Faith demands that we seek and find a direction. But if we’re there, stuck on that sidetrack, what can we do? Is there a way to go beyond merely putting up our empty palms and praying “Help!”?
I’ve struggled with low self esteem and depression all my life. I didn’t know it was depression until I got to be in my teens. I started seeking therapy then, and I have seen a dozen or more therapists, taken many medications, and received a range of confusing diagnoses and perplexing bits of advice over the years. More recently, I have learned that what I thought was ‘simple’ depression (not that it’s ever simple, and certainly never easy) was, in fact, bipolar disorder. Without getting into the medical details, bipolar disorder is generally harder for doctors to treat and harder for patients to manage. This diagnosis is complicated by the fact that I’ve had this condition for so long that it deeply colors my personality. I could make quite a list of other psychiatric or emotional conditions that I have developed. In the end, it comes down to me struggling every single day to feel worthy and to find my way. my ‘after’ — that time of uncertainty and trying to find a direction — has essentially been my entire life.
Lately, I’ve been living in the ‘after the after.’ I am worn out — beyond worn out — from searching for a way to feel better about myself or to fit into the world around me in acceptable and useful ways. I’ve tried and tried, but no therapy or medication changes things for me. At the same time, I am smart enough to know that sitting on a sidetrack with my empty palms up is not a viable response.
So what does one do ‘after the after’?
Ernest Hemingway famously said, “The world breaks everyone, and some are strong at the broken places.” I don’t know if I am strong in my broken places. I don’t know if Hemingway was either — he committed suicide after all. I know that I am here. And I know that whether I make any visible progress or not, I am still trying. I have lived with my particular secret of how hard life can for nearly 56 years now. I’m still here.
I have no answers to offer for you to put into play when you come to the moment after the after. I only have practices that I cling to. I try to stick close to my faith. I keep going to church, even when I don’t feel like it, for instance. And I keep trying — trying anything, everything. I keep putting myself out there in social situations even though I feel that I do very poorly in most social situations and that I never develop the closeness or friendships that I crave. I also keep going to my doctor, even when the medications and advice don’t seem to be making a difference. It’s good for me to know that I am trying even when the effort seems not to get me any new answers. At least I am doing all I can. And that means something.
I remember the today is not tomorrow. Tomorrow, things may be different. The Holy Spirit may move. I may even recognize it as it goes by. So I hang in and keep watching. I also remember key messages of my faith. I force myself to keep reading the Bible. And sometimes I even write sermons, even though no one will hear them. This is a way of keeping up practices that, if not helpful in the moment, have been meaningful to me over the years. By keeping these familiar words and ideas nearby, I hope they will sink into my being and give me direction, or give me peace in the meantime. St. Paul reminds me:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in the newness of life. (Romans 6:4-5)
That’s a promise of new life. Even being buried is not an ending. I can’t quite see what a new life might look like for me. And I have gone a long time without being able to see it. So . . . maybe I can’t give the fullest faith to this statement. Maybe I can’t live out its reality yet — because I can’t envision it — but I do what I can do. I can remember what I’ve been promised. I cling to that. And in clinging, my hands are not yet empty. Jesus said, Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. (Matthew 10:29-31)
Now, this message is embedded in a statement where Jesus said some very difficult things. He acknowledges that His followers will be persecuted. He acknowledges that believers will be set against their families and friends. He proclaims that the nature of truly following Him may also mean to give up your very life, all you know about yourself. But embedded within all this difficulty, He reminds us that we are each worth a great deal to Him.
I do have trouble with self worth. I always have. I do not have answers for the struggles in my life, not final ones anyway. I am in the process, still looking, and sometimes I am hunting in the dark. But I am still hunting.
Then, I tell myself this:
Life demands that we keep going. Hope demands that we keep trying. Faith demands that we seek and find a direction.
And one step more: Love demands that we cling to what is alive — to relationship, to the tiniest gleam of the coming morrow. Love is a living force. Keep looking for it and encourage it to thrive by being part of it in every way you can.
I tell myself: God knows who I am. God knows what I have been through. God knows I still seek Him. I may stumble, I may fall, I may feel like I am making no headway. There is a belief that I choose to build my life around. I believe that when I turn my hands up to the sky, no matter how bad I feel or how little I have progressed or how often I have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, . . . no matter what, . . . I believe that when I turn my hands up to God, they won’t be empty. Jesus will reach out and take hold.
Lord, I believe. Help me in my unbelief. Light my path that I may find more assurance, that I may come closer to you and show your love and grace to others. Make of me what you have always sought for me to be. I seek to empty my hands of all I have held on to for its own sake. I open my hands and my life to you. I don’t know what my next step should be, but I will trust you on that step, and the step after, and even after the after. Amen.