Sept. 12th - "Twenty Years Later...” - Rev. Michael Plank
24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 12, 2021
Rev. Michael S. Plank
Hudson Falls, NY
“Twenty Years Later…”
Text: John 14:6: “Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’”
Scripture Lesson: John 14:1-6
Proposition: I propose to experientially show that it is Jesus alone who saves us to the end that hearers will put aside social and political allegiances, open their hearts and minds to God and to each other as fellow sisters and brothers in Christ.
Prayer for Illumination: God of all people, you call us together from our own unique locations to be your Beloved Community. Help us to live up to that call. Open our ears to hear your Word to us and give us the wisdom to understand it. We pray this in your name. Amen.
Scriptural Context: The disciples were gathered together in the Upper Room on the night of Jesus’ betrayal – the beginning of the worst days of their lives – and there, Jesus said these words. Listen for what God says.
Twenty years ago, Tuesday, September 11 fell during the second week of my freshman year of college at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. I got to campus at about 9:00am central time. Three planes had crashed into buildings already and on Flight 93, the passengers and crew were presumably in the act of taking control of the plane from the hijackers, because it crashed only minutes later. Of course, I didn’t know any of this. I did happen to have my dad’s cell phone with me, but twenty years ago, those were still mainly used for emergency phone calls. It would be another couple of years before I would send my first text message.
As I walked toward the building where my 10:00 class was, I saw one of my friends across the open field in the middle of the campus. He was talking on his cell phone and walking hurriedly toward the student center. I didn’t know why he would be in such a hurry on a Tuesday morning. I caught up to him as he entered the building and then I saw that all the televisions in that building where turned to the news, where I first saw the images of the two towers burning.
The live feed at that time showed just one tower remaining. The first had already collapsed. I stood, surrounded by eerily quiet college students, and watched as the second tower fell shortly thereafter. Classes were still held that day, but the next hours were filled with frantic checking of the news stations and the spreading of information as news was passed from those who had heard the most recent reports to those who had not. We heard that all air traffic had been grounded, but above Omaha, which is home to Offutt Air Force Base, which was home to U.S. Strategic Air Command during the Cold War, the skies were busy. Air Force One brought President Bush to town, and fighter and stealth jets flew overhead throughout the afternoon.
But even with that activity, the state of Nebraska is not the state of New York. I knew no one who lived or worked in New York City or at the Pentagon. I was not within driving distance of any of the plane crashes that morning. And I am sure that those of you who were, have vivid memories of the fear and trauma of that day. It became, like December 7, 1941, a day that will live in infamy.
Churches that night and over the next several days were packed with people. In what had been an atmosphere of decline in church attendance, in the face of national catastrophe people flocked to houses of worship like they hadn’t in years, searching for meaning and comfort in a country torn by disaster and fear. Nobody was prepared for that. Everyone did their best, but obviously there was no word or resolution that all of a sudden made everything okay. How could there be?
And so whether we just didn’t give it enough time, or didn’t know how to counsel each other, or responded too slowly, for one reason or another, faith did not satisfy most of us. But it did not take long to find something that did promise us satisfaction: vengeance. An insatiable thirst for vengeance that was called patriotism. And though attendance in churches was high immediately following the attacks as people sought to put their faith in something meaningful, it dropped back off quickly as people were promised that faith in the strength of their nation’s military would bring them what they desired.
Not everyone held that faith. Some questioned it. Some of those who did were accused of being unpatriotic. And so they rallied around leaders who would speak up for them, and they put their faith there: behind those opposition leaders. And in October we invaded Afghanistan and our active role in the War on Terror – which just a few months ago surpassed Vietnam as the longest armed conflict in U.S. History.
Most of you all know Harvey, our 7-year-old son. When something bad happens – when he trips and falls, or when something really upsetting happens – once we’re through the immediate pain and reactions and have gotten calmed down again, we often ask him this question: What did you learn from that?
