Never Let Go

“Bring Peace to Earth Again,” the hymn we just sang, was written in a collaboration between two people. The music was written by Perry Nelson, who some of you may remember as our own organist and musician here at Epiphany.

The writer of the text for the hymn was a man named Herman Stuempfle, a pastor and professor at the Lutheran Seminary in Gettysburg.

Perry Nelson had attended a lecture in 1995 at Gettysburg and the two men met. Subsequently, Pastor Price and Perry Nelson invited Stuempfle to Epiphany to preach and to participate in a festival of his hymns, and at the end of that gathering he gave the lyric of this hymn to Perry Nelson to see if he could write a tune, which he did.

Stuempfle said he was moved to write the lyrics of the hymn because of the state of the world at the time – particularly, the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and the aftermath of the Oklahoma City Bombing, which had only just happened.

The hymn they wrote together is a plea for God to have mercy and bring peace to earth again, and dare I say, that 23 years later it speaks to us and through us, even more vividly than when it was written.

Back in 1995, I don’t believe we could have ever have imagined the school shootings to come. Today our country continues fighting the War in Afghanistan, which is the longest war in American history, with no end in sight. The epidemic of men and women who are losing their life to drug abuse is ongoing. The death toll rises in California where loved ones are lost, and the elderly were unable to run to safety, and whole families have been erased from the earth.

We still cry out for peace.

It can feel like things are unraveling, collapsing, and that the end of the world is on its way, but as real as that feels, we are aware that every generation has felt this way. Jesus calls them birth pangs. And while the immediacy of the moment in which we live seems more urgent than the secondhand account of someone else’s experience in previous times, the contractions of these birth pangs have been felt in every generation…

Truly, it must have felt like nothing less than the end of the world to faithful Hebrews on the day the temple was destroyed. Jennike Duignam has illustrated what it may have looked like: collapsing columns and falling stones and debris. This is the picture Jesus paints for his disciples as they walk out of the temple – that one day the stones of this great place of worship would be thrown down.

This would have seemed like the end of the world for these disciples. This is the place where they had come to worship all their lives, the place where their parents had come to worship all their lives, the place where their grandparents had come to worship all their lives, the place that housed the tablets of the ten commandments, the ark of the covenant, the memories of God’s deliverance of their people and the hope of their connection with God. It would have seemed like the end of the world to imagine it in a heap of rubble.

But walking out of the temple, a disciple observes that the temple is made of truly large stones, prompting Jesus to predict they will all be thrown down, and that idea rattles around in these disciples heads as they walk together out of the city gate, as they hike through the Kidron Valley, and as they sit down together on the Mount of Olives. From this vista on the Mount of Olives they can look back at this temple gleaming in the sunlight and try to imagine the land without its largest structure, and they get up the courage to ask when this will happen and how they will know.

And Jesus extends and expands his assertion, and begins to tell them about and the birth pangs that will come – wars and rumors of war, nations rising against nations, the earth crying out in seismic despair, leaving people hungry and in need…
Well this – just what Jesus said would happen – is happening all around us…and it is happening in our own lives…

We die little deaths every day: We experience a sickness that brings a new normal and the end to life as we knew it. Or we go through a divorce and the subsequent new living arrangements. Or we experience the death of a loved one that brings terrible loneliness. Or we experience the end of a pregnancy and the hope of a child turns to grief. Or, we just don’t make the team. We don’t get the internship. Or we lose our job.

All these little deaths are the end of worlds.

But in all this turmoil, when we are vulnerable, Jesus says, “Beware that no one leads you astray.”

When all this turmoil and chaos is happening all around us, Jesus wants to be the one to lead us. He wants to teach us. He wants to shepherd us. He wants to be with us in all the joys and celebrations this life has to offer and he wants to lead us through all the deaths of our life.

He doesn’t want us to settle for second-rate imitations; he doesn’t want us to be wowed like the disciples, who look up and say, “what large homes, and what large cars, what large retirement accounts, what a large following on social media, that’s what life’s all about!” and Jesus doesn’t want us to fall for the illusions cast by the political parties, by consumer-culture advertisers, or celebrity personalities, who claim to be able to lead us and be our guide.

Only Jesus can lead us to the ultimate destination of our life because only Jesus is the Source of our life. Only Jesus can lead us beyond this ephemeral and frail existence, through death, to the life God has prepared for us. Because only he has known death and defeated the power of death.

And our risen Lord Jesus now stands at the edge of time, calling us to himself. He calls to us with healing and life, extended as a free gift for you and for me and for all of creation, even while he is with us in the struggle.

William Stafford, the poet, wrote a poem called the “Way It Is”:

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

Jesus is with us among the things that change so that we don’t get lost, even when tragedies happen, even through the hurt, through the dying, and through the suffering.

Jesus holds us and Jesus doesn’t let go of us. He holds us through his word, through the meal, and through the life we life together.

He holds us when we reach out for him, but also when we try to run from him, and when we ignore him.
Jesus hold us though it all.

In baptism he has grasped us and holds on forever – and nothing can break his grasp: not drug addiction, not divorce, not fire, not gun violence, not war, not death – nothing can take us from his embrace.

Through the cross and empty tomb, Christ has won the war with death, and so we can be unafraid of death – we are able to declare its impotence and powerlessness, we are able to say things change but God’s mercy remains the same, we are able to consider how to provoke one another to love and to good deeds and participate in God’s healing to the world.

As Jesus sits on this mountain vista, the Mount of Olives, with his disciples, overlooking the temple — they can’t know yet, but he will not run to protect himself, but he will enter back through the city gate, and on the very grounds of this temple he will stand trial before the chief priest, and he will be condemned and sent to Pilate, who will sentence him to death. The Romans will burn the temple and it will crumble and in the dust-cloud that follows all that will be found is chaos and violence. But Jesus will appear to these disciples, he will recommission these men who will desert him, and send them out. He forgives them and entrusts them to tell the news that he is alive.

But before all that, they sit together here on the Mount of Olives, gazing at the temple and trying to imagine it.
This scene is depicted in our other drawing in the bulletin this week.

Something about this event in Jesus’ life captured Harper Doherty’s imagination.

Harper is in the fourth grade and sometime during the course of this past week she and her family were reading the scripture for this Sunday and she was inspired to do a drawing to represent these events. Carmen, Harper’s mom, asked the office about where the bulletin art comes from and we explained that we already had an artist and there was a cover prepared for the bulletin, but that we could include Harper’s drawing as well, and so you can find it on the last page of your bulletin.

What is so wonderful about Harper’s drawing is that she has depicted Jesus with his disciples on the mountain overlooking all that is to come, and he is reaching out to hold their hands.

harper's temple picWe are not very different than these disciples – in need of forgiveness, often unable to see the vision Jesus casts of loving and forgiving, unable to see that Jesus is truly in control of our life even in the midst of the birth pangs all around us.

But just like in this picture, Jesus who reaches out to hold the hands of his disciples, truly reaches out to hold onto us through all that has been, all that is, and all that is to come.

We don’t know what the future holds, but we know who holds the future, and we know that the one who holds the future also holds us in love, and these birth pangs will give way to a glorious birth when Christ will return with all of God’s healing for this weary world.

Thanks be to God.