In our opening prayer today, we have a rather poetically worded petition for an increase of grace in our lives. It says, “Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works.”
Grace should go before us, and come after us—and honestly, I don’t know what that means, grace going before us and coming after us—because I think of grace as surrounding us all the time. Grace is one of those theological words that we talk about in church, and we very rarely talk about exactly what it is or why we would want more of it. We just sort of assume, I think, that everyone understands that grace is a good thing.
And partly, I think that lack of explanation comes about because it’s really hard to say exactly what it is. It’s one of those things that we experience but find difficult to explain. But that struggle to understand, to find words for it—which is, I guess, the work of the discipline of theology—it’s important because this struggle for understanding, for words, expresses our desire for God. It’s a reflection of our desire for God, and our desire for God is a reflection of God’s desire for us. It’s our response to that desire. You could say it’s the foundation of our faith. It’s the foundation of our experience of God. And so it matters to try to find ways to explain or talk about these concepts even if they are difficult.
Today is a day of mourning, and—paradoxically—also a day of joy. We’ve gathered to say farewell to someone we loved and admired. The deep sense of loss we feel, and the gladness that comes with remembering the person Nancy was—these are complementary aspects of our grief.
The first words of spoken prayer in our service acknowledge that truth. We begin by giving thanks for the gift of having had Nancy in our lives as colleague, friend, relative, partner in life. We know that we’ve lost someone who will never be replaced for us. We pray for encouragement as we go on without her, and we come together seeking consolation by honoring the person she was through the sharing of memories and the liturgy and music she loved so much.
And the memories are full of joy and delight.
So we begin by thanking God, in the words of that opening prayer, “for giving her to us, her family and friends, to know and to love as a companion on our earthly pilgrimage.”
Nancy’s life in this world was a gift.
She gave herself to several different communities: Westminster Choir College, the Hymn Society, the Bucks County Choral Society, local friends. As I prepared to preach here today, I realized that even though I knew Nancy from my own perspective, that didn’t mean I knew all there was to know about her as she moved in these other circles.
Lots of ambivalent feelings on the way to school about whether it might not be better to turn around and go home. Then in the last block we met a friend, and they clasped hands and went through the gate without looking back, somewhat to the dismay of the adults who hoped at least for a wave goodbye and feared something more dramatic. We were all talking about the mercurial emotions of toddlers, but I wonder if we aren’t all that way. A kind word, an affectionate gesture – they make all the difference in the world. Nothing seems quite as hard when you know you’re not alone.
The homeless in Bucks County, they don’t often lie at the gates of the rich the way the homeless in the city do. In the city they sometimes lie huddled in doorways, the way Lazarus does in this gospel story.
You don’t very often see our poor and homeless sitting with battered signs asking for help. A lot of the homeless people in our area—and there are homeless people—they sleep in the woods. Wherever there’s a little bit of undeveloped woodland, they sleep there, or if they have a car, they sleep in the car.
They’re out there, but a lot of us aren’t even aware of them I don’t think, at least until the winter comes and the temperatures drop and the Code Blue program kicks in. I don’t know if you do that program here, but I know that a lot of people volunteer to work at the churches that host in Doylestown and Buckingham when it’s cold.
In today’s gospel, we hear this story of Lazarus, the poor man who lay at a rich man’s gate.
So I’m getting ready to preach about poor Lazarus, the beggar covered in sores who lay at the gate of a rich man and longed to eat the crumbs that fell from his table, when I come across this story about the President of the United States deciding to tackle the problem of homelessness, and for a moment I was glad. Then I read on.
The problem with the homeless, it seems, is that they bother the rich who occupy prestigious buildings and are offended by their presence..
The President said, “We have people living in our … best highways, our best streets, our best entrances to buildings … where people in those buildings pay tremendous taxes, where they went to those locations because of the prestige … and all of a sudden they have tents. Hundreds and hundreds of tents and people living at the entrance to their office buildings.”
Dirty, stinking homeless people lying at their gates.
And, Lazarus died and was carried away by the angels to be comforted in the bosom of Abraham. And in death, Jesus says, the rich man lay in agony in Hades and begged Abraham to send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool his tongue. And Abraham called the rich man “child,” and he refused.
I don’t know if you’ve all see the movie Groundhog Day, but even if you haven’t, you probably know the basic story because it’s one of those movies that’s become a cultural reference point. So if I say something feels just like Groundhog Day, you know I’m not talking about sitting out in the cold and waiting to see if a rodent comes out and sees his shadow. What I mean is it feels like the same thing is happening over and over again. So in this movie, which came out in 1993, Bill Murray plays an egotistical TV weather man who’s sent to Punxsutawney PA to cover the emergence of Phil the groundhog, and he ends up living the same day in this story over and over and over again.
It had been a long time since I saw the movie, but last week for some reason, we decided to watch it again and see if it really was as amusing as we remembered. And there are a lot of great lines in the movie, but this time one line in particular really stood out for me and I thought it was terribly poignant. The Bill Murray is sitting at the bar in a bowling alley and he’s drowning his sorrows in drink, and at one point he says out loud, pretty much to himself, “What would you do if were stuck in one place, and everything that you did was the same, and nothing mattered?” And a sort of a sad sack sitting next to him who’s maybe had a little too much to drink, and this guy overhears Bill Murray and he says, “That about sums it up for me.” And that just seemed so sad to me, to be living a life where nothing mattered.
Love all God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love.
From “The Brothers Karamazov” by Fyodor Dostoevsky
In Oakland this week for a wedding, we spent some time yesterday at the Oakland Museum of California and were impressed by how well done it is. In particular I liked the use of paper notes and a chalkboard to create a kind of hard-copy social media, inviting people to comment on questions and issues. I guess what really impressed me was the tone. Unlike digital social media so much of the time, it was calm and compassionate. Possibly (probably?) it’s monitored by the museum staff, but it was refreshing.
Something I already knew about California: It was part of Mexico before it became a state in 1850, so it came into the U.S. as a place populated by Mexicans.
Something I learned about California: It’s white population is less than 50%; 42%, to be exact.