Research into healing of trauma is tricky. But there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence to suggest that when you can find gratitude somewhere in a traumatic experience, healing that experience can begin. And this is precisely why it can be tricky – you are not necessarily grateful for that experience. In no way am I suggesting that you should be glad for all the terrible things that have happened to you. But it seems to be the case, that when you can look back on trauma and find in it something that you are truly grateful for, the trauma substantially loosens its hold. The easiest way to do that seems to be by asking the question: “What good can I learn from this?”
And so as this auspicious anniversary was approaching, I asked myself: what good have we as a nation learned in the last two decades? We’ve learned plenty, to be sure; but what good have we learned? And I find myself coming up short.
That national trauma marked us. And as a nation, I haven’t seen us look for lessons; I’ve seen us look for saviors. And I’ve seen the divisions grow deeper and deeper. There’s a metric called “Presidential Partisan Divide.” It looks at the gap in presidential approval ratings between the voters of each major political party. So, for example, in 2004, 91% of Republican voters approved of George W. Bush, compared to only 15% of Democrat voters. That’s a 76 point spread. During Barack Obama’s presidency, the approval ratings switched, but the spread increased to 77 points. And just before the Covid crisis, in 2019 which is the last year that Gallup polled on this question, Republican approval of Donald Trump was 89% compared to 7% among Democrats, an 82 point spread. Meaning if you took a group made up of equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats and paired everyone up, only 1 pair in 5 would be able to find common ground about the president. Even in the tumultuous 1960s, that spread was within 40 points.
My job up here is to preach the Good News – to find hope and healing and comfort and to tell you about how God’s Word speaks to us in our daily lives. Some Sundays that’s really easy. And some Sundays, that’s really hard. Because when I look back over the last two decades and say “How has this thing that marked us so deeply helped us to grow?” and then I consider all the men and women who’ve given their time and resources and energies and even their lives toward that effort, and then see how bitterly divided we continue to become year after year after year, how we have built our own political parties into Golden Calves, into idols where we put our faith and give our money and think about when we lie down and when we rise, it is hard to see the hope and the healing and the comfort.
I plan and write and construct my sermon during the week, but I never print it until Sunday morning, because sometimes something crazy happens between Friday and Sunday that we need to talk about. So Sunday morning I always look it over again, and usually just edit a word or two. But sometimes, on Sunday mornings, things hit me differently. And as I re-read the text two hours ago, thinking about all the fear and all the trouble in our nation, thinking about those disciples and the dread they must have felt sitting in that Upper Room knowing that pain, fear, and suffering lay before them, I read this: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me.” And it struck me differently than it did on Wednesday.
I work with a therapist – she’s amazing. And when we met this week she said to me “our brains are not very good at stopping something just because we tell them to. We have to give them something else to do. We have to redirect them, just like you would do with a child.” And so Jesus says “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” and Thomas asks “how can we know the way?” And Jesus answers “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” And so I read that first verse, and I read that last verse, and I don’t know how to make our nation hate itself less.
But I know how to look to Jesus as the way and the truth and the life instead of to my political party, or my viewpoints, or my favorite authors. That’s not to say it’s easy for me to do it all the time. That’s not to say I don’t forget. But I know how to do it. And I think you do too.
The way to God’s house is through Jesus. You hear people call out hypocrisy, but Jesus says not to judge others (Matthew 7:1). You hear people call to rage, but Jesus says to be reconciled to others (5:11). You hear people call to hatred, but Jesus says that greeting those who greet you and loving those who love you is easy – it’s loving your enemies that is the way.
Because it’s not too late to heal. It’s not too late to grow. It’s not too late to get back on the path. Moving through the grief of loss or trauma is a slow process. If it takes a year, you’re really booking it. Compound that into a national tragedy and it takes longer. It’s not too late for us. Another twenty years from now, we may look back on the decades of darkness and say “If it weren’t for that, we wouldn’t have been able to grow into who we are now. We wouldn’t be able to love like we do, to be grateful like we are, to be kind and generous and compassionate like we’ve become.”
