Beware that you are not led astray

Pentecost 26, Proper 28C

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

“Beware that you are not led astray…”

In a gospel lesson that seems to be all about wars and famine and pestilence, those are the words to cling to.

“Beware that you are not led astray…”

It’s tempting on a day like today to turn away from the Gospel and focus instead on the Old Testament lesson, but we don’t even get much help there.  Malachi tell us, “the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and evil doers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up…”

Where, then, is the hope?

Shall we focus on days “burning like an oven”?  Or shall we instead focus on Jesus, with his promises of wars and insurrections, and betrayals, and death?

The lessons today aren’t the kinds of lessons that are likely to inspire adherence to the faith.  They aren’t the kinds of lessons that tend to move poets and songwriters into responding.  They’re not the kinds of lessons that give us peace in our moments of deepest despair.

But they’re not all there is to the Christian story and experience.

“Beware that you’re not led astray…”

We’re nearing the end of the Christian year.  We’re one week away, actually.  And over this past year we’ve heard a lot about the life of Christ as well as the Christian life.  From the season of preparation in Advent to the celebration of Jesus’ birth; the giving of light and recognition at Epiphany; the long seasons of marveling at Jesus’ miracles and learning from his teachings; from journeying with him to the Cross in Lent to the exuberant joy and surprise of Easter and its succeeding celebrations of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  In practicing the Christian year, we practice the reality of human experience.  There are ups and downs and all of them add up to the fullness of God’s dream for us.

The worldview we hear from Jesus today comes near the end of his time on earth.  In the pages that follow, Luke walks us through the seemingly climactic last days - “seemingly”, because we all know that the real climax comes later - after the “last days”.  But in the midst of those “last days” - before any of us knew how the truth would unfold - there would be great pain and fear and uncertainty.  The disciples needed to be prepared.  Their faith needed girding if it were to endure the days to come.

There are moments in the Christian faith and life when we feel on top of the world.  There are moments when the lessons we read are all about hope and peace and prosperity.  There are moments when we look to the future with hope.

But then there are those other moments…

There are days when the weight of the world around us is a little heavier than we think we can bear.  There are days when we see the suffering of this world and we wonder where (and even if) God is.

Throughout human experience and even still in our own lives, there have been radical ups and downs.  There have been lows from which recovery seemed impossible and highs so high we couldn’t see the ground.  And both are true.  Both represent aspects of the faith and neither negates the other.  Nor do any of the ordinary times in between.

It reminds me of a season in my own life, and one of the lessons I learned there.

Near the end of my time in seminary, I found myself reflecting on the experience: I remember thinking so vividly in my first year that I thought I’d found heaven on earth.  I had moved halfway across the country to a place I had never been and where I knew no one.  I had taken a giant leap of faith and it had seemed to be paying off more richly than I could have imagined.  New worlds were opening before me.  New ideas were forming within me.  New relationships were blossoming.  I was beginning to know myself more than I ever had before.  It was as if I were standing looking over the new heaven and the new earth about which Isaiah had prophesied.

And then there was fall and then there was winter in my second year.  Suddenly, this “heaven on earth” seemed to be more like hell on earth.  What had once felt like a leap of faith began feeling more like stumbling toward a far-off finish line.  My “new world” turned out to be just New Jersey.  My new relationships had blossomed into deep friendships - but they weren’t without their own challenges.  And knowing myself turned out to be not quite as easy as it had once seemed.  There were days when it was hard to make myself get out of bed.  There was an insurrection gurgling up inside me - and it seemed to be not for me, but on me.

And then there was fall and then there was winter in my third year.  By the end of that final year of study and formation things had balanced out.  I began to see that seminary was neither “heaven on earth” nor “hell on earth”, but instead it was just earth.  And like all creation, I could see that it was good.  But though my experience had evened out a bit, the “promised land” of my first year was no less true, nor was the anguish of my second.  Just like this Christian year has been, the highs and the lows were all part of the same existence - neither canceled the other.  Both represent truth.

Just as it would be unreasonable and untrue to expect everything to be perfect, and nurturing, and happy all the time, it’s equally unreasonable and untrue to get lost in the challenges of life.

“Beware that you are not led astray…”

Beware that you don’t get lost in a sea of unreasonable expectations of perfection - life doesn’t live up to that.

But also beware that you don’t get lost anguish and fear - that’s never the whole story, either.

God is in both.  Not either.  Not both individually.  But both together.  God is in the pain and the redemption.  God is in the suffering and the salvation.

The joys and pains of every human experience - whether it’s through parenting or love or whatever else - always adds up to the fullness of an experience more true than any one of its aspects.  And through the joys and pains of our lives the one common thread remains - just as it has remained through all of the highs and lows of the Christian life.  The truth is that whether we are on top of the world or in the pit of despair, there, too, is God.  No matter our circumstances, we are invited into deeper relationship with God.

It’s not always easy.  Jesus teaches that again and again.  But it’s also not always hard.  Christ teaches that.  Every Good Friday has on its heels an Easter morning begging to burst through. 

“Beware that you are not led astray…”

It’s the end of the church year, but there’s a new one waiting in the wings.  There are yet more ups and downs and good times and bad, and lessons to be learned in the midst of it all.  Beware that you are not led astray.  Because by your endurance you will gain your souls.  Amen.

(this sermon draws from a previous version published in 2010)