Now that summer is officially over and a few outdoor leaves are showing signs of color, I found inspiration for this morning’s sermon from an unlikely source. One of the most unlikely sources imaginable, in fact.
For as long as I can remember, long before the franchise achieved its current success and notoriety, I have been a devoted fan of the New England Patriots football team. However, I’m not sure I can say I’m a fan of the current Patriots football coach. It’s not that I dislike Bill Belichick. In fact, I have a good deal of admiration for his ability to bring the best out in his players.
Still, as some of you know, Bill Belichick doesn’t inspire affection on any level. When he appears in public he typically comes off as gruff, condescending, and sarcastic. He may have a warm side to his character, but it’s rarely on display. Not to mention the fact that Bill Belichick never seems to say anything of substance. If I was a reporter, I’m not sure why I would even show up at one of his press conferences. He answers the same questions with the same deadpan expression on his face and the same clipped and tired clichés. A reporter trying to meet a deadline could simply change a few specifics and tell people to refer to previous Bill Belichick press conferences for further clarification.
Well imagine my surprise, back in the beginning of September, when a reporter asked Bill Belichick a question and Belichick responded with an image that was striking…profound even. It was the day at the end of NFL training camps when certain players needed to be cut from the Patriots team while others would be informed they made the opening game roster. “Cutdown day” as it’s known in the NFL, winds up being a day of reckoning for dozens of aspiring football players. Not the star players most people have heard of. Rather, players who are “on the bubble” and struggling to earn one of the coveted last remaining positions on the squad.
The specific question Coach Belichick was asked had to do with what it’s like to tell a player he has survived “cutdown day” and earned a spot on the team. At the end of an uncharacteristically long answer, Bill Belichick said this:
“Yeah, as much as you want to say ‘Nice job. You made the team’…they’re not a permanent fixture on the team. They’re here as long as they’re doing their job and they’re dependable and reliable and consistent and improving. Once that curve starts to head the other way, I would say it probably isn’t going to last too long.”
Belichick continued with his answer to the reporter before reaching a memorable conclusion. “I know what you’re saying—it’s a good moment, but it’s a castle in the sand. It could be gone very, very quickly.”
A castle in the sand. How many of us spent time on the beach this summer either building a sand castle or watching children or a family build a sand castle nearby? In the best case scenario, young people and young at heart people build sand castles far enough up the beach that they survive the relentless surge of the ocean water. And yet how many times have we seen sand castles seemingly out of reach flattened by an unexpectedly large wave as the tide comes in rises steadily higher. Inherently castles in the sand have a transitory nature to them. They can indeed be gone very, very quickly…
I spent some time this week thinking back over the summer that has just passed and reflecting on castles in the sand. To be sure, it has been a noteworthy and newsworthy summer. Among other things, this will be a summer known for its hurricanes. With winds whipping so hard they’ve stretched the upper limits of our numerical storm categorizations. With water rushing over barriers and past dams and through city streets leaving flood waters as much as four feet high.
One storm after another wreaking havoc in Texas and Florida and the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico and every place they have made landfall along the way. Human and animal lives lost, power outages on a massive scale, cleanup efforts that will last for months. How many castles in the sand were destroyed by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose, Maria as they made their way ashore?
Or is a castle in the sand a metaphor for people who lost their homes, their possessions, and everything they owned in the wake of the massive storms? Or is a castle in the sand a metaphor for the climate that is changing all around us on account of our human waste and neglect and devastation? The people and the things and the earth as we know it can suddenly be gone very, very quickly…
This past summer will also be known and remembered for what happened down in Charlottesville and what continues to happen across the United States. Groups of white supremacists, predominantly male, predominantly young, and predominantly white, marching through city streets chanting Nazi slogans. Proclaiming loudly and proudly and boldly their hatred of people of color, Jewish people, and LGBTQ people. And inciting violence along the way before one young, white male ran over Heather Heyer and killed her with his car in the middle of a crowded street.
For decades in this country, going back to the Civil Rights movement, we have talked in our society about how far we have come in terms of race relations. How we as a nation have become more tolerant of diversity and how all of us fit together in one great melting pot. How we’ve managed to drive groups like the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist organizations far into our cultural background or even underground.
What happened in Charlottesville served cold and stark notice of how naïve that “pat ourselves on the back” narrative is and how much progress this country needs to make in days ahead. The time for complacency and comfortability when it comes to racial justice and religious tolerance and embracing people in the LGBTQ other marginalized communities is no longer. If Charlottesville reminded us of anything it reminded us of how much hard work we still need to engage in as American citizens. Because we know that in the face of emboldened bigotry and hatred, what is just and peaceful and compassionate and morally right can disappear very, very quickly. Like a castle in the sand…
And there was a time recently this summer when castles in the sand were deeply and painfully personal for me. Three weeks ago when Jeff Czapla went off to his college class one morning he never returned home later that afternoon, leaving beloved family and best friends and an entire community shocked, shaken, shattered.
I know well how much his parents and his sister loved Jeff. I have no doubt how much his extended family loved Jeff. I have seen firsthand how much my son and other friends loved Jeff. As I stand here in this pulpit I can picture Jeff this morning, kneeling on the stairs of this chancel right over there and being confirmed as a member of this church not so many years ago.
But sometimes no matter how much we love and how many times we reach out and how hard we try we lose special people like Jeff anyway. Hope flickers out. Despair sets in and takes over. And life which often seems both vulnerable and fragile can wind up coming to an end very, very quickly. Like a castle in the sand…
What do we do then when storms rage and brothers and sisters lose literally everything and hatred gains courage and the people we care about die too young with too much promise in front of them? What do we do when who and what we hold precious is only transitory? What do we do when life is like a castle in the sand that could be gone instantly?
First, we rebuild. We do everything we can with the resources we have and the gifts we give to rebuild the homes that have been destroyed. Along with the lives and communities and cities that have been wiped out. We rebuild our resolve to combat the forces of prejudice and division, drowning out the ugly chants with words and deeds that highlight our shared humanity. And we rebuild by turning to one another in the midst of the broken hearts and spirits and walking step by step and side by side through the grief.
Second, we return again to our Christian faith. Not because faith offers all the answers to our doubts and questions. Not because faith promises quick fixes and instant relief of our suffering. But rather because faith leads us into God’s tender embrace. A God who promises to love us and sustain us and give us hope even when life feels fragile and everything we know and love can go away at any moment.
That same God sent Jesus Christ into the world on a mission. To teach us how to live as fully as we can. To embody for us how to love as tirelessly as we can. To envision a new day with us as daringly as we can. To work as doggedly as we can. To trust him as open-heartedly as we can. And to listen to his words as intently as we can.
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall.” Amen.