Monday, October 24, 2016

A Sermon Offered at Trinity Church in the Central West End, October 23, Proper 25, Year C


Have you ever seen what an army of grasshoppers can do? They come in times of drought when every green leaf is most precious. When we lived in North Central Texas, we had 9 ½ acres. For the past few years, the grasshoppers had gotten worse each year. That year, we had a super infestation. It was amazing to watch the destruction. Our house sat on one acre and a two acre field was our view from the front lawn. In that front yard was an apricot tree that was in its maturity and offering some of the largest apricots we had ever seen.

We knew the grasshoppers were there. They were everywhere! They would fly up in our faces as we walked through the yard or field. I became a maniac during that time. We took great delight in finding ways to be rid of the little creatures. 

One evening, we saw movement out in the pasture and watched in amazement. It was as if a tidal wave was starting and coming towards us. We realized that the grasshoppers were moving in unison. We watched until it was too dark to see. The next morning, we looked to see if they were still there. 

They were not. But what was left behind was crazy. Our apricot tree was bare. There were seeds hanging on stems which were still attached to the limbs. Not a piece of fruit, not a leaf existed on the tree. The only plants untouched were the tomato plants, rosemary and live oaks. Every other plant was leafless. 

So, Joel’s apocalyptic visions of plagues and judgments are a bit frightening yet very believable to me. To think of a God that would send an army of hoppers, destroyers, and cutters is actually rather terrifying. 

How the people must have felt to have God’s power used to control and punish! How they must have felt as they heard Joel call for repentance and sharing God’s promises of liberation from the swarm, from the shame, from making the people a mockery.

Power can be used to dominate, control, and oppress. It can also be used to liberate and restore.

Because of the damage to the land, God becomes jealous for the land and has pity upon the people. God has a change of heart.

This power that was used to chastise shifts direction and is used to set the people free. Liberated and restored, God blesses them, then empowers them with an outpouring of the Spirit upon all flesh.

The Pharisee holds a certain amount of authority and power. He thinks he is righteous, doing all those things he believes are right. He prays a prayer of thanksgiving: Thank you, God, that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.

Yet here is this tax collector, a self-proclaimed sinner, praying humbly, quietly, God have mercy on me! 

Who is the righteous one? I think that most of us would answer that the tax collector was the righteous one. It is easy to see arrogance in the other.

The parable is used to help the disciples understand that they must depend upon God rather than on themselves or even each other only and to let them know that good works alone will not earn entrance into God’s Kingdom.

The Pharisee did all the things he was supposed to do. He obeyed the commandments, fasted, tithed, and prayed. What did he do wrong?

The other night as I watched the debates, I found myself shaking my head in disbelief as I heard some of the things being said. I thought of some of my friends and family that I have unfollowed on Facebook so that I would not take on their anxiety as my own. I felt sorry for their ignorance. Suddenly, it occurred to me that my thoughts were not much different than that of the Pharisee’s prayer. Thank you God for not letting me think like them. Thank you God for not letting me be like them.

The Pharisee does not need God’s gift of justification because he has justified himself. He defines himself by those things he does not like and by those he does not want to be like. Just as I did. We act alone, giving thanks to God for making us not be someone else.

There are two sides to that coin. We can imagine in this current political climate that some are praying, Thank you God that I am not a woman. That I am not Gay. That I am not Black or Brown or any other color than White.

But just as easily, it could be Thank you that I am not one of those fanatics who hates so many of your people and judge by people’s skin color or what they believe. Thank you for not letting me be narrow minded like them.

I would imagine that everyone of us has been guilty of an arrogant prayer at one time or another. Maybe more than just a time or two.

It is easy to get caught up in our good works and believe that we are holy and right. Yet with our arrogance comes a certain superiority.

I have a real friend (as opposed to FB friend). I first met her when she was a 15 year old searching for self-identity. She is very anti-war and as a result is adamantly against the mainstream candidates. She challenges me on a weekly basis, not in a bad way but in a good way although often aggravating. To debate with her, I must know why I believe what I do. Why I do what I do and say what I say. She helps me be accountable to myself, to the world around me. She has helped me understand how I identify myself and why it is important to me. She tends to knock the arrogance right out of me.

Joel reminds us that God has a power – a power than can be frightening. Yet. God is accountable to us just as we are to be accountable to God.

That is called relationship and that is what the covenants are all about.