We can still heal. We can still grow. We can still follow the way and the truth and the life and step back on the path toward God’s house. That place where hatred cannot divide, terror cannot enter, violence has no power. That place where there are many rooms, even a room for us. That place where sorrow and sighing are no more, but love everlasting. That place is real and it is never too late. And I think if there is a way to remember, a way to heal, a way to redeem what happened twenty years ago, that Jesus is the way, and is the truth, and is the life. Amen.
Aug. 29th - "Slow to Speak” - Rev. Michael Plank
22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Aug. 1st - "One Body” - Rev. Michael Plank
18th Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 1st, 2021
Rev. Michael S. Plank
Hudson Falls, NY
Text: Ephesians 4:11-14: “It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”
Scripture Lesson: Ephesians 4:1-16
Proposition: I propose to experientially show that knowledge of self is the great hope for peace to the end that hearers will summon the courage to delve deeply into knowing themselves honestly.
Prayer for Illumination: God of all wisdom and knowledge, open our minds to your Word this morning. Let it challenge us and comfort us where we need it most and give us wisdom to understand. We pray this in your name. Amen.
Ephesians 4:1-16: Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus was written during the two years he spent in a Roman prison. Listen for God’s Word.
Harvey started walking before he was a year old. Diana, not so much. She really took off at about 19 months. I stressed about that a little bit! Harvey just started so fast. But then, this Spring, I listened to an interview with Simon Sinek, an author I like a lot. He was talking about things that are worth doing, but are difficult to measure.
He said every single person who has normal anatomy and physiology goes through the exact same progression when they learn to walk. First, they start doing those baby push-ups. Then they sit up. Then they sit and lunge forward. Then they crawl. Then they pull themselves to standing. Then they walk along while holding on to furniture. Then they stand unsupported and then they’re able to squat and stand again. And then they can take a few steps. And then they can just walk.
That’s the progression, with only one or two minor variations. Sometimes babies skip crawling, some crawl on feet and hands or kind of army crawl instead of being on hands and knees. But that’s the progression for learning how to walk and it is effective 100% of the time. The thing that stresses parents like me out, is that no one can tell us how long it will take. But it is 100% effective.
There are only a handful of truly universal human experiences. And even walking is not quite universal, because of course some babies never learn to walk, or they have different anatomy or physiology that means that they walk differently. But it’s pretty close to universal. And of the universal human experiences, many have to do with our physical bodies. Because after all, no human has ever lived life without a body. And I think that’s why Paul so often uses this metaphor of the Body of Christ.
It’s a good metaphor. Talking about each part of the body being distinct and valuable in its own way is solid. Knees are not better than elbows. They both do wildly different things and are both valuable to a body reaching its full potential. Paramedics are not better than teachers. They both do wildly different things and are both valuable to a society reaching its full potential. And not only does the metaphor hang together, it’s a metaphor that everyone can understand because everyone has a body. Everyone knows what it’s like to use the parts of their body. And so Paul uses the metaphor again and again in his writings.
And so in what we read today, he says that each of us has been given a role to play (v. 7). “Some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers” (v. 11) in order “that the body of Christ may be built up” (v. 12). We have different roles and do different things that are valuable to our community reaching its full potential.
When we’re able to do this well, Paul says, we reach unity in faith and knowledge and love. And so here’s where we’ll start to pick apart some of the lessons in this text. First, the word “unity,” which is tricky in our culture and climate today. Unity is often understood to mean “sameness.” And the Greek word that Paul uses there often does mean that. But I don’t think that’s what he means here; not when he’s talking about all the different gifts that different parts of the body have. I think he’s using the word “unity,” the way the Founders used it when they called our nation the United States of America.
In their writings, they had no illusions about whether or not we would be a nation devoid of conflict – James Madison talked about it as an inevitable consequence of liberty in the Federalist Papers – they meant that we would be a nation united in our commitment to shared ideals. That is what I think Paul means when he talks about unity: the willingness of a people to stand together because of shared values greater than themselves. That’s the unity we see in deep relationships, and in communities at their very best. And it is a marvelous idea, but how do we achieve it?
