What to do (and not to do) in the time of chaos

Sermon preached by Sarita Brown Smedley
on Sunday 24th May 2020 (Seventh Sunday of Easter)

Acts 1.6–14; Psalm 68.1–10; 1 Peter 4.12–14, 5.6–11; John 17.1–11

I often share my sermons and their text with friends of mine who don’t go to church and who might not consider themselves to be Christians.

And one of the things they are somewhat amazed by is how appropriate the readings are almost every week  when we are looking at what is happening in the world.

They say, ‘Did you chose that scripture for this sermon?’  I say, ‘No, actually this was the liturgy for today.’

And today’s readings are no different, filled with depictions of both victory and unsurety, of unexpected events and waiting and God’s protection.

When my daughter’s dad died, I was far away from her.  I had to sign the papers to release him to her.  I signed the papers electronically.  So, when she went to pick up his ashes, she was legally acting as my proxy.

The meaning of the word Proxy,  according to the Oxford dictionary:

the authority to represent someone else


Merriam-Webster Definition of proxy:

1. the agency, function, or office of a deputy who acts as a substitute for another

2. authority or power to act for another

3. a person authorized to act for another

When He was born and throughout His life, Jesus acted as the Father’s physical proxy in this world and upon his departure – we just celebrated the Ascension of Jesus – he transferred that physical proxy to us, because we are the physical manifestation of Christ in the world as the Body of Christ. That is not just a metaphor or the name of a club, its a title, and as the Body of Christ, we are asked to do what Jesus did and what Jesus will do and what Jesus wants to do for this world.

Back in the 80s there was a bracelet that lot of teenagers in my youth group used to wear: WWJD, What Would Jesus Do?  I wasn’t really that fond of the bracelet, to be honest, but it did open up conversations with the kids at Wednesday morning breakfast club meetings before school.

One day one of the kids asked me, ‘How am I supposed to know what Jesus would do?’, and I said well the only way you can know what Jesus would do is just know what Jesus did.

So what did Jesus do in a time of uncertainty? Because if there was ever a time of uncertainty it was the time in which he walked here on earth and exercised his ministry as the citizen of a nation that was being dominated and ruled by a foreign power – keeping the religious hierarchy appeased was one of the human reasons Jesus died.

During his ministry, in a time of chaos and duress, Jesus did what God’s Spirit said to do, which was to feed people, encourage people, heal people, turn a day of celebration into an even bigger day of celebration by turning a wine crisis into a gift of abundance… literally saving the best for last. He encouraged those who had lost heart and exhorted those who were taking God and God’s gifts for granted.

He raised Lazarus from the dead.

During a time of chaos and uncertainty, Jesus met the needs of the people around him and talked about God’s love. And prayed. A lot.

But you know the disciples, they were not paying attention to the significance of Jesus’ actual actions,  they just saw the actions as something that was a doorway to what they really wanted.

Jesus’ disciples were always waiting for the day when he was going to step into history and make everything right according to their understanding of scriptures, according to the prophecies.

They saw his miracles and they believed that he was the Messiah.

But to them that meant right now, in the here and now, he was going to fix things.

Throughout the history of the church we have faced many times of global  crisis and tragedy and pandemic and war and every time, there are those who are asking if this is the time when God will come and establish his Kingdom on Earth.

There are people who March up and down the streets with signs who say these are the signs of the end of time,  Jesus is returning now and you need to be ready.

That’s going on today.

So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? One day he’ll come back the way he left.

And so they went back to Jerusalem, it was about a day’s walk away and I imagine they were a bit speechless, Peter for probably the first time in his life… and they went into a room upstairs and they sit down and then, along with some of the women, which included Mary Jesus’ mother, and his brothers,  they devoted themselves to prayer because they didn’t know what was going to happen next. 

#1) don’t just stand there staring up into heaven, if you don’t know what to do next, go find your people and pray.

Jesus had prayed for them before all this to the Father and he was very specific:

‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God…

 ‘I have made your name known to those whom you gave me in the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. …. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.’

