Speaker: The Rev'd Emily Griffin
Nothing is ever really finished in Guatemala, as far as I can tell. For those who don’t know, I returned early this morning from a two-week study trip there. You may have seen some of what I witnessed in the news. Last Sunday, the country – which has more volcanoes per square mile than any country in the world – experienced its worst volcanic eruption in a century. The city where my husband and I were staying – Antigua – was out of the direct line of fire. We were covered in a blanket of ash for a while, but that was it. The real damage happened in the surrounding villages. The victims were disproportionately poor. Those who had a means to leave did; those who didn’t were trapped or buried. Forget this or that earthly tent being destroyed; entire villages disappeared.
The volcano, Fuego, is known to be active. Just two nights before, Mike and I watched with awe as red-hot lava flowed down its side. No one in town seemed concerned. As long as Fuego did what it had always done – in the lifetimes of those affected at least – we’d be fine. The question came to mind more than once this past week – how do you build a life’s work when you’re surrounded by volcanoes? How can you be confident you’ll finish anything you start?
You can’t help but ask this in Antigua. The city was the capital of Guatemala until a 1773 earthquake left most of its colonial glory in ruins – the Cathedral, seemingly countless monasteries, convents and churches, government buildings. Over 200 years later, none of the buildings look exactly like they did before. Some have been rebuilt in part for their original purpose; many of the churches are still places of prayer. Others have been repurposed as hotels, museums, tourist attractions. And some appear as broken and purposeless as they must have seemed two centuries ago.
Why bother rebuilding at all? The essential geology of the place hasn’t changed. While builders have gotten wise in the art of what they call “earthquake chic,” there’s always an awareness that it can change in an instant. There have been at least 20 notable earthquakes and 14 significant eruptions since 1773. It might not be completely reasonable to rebuild or repurpose in Antigua, but I’m glad that people did. It is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Antigua is beautiful precisely in its brokenness – in all the room it creates for imagination, in the new life – the grass, the flowers, the trees – that can’t help but rise from its ruins.
What does any of this have to do with us here in DC? I could talk about the English-speaking Episcopal church I found there – another St. Alban’s, believe it or not – and muse about our interconnectedness as the body of Christ. I could stress the humanitarian needs for food and medicine and trauma counseling, or the structural problems that left the poorest of the poor so defenseless in the first place. But all this implies that they’re the only ones who struggle with incompleteness – that none of us have built our houses or life stories on potentially shifting sand. Today’s Scriptures, in one way or another, all show that’s not the case.
Take Samuel in today’s first reading. We are eyewitnesses as he watches his life’s work crumble before his very eyes. He’s spent his entire adult life as Israel’s last best judge – treating rich and poor alike with justice and integrity. But that kind of leadership doesn’t pass automatically from generation to generation. His sons drop the mantle spectacularly, and there’s no obvious successor waiting to pick it up. So the people demand that Samuel give them a king instead. After a brief wound-licking session with God, Samuel warns them and then agrees to give them what they want. Someone else will have to rebuild the relationship with God they’ve just destroyed, though. He’ll do his part, but he can’t see what they’re building anymore. From now on, it will be someone else to finish the job.
Who exactly would that be? Any bets on Israel’s kings soon prove themselves foolish. Eventually the people’s hopes rise again for a new kind of king – a Messiah who will fight their battles for them and finish the work of rebuilding Israel. For the record, Jesus wasn’t what any of them had in mind. He too in today’s Gospel had to wonder who could carry on his work of kingdom building. By chapter 3 of Mark’s Gospel, the religious leaders have already turned on him. Even his family suspects he’s out of his mind. But rather than close the circle and concentrate on his likeliest prospects of success, he opens his circle unimaginably wide and says that whoever does the will of God – whether they know that’s what they’re doing or not - is welcome to help him in his work. Looking back on this moment, it’s hard for me not to ask – if Jesus’ work of building the kingdom of God isn’t finished 2000 years later, then how can any of us expect to see completion in our own life’s work?
We could follow the road Paul starts to lead us down in our reading from 2nd Corinthians. We could focus not on our earthly tents, but on “the house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” That sounds good at first, until you realize what cold comfort that must be to Guatemalans whose family members and homes have been buried in lava and ash. It’s one thing to know theoretically that tomorrow isn’t promised; it’s another to have it snatched away so violently. Jumping too quickly to the eternal denies the very real suffering of fellow children of God and is itself a kind of violence. But that doesn’t mean we can just dismiss Paul here for pie in the sky thinking. He’s subtler than that. What he says here is that there is more to our lives than what we can see. The tangible is not the only measure of our worth. It’s when we start reducing ourselves to what we own that we really get in trouble. Paul reminds us that the renewal God has in mind for us starts right here and now – day by day.
What does that renewal and rebuilding look like? For me, it looks a lot like the faith expressed in today’s psalm. I’ve been struggling all week with what to say today, and I keep coming back to the last verse of Psalm 138. After affirming what he trusts to be true of God – that God is love and faithfulness, that despite any appearances to the contrary God does care for the lowly – the psalmist ends with an astounding faith claim: “The LORD will make good his purpose for me.” Other translations say it like this: “the LORD will fulfill his purpose for me,” “the LORD will perfect that which concerneth me,” or most intriguingly, “the LORD will finish (or complete) me.” It doesn’t promise a particular time frame or even that we’ll be there to see it. But I still see it as incredibly good news.
Why? Because it’s not entirely on us to finish our life’s story. We don’t have the first or the last word on our lives; both belong resoundingly to God. We don’t have to finish our own narratives or decide in the end what our lives mean. We can leave that work in God’s hands. In the meantime, we can mourn whenever an earthly tent is destroyed, we can share our lingering fears, and then by the grace of God – we can find beauty in our brokenness and rejoice in the new life that can’t help but rise from our ruins. In the silence that follows, I invite you to consider what is unfinished in your life and how you might offer that to God to rebuild, repurpose or create something entirely new. In the Name of the One who is faithful to complete the work already started in us – Amen.