On the Brink
The following sermon was preached by Joan L. Beck, Cornelsen Director of Spiritual Formation and Pastor to the Community, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Tuesday, September 7, 2010.
Orient us by your cross to follow you in the semester and at all times to come. Amen.
Israel is at the edge; Israel is on the brink. At the edge of the promised land, at the brink of the Jordan River, Moses gathers the people to help them get ready for what comes next.
In the past, God rescued them from Egypt. In the past, God brought them to Mt. Sinai to give them the covenant: the gift of a dynamic, committed relationship with God and one another. In the past, the people complained and moaned about the challenges of freedom. In the past, they worshiped a golden calf and said that was the god who had rescued them. In the past, they lost their nerve.
Nevertheless, they are now at the edge, the border, the brink of the new life they have been promised. Who is this God who is faithful to God’s promises even when the people have messed up and failed, even when the people have chosen death?
Moses wants the people to consider how their future will be different from the life they have known, and yet how it will be the same. They will not have to live on manna, painstakingly collected day by day, but God will still provide—now they will plant and harvest crops. They will be challenged and thrown off base by the ways of the cultures around them, but they will still have the covenant and all its teachings to orient them. They may be tempted to forget (again!) the God who called them into life and blessing; but God has not forgotten and will not forget them. Here at the edge of change, Moses wants them to be grounded in who they are, and whose they are.
This community of LSTC is at the edge, on the brink. We are at the edge of a new academic year, jumping off the brink into new classes, new experiences, new relationships. We have come from work and vacations and CPE, from internships and a holiday weekend. I’m not Moses but I ask this people to pause here at the edge, to get ready for what comes next. Consider how your life from today on will be different from the life you have known till now, and yet how it will be the same.
Step back a little farther, take a more bird’s eye view, and other edges and brinks come into sharper relief. We are at the brink of ecological changes that burden living creatures with catastrophes of stormier storms, higher seas and higher temperatures, changing climates, unpredictable effects. We are at the edge of (is it) economic recovery or economic double dip recession? Unemployment edges upward, leaving too many breadwinners without jobs, families without food security, workers without dignity or hope. More people are on the brink of lashing out, quitting, violence, or suicide. The war wears on. People are leaving the church. The failures of our relationships and social contracts haunt us; the edges are unraveling; we stumble over the brinks. How shall we know who we are and whose we are when the world is not stable beneath our feet?
When Sara Crewe’s father brought her home from India and left her at a boarding school in Manhattan, he didn’t know that the headmistress would be vindictive and mean once he was presumed dead in the Great War. But Sara’s father had left her with a sense of her identity. “You are a princess,” he told her. “You are MY princess. Draw a circle with this chalk and step into it; it is your princess land. Hold your doll and whisper in her ear, I will hear you and I will help you.” Sara Crewe, a child character in a Victorian novel, used her chalk circle and her stories of India to find the spunk she needed to get through the trying times.
Dominic Cobb, an adult character in the summer movie “Inception,” infiltrated other people’s dreams in order to steal valuable information from them. Because the dreams he visited were so vivid, Dom could get confused between the real world and the dream world. So he carried a totem, an item that only he was familiar with; when it was at hand, he knew he was in his reality and not someone else’s dream. Dom’s totem was a spinning top.
What totem, what chalk circle, what story do we have to keep us oriented as we step off the brink and enter fully into the world of this semester, these people, this city, our planet home?
Our God has drawn a circle around us all, a watery circle. God has washed us in the bath of baptism and given us our identity: “You are my beloved child,” God told us. “You are MY beloved child. I take you off the brink, down into the water, through the river, into the promised land of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Hold my hand and whisper in my ear; I will hear you and I will help you.”
Our God has marked the totem on our foreheads: when we were baptized into Christ we were “sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”
When we see the cross, we know that we are in God’s reality and not in someone else’s dream. For God in Christ did not just take on flesh and blood to join with the creation (that would have been awesome enough), but in Christ God also took on our deaths, the failures of our social contracts, the complaints and moans, the golden calves, the losses of nerve, our choices of death rather than life. Who is this God who is faithful to God’s promises even when the people have messed up and failed? It is OUR God, who has accepted the mark of the cross of Christ forever.
Soon in this service the new students will be invited to return to the circle of water, the baptismal font. They will come to the edge of this pool as they are at the edge of this semester, and with them we all will take the plunge once again and remember who we are and whose we are, affirming our baptism.
Then we will mark the hands of the new students—new M.Div. and M.A. students, new advanced studies students, transfer students and Lutheran year students, all of them—We will mark their hands with the sign of the cross.
When these persons were baptized, their foreheads were marked with the cross—a brand of ownership, visible to the world. When their hands are marked with the cross, the sign will be visible to the students themselves.
For these are the hands that will hold books and type on laptops to take notes and write papers, the hands that will lift cups of coffee to stay awake, the hands that will break bread at mealtimes and raise toasts at celebrations. Marked with the cross of Christ, these are the hands that will clap with pleasure for people and events, encourage children, caress a friend, welcome a stranger, serve a neighbor, reconcile with an enemy; hands that will dry tears and point the way. These hands, like a compass marked with the cross of Christ.
These are the hands of our new members; these are members of the body of Christ; we are on the edge of knowing them; we are on the brink of joining them; let us enter in.