I think the Gospel today reminds us that we hold a power also. One that can be damaging or liberating. We hold the power to build relationships OR to build barriers that keep us separate.

Sometimes we get so caught up in our own righteousness that we forget about accountability, thinking maybe that our good works are justification enough.
But we cannot define ourselves by what others do or by who we do not want to be like.

The perceived sinner did not compare himself to anyone. He stood alone accountable before God. The Pharisee needed the sinner to justify himself. The problem with that is to feel More Than, there must be one who is considered Less Than.

His identity was entwined with the sinner. Without the sinner, he had nothing. The sinner looked to no one but God for Grace. Everything the sinner had was wrapped up in God.

Why do we do what we do here at Trinity? Why do we care so much about LGBT people? Why do we offer food and hospitality? Are we the best that we can be – Are we as good as we believe ourselves to be?

Those who volunteer at the Food Pantry will think, “ah, there she goes again.” I am often on a mission to bring to the front of our hearts and minds the question of what brought us to this moment, this day at the pantry. Not just why are we there but how did we come to be there. It seems vitally important to me to know ourselves, know why we do the things we do. Otherwise, how can we change those things about ourselves that need changing? How can we have a change of heart if we do not know our heart? This is my battle every day – why am I here? How did I get to this place? How can I be a part of building relationships if I don’t even know why I am there? How can I do it better?

There are many reasons why people do good works. Most of those reasons are very good ones. I’m not sure that there is one set answer to the questions of why or how. However, I do think it is something we must continually explore.
We are only frail humans. Sometimes we are the ones who are imprisoned in our fears; we are blind to our own heart. Sometimes, we are the ones who are poor in spirit. Some days, we need to be restored - we do not know how we will get through the day, much less what brought us to this place in time.

Yet the Gospel of Jesus calls us out of that human frailty and into a mystery that is beyond our knowing, into a mystery of which we can only dream.

God is a God of power and of restoration. God calls us to have a change of heart, to be restored and empowered by that relationship with God.

Liberated and restored, God blesses us, through the outpouring of the Spirit upon all creation.

And sends us out to liberate, restore and empower others. 

Monday, October 17, 2016

Proper 24 Year C RCL, offered at St. Timothy's Episcopal Church, October 16, 2016

I love the prophets. They tell it like they saw it or heard it. They spoke God’s truth to the perceived power of the day no matter what the cost. And the cost was often their lives.

Jeremiah was a witness to a time of crisis and the last days of the southern kingdom of Judah. He survived the Babylonian invasion, the collapse of the kingdom, the defeat of the city, the destruction of the temple and the exile of many of his people. The whole book of Jeremiah reflects all of these events and echoes with warnings of doom and promises of hope.

Today’s reading is his most famous prophecy – a prophecy of a new and better covenant to replace the one made with Moses, the one that the people had broken. The new promise was that God would write the law into the hearts of God’s people and that all would know God and be known by God, from the least to the greatest and just as importantly, all iniquities would not only be forgiven but forgotten.

God is a God not only of Judah but of all creation and who will, in time, bring all creation to salvation through a process of liberation and restoration. Jeremiah’s message was to trust Yahweh above all and at all costs.

The author of the epistle urges Timothy to carry on with all he has learned from scripture and all he has known through faith, that a time will come when people will not listen to “sound doctrine” but will find teachers to suit their own desires. They will turn from the truth so that they might hear the word that suits their ways. Timothy is urged to proclaim the Word of God, to be persistent, to convince, rebuke, encourage with utmost patience, and to always be sober, endure suffering, and to carry out his ministry fully regardless of what others might say or do.

And in this Gospel reading from Luke: Is there anyone less powerful than an old widow woman? Today or in this Gospel, older women are met with such disdain. We have violated all the cultural mores of the day. We have had the audacity to live past the time when their youth has faded.

In the time of this Gospel reading, a widow was fully dependent upon others for her survival. And here she is, powerless…persistently pestering this powerful man.

And here this judge is, a man who is in a position to do justice-who is supposed to do justice especially for the poor and weak, yet a man who respected neither God nor people, here he is giving in to this weak old nagging woman.

If persistence paid off with such a corrupt human, how much more will it pay with a just God of unlimited power?

The corrupt judge is doing God’s will even as he does not believe in it. God’s will is being done even when we do not realize it. Justice is being served even in a corrupt world.

This is hope…that even in the midst of systemic injustice, justice may be done.

