Sunday, September 22, 2013

A Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

This morning it was an honor for me to be with the people of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Worcester as their preacher. The rector at St. Luke's is the Rev. Warren Hicks. It's a great parish, doing faithful work in the city of Worcester. Thanks be to God!

Below is the manuscript for my sermon.
There is a time and season for everything under the sun, including a time for extemporaneous prayer. Sometimes our hearts groan in travail or leap for joy and we need to put the book down and pray the words that flow from the bottom of our hearts. As one writer[i] has recently put it, the three essential prayers are “Help!” “Thanks!” “Wow!” Those three cover a whole range of emotions and experiences and we don’t need any book to pray them.  

But written prayers consistently offer us something else: a depth that holds us together as a community: progressives and traditionalists, rich and poor, young and old, gay and straight, people from all racial and ethnic backgrounds. There is a reason we call it common prayer. This, I think, is the great gift of Anglicanism to the wider Church, our particular charism if you will. The late Krister Stendahl used to say that we ought to cultivate something like a “holy envy” in the ecumenical Church where instead of tearing the other down we find the unique gift they bring and celebrate it and even try to imitate it. I know Baptist ministers whose congregations might be surprised to learn that they have a Book of Common Prayer at their bedside tables, but that’s what I mean. They find something there that we in TEC often take it for granted.

Anglicanism was born of great conflict. But out of that experience, which remains a part of our DNA, the Elizabethan Settlement and the “middle way” that emerged—not for the sake of compromise but for a deeper comprehension of the truth—we found common prayer (rather than dogmatic certitude) as a way to discover and uncover the unity that is already ours in Jesus Christ.

All of this by way of an intro:  I love the collects, which I used to tell the children at St. Francis, Holden (and their parents if they were listening in) are there to help us all to collect ourselves as the Body of Christ. I also told the teenagers a little trick: that they are kind of like the Cliff Notes version of the theme of the day, so even if they did not listen to a word of the sermon, if their parents asked them what the sermon was about they would be right about 80% of the time if they looked to the collect of the day.

But sometimes we pray these prayers too hastily. In Holden, where I served for more than fifteen years, it seemed like half the congregation would arrive behind the procession, and they were still sneaking in as the readings were beginning and sometimes even ending. And even those present were often not yet really situated and centered and “present” for the opening collect. Now we aren’t too far, geographically from that parish so let me assume that is the case for at least some of you here today as well. And let me invite us to slow down and hit reset. Breathe in and out, and know that where two or three are gathered in his name the risen Christ is present. Trust that he will be revealed today in the breaking of the bread. Let us all collect not just our thoughts, but our emotions—the whole range from anxiety to hope, from loss and betrayal to joy and renewal. Wherever you are today, there Christ is: before you and behind you, beneath you and above you. Breathe in and out, and then let us pray again:
Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
There is a way that this prayer might be heard as escapist. If we are not careful, it could make us so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good. We come to Church then to close the doors on the world, to block it all out so we can focus on heaven alone. The restlessness of a child, then, becomes something in worship that distracts us—an earthly thing that keeps us from heaven—and we may feel tempted to turn and glare.(Don't!) 

Because that would take us far from the roots of our heritage and from the breadth and depth of the one holy catholic and apostolic faith. At the heart of our tradition is a rejection of the notion that this world is bad and that spirit is good. A Gnostic might hear this prayer as an attempt to leave behind all these earthly things, these things that keep us from God, in order to soar above them and escape to some heavenly realm where all is lovely and true and ethereal, a world of Platonic ideals.

But that is not the way of Jesus, and it would take us from that noisy and smelly stable in Bethlehem where the Word that became flesh to dwell among us. All due respect to a great preacher, if there was calm and bright it came only late in the night, after the child had nursed and had his diaper changed. That escapist theology would take us far from the One who died on a tree outside of the city gates because God so loved the world.

