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. 

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