You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who believed we have it now. Right now, we are more like what Paul talks about later in the text: “like infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of [people] in their deceitful scheming” (v. 14). We live in a nation that is as culturally and politically volatile as it has been in almost two generations. And if there’s one thing we can agree on, it’s that there are entities out there deliberately manipulating our citizenry and stirring us into a frenzy. And it works. Anxiety, division, outrage, mistrust, and despair are rampant across political and ideological lines. Paul says that to solve that, we have to live into our callings until we all “become mature” and then attain to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ (v. 13).
Edwin Friedman, whom I’ve talked about often, and who I think is one of the great thinkers on relationship and humanity of our time, defined maturity as a willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own emotional wellbeing and destiny. He called it a complete willingness to own your place in the world. To know that you have the power, to a much larger extent than most of realize, to create your own reality.
Maturing is a process. It takes time. Because getting to that place takes hard, hard work. And the work is painful and the work is scary. Do you know what it means to truly accept responsibility for your own emotional wellbeing and destiny? It means that you don’t get to say “my boss made me feel awful” – because you are the only one who gets to choose how your boss makes you feel. It means you don’t get to say “I’m stuck in this town” – because you could choose to leave, even though there would be consequences and it would be difficult. It means you don’t get to say “Work keeps me too busy to spend time with my kids” because you are just choosing that spending time on work is more important than spending time with your kids – and sometimes that’s a choice you need to make, but it’s still a choice.
We don’t want to take responsibility because it means that we can’t blame anyone else. It means that there aren’t easy scapegoats and easy answers. It means that we can’t wait for someone else to fix it because change starts with us. We don’t want to grow up because that means that a grown-up isn’t coming to fix it; we are the grown-ups, which means we have to fix it. Our lack of maturity is why we fight with each other, why we oppress each other and fear each other and start wars. It is what keeps us tossed back and forth by the waves.
The mature person on the other hand, is the calm in the storm. Because the mature person knows who they are and what they are responsible for. The mature person can then understand their calling and then live into that calling. At its most basic level, that is leadership. Because people see that and are inspired to do the same. And little by little, more and more of us will mature, and will live into our callings, and when we can do that, we can find unity once again because we understand that what you believe about x probably doesn’t threaten what we both believe about y. And there may actually be places where we have shared ideals bigger than either of us.
Don’t underestimate the significance of that. It can be earth-changing. But it starts within. It starts with you. It starts with growing up, accepting responsibility for your own emotional wellbeing and destiny. And when you do that for yourself, maybe your family will start to heal. And when your family heals, maybe your neighborhood will start to heal. And when your neighborhood heals, maybe your village will heal, and then your state, and then your nation, and then the world. But it starts with you. And it starts with me.
It is hard and painful work. And Friedman says that even the people he knows who do it best, still are only able to do it about 60% of the time. The work of learning how to take responsibility for your own emotional wellbeing and destiny, of learning who you are, of learning where your strengths and gifts are, where your weaknesses and blind spots are, is the work of a lifetime.
But when you can do that work and be the best leg you can be; and I can do that work and be the best arm I can be; and your neighbor can do that work and be the best heart she can be; then what we discover is that we build the whole body of Christ as it comes together stronger than ever. Because we need every piece. We need you. If our world is to grow and build itself up in love, as Paul says it can, we need each part to do its work. We can’t be a fully-realized body without the unique gifts that you bring. We need each part to claim the grace Christ has given it.
Will you accept that grace? Will you stand up and let yourself mature? Will you accept the responsibility that is yours for the taking? Will you learn and grow in love? Will you stand united with other members of the body? Will you speak the truth in love and join and hold each other as we build each other up? I know it is the work of a lifetime. But thanks be to God, because in God’s wisdom, a lifetime is exactly what we each have. Amen.
 Friedman, Edwin H., A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, 2007, New York: Seabury Books, p. 157.