Sermon for St. Mary's Church in Tampa, Florida

November 9, 2008

Are you ready? Have you done your Christmas shopping yet? Do you have a survival kit for the next hurricane or power outage? Do you have enough life insurance for your family to get by? Or, as our proverbial mothers would insist, did you put on clean underwear, just in case you’re in a traffic accident today?

There is an immense amount of anxiety in our culture about being ready for the next crisis. Some of it is driven by the desire to sell us something, some of it is driven by our own sense of inadequacy, and some of it is driven by official policies that prefer to keep us on edge – like the TSA warnings at the airport: “watch your bags, or we’ll have to blow them up for you, just to make sure there isn’t a bomb inside.” But some of the heightened awareness does make sense, like knowing where to find a flashlight when the lights go out, or some clean water and nonperishable food for emergencies. It’s prudent to think about the future, and make reasonable preparation for the unexpected. Our prayer book even tells the priest to remind the congregation at least once a year to make a will, and think about the work of the church when you’re considering how to distribute your assets.

All of the readings this morning are reminding us about the unpredictable nature of the future. But they are not so much about flashlights, wills, and insurance policies. They are far more immediately concerned to remind us about the daily inbreaking of God. Are you ready for the next encounter with the bridegroom? Are you ready for the day of the Lord?

Daily and momentary readiness for those encounters will take care of the encounter at the end of all things. This isn’t an exam we can cram for by staying up all night, especially on the last night before the end. Meeting God happens all the time, but it takes practice to notice. That’s why we call it practicing our faith – we don’t learn to do it all at once, or ever learn to do it perfectly, but we can improve our awareness over time.

Maybe the biggest clue about divine encounters is that we experience a sense of awe or surprise. We are always caught off guard to some degree. The gorgeous sunrise yesterday – a fire-red sky through clouds on the horizon – was spectacular because I didn’t expect it. The day before had been socked in, the fog obscuring any glimpse of the sun.

Or the first time I went to Capitol Hill. Our Episcopal Office of Government Affairs had a short course for bishops, to teach us something about how to meet our legislators and do some lobbying. In that case it was for adequate funding for AIDS work in Africa. My surprise was that these legislators even appeared interested in our views. I had quite a charming conversation with the junior Representative from Nevada – we talked about aid for Africa, but we also talked about running marathons.

Or a brief encounter on the sidewalk in New York Wednesday night. I’d gone out to get a few groceries, and I was stopped by a priest I know reasonably well. He’s from Washington, DC, and he wanted to know where to hail a cab. It was raining, which makes it harder, but I told him that right where he was should be fine, or that he could take a subway to the train station, and I told him how to do that. But I was left with the lingering question – was that really what he needed, or was he looking for something else? I still have the nagging sense that I wasn’t completely ready for that one.

Or the email I got a couple of days ago from the diocesan secretary in Nevada, to tell me of the mortal illness of a young woman I confirmed several years ago. The only possible response is to offer prayers, and reach out to those who are grieving.

Or the remarkable story in the news yesterday about a pilot who suffered a stroke while he was flying. He was blinded, but he let go of enough of his fear to call for help and let another pilot flying nearby talk him down. A bounced landing, but he was unhurt and is recovering from his stroke – and even getting his sight back. His immediate reaction may have been that he was going to meet his maker. He did meet a divine messenger, bearing good news.

How is it that we get ready for those encounters?

Some of it has to do with vulnerability, with the ability to engage graciously rather than defensively, open to God’s eternal possibility rather than filled with fear. Some of it has to do with practicing, looking for the blessing in this image of God in front of us. And some of it has to do with making connections – how is this encounter like another time I felt the hand of God? All of those are undergirded by prayer – i.e., spending time in the presence of God.

But what is it we’re trying to get ready for? That reading from Thessalonians has been the source of a lot of silly speculation about the rapture: “then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.” It’s not enough to take it as a merely literal description. It’s not about being physically yanked out of this world, leaving driverless cars careening off the highway. It is about being transformed by encounter with the divine, being taken out of ourselves, and lifted beyond our narrow self-concern. Encounters like that can indeed feel like rapture.

That kind of openness to the presence of God is about not being controlled by fear. When we are not so self-focused, when we’re not so worried about physical safety and economic security, we can turn to our neighbor and begin to see the presence of God. Being ready to meet God happens when we least expect it, when the lights go out and we discover a new community with our neighbors, each caring for the other. I’m sure you’ve seen it during hurricanes around here. Those of you who’ve gone to New Orleans or the Gulf Coast to help rebuild have seen it. So have those who have been to the Dominican Republic working through diocesan partnerships.

You have probably discovered that it is when people have lost most of the world’s illusions of control and remembered their utter dependence on God that they can be most joyous. Our current economic crisis is an invitation to rediscover the rapturous glory of a community filled with the presence of God, the kind of community that Amos dreams of when he says, “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” Those waters get dammed up by fear, when some say “I’m going to keep my stash right here, so I know I can depend on it.” God’s vision is of water of life flowing freely to all.

Are you ready for the next crisis? Do you know where your flashlight is? How about those hand-cranked models, or the ones that can be recharged in the sun? What a marvel!

We have an even more light-filled marvel right here, in this community filled with the light of God, whose members can empower those whose light may be a little dim or weak. The light in this body of Christ will drive out darkness and fear. We can share that light with the rest of the world. Are you ready – ready to meet God?