Thursday, September 19, 2013

A Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Last Sunday, September 15, I was with the good people of Trinity Church in Milford, Massachusetts and their rector, the Rev. Mac Murray. I was invited to preach at 8 and 10 and then met with their vestry (lay leadership) after coffee hour. 

In all of the excitement of being there I forgot to take pictures, but I stole the one of the left from their website. And as I have been doing in my travels, I wanted to post my sermon manuscript as well, which I am only now getting to.

O God, because without you we are not able to please you, mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Let me begin this morning by conveying to you the greetings of our Bishop, Doug Fisher and the staff at 37 Chestnut Street. I also need to add that everyone I talked to who found out this was where I would be today said, “what a great parish that is! So much life and vitality.” At 150 years young, I am truly grateful to hear about that and I look forward to learning more not just today, but in the years ahead. We are also grateful for the work your rector does not only here in Milford but as a member of Diocesan Council and as a leader in our diocese. When a priest is ordained it is not only to serve a parish but those larger “councils of the church.” So thank you, Mac.

Now, regarding this epistle reading we heard a few minutes ago: starting today and for the next seven weeks the Epistle Reading will come from two pastoral epistles, First and Second Timothy. Let’s set aside the debate about who wrote these two epistles; although you should know that the vast majority of scholars agree that it wasn’t St. Paul, but rather a “next-generation” student of his. For our purposes today, however, it’s pretty clear that these words we heard in today’s epistle reading sound a lot like Paul and are meant to recall to us Paul’s familiar story on the Road to Damascus, even if he didn’t actually write them.
I do want to quibble with one word, however, in the verses we heard today. I’m not saying Scripture ought to be changed to fit my understanding, so don’t worry about that. But I hope you will hear me out. If I was able to sit down with whoever wrote these words over a cup of coffee, I would totally give some “amens” along the way to what is a very powerful witness of faith.

First of all, I love it that the writer begins with gratitude: I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord…amen! Meister Eckhart once said that if the only prayer you ever said was “thank you” it would be enough. He knew, as this writer knew, that gratitude takes us near to the heart of God. And, of course, I would give a full-throated amen also to the conclusion that the writer draws from reflecting on such life-changing experiences.

The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.

Whether our own conversion stories have been as dramatic as Paul’s on the Damascus Road or happened drip by drip over many years, we are all sinners. We all fall short of the glory of God. But that isn’t the last word. God’s grace is bigger than our failings. Nothing in all of creation can separate us from that love of God in Jesus Christ, who keeps coming into our world and our lives to find us when we are lost and feeling unworthy. Our God is a God of second and third chances. Thank God for God’s mercy and God’s patience with all of us, which is sufficient—which is enough. That is good news!  Or as one beloved hymn puts it:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
was blind but now I see. 

So that’s all great. Here is where I would push back: in between, in trying to explain why mercy was needed, the writer says “because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief…”

Wait, what? Because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief? Wasn’t the problem with Saul that he was acting ignorantly out of belief? He believed that anyone who said that Jesus was messiah was a heretic. He believed that to do so was to use the Lord’s name in vain—to claim messiah had come when Jesus