For the Christian faith, matter matters. Our lives matter, not generically but particularly: these lives, these bodies here today, some of them starting to fail us—our vision or our hearing or a shoulder that has caused too much pain for too long. These pews and the hymns we sing well or not so well, with voices that sometimes hit the right notes and sometimes make new harmonies that even God had not previously imagined were possible. Today’s collect gathers us here in this place at this time—not in some bygone era of the glory days of the Christian faith or of St. Luke’s parish nor in distant future when every tear is wiped away and pain is no more but right here where salty tears are still being shed and pain very much is—at the death of a relationship or a friend from the Naval Shipyard to the roads of Damascus.

The earthy spirituality that undergirds this prayer is a kind of thread that is found in all of our readings today. Who can hear these words on the lips of the prophet Jeremiah without some deep sense of pathos and compassion? God's heart breaks for the hurt of God's people. We sometimes sing that old spiritual that there is a balm in Gilead that heals the sin-sick soul, but that is a response that comes a couple of millennia after Jeremiah poses a far more haunting question. Is there no balm in Gilead?, Jeremiah asks on the brink of the Babylonian exile. Is there no physician there? Have you ever prayed that kind of prayer? HELP! 

The Psalmist, if it is possible, cries out with even more pain, surrounded by the ravages of war and by signs of death and destruction: they have made Jerusalem a heap of rubble.

The writer of the pastoral epistle we call First Timothy asks us to pray for our leaders, reminding us that there is one God of us all. Radical monotheism – one God—one mediator—means that we are one people on one planet. It means that I can’t claim my God is better than your God. Jesus died for the sins of the whole world; not just the sins of Christians or for a pure remnant of Christians who believe rightly. We are all in the same boat. We all stand in need of prayer and of God’s amazing grace.

You all have seen, I’m sure, those bumper stickers on both sides that say things like, “don’t blame me, I didn’t vote for him, and he’s not my president.”  No Christian who takes today’s epistle seriously can ever say that. We do not only pray for the leaders we voted for but the ones we mistrust and even fear; not for them to fail but for them to succeed for the welfare of all. We prayed for eight years for George, OUR president and we have been praying now for five years for Barack, OUR president.

I hope you pray daily (and not just on Sunday morning) in the very same way for our bishop and your rector. Only you can know your own heart in these matters. There are ways of praying for people like that Pharisee in the temple – Oh Lord, please God, help Warren to see the light and be the kind of rector I want him to be!? But that is not the kind of prayer I am talking about. Do you pray for Doug and Warren as fragile but gifted human beings who have been called to serve God’s people, and who like all of us are relying on God’s mercy and grace one day at a time? I hope so.

And then there is this Gospel reading today, about property and money. Jesus talked about money more than anything else in his preaching ministry except the Kingdom of God and a lot of the time he brought the two together. Again and again he says, “you cannot serve God and money” as we heard once more today—
it feels like this about the fourth or fifth time over the past two months.

While this is no doubt a complicated gospel reading that leave many, including a lot of preachers today across the country, scratching their heads, I think the way into it is once again by way of that collect we prayed. Jesus liked it when he offered parables that left people scratching their heads, so that’s all good. But we get most confused when we think money is the root of all evil. That money is dirty. That’s not what the Bible says. It says the LOVE of money is the root of all evil. It is forgetting that money is a means, not an end. Only God is an end, the source of all that is.

When we seek God first, then all the rest begins to fall into place. It is only when we try to control things that we raise the anxiety level for ourselves and usually for everyone around us. I’m not suggesting a theology of don’t worry, be happy. I’m suggesting a theology that admits we are powerless and then turns to the One who can restore us to sanity. I am suggesting that to love things heavenly is not to escape this world; but is rather about putting things into perspective one day at a time.

In the end, moths and rust will consume all the things we believed were permanent: our things, our ideas, our bodies, our theologies, this building, our diocese, the Episcopal Church. All of them are passing away. In the end all that will be left is God, and God’s people—from every tribe and people and nation. 

But we live in the meantime, here, and now.

So in the meantime, hold fast to the things that endure.

[i] Anne Lamott

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