Thursday, October 19, 2017

Bishop Andrew Dietsche's Sermon at the Service of Prayer for the Victims of Natural Disaster

Bishop Andrew Dietsche's Sermon at the Service of Prayer for the Victims of Natural Disaster
October 7, 2017, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine

In August, my wife Margaret and I traveled out to Casper, Wyoming to see the total eclipse of the sun.  It did not disappoint.  But I had been planning for that trip a long time, and I found myself struck by the mathematical certainties that shaped the anticipation of the event.  Well over a year before the eclipse I began reading about it and preparing for it, and it was amazing to me that astronomers were able to determine with exact certainties not only the day the eclipse would appear, so far out, but the exact moment when the eclipse would reach totality over Casper, Wyoming, and the exact number of minutes and seconds it would last.  And then on August 21, just as we had been told, at 11:42 in the morning, the eclipse happened, and it lasted exactly two minutes and 26 seconds, just as it had been determined.  The apparent size of the moon, precisely the same as the apparent size of the sun, slipped in front of the sun and for those seconds they were perfectly lined up on an invisible axis that stretched from the spot on Casper Mountain Road where we stood gazing heavenward through the very center of the moon and on through the precise center of the sun and off into deep space.  And then it was over, and the eclipse moved on to Nebraska.

These were moments of profound beauty, but also of deeply moving scientific wonder.  As I came away from the eclipse, and through our travels back to New York, I marveled at this phenomenon, and found myself reflecting on the predictability and perfection of the creation, the vast architecture of space and the capacity of the human mind to apprehend it, to understand it, to contain it.  And, as well, to trust it.  It made me look at everything else around me differently — our journey backward through geologic time through the mountains of Utah, the cities through which we passed, the country we flew over, the metropolis which is our home.  As I drove back into this city I was still in the thrall of having been swept into the perfect harmony of a divine architecture, the mind of a divine logician, and to know, even if only fleetingly, that we are part of something much much larger which was before us and will be after us and is beautiful and perfect and eternal and upon which we can count.

The next day the violent destructive chaos of Hurricane Harvey reached landfall on the Texas Gulf Coast. 

That was six weeks ago, and where now I wonder is that harmony?  Where the certainty?  Where the perfection and the truths on which we can center our lives and selves?  These six weeks have seen historically unprecedented flooding in Texas, followed by Hurricane Irma’s devastation in the Virgin Islands, across the north shore of Haiti, the very very long day that it parked itself over Cuba, and the path that it carved through the state of Florida.  Because there was still something left in the Virgin Islands which had not been destroyed by Irma, Hurricane Maria hit it again, and then roared thundering through the middle of Puerto Rico, leaving nothing but ruin in its wake and consigning millions to life without electric power, water or food, and with no restoration of their living in sight.  Gone are the palm forests and the fruit trees and the flowering trees.  Gone the mangos and bananas, the farms and milk cows and chickens and the homes of a million people.  Gone are the crystal streams.  Gone in the blink of an eye, blown away and washed away.  And as if the land had become jealous of the power of ocean and sky, an explosive heaving earthquake hit Mexico City in these same very days.  We saw schools collapse on children at their desks.  In every place there is ruin, waste and destruction — in every place it is heard the same lament, “my country will never be the same again” — and in every place there are those who were sucked down into the maw of hurricane and breaking ground and lost everything entire, and even their own lives.  But then to prove to us that there are evils other than natural evils, disasters other than natural disasters, in the days between our announcing this prayer service and the happening of it, we saw the largest mass shooting of people in American history on Sunday night in Las Vegas. 

Is the creation conspiring against us to find the breaking point of the human spirit?  Are the eyes of the universe watching to see how much we can take?  “If you, Lord,” the psalmist cried, “were to note what is done amiss; O Lord, who could stand?”

We are here in this great cathedral today to offer our prayers and to strengthen our resolve on behalf of the people of the Caribbean and Mexico.  God loves the people of Texas and Florida, and we do too, and as well, tomorrow at our altars we will in every parish in our diocese be one in prayer for the dead and the grieving in Las Vegas, but in the middle of so much suffering and loss in so many places, we have today chosen to engage most deeply the devastation visited upon the islands and upon Mexico, because such a large part of the Diocese of New York is made up of people from the West Indies and from Latin America.  Countless families in our own churches, who sit in our own pews, who break bread with us at the altar and at the supper table, are grieving the loss of those they love or grieving the destruction of their own homes far away, so that for all of us — immigrant and native born; Latino and Afro-Caribbean and Anglo;  Spanish-speaking and Creole-speaking and English-Speaking — the assault on the Caribbean and on Mexico feels profoundly personal. 

And I think too, that for the immigrant there is a particular heartbreak, a profounder loss, when in an instant the home for which one has never stopped longing, that country which is God’s own country and which forever forms the background of one’s dreams, and especially the friends left behind, now scattered, are suddenly and forever taken away.  For the immigrant there is that particular disruption of the self, the confusion within one’s own being, that comes with the realization “I can never go home again.” 

