As I sometimes do, I wish to offer a word of caution before I begin today. The content of this sermon will be difficult. You are all aware of the tragic happenings in the Capitol this week. Also, many of you are aware of the death of Amy Philips. Amy was a wife and mother and long time Sunday School teacher in our congregation—a friend to many of you who died unexpectedly this week. It is always my intention to preach God’s Word without ignoring or simplifying the pain that is a part of human life. Keeping the Gospel before us, I will seek to say a faithful word about both of these difficult circumstances in today’s sermon. If you are troubled by what I have to say, I hope you will reach out so that we can talk more.
Today I’m going to talk to you about beginnings and endings. There are a lot of endings and beginnings going on around us right now. The turmoil of this past week surrounded one administration coming to an end and another one beginning. In these days of pandemic, all around us is the reality of lives coming to an end, and the beginning of life without those we have lost. Here in early January, we are at the end of a year that has been hard, and we are hoping for a better one to begin. These are endings and beginnings.
When the Bible talks about endings and beginnings, it does not do so in a way that is neat and tidy, but in a way that is quite real. Endings and beginnings are often a mess. The Bible talks about endings and beginnings that take time. The Bible talks about endings and beginnings involve chaos and destruction. God is in the midst of all of it; present with us in the chaos. God calls us to be people of love and grace in the midst of it, and God calls us toward a promise: a future day when there will be peace and rest.
“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” Genesis 1:1. A formless void. Darkness covering everything. These are the first words of the Bible. And this is the situation into which God speaks with a good word: “Let there be light.” And it was so, says the Bible. And it was good. And it happened in the midst of chaos. And it would be followed by days more of Creation…and then a fall. This is God’s story. Throughout all of it, God is at work.
Not only at the beginning of the Bible, but at the very end, in the 21st chapter of the Book of Revelation, all of the Bible is coming to an end, but we hear again about beginnings: “Then,” says John, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away and the sea was no more… [In that day, God will dwell with the people.] Death will be no more. Mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” (Rev. 21:1,3,4) A new creation—a new heaven and a new earth—this is what we are told at the end of the Bible. Out of a first creation that is behind us, that is coming to an end, God has a new beginning for us. In 2021 we have not seen it come to completion yet. Endings and beginnings: in the Bible, they are not simple, but this is where God does God’s work.
With all of that as our backdrop, let’s talk about endings and beginnings around us today:
My first example is not very dramatic, but still it’s common to us all: we have come to the end of a hard year and the beginning of a new year. So many articles and conversations and memes have said “good riddance, 2020” and “welcome 2021!” And yet, I’ve heard many say that going to bed on December 31 and waking on January 1 didn’t feel all that different. Yes, there is much to hope for in the year ahead: a vaccine, warming weather and an end to the surge, a return to some of the normal things we love. But it will not come overnight. Endings and beginnings are not so easy as that. I believe the Scripture before us helps us know how to live and endure in challenging days. I’ll be reflecting on that today. But first some more specific words about ending and beginnings.
This past Wednesday our country endured a tragic and frightening day. A violent mob stormed the capitol building and disrupted our democracy. I am sure many of you spent a lot of time watching the images and listening to the commentary, so I will not replay all of that for you. Instead, I’ll share the question I kept asking myself: is this an ending, or is it a beginning?
On one hand it would seem to be the ending of a lot of things. The end of a presidency; the end of a fight over election results. As the legislators told us later in the evening when they reconvened, the end of the insurrection: the triumph of democracy over the angry mob.
Also, there were beginnings, some of them hopeful, some frightening. Could it be, in the unity and friendship shown in those chambers on Wednesday, that some of our political leaders might rediscover their common ground and stop treating one another as enemies? Could it be that we will finally see the danger of spreading falsehood and recommit ourselves to the truth? For some members of both parties, these could be welcome beginnings!
There are other beginnings that are much more frightening. In August 2017, white supremacist groups marched in Charlottesville. They came right out in the open like they hadn’t in decades and spread their hatred, and many of us were shocked—but we’ve allowed it to continue. Because the hatred we saw in Charlottesville was not condemned at every level, its public presence has grown. Four years ago, they could not have imagined entering the Capitol and disrupting a joint session of Congress. This renewal of white supremacy has gone on too long and requires a unified response from government and from regular people. Faith communities need to respond. This is why it is important to talk openly about racism in the church. We must act faithfully to bring an end to this mess.
While politicians and a violent mob took center stage on the news Wednesday, endings and beginnings continued all around us; they filled our hospitals as one person now dies in the U.S. almost every minute from the coronavirus. The overworked doctors and nurses who were caring for them on Wednesday did not leave their sacred duty to watch cable news. They kept on. This is a reminder, not only of the scourge of this terrible pandemic, but of the reality of life and death that continues around us every day. It is hard sometimes, to conceptualize that each one of the more than 350,000 people who have died from COVID—every one of them had loved ones who grieved their death, loved ones who are now trying to figure out life without a wife or a husband, a parent or a child, a sibling or a best friend.
