I am always touting the benefits of prayer and encouraging folks to engage in some form of worship daily. Here at Grace, we have many opportunities for community worship beyond Sunday mornings. In addition to the fabulous prayer benefits of participating in these services, you get the fun of hearing about the many saints of the Church, most of whom who have feast days that do not fall on Sundays. For example, this past we celebrated the feast days of both Florence Nightingale and St. Lawrence – one of my personal favorites.
Lawrence was a deacon in the third century, which was a time of great persecution for Christians living in the Roman Empire. He served as the chief financial officer of the Church and oversaw protecting church property. So, when the Emperor Valerian demanded that Lawrence surrender “the treasures of the church” or be put to death, Laurence agreed to do so. His idea about “treasure” was, however, slightly different than that of the emperor. Given a couple of days to gather the resources, Lawrence dissolved the Church treasury by giving away all the money to the poor. Then, when he was called before the emperor to present the treasures of the church, Lawrence assembled the sick, elderly, poor, widows, and orphans of his congregations and presented them to the emperor instead, explaining that “These are the treasures of the church.” Needless to say, the emperor was not pleased and ordered Lawrence to be roasted alive. Tradition says that not only did Lawrence accept his fate without fear, but as he was being burned alive, he looked up and remarked to his executioners and said, “You can turn me over. I am done on this side.” FYI, St. Lawrence is the patron saint of cooks and comedians. He is usually pictured carrying a gridiron.
Lawrence’s story is compelling because it is an example of perfect faith – of someone who is not only willing but happy to die for the best values represented in the Church of Jesus. It is also challenging. I for one can’t imagine what it would be like to be in Lawrence’s place, accepting my impending death with peaceful – and humorous- resignation. But Lawrence is not the only saint to have done this. Florence Nightingale spent her life surrounded by the smells of blood, rot, and death, repeatedly risking her own health to care for sick and dying. Saints of our day – like physicians and nurses who endangered themselves to care for individuals with COVID – do the same. Oddly, the world is thin on gratitude for such actions. Perhaps it is because they are not appetizing or glamorous. They make us uncomfortable and unhappy. We prefer to observe the lifestyles of the rich and famous rather than face the realities of the sick and dying.
Almost one hundred years ago, Aldous Huxley created a fictional universe in which comfort and happiness are assured – but, in order to retain the status quo love, passion, and faith have been banished. After all, extreme emotions create instability. The protagonist of the book, who was raised outside of society, struggles with this. “You got rid of …everything unpleasant... instead of learning to put up with it… You just abolish the slings and arrows. It's too easy… What you need… is something with tears for a change. Nothing costs enough here… I don't want comfort. I want God.”
His is the same choice made by human beings at the beginning of time. Given a perfect world in which comfort and happiness were assured, we chose passion and suffering. We chose to be more like our creator and to struggle with the complications that entails. We wanted life to be worth something. “Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard,” writes Isaiah in God’s voice. This is our story. God created us and gave us a world that had everything we needed – and now we see it falling away, not because God is angry, but because we have rejected this gift by not caring for it.
Scholars say that Psalm 80 probably originated in a time of war in the eighth century before the common era but was adapted and used by later societies who also called for God’s help in troubled times. And here we are again, asking God why our world seems to be consumed with hatred and injustice – why the walls of our vineyard are being uprooted. And the answer is the same; we are not capable managers of God’s vineyard. We are not good stewards of the earth, and we are not good stewards of God’s human creation. We do not care for one another as we should. We focus on what we have instead of who we are.
God provides this answer in the terrible words of today’s gospel. Jesus says, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled… Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you but rather division!” Father against son, mother against daughter, families disrupted, and societies torn asunder – and all brought about by Jesus, the Prince of Peace. This scenario is almost impossible to believe for those of us who know Jesus as a comforter, healer, and friend. Yet, here he is, consumed with fury and exhausted with anxiety, telling his already hurting people that we must suffer more – that belief is not enough. We are called to put our very lives on the line for what we believe to be true, to be right.
This is not the answer we want. We want Jesus to confirm our privileged status. We want Jesus to love only us and enforce our laws. But this is not the way it works. Jesus did not come to support human conventions and institutions. He does not enter our lives and hearts with a neat checklist of behaviors that will get us into heaven. Jesus has come to tear down our well-intentioned but dangerously rigid ideas of right and wrong. He comes to tell us – and show us – how to love with a love that is perfect – and costly. I think that, for God, human beings are like promising children who refuse to live up their potential. We have been given every privilege, every tool and, most importantly, constant love and support. Yet we persist in telling God that we are unable to do what is required of us. We deny the abilities with which God has blessed us. We hold up our minimal, human accomplishments and expect them to be enough when we know, hypocrites that we are, that the very structure of our society needs to change. “Love” is not a sentiment; it is a command -and it is hard.
That is why God has sent the great cloud of witnesses to show us how it’s done. It is why we are required to witness in return. It is why Jesus is so desperate to strike the match that will light our path through our own darkness into his light. He is impatient not for our suffering, but for us to live up to our potential, to fulfill our own hopes. We think of faith as something to have. But what today’s readings tell us is that we are not asked to have faith in God, but faith through God. It is through faith that the witnesses who proceeded us were able to run the race that was set before them. Their knowledge of who and what they were fighting and dying for allowed them, like Christ, to ignore sorrow, fatigue, and pain and to focus on the exquisite joy that comes from being part of God’s beloved community.
Jesus tells us that there is no way out of the human condition but through. The first humans chose the passion, perseverance, and sacrificial love of God. That means we have also chosen to pay the cost to live God’s way, giving up comfort, security, and stability – willing to turn the other cheek even when it means laying the other one on the hot coals of hatred. The payoff, my friends, is not what we might get, it is what we might become – not as individuals, but as a community who, having faced the worst of ourselves, has found the best of everything on the other side. AMEN.
Aldous Huxley (1932), Brave New World.