On This Day: Sermon for the 6th Sunday After Epiphany

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I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days (Deuteronomy 30)

This skein of wool is part of the last gift I received from my mom.  She had a beautiful old chest in her living room, a chest full of projects—sewing, knitting, all kinds of crafts my mom enjoyed doing all her life.  Already very feeble, mom could still be all kinds of bossy, so she instructed me to open the chest and look for a big bag full of skeins of alpaca wool and a knitting project.  She had started knitting a sweater that was really complicated and you could tell it would be breath-taking when she finished it. Mom had been knitting the sweater for me.  She couldn’t bring herself to say that she knew time was running out for her, so instead she said she thought it was time I learned to follow more complicated knitting patterns.

I have set before you life and death…choose life.

I look at a single skein and I see any number of possibilities.  So many different ways I could use it.  I suspect my mom bought this wool at least 10 years ago and nothing has changed—what I hold is my hands is just a possibility waiting to be realized.  As many possibilities as it contains, there are also limits.  This is a single, loosely wound strand of yarn.  It has a beginning and it has end.  I can stand here and unwind this skein and it will pile up on the floor until eventually, there is nothing left in my hands and a big mess on the floor.

I have set before you life and death…choose life.

I simply accepted the gift my mom was entrusting to me.  After she died, I brought it  home and put it away in my own version of that chest.  The bag sat there for almost three years until late this fall when I suddenly remembered it.  I didn’t have to look at the pattern long to realize it was way more complicated than I had the energy or desire to commit.  But the skeins of wool were extraordinarily beautiful.  And as I held the partly knint sweater in my hands I felt my mom so close by—what was there, even unfinished, nonetheless contained the love, skill, hopes and possibilities that she had envisioned.

I made the decision to unravel the whole thing, and cried doing so. You see, I had figured out that I could use the wool for what I was capable of knitting, something a lot less complicated. I would knit scarves for my brothers and a pair of socks for my dad.  There was enough wool for all three projects.  And so I started.  There have been decisions to make.  Commitments.  If you look at my work on this particular scarf, there are a couple of places where it is obvious I made a small mistake and have corrected it.  I’m glad I did—if you drop a stitch and don’t pick it back up, eventually, the garment will no longer be usuable—it will unravel.

A few weeks ago, when Sherod had his surgery, I took my knitting and sat in the waiting room, each stitch a prayer:  Please, God.  Please, God.  Please, God.

As you can also see, there’s plenty of work left on this scarf and then there will be my dad’s socks to make as well.  It is only when I have given each of my brothers and dad his gift that the skeins of wool will truly matter, will have meaning, and purpose.

I have set before you life and death…choose life.

You may be sitting there scratching your head wondering what in heavens name this story is all about.  Like the skein of wool, the time we have been given has a start and an end.  I suspect at least some of you may remember me having quoted one of my favorite poets, W.H. Auden, before: “Time is our choice of How to love and Why”.  To choose life is to have to make the choice over and over again, it is to live and pray, and decide for ourselves, one stitch at a time.  If we are attentive, is we are mindful, if we allow ourselves to imagine and to dream, a pattern emerges.  Out of things that aren’t particularly special, or new or unusual, a new, hopefully beautiful, creation emerges.

But we can also make death-dealing choices.

In this last year, I have become almost agonizingly aware of the small victories of death that come with magical thinking.   We tell ourselves, “somehow, things will be alright”.  That others will take care of what needs to be taken care of.  That we can depend on others and still have autonomy.   I myself constantly struggle against magical thinking—I will indulge in this treat and tomorrow will go back to taking care of my blood sugar.  If I can just find the right words to say, if I can be nice enough, diplomatic enough, careful enough, I can say my truths, some of them hard-edged, and no one will be upset and things will also change.  Magical thinking, this business of wanting to have it both ways.

It isn’t just individuals who indulge in magical thinking.  Communities do too and it is equally death dealing for them.  I was in New York this week and was taken aback by the sense of walking into a bunker at 815 2nd Avenue, the ‘headquarters’ of the Episcopal Church.  Security is tight, tight, tight, and there’s an air of defensiveness—and yet from that posture, we dream of having meaningful, life-changing ministries as the Episcopal Church.  Magical thinking, pure and simple.

And right here.  This community has been spectacular this year in the stewardship campaign.  Bill talked about that last week.  And then, Bill asked for all hands on deck for a workday yesterday.  A handful of people from the English speaking part of the community showed up.  There was a similar handful of people from the Spanish speaking part of the community.

We want it both ways—I want things looking nice and I am too tired, too busy, too old, been the one who did it too many times before, it’s those people’s turn now.  That kind of magical thinking will bring about the death of our community and it will be death without dignity.  Someone will make the decision for us and summarily close down the ministry or it will simply peter out, no one will be around to mark the ending or to thank God for the gift of life that resided here for over 50 years.

I have set before you life and death…choose life.

If we are too tired.  If the complexities of being a church community in the world as it is today have overwhelmed us, if there simply is nothing left to give—let’s have that conversation.  Together, let’s plan the funeral and celebration of the life that was here and model to the entire diocese what happens when people of courage reach the end of the line.  There is nothing undignified in death if faced with courage, grace and humor.  It is through denial, and magical thinking, and expediency  and procrastination that we experience death with no promise of resurrection.

But if we want life, if we want to go on living, if there is still  ministry to do here in the Riverland area, there are a zillion small stitches, small prayers, small actions, small stretches the community has to keep making.  The good news is that these are the very actions that draw us close to God so that God’s grace can help us live and have life abundant.  But we, like those in every age before us, must make those choices.  Today.

I have set before you life and death…choose life.

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