So Jesus leaves and he leaves us here and he doesn’t ask God to keep us from experiencing the things that are going to come in this world but he does ask God to protect us.

But we know that Christians suffer and die, we know that Christians experience bankruptcy, loss of children and loss of husbands and wives… all the stuff! So when Jesus talks about protecting us, he’s not speaking of protecting us from the rain that falls on the just and the unjust.

He is talking about protecting our hearts.

And our faith.

And our unity.

From 1 Peter 4:

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice in so far as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. ..

 you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.

Everyone is scared.

Sometimes we’re scared.

It’s often difficult for Christians to admit that they are frightened of things that are happening in the world  because they think it means they don’t have faith… sometimes.

Like some of you this isn’t been an easy week for me… after waiting 10 years to come back to London and retire and live my life here…

I’ve spent the last 9 weeks in a 15 by 20 ft room and I’ve only left to go get groceries I haven’t seen my friends. I haven’t had a face-to-face personal conversation with anyone except very occasionally from shouting distance. I was really sick for 3 weeks.  The things I really love the theatre at the galleries, the parks, the rose gardens,.making dinner for my friends, summer in London!  You know, that thing we live for through dreadful winters?

It Is not accessible to us this year. And I have to be honest, it’s been breaking my heart.

Not coming into the sanctuary on Sundays and sitting with all together and smelling incense and listening to the singing and looking at the beautiful sacred space has been a great loss to the rhythm of life and I know that many of you also feel it.

The slow arrival of the knowledge that life is going to change for a good while, as we know it is unexpected and I for one have been feeling pretty resistant about that.

#2 Don’t be afraid to admit you are scared/angry/disappointed about these events that affect your life.

Peter has some more words:

Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God

(admit it’s difficult, a little scary and sometimes sad and maybe lonely for many of us but release it to god)

so that he may exalt you in due time.

And here is my favourite cure verse maybe in the whole Bible:

Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.

Not just because he’s capable, he’s powerful, he’s God and he can fix anything… We cast our care, we cast our anxiety on him because he truly cares for us.

The greatest temptation in times like these is despair and that’s what Jesus was asking the Father to protect us from. So,

#3 Once you’ve admitted your fear and your anxiety to yourself, give it to a god who loves you. 

Peter says to us,

Discipline yourselves; keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour…

our adversary is hopelessness, our adversary is numbness our adversary is self isolation…. 

Resist it, stand steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters throughout the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering.

Boy, did that scripture pop out at me this week.

We live in a time where every person in the world is experiencing the same thing, the same unsurety, the same ‘What if?’, the same fear… We’re not supposed to deny that we suffer, that some of this hurts, but Peter says

And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you… will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. 

#4.) Don’t give in to hopelessness; practise good self care, reach out to your friends, call someone if it gets to be too much. Take to God about how this feels to you, ask for peace and guidance to be the living Body of Christ in simple acts of kindness and love to those you know.  Remember God’s goodness in your hard moments.

One of my favourite pastors in the world, the Revd Nadia Bolz-Weber, is a Lutheran minister who leads a very progressive church on the East coast. She talked about coming to the moment of truth this week about just how long this situation could last. (It’s a great sermon – you should look it up on YouTube!)

She closed with these wonderful words:

‘So, here’s the thing – we can turn resolutely to these brutal facts and even so, we will prevail. 

There is a global pandemic, and we will prevail. 

There will be death, and we will prevail. 

There are long hoped-for events in the future that will not happen and we will prevail. There will be lost things and people and income and dreams and still, we will prevail.

 And all we really have is this day. And it is enough. It ends up, that Jesus was right.’

And so  here comes the Psalms right on cue:

In  your goodness, O God, you provide for the poor.
Sing to God, you kingdoms of the earth;
   make music in praise of the Lord;
He rides on the ancient heaven of heavens
   and sends forth his voice, a mighty voice.
Ascribe power to God, whose splendour is over Israel,
   whose power is above the clouds.
How awesome is God in his holy sanctuary,
   the God of Israel, who gives power and strength to his people.
Blessed be God! 

Reach out or be available to each other. 

Have a blessed week.

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