This is a lightly edited transcript of a sermon preached on December 26, 2021. For the original audio and/or video versions of this sermon, check the links on the Resources page.
Lord God, as always, Lord, we want to recognize that we are grateful for the space that we have and the opportunity that we have to be here to worship with each other and the resources that we have to be able to worship with people who are not physically with us. We want to acknowledge and be grateful for the way that you persist with us day to day, week to week — the way that you have brought us through another holiday season, the way that you have guided us through another season of life — and we want to acknowledge, Lord, our hope for the future and for the possibilities in our lives and the lives of the people we love.
We also pray, Lord, that you would give us peace and comfort in this time — that you would help us to let go of the expectations that we have of ourselves and of others, the expectations that we have of the world and the people around us that life should be a certain way. Help us to be present, now, and to be attentive to the needs of ourselves and our families and our communities. Help us to be present, now, and to be attentive to the work of the Spirit among us and to be attentive to the Mission that you are working out in all of creation, Lord.
Even as we go through different seasons in life, help us to be aware of the ways that our lives interconnect with the lives of the people around us so that the things that we learn and the things that we discover would not be happening in little bubbles or vacuums — that they would not be disconnected bits of information but that our understanding and our love for you would be interwoven with everything else that happens in life so that we could see ourselves as part of a much greater tapestry, Lord, so that the choices that we make would be made in the wisdom of that interconnectedness. Teach us to love and to have compassion in this way so that our lives can be beneficial to everyone around us.
We love you, Lord, and we pray these things in Jesus’s name. Amen.
I had some thoughts prepared, this morning, and a lot of times, when unexpected things happen, I go into a kind of hyper focused, tunnel visioned sort of work mode, and it’s taken years for me to realize — to learn to recognize that, not only in the way that I move and talk and in my body language and in my tone but also in the way that I see my actions affecting the people around me. It’s not always healthy. I think it’s more of a survival mechanism. It’s a defensive thing.
So, when I woke up this morning and got the news that someone close to me or someone I cared for had passed away, I didn’t realize right away that I was doing this. It wasn’t until I was on my way here that I realized this was happening — that I realized that I was in survival mode.
I forgot my Bible; I’ve got my phone with me today. I didn’t realize that I forgot my Bible. I forgot my Bible, almost forgot the diaper bag for our toddler, forgot my mask, almost forgot my toddler’s mask… Life is on autopilot right now while I process these things, and for that reason, I hope you will bear with me as I stray from my notes and my thoughts, because I can’t seem to get my head there, right now, so I’m going to talk about some other things that are running through my head — things that are related to what’s happening in our lives and hopefully things that you can apply to your own lives, as well.
In Matthew chapter 13, we find Jesus talking about — well, he’s giving a lot of analogies to his disciples, and I talked about this one specific verse in chapter 13 when we talked about new wine for new wineskins. In verse 52 of Matthew 13, he says,
He said to them, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.”Matthew 13:52, NIV
And I was talking about the way that we cling to these traditions and ceremonies of the past in ways that are not healthy for the future. We don’t bring together the new and the old, and the analogy was “new wineskins;” new things, new understandings, new beliefs, new traditions need to go into new wineskins — new contexts and new organizations and things that need to be new in order to accommodate the new.
But, in a different way, when we approach this passage in light of things like seasons of life and death and the progression of, just, creation in general, we have to remember that it also goes the other way. We cannot abandon what we had in order to simply pursue what is new. Pure innovation without respect to the past leads to all kinds of bad things, and what I find is that in American society, we have done this in some of the worst ways. We have not been good stewards of the past.
To put it another way, we have unhealthy practices of remembering. We tend to fall to these extremes. We’re very polarized in our practices, as a society. We tend to fall into these extremes of either living in the past obsessively or refusing to remember the past enough for the it to be beneficial to us.
