Many of you have heard about Washington Post op-ed columnist and “Evangelican Episcopalian” Michael Gerson’s wonderful sermon that he delivered at the Washington National Cathedral this past Sunday (2/17/19). Some of you even had the privledge to listen to it, at the service or online. If you haven’t yet, I commend it to you.
I’m no match for Michael as a writer or a sermonist. I’m not trying to be. All I’d like to do is share the sermon I was asked to deliver to the congregation at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Twin Falls, Idaho on February 24, 2013. I, too, chose to talk about my depression. Shortly thereafter, I turned it into a book. There can be no shortage of people talking about this insidious illness.
God, The Promise Keeper
Episcopal Church of the Ascension, Twin Falls, Idaho
February 24, 2013
“I don’t like early Lents like the one we are in. Forty days of prayer, penance, repentance, almsgiving, and self-denial are hard commitments – any time of the year. To make such sacrifices during periods of inversion, snowstorms, howling wind, and record low temperatures feels downright Catholic to me.
But here we are – the second Sunday of Lent. We can’t change the calendar. And, as we grapple with today’s texts, which are full of fear and lament, we can either choose to feel that way ourselves, or strive to become fearless and cheerful. Either way, God will love us.
In the first reading from Genesis, we feel Abraham’s fear, don’t we?
Poor Abraham. He had an apparent abundance of wealth, but no land and even worse, no children. He was definitely not fearless and cheerful. The only one sitting pretty, it appeared, was his chief steward, Eliezer, who stood to inherit Abraham’s wealth if God did not fulfill His promise.
God challenges Abraham. “Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can.” This did not make Abraham feel chosen in the slightest. Anyone around the world could have taken this challenge on any given night. Don’t blame Abraham if he thought God was stalling. “All I get are promises,” Abraham must have thought to himself.
If that wasn’t daunting enough, this old man had to round up a heifer, goat, and ram – and make sure that they were each three years of age. It would take a Board Certified veterinarian in today’s world to provide such authenticity. Thankfully, God was far less fussy about His specifications for the turtledove and pigeon.
We all know how the story of Abraham ends. God keeps the promise of land and many descendants he made to Abraham.
Still, Abraham did experience pain and suffering. And like Abraham, there have been times in our lives when our world really has crashed down on us. How many times have we thought, “If anything can go wrong, it will?” When life seems to be going in a downward spiral, we are at the end of our rope and we can’t tie a knot to hold on. Fear often takes hold of us. Fear traps us in the belief that nothing will ever improve, that we are ensnared and will never escape. When life gets us down, fear fills the void left by hope.
Let me share the contemporary story of a man who suffered from a lifetime of depression, but rather than address his illness, he ignored it. He thought it was a temporary condition, something that would go away on its own. In fact, he never even bothered to ask God for help. So, over the years, this flaw in what we now know to be chemistry, not personality, led the man down a dark path, hurting not only him, but many friends and loved ones as well. He was so intractable that those who knew him and cared for him stopped offering help.
Three and a half years ago, he hit bottom with a thud! A very loud thud! He made plans to bring a quick and brutal end to his life. Again, he did not reach out to God. He was so lost that he assumed God didn’t care.
Well, on the planned day of destruction, God appeared to that man through a primary care physician at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C. It was a true epiphany, a time when the man realized that despite the resulting embarrassment and humility he’d face on earth, God was willing to make a covenant with him.
God promised the man he’d get better if he sought treatment. No magic wands, no “we’ll just keep this between ourselves.” The man had to own up to his illness and do something about it. In return, God would free the man of suffering and lead him to a new place where he could restart his life. And not be judged by his neighbors.
Today, that man is very much alive and well. In fact, he is living in Boise, Idaho and standing before you now, another sign that God is a promise keeper.
Yes, I, Stuart Hotchkiss, am that man.
Enough about me. Let’s look at the rest of today’s texts. I’m certain they speak to everyone in this congregation.
In the second reading, Paul’s main point is that we are to live as citizens of heaven while we are residents on earth. This is not an easy task. It runs completely counter to our capitalist ideals. We are obsessed with earthly things, even though every person knows “you can’t take it with you!”
Not everyone can follow Paul’s exhortation to be imitators of Christ. To label people who can’t as “enemies of the cross” is a bit severe. Let us have compassion for and recognize the Lost and the Confused.
In Psalm 27, we see that God is a light to his people. He shows us the way when we are in doubt. He comforts and rejoices our hearts when we are in sorrow. It is in His light that we are able to walk on in our ways and to overcome fear. In His light, we are able to see light forever.
“The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom then shall I fear?
The Lord is the strength of my life;
Of whom then shall I be afraid.”
We fear losing our health, our wealth, our family and our friends. We allow ourselves to suffer from fear-based emotions such as anger, jealousy, worry, guilt and insecurity.
There are many scholars like Dr. Jeanne Holland Crowther, author of “The Other Side of Fear”, who, collectively, have helped teach thousands, maybe tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, to change fear energy into love energy. But we are a world of 2 billion Christians, and, unfortunately, fear is on the rise.
Look back at history. Fear has swelled over great leaders no matter how brave they’ve appeared to be. Julius Caesar was afraid of thunder. Peter the Great was terrified to cross a bridge. Josef Stalin was constantly in fear of being poisoned or killed.
Fear cannot be conquered without love. As the famous Lebanese-American artist, poet, and writer Kahlil Gibran said, “When you love you should not say, ‘God is in my heart,’ but rather, ‘I am in the heart of God.’”
We see this in Luke’s gospel. Jesus becomes transfigured. His disciples receive a glimpse of his divinity shining forth through his humanity. Jesus’ words reflect His commitment to persist in His ministry and His mission, knowing full well that by pressing on to Jerusalem, he would soon die. He is indeed, fearless. He is in the heart of God.
Not even two weeks into Lent, and some of us may already be discouraged in our observance. Perhaps we have already fudged or been somewhat lax in fulfilling our commitments, be they prayer or sacrifices. Isn’t this part of the larger issue of discouragement in general? We are earnest in our quest for spiritual progress. Sometimes were are successful, and sometimes we aren’t.
Frequently, we find ourselves getting stuck in a rut. That should not be the time to surrender to discouragement. If we do, it is because we have placed the focus on ourselves instead of God.
Yes, in our covenants with God, we need to keep our side of the bargain. But they are not contracts between equals. The Lord is the one who can do all things. We, on our part, have to be patient, love God and ourselves, and maintain hope.
God always keeps His promise.”
St. Michael’s Episcopal Cathedral