Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
“The Lord be with you.” (And also with you.)
Yes! That’s the answer. The Lord is with us. God is with us. If that’s the only thing you remember from this sermon today, I will have done my job. The Lord is with you, the Lord is with me – or as is becoming the preferred usage: God is with you. God is with me. God is with us and within us – all of us.
That’s the Christmas message that should ring out all year long – “Emmanuel” – God with us. God is not some remote other-worldly oblong blur, but God is here – with us — as close to us as breathing. God became a human being who walked the dusty roads of Palestine, was angry at injustice, suffered and died. And yet he is still with us. God is with us.
The passage we just heard from Luke’s Gospel is usually referred to as “The Sermon on the Plain,” and it begins “Jesus came down with the twelve apostles and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people.” Jesus came down to talk to them – came down to be with the people.
Matthew, in the parallel passage in his Gospel that we call “The Sermon on the Mount”, said: “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain.” Jesus went up – he spoke to the people from the mountain.
Isn’t that an interesting difference. On the plain or on the mountain. All writers and artists impose something of themselves on their work, and that’s true also with the gospel writers. Matthew, writing for a Jewish audience, wants us to see Jesus as a second Moses giving a new law, so there needs to be a second mountain Jesus can ascend to parallel Mt. Sinai that Moses ascended.
Luke’s view of Jesus is different. For Luke, writing mostly for a Gentile audience, Jesus is seen less as a lawgiver and more as a healer, a teacher, a friend. Luke’s Jesus is more accessible, a figure who is among us rather than above us.
Two different ways of describing the same thing. Jesus spoke to the people many times, sometimes on a level plain, sometimes on a mountain. In both incidents the message is the same: God is here, God is among us. Sometimes we may see Jesus as our friend and companion, who walks with us and talks with us and tells us we are his own, to quote that famous old hymn. Other times we may see Jesus more as our savior, judge, our risen Lord. It’s the same Jesus, God with us, in many different ways.
Sometimes I need to see Jesus as the one who inspires me in my spiritual journey — the destination toward which I strive. Other times I need to see Jesus as my companion, the one who walks beside me and encourages me along the way, the fuel who powers my journey.
Jesus on the mountain, Jesus on the plain. The point is the same – Emmanuel, God with us. God with you, God with me. God with us and within us. Jesus is with us and within us.
God be with you. And also with you.
Many of you know that we lost our son Jeff this past Christmas Eve in Mexico. It’s been a hard few weeks since. It’s difficult for me to preach about. And this morning in our prayers we remember David Houghton’s young nephew who died tragically this week.
In my 56 years of ordained ministry I’ve conducted hundreds of funerals, including both of my parents, comforted hundreds of people who’ve lost loved ones – but as some of you know all too well, it’s different when it’s your own child. We expect that our parents will die, difficult as that may be. Even though our parents take with them when they die a large portion of the past. But when our children die, they take away the future. It’s against nature. It’s unexpected. And it’s hard – brutally hard.
St. Paul had a few things to say about death and resurrection. Apparently, the people in Corinth had been saying there was no resurrection of the dead, that when we die that’s just the end. We go to sleep and don’t wake up. And today we’re still asking that question, aren’t we – it’s nothing new. It’s one of the basic questions of existence we humans ask. What happens when we die? Is there life after death? Where is our hope?
William Sloane Coffin was the chaplain at Yale. I knew him slightly and admired him tremendously. Bill Coffin lost his 24-year-old son Alexander when during a terrible storm and after a few beers Alex drove his car off the road into Boston Harbor one night, and drowned. As Coffin puts it, “Alexander, who enjoyed beating his old man at every game and in every race, beat his father to the grave.”
When someone dies, there are really no words. No adequate words. Often people try to explain that somehow this was God’s will, that this person was so special that God wanted them in heaven. As the saying goes, “The good die young.” Yadda, yadda, yadda. I’m afraid I’ve said some of these platitudes myself, and you probably have too. But you know what? That’s rubbish! (If we weren’t in church I’d use a stronger term than that.)
Violent death, especially the death of a young person, is not God’s will. Of course we’re all going to die – it’s part of the course of nature. We’re born, we grow up, we die. But as St. Paul says in another context, that’s not the end. The farmer plants a kernel of corn in the ground, the seed ‘dies’ in the ground and rises to a new and glorious life above ground.
The same with us. As Paul says in another letter, we’re sown a physical body, and we rise a spiritual body.
God doesn’t go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering wheels. Jesus after all spent a large amount of his time delivering people from sickness, paralysis, even death. The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is “It’s the will of God.” Never can we know enough to say that. As Bill Coffin so movingly put it. “When the waves closed over that sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”
God is with us – all the time, in sickness and in health, in our life and in our death.
It’s not easy. Death is not easy. We hear in the Gospel — “Blessed are you who mourn, for you shall be comforted.” While I believe those words of the Bible are true, grief renders them unreal. The reality of grief is the apparent absence of God–“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” The reality of grief is the solitude of pain, the feeling that your heart is in pieces, your mind’s a blank, that, in the words of Lord Byron, “there is no joy the world can give like that it takes away.”
That’s why immediately after such a tragedy people must come to the rescue, people who only want to hold your hand, not to quote anybody or even say anything meaningful. People who simply bring food or flowers–the basics of life and beauty –people who sign letters simply, “Your brokenhearted sister or brother.” That’s where God is, in the loving response of those who bring love. The ministry of presence. They recognize, as we all must, that we’re all part of the human community, bound together in this wonderful, mysterious journey called life, where each new day is a blessing, each opportunity to love is proof that God is indeed with us. As a special friend of Jeff’s wrote to us, “Entwined in all this grief is so much love and friendship.” God is with us.
Every small act of kindness has the power to transform the world. Even if only for a moment. And each of us has the power to be kind. God is with us.
“The Lord be with you.” And also with you. (Thank you!)