We do things like chase after the glory days. We do things like obsess after the next high. And we’ve taken those things, and we’ve framed them in some ways, to protect ourselves. We say, “Well, I’m not just chasing after the next high; I’m living in the moment.” We have these catch phrases like YOLO, You Only Live Once. Just do it. We have these catch phrases that say you need to be present, here and now; nothing from the past matters, but in reality, we manifest those in often unhealthy ways by chasing after some feeling we had once that we now want again, and that unhealthy chasing after the past is a way of not treating the past with an appropriate respect. We aren’t allowing the past to be past in order to be beneficial to our present or our future. Instead, we are trying to stay in the past by denying our present and denying the future. We spin all these things; we twist them in ways that help us to feel good but don’t allow us to truly be present in people’s lives.
On the other side of that, we have ways of remembering the past without acknowledging the realities of the relationships that were there. We only remember the good things. When we think about people we’ve loved who we’ve lost, we don’t remember the bad things. We don’t remember the hard seasons. We don’t remember the trials and the pain. We don’t bring those old things into the new. We simply take how we feel about them and how we want to remember them, and in that way, we don’t do them justice, either. We don’t respect the reality of the relationship that we had with them.
We take these two kinds of extremes, and we can boil them down, both, to a fleeing from things that are uncomfortable. We don’t want to remember the past as anything but good, and we don’t want to be in the present if it’s anything but good. We don’t want to remember the past as being complex, and so we boil our relationships down to only that which is most enjoyable.
And part of what has happened because of that is we have lost a lot of the ceremonies and the traditions that help people transition through seasons of life, and it’s not just with the bad things — it’s not just when we lose that we fail to integrate that loss. It’s also when we experience joy that we don’t take the time to integrate that joy.
Yesterday was a good day. For me, it was an unexpectedly good day. I haven’t been feeling festive this season. I wasn’t sure if I was going to enjoy Christmas, and yet, Christmas Eve and Christmas were everything I didn’t expect. I had a good time. I laughed most of the day on both days, and if I’m not careful, I’ll do with yesterday what we often do with every day: I will fail to integrate it into my life as a good memory; I will fail to integrate it into my life as a moment when I got to share life with people I love, so when I come to the future and I’m not feeling that connection, I won’t have that in my storehouse. I won’t have the old treasure of the Christmas of 2021 to bring out of my storehouse and add to the new moment of whatever I’m going through, and in the same way, if I’m not careful, I will do the same thing with the loss of loved ones.
I will fail to integrate that loss into my story in such a way that I can bring it out of the storehouse. I will isolate that loss as an experience I went through all by myself. I will isolate my feelings and my thoughts. I won’t want to encounter the discomfort of loss, and so I will avoid it, and later, when it needs to be part of my storehouse, I won’t have it. I won’t have the shared experience of going through that loss with other people who are experiencing the same loss. I won’t have the shared experience of joy with other people who are experiencing that same joy. And because of that, I will fail to remember the [lives] of the people I’ve lost in a way that will integrate other people’s experience of their [lives].
We isolate ourselves from one another, and so we fail to do simple things, like what Jesus says, here, in Matthew 13. We fail to bring the new and the old out of the storehouse, because we fail to cherish it and store it there in the first place, and we do it with both loss and joy, because it’s easier to go through life as an autonomous individual than it is to go through life as an interconnected and an interdependent person.
And when I talk about interdependence, I’m not talking about, again, the unhealthy relational practice where you depend on one another to an extent that you can’t function on your own. That’s not what I mean. I mean that we are relational beings — communal beings. All throughout the Old Testament, the Israelites are told to identify themselves through their stories of the Exodus; through their stories of exile; through their stories of the joy and pain of their relationship with God, their relationships with their neighbors, their relationships with one another, their relationships with the disenfranchised and the foreigners in their land, their relationships with their priests and their leaders, with their judges and their kings. These stories of relationship are not just their so that they’ll have history, and once again, we see a way in which American Christianity has watered down the significance of these traditions.
We have turned scripture into mere history — flat facts on a page — and when those facts become irrelevant to our lives, we toss them out, because we have no connection to them, and yet Paul says that the Gospel grafts the Gentiles into the root of Israel so that their story and Israel’s story become united. It’s not about history, and it’s not about prophecy. It’s about the sharing and the integrating of stories. It’s about bringing out of the storehouse the new and the old in a way that enhances both.