This fact is not new because of the coronavirus. It applies every time we lose a loved one to old age, or cancer, a car accident or an addiction.
This was grounding and humbling for me on Wednesday: I was hooked to my newsfeed on Wednesday when I received a call that a member of our Knox family had died. An angel of a wife and a mother with two teenage daughters and one of our most faithful and dedicated Sunday School teachers. Amy Philips died of a freak accident when she fell while painting the stairwell in her basement. It was pure tragedy. I cannot stop praying and I hope you will not, for Rick, Audrey, Cassie…for all of you who taught Sunday School with, or sent your children to learn from, or rang handbells with Amy.
Endings and beginnings are all around us when people die. It is the ending of a life of one of God’s children, and the relationships that go with it—a parent, a sibling, a child, a friend. Grief is the hard beginning of life without that person we loved. Grief is a long and unpredictable beginning that winds through sadness and anger, denial, and memory, and that tries to journey toward healing, toward the promise of resurrection. In the beginnings and ending of life and death, there are ways we, as a church, are called to respond.
And so, what wisdom does our faith offer us about all of this?
First, our faith tells us that we are in good company: with Moses, who led a doubtful and broken nation to freedom; with Ruth who lost a husband, and David who lost a son; with Paul who left his life of comfort and influence to follow Christ, and countless others whose lives were marked by important and complicated endings and beginnings. They found somehow that God would see them through, for they knew that God’s story began with a messy ending and beginning, and that God was in the midst of it.
“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,” they read, “the world was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” They knew that the end of God’s story in the Bible offers us a cliffhanger of a promise: “Mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for see, I am making all things new.”
We live faithfully because we believe God will not leave us in our messes. God is present in them, and God is working to bring light to the darkness, to wipe every tear from our eyes, and to bring us to a place where we can look at what has been created and say that it is indeed very good.
How do we get there? What do we do as a church that will sustain us on the way and tell us that we are joining God as God brings light to the darkness? What do we do amid the challenges of these days? What is the role of our church?
First, regarding the events in Washington this week: white supremacy has become more and more visible in our culture. Thanks be to God, we are not ignoring that reality in the hopes that it will just go away but are acknowledging it. Our country needs for moderate, sensible people with all kinds of political preferences, to speak up honestly against hatred. We must speak a message of peace and unity for all of God’s children. We are doing this through our new Racial Justice Ministry—yes! And we will also be doing it through a new education program you’ll hear about in the coming weeks at Knox.
This morning the Enquirer ran a story about Braver Angels, a program that invites people who may have different political opinions to explore the values that we share and escape the toxic influences that have led so many of us to perceive one another as enemies. Only by reclaiming a majority voice that is not so strident and divisive will we be able to reclaim the common good and stand up against voices of hatred. Our Faith Formation Committee has been planning since the fall to bring this program to Knox; it will launch in February. This is not just the role of legislators in Washington; it is the job of neighborhoods, our communities, and our churches; we must do our part.
As for the faithful work of navigating death and life, this work is also fundamental to who we are as a church. We welcome newborn children in baptism; and in funerals, we guide faithful people from death into eternal life—we witness to the good news of Resurrection. Our most meaningful work as people of faith does not happen in those singular moments—a baptism or a funeral—but in the way we care for one other along the way. We nurture children in faith, and care for one another as we grieve. Jana and I baptize the children, but it’s the Sunday School teachers like Amy Philips who teach them the faith.
It is worth saying that when Amy died this past Wednesday, as is often the case, Jana and I did not hear directly from the family; we got the call from another family in our Knox community who were already present in their home, caring for them. The compassion of Jesus Christ is shown in the way that all of us, through phone calls and hugs, casseroles on the doorstep, and countless other kindnesses, remind one another that we are not alone in the endings and beginnings of life.
As one very difficult year ends and another begins, and as we wake up realizing that not everything is better in 2021, we as a church will keep on doing what we do best and what is core to who we are: we will be God’s people of grace and love. Christian grace is not a naïve platitude, it is a courageous way of acknowledging sin and receiving forgiveness.
Grace does not let bygones be bygones, but names and repents of the hurt of the past, so that we can return to life as a community. Our country needs this gift. Christian love also is not a platitude, nor is it simply an emotion. Many speak of love as a Valentine’s Day sentiment, or the way you feel about your new couch. But love in the church is different. Love is the willingness to act in ways that put the needs of others before the pleasures and preferences of ourselves. We see love in the church when we care for the grieving, when we serve people in need, and when we center our lives in loving God, because God loved us first.
The peace we receive in Jesus Christ, and the courage we receive to follow him, comes not from anything within ourselves. Christ’s peace and courage is not grounded in philosophical questions about human authority, or guarantees about what tomorrow will bring. Christ’s peace and courage comes from a promise we share. It appears in the first words of our Holy Scriptures. In the beginning…in the midst of the chaos…there was God. The One who Creates, Redeems, and Sustains us all, will be with us in all of our messy endings and beginnings, encouraging us with grace and love.