We understand.  But my most dear friends, my brothers and sisters — hermanos y hermanas — this is home.  We are here to gather around the table of our Father as a family.  We are here to pray, because that is the language we have been given by Jesus Christ to talk to God and to talk to the creation.  We are here to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice because Saint Paul said that that is what Christians do.  I have called you, invited you, to our own cathedral church where we may stand as one or kneel as one before the altar of god with nothing between us except for our love of one another and our love of God.  That we may make ourselves one with those who suffer through prayer and sacrifice, and to recommit to one another and the life we have made together.

And it must also be said that at the end of six weeks of such horrors, and so many assaults on the human spirit, and such natural violence and unnatural violence, and natural evil and demonic evil, we have also come to be reminded of those things which matter and which shape and form us as a people, to find out if we still have the capacity to live in the face of losses which are simply meaningless — which have no purpose and serve no purpose, from which no good will come, which contain no lesson by which we might be made better or stronger or braver or by which we might be ennobled;  which have no silver lining, no moral, no collateral beauty or blessing;  to live in the face of suffering which serves no larger meaning, just loss upon loss upon loss — without succumbing to despair, without losing the ability to trust God and to trust the world, without losing hope, without losing sight of the wondrous Garden of Eden which is God’s gift to us, without turning our face to the wall in bitterness and darkness of spirit.
And that we may do all these things in the sight of the One who makes us holy, who makes us one, and in the sight of a world that has never more needed the church to be the church, we have asked to once again have the Word of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ read to us.  May they speak to those things to which we cling and to those things that even now seem to be falling away.

The lessons we have heard have been chosen for this service of prayer and lament because they are some of the most sublime scriptural expressions of the gentle love of God and the compassion which flows from God to all of God’s people.  Isaiah said “The Lord has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed and to bind up the brokenhearted.  The Lord has sent me to proclaim liberty and release and to comfort all who mourn.”  Saint John the Divine, upon whose patronage this great edifice was built, wrote that “The Lamb will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”  And Jesus promised “The hour is coming;  the hour is now here, when even the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.”  These words, proclaimed today, will speak if we have ears to hear them, of God’s comfort to the grieving, of God’s embrace of those who have fallen away, and they speak of that love which is both the foundation of and the binding of our whole life in God and in this world. 

Scripture takes us up and raises our eyes to the longer and farther horizon of God’s love and purpose in which we have our own lives.  To see past the assaults of the hour.  We want to ask maybe why God would not or could not prevent these disasters, but the heart of the faith is not that we worship a Great Manager or Fixer, but rather One whose love flows as a current in and through all of the changes and chances of life, and that those washed in that love may prevail and endure and claim the victory.  On the best day or our life and on the hardest.  When faith is easy and when faith slays reason and requires of us everything we have.  We look upon beauty and ruin both, all around, and say “Even so, Lord, come quickly.”  This is the leap of faith.  The unproven principle.  But for those with eyes to see it is the stone upon stone of our true home.  That we are for one another the Kingdom of Heaven.    Because the Bible tells us so.  We find in our common life, lived in the sight of God, the land for which we have longed. 

It turns out we are for each other harmony and certainty.  Perfect in love and predictable in compassion.  Together we make a universe as complex as the million million dreams, hopes and needs of this humanity, and as simple as the love of God that turns us one toward the other.  A world newly made in which we may live in peace and hope and trust.  And I think maybe that was the point of the eclipse.  Just a signpost.  A word thrown into the sky.  A reminder of eternities and substances that endure and prevail, on the very eve of the assaults that might throw every single thing into doubt.

So what may we do now?  What is the work of such Kingdom-dwellers now in the hard and painful hour? 

To say our prayers that we might not forget how to talk to God when our heart is overflowing with sighs too deep for words.  That we might not forget the language of compassion, the poetry of belief.

And to advocate, advocate, advocate that our whole people, our government, may direct and apply its resources in full to help meet the most immediate needs of these millions of suffering people and then to rebuild lives of meaning and peace, and to strengthen our national resolve for the long time this work is going to take.  Puerto Rico was told that they had thrown our budget out of whack.  But to what end does that budget exist if not to lift up and enlarge the lives of all of God’s little ones?  To what purpose have we been called into community if not to touch and relieve the suffering of those in our midst?  Why should we be a country at all if not to make a clearing in the thicket of this world where every person may stand in dignity and on their own feet?  So maybe, if we can summon our best selves, and be for all these suffering children of God the Christians we believe we are and the Americans we claim to be — maybe we will find that these hardships could actually throw our budget into whack.  That we might learn anew who belongs to God, and then give to God the things that are God’s. 

And not to put too fine a point on it, we are here, you and me, right now, to give away a lot of our money.  More than we might think we can afford.  To sacrifice some part of our plenty for those who have lose everything they have.

And finally, to turn to one another and see in one another the face of Christ, the countenance of our common humanity.  Everybody all together, everybody being one. 

This is all we’ve got.  But if we get it right, God being our helper, it is not only enough.  It is everything.  Amen.  

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