This sermon was given on Sunday by Seth Woody at Old North Church in the North End of Boston. Seth is a Life Together fellow living in our shared space at 2 Garden Street and working with Dorchester Bay Youth Force.
“Go from your country, and your kindred, and your fathers house to the land that I will show you. And I will bless you.” Leave everything you know, everything that gives you status and power and agency in this world, and believe that what I have to offer is greater than anything you might imagine, that you would be the father of many nations, because you have chosen to believe in this new promise. Step out into the desert of the absurd and believe that the kingdom is at hand.
Abraham’s story is in our spiritual bones. It lies at the foundation of who we claim to be as a people of the kingdom of God. It is the point of no return in some ways, a symbolic marker that at our origins, we claim to be a people that follows God into the irrational, absurd and impossible promise that in the midst of this desert of death, life is abundant. That in the midst of this world and its ever-present suffering, love is abundant. For what is more absurd, unknown, and impossible than then resurrection?
My journey into the desert took hold as a junior in college. I had spent the majority of my life being exposed to the promise of that absurd kingdom, mission trips, homeless shelters, parish communities in grief and growth, but it was never a promise for me. I am the son of a hospice chaplain and an Episcopal priest, and they were never lacking in demonstrating to me the life of one who believes in the promise. But being around kingdom seekers is quite different than actively becoming one, and it was not until I decided to spend a semester abroad, living in intentional community while learning about solidarity with the people of El Salvador, that I heard the call to “leave everything you know and believe in the promise.”
It was a young man, Giovani, who asked me to know that promise. I was granted the great privilege of living in solidarity with his family during my time in El Salvador. I wasn’t working on a project, or offering education, or even a decent conversation partner, my Spanish was and remains terrible. No, instead I was invited to sit and listen to a young man my age that knew much of this world.
His body is broken, paralyzed from the neck down; a result of a fall he took at 20 while working to feed his 5 younger siblings at a time when he had to decide between staying in school or feeding his family. Desert. He is stuck, now as he was then, in a chair on a hill overlooking the town of Tepecoyo.
In a passing moment of grace near the end of our time together, Giovanni took my hands into his, broken and unfeeling, and spoke love into my broken soul, so that I might begin to understand the call to live into the promise of Abraham, that there is life in the desert. He asked me to see the truth of his life and all life, that his body was truly broken and his options are severe and laced with death. This young man lives in the desert. He lives on the edge of the pit of despair and the most glorious hope. But he loves people, his family, his neighbors, and strangers like me, with an unceasing passion. And In his brokenness, In that truth and on that edge, he has chosen to believe in the promise and give the gift of life and love.
It is a cruel punishment for our broken souls to be invited, like I was, to see what truly lies in front of us. Because this world is painful, cruel, heart breaking, and full of every death we can dream. If we were to open the eyes of our hearts and really see, we might notice the men and women on our streets without shelter, we might see the specter of death that haunts cold nights, that hangs on the shadows of strangers with unknown intentions. We might see the young women trafficked in our city. We might see the young men murdered in our streets. We might see the visible lines of racial division in our city. We might see the broken bodies and souls of our brothers and sisters and ourselves. This world is crushing. It grinds us to dust.
The Apostle Paul knew this truth. He was an instrument of death in his early life, and he was witness to the power of death in his ministry. But he was a believer in the promise. He implores his brothers and sisters of Rome in the passage we read today, to look to the example of Abraham as the orienting story of their impossible belief. Of faith, that absurd relationship with God that presumes trust and openness in the face of death and despair in the desert. And no wonder he pointed them to that story, as this community in Rome was living into the real possibility of death for choosing to believe. They needed to be reminded that they too were in the presence of a God who “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”
I work now, as a Life Together Fellow, with young men and women of Boston organizing for Youth Jobs. Similar to the community of believers in Rome, these young women and men are faced with the reality that the world in which they have been born considers them to be disposable, and perhaps regrettably, subject to death. They live in a reality that prevents access to abundance, that categorizes them as an unfortunate bye product of a regrettable history out of our control. They have every right to despair, every right to lash out in the injustice of their suffering. But they chose to believe in a promise, perhaps not of the same language of Abraham, but a promise nonetheless, that compels them to action. It compels them to seek justice in impossible conditions.
So what is this promise of the desert to us? What is this call to believe today? What compels these young men and women of Boston to justice? What are we asked to see here and now? First, as Giovanni invited me to see, we must truly know that we are broken and that the world is broken, and that we cannot believe in this promise of the kingdom if we don’t see first that there is no kingdom. Consider the words of Jesus to Nicademus today, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? Very Truly I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?”
Jesus says “A teacher of Israel”, as in, one who shares in the inheritance of Abraham and Moses and the prophets, how can you truly believe if you have failed to grasp the dire nature of our world? Have you forgotten the desert? Have you forgotten our slavery; have you failed to see the crushing realities of today? Have you not seen what I have been up to here? Look at us, we are dying in the dust of the road. And if you cannot see that, you truly cannot see the kingdom. For the kingdom, the promise I make with you and all people, is born of that death. It is born of the absurdity of this world. That in the midst of such suffering, in the midst of death… eternal life is brought forth. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
The promise, then and now, is resurrection. The promise is that within the desert of the absurd, there is an oasis that springs forth eternal water. The promise is that the kingdom is already here, and it is alive in the moment of death. It cannot be stopped. Failure is not only inconsequential; it is essential to the kingdom. Jesus died people. He “failed”. Palm Sunday was just a happy memory, a lost moment. We too are failures. I can do nothing for Giovanni, he will most likely remain stuck in his chair on that lonely hill. The young men and women I work with now will still face the denial of access and humanness throughout their lives. You and I will not employ every young person in Boston, and there will be more deaths this summer in our streets. The world is broken and we are broken, and we will surely fail. We must know this always. And it is in that moment of knowing that the kingdom promise abides. Because the kingdom is real in the hands of Giovanni passing love to me, it is alive and well in the courage and determination of those young women and men organizing their peers for justice, passing love and faith to politicians and teenagers alike. It is alive and well in this parish’s commitment to justice and access to employment, offering love and faith in 6 young men and women this summer. And it is alive and well in the resurrection.
The promise, of Abraham, of Giovanni, of young organizers, of our God today, is that in death there is life, and that we will surely fail, only to find that our failure brought about the kingdom. Let us live into that promise, let us march into the desert of the absurd, hands empty and hearts broken open. I implore you, continue to act in this hopeful promise. Continue to live on the edge of the absurd, the impossible and the foolish. Give freely and look deeply into everyone around you. Seek eternal life, the life in all things, all times, all spaces. If you are a mother, love as a mother to all. If you are senior, impart your wisdom to every soul you meet. If you are a business owner, act in that business as a proprietor of the kingdom, where all are employed, all are served, and all are welcome. If you are a citizen of this promise people, bestow that promise on all the people you meet. Seek to believe in the impossible. Leave behind what you know, that the world is cruel and destined for death, and chose instead to live in the presence of a God that brings life to that death, and calls into existence the things that do not exist. For we shall surely fail, ….. and the kingdom is born anew. AMEN.