Yet it is so easy to lose heart. The weight of the world bears heavily on our hearts and minds. We are assaulted by bad news, tragic news at every turn. The images of dead children washing up on a shoreline, bombed out buildings, waif eyes staring out of ads at us, political unrest, racism, classism, ageism, so many isms that wear us out.

It is easy to lose heart. It is easy to be overwhelmed by the need, the suffering. It is easy to be tired of being horrified and outraged by the ludicrousness of this world.

We want it all to stop. It is safer in the smallness. Our hearts don’t hurt as much and our minds do not have to question those things we do not know.

This is called compassion fatigue or outrage fatigue.

We get to the point that we simply cannot hear of one more tragic circumstance.

I often see posts on Facebook that people are shutting down their accounts or taking time off from social media to quieten their lives, soften the lines, ease the anxiety.

I say to you that ability is an extreme privilege. It is a power that those of us with electronic devices hold.

People in poverty, people struggling to make it through each day, people who worry not only about the food they will feed their children but about whether or not those children will be arrested, or killed before they get back home - these people do not have the luxury of shutting down or logging out. It is not about just making ends meet. It is about making it through each day regardless of the fatigue. They may know about other tragedies in the world but the realities of their own lives are tragic enough. They live in an outrageous time in the middle of not only St. Louis City but across this nation.

These are unjust times.

I see it each day of this ministry. People are hungry. Not just a hunger in their bellies but a hunger in their hearts for justice. Hungry for a time when they do not have to come to a food pantry, hungry for a decent wage, hungry for healthy foods……..

hungry for respect and dignity.

Some of the most spiritual people I know are those I see at the Trinity Food Pantry or the Hot Lunch. People who have little but God to depend upon – these are people who are crying out to God every day to help them survive in an unjust world.

That is the reason that these texts are so vitally important today. God does not tolerate injustice. Jeremiah’s warning to the world of Judah could be said to us as well. The days are surely coming, says the Lord. And in Luke: If even an unjust judge will do God’s will, what justice will God grant to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?

Yes, we know that Jesus told us that the poor would always be with us but that does not mean that the systems that oppress people are ok. These are not. When generations of families continue to live in poverty, something is wrong with the system, not simply the people. Our education systems are flawed. Those who can send their children to good schools do; those who cannot afford the good schools must make use of the neighborhood schools. As a result, we have under-served, under-educated students.

Who needs to know about Flint Michigan? My grandson attends a magnet school in the St. Louis Public Schools. Just this semester, we received word that the water from the water fountains was contaminated with lead. 

Now how long do you think this has been going on? It is not as though it just happened. How many children have drunk water from these toxic fountains for how many years?

How much should a people bear before they begin to nag a corrupt system to right that which is wrong?

How many wrongs must be tallied up before a sense of justice kicks in?

And what does that have to do with any of us?

I sleep soundly in my nice big house in the City, I drive my cute little red car, I store up all my little treasures here on earth, all the while those I see each day or each month struggle with the simplest of things.

I can tell myself that I work to right those things that are unjust. I can wear myself out physically and emotionally trying to respond to the literal grip of need that seizes me each time I walk in the midst of the people. I can share my stories with you and try to grab your imagination so that your compassion is stirred to the point of action but     what     good    will    it   do   in the long run?

What difference does it MAKE????????

We live in an unjust society. Our laws are unjust. Our system is corrupt.

Yet, the days are surely coming, says the Lord.

Listen to what the unjust judge says.

And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?

The people of God are crying out.

The parable in the Gospel was to help us remember to pray always and to not lose heart. The difference that we make is in our prayers. If God’s will is capable of being done even in the midst of corrupt human will, what more can be done in the midst of love and respect?

We are to carry on, just as we have been taught, just like Timothy, just like Jeremiah, in faith and love. We cannot allow our own human failings to cause us to be overwhelmed or fatigued. We have to know that God’s will is being done through the small things that we are able to do.

I see what love and respect do when these are shared. I see it in the faces of those I know, of those who ask me to pray with them, of those who ask if they can pray for me. I feel the effect of their persistent prayer. I know that God’s will is being done, regardless of our awareness levels. There is faith on this earth and I do believe that it will override all that is wrong and unjust. The days are surely coming…

When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?
I say yes. I say yes, he will. We simply have to keep the faith, keep on praying, and do not lose heart.

Amen.