“Prepare Yourself to Live!”

November 6, 2016


Jeremiah 29:1-7

Hebrews 11:31-12:3


Let me begin by recalling two recent events in our community.

This past week a small ceremony on the Pentacrest marked the 25th anniversary of the shootings at the University that killed five people and left one person critically injured. Members of our congregation knew some of the victims very well. The event changed lives and changed the campus as so many people began the difficult work of living after loss.

How did they move forward? The Rev. Jason Chen, a good friend of this congregation who helped with the healing in the aftermath of the shootings,  recently said: “We hold on to the sure knowledge that love is more important than hate, that compassion is stronger than anger, and that what is good in the world will prevail.”

In late September a crowd filled the new Hancher Auditorium to capacity for a performance of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony by the University of Iowa Symphony and Choirs. The music was astonishing, a privilege to hear.

A transcendent moment came near the end of the hour-and-a-half symphony. From the first balcony, the voices of the choirs surrounded the audience as they sang Mahler’s grim but honest words: “What was created must perish.”

But they followed those words with the hope of resurrection: “What has perished must rise again.”

They encouraged the audience: “Tremble no more!”

And they sang to us words of exhortation: “Prepare yourself to live!”

In the face of death

In the hope of resurrection

How do we prepare ourselves to live?

The prophet Jeremiah helps us as we listen to those words of a letter sent to exiles in Babylon: “Build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat what they produce.”

Do you remember the call of Jeremiah that we heard when we started reading from this book back in late August? “I appoint you to pluck up and pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”

To a people who witnessed devastation and death during the siege of ancient Jerusalem

To a people whose city was destroyed

To a people taken from their home and brought as exiles and captives into Babylon

To those who knew destruction and plucking up, Jeremiah now counsels building and planting, houses and gardens. Have children and look toward grandchildren. Pray for the strange city of your exile—and in its well-being you will find your own well-being.

To people who have seen the worst, who have experienced some of the greatest losses imaginable Jeremiah offers advice on how to prepare to live.

On this All Saints Sunday, let us listen closely to this wise counsel.

All of us must learn to live after loss—even after devastating loss. We, the living, are left to pick up the pieces and go forward as best we can.

Many in this congregation are currently in the midst of this. In the past year members have faced the deaths of husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters, and precious friends.  For others, the losses were longer ago but the pain is still there.

Is this not the task of all who live—to make a life after death, to find what is yet to be gained after loss, to build and to plant once more, to discover the joy that finally comes again in the morning after the dark night of sorrow?

Plant gardens. Love. Pray. Look toward the next generation. Pray. Find your welfare in the welfare of those around you.

Our faith tells us that in this working, in this building and planting, we are not alone. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. We affirm that there is a bond that death does not destroy.

In his memoir, Days of Grace, the late tennis champion, Arthur Ashe, wrote of this sense of being surrounded and asked: “Who is watching me?” His response? “The living and the dead.” He lists his mother, who died when he was not quite seven. His father, who, though dead, was still a force in his life. And there were others who called him to act, as he put it, “in an honest and principled fashion, no matter the cost.”[i]

Maybe you share that sense of being watched. Maybe you can name those who seem to surround you, who call you to account, who call out the best in you. All the saints who rest from their labors join with the living and strengthen us for the journey ahead.

It helps us to remember. We do this all the time as individuals. A day such as this allows us to engage our common memory, to recall especially those who lived among this congregation, who sat and sang and prayed with us in these pews, who drank coffee and ate with us in Rockwood Hall, who laughed and lamented and hoped and worked with us.

When we do this, we begin to remember that they, too, showed us how to live and encouraged us to prepare to live into the future by following the advice of the prophet. They built and planted even in the face of death.

I knew Glenna as one of the great older women of this congregation—a woman you could talk with about the books she was reading, or the music she loved, or sports, or current events. But those who have been around here for a while also knew Glenna as the young woman who became a school nurse so that she could have the same schedule as her children after the death of her husband at an early age.

Mick had that Congregational attitude that since God has loved us, we ought to love one another. On countless mission trips he built and planted in many ways. All through his time of illness, Mike continued to show his love for his family and his love for other people. He still laughed and made us smile. Etched into my memory is the time, shortly before his death, when he joined the men of this congregation for breakfast. There was that sense that he was not doing well. But here he was blessing us—and you know that’s a term I don’t use lightly—blessing us with his presence that encouraged us to go forward.

I am glad and proud to say that in this congregation Tracy found a community in which to live out her faith—a liberal Christian faith in the best sense of all those words. She had a questioning and open spirit. She was more concerned with living out her faith in the world—that is, with building and planting—that she was with talking about it. Hers was a strong faith, that is to say, it was a faith that questioned, a faith that was uncertain, a faith that was open to the new things that God was doing. I once sat with Tracy and Mark and we talked about life and the ways of God in the face of her illness. She said she didn’t have it all worked out, indeed she wasn’t sure if it could all be worked out. I responded, “Of course not! That’s why you’re a Congregationalist!”

Through illness and difficulty, in the face of loss and death, Glenna, Mike, and Tracy continued to love family and friends, continued to love this life and this world. They kept their covenant with this congregation, walking with us in the ways of Jesus Christ for the full length of their journeys. We give thanks for the unique witness of each these beloved members because in living and in dying, they showed us how to live and exhorted us to prepare to live.

And here we are, surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses, surrounded by Glenna and Mike and Tracy and those whom you have been thinking about while I have talked, those who are with you and watching, all encouraging us in our lives.

In the last movement of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, the choir also sings:

O believe,

You were not born in vain,

Have not lived in vain, suffered in vain!

As those words washed over me during the concert, it seemed like a foretaste of the resurrection. Is this not the angelic voice with which each of us would want to be welcomed? Is this not what each us and all in the great line of humankind through the ages long to hear, how we wait in hope and faith to be welcomed?

Our labor, our love, our lives are not in vain.

In the face of all that would tear down and pluck up, build and plant as the saints before us have.

Build and plant, as the prophet and the saints and those whom we have loved encourage us to do.

Our labor, our love, our lives are filled with meaning, suffused with purpose.

In the hope of the resurrection, prepare yourself to live, for this present life is shot through with eternal significance.

[i] Arthur Ashe, Days of Grace, pg. 3-5.