We live in a time when people are more and more vividly aware of the dissonance they experience because of these things. Christians all over the world are realizing that what they grew up with didn’t prepare them for what they are experiencing now, and in America, I would argue that a big reason for that is because we have done these things. We have abandoned the old and the new in a way that separates us from one another and separates us from the Mission of God and separates us from attentiveness to the Spirit. We have made ourselves incapable of attending even to our own health. We have flattened all of scripture into mere history, and when we do that, we eventually run into a season of life and realize that we have nothing in the storeroom on which to reflect.
I’ve talked about the Psalms a lot and the way that we can go there and see the reflection that people have — open and honest reflection with God about things that are happening in their lives, both joyful and troublesome — and I think that we, as communities as Christians and communities of Americans, need to figure out how to recapture those traditions of share stories — of integrating both pain and joy and storing it away so that it becomes empowering for us as communities and as individuals, so that no matter what season of life we enter into, we have these tools and these things and these remembrances.
And in the same way that I don’t think the Old Testament should be treated as mere history — or even the New Testament, for that matter — I think we should try to avoid treating these stories of people and of our past as mere history. It’s not about being fictional — we don’t want to deny the reality that was — but it’s not about being 100% accurate, either. It’s about relationships and feelings and emotions that we remember. It doesn’t matter if the words are the same every time we tell the story. It doesn’t matter if we embellish a little bit here and there. It doesn’t matter if we leave out facts one year and then incorporate them another year. It’s the process of sharing life together that becomes the treasure in the storehouse.
You don’t have to make a record or a memoir or a biography about people you have lost. You don’t have to have photos and videos of every occasion in order to accurately remember what everybody wore during that Christmas or another Christmas, but you have to take the time to respect the moments that shaped us as human beings and as families and as neighbors. You have to take the time to integrate into yourself and into your community the moments that shaped and formed and developed who we were as a people, and until we can recapture that, every season of life — good or bad, joyful or hurtful — will continue to separate us more and more from one another. Every celebration and every mourning will come only because we force ourselves to do it or only because we use it as a way of escaping reality, and it won’t actually become a part of who we are in a way that we recognize, until one day we wake up and we won’t know who we are anymore, and we will feel lost, and we will feel disconnected, and the way things go in our society, it will probably happen when it’s too late for us to feel connected to the people around us, because there won’t be anybody there.
I want to encourage you, this morning. I want to encourage you to share in the joy that you find with the people around you, and I want to encourage you to share in the discomfort and the pain of the people around you, and when you experience these things on your own, I want to encourage you to go out and find somebody to share it with, because it is both of those things, when we bring them into our storehouse of our story and our narrative of who we are, that create for us the stable ground on which we can stand when everything shifts — when we go from one season into another, when we transition from one walk of life to another. I want to encourage you to seek after those things.
If you don’t know how, then you’re not alone, and so I want to give you one suggestion: the next time you experience a significant event, whether it’s a celebration or it’s a deep loss, find other people who are experiencing that same event, sit together, and share stories about it. That’s it; very simple: share stories. If you lose someone you loved, find other people who loved that person, sit together, and tell stories about that person. And they don’t all have to be good [stories], and I would say they shouldn’t all be good. They should real stories — meaningful stories — whether it’s that time you got into a really heated argument and didn’t talk for months or it’s that time you got together and celebrated or it’s that time you went out and did something dumb. Tell stories.
The stories help to integrate the realities of loss. They help to integrate the realities of joy. They help to solidify the emotions and memories of people. And then later, when the grief comes and goes over that loss, you’ll have these stories to fall back on, to remember and to process through. Do the same thing with moments of joy. Tell stories with each other about that time last Christmas, that time last vacation, that time you last saw each other. Let those moments be integrated into who you are.
And I, of course, want to encourage you, also, to bring God into those moments — to share with each other the way that God was present for you, the way that the Spirit was present for you, the way that those things have fed and integrated into the work that you do and how you participate with what God is doing in your own life and in the lives of your communities. That helps to connect your story to the story of God and vice versa.
These are the ways that we become connected to the people around us, and if we don’t do that, we might find that we don’t have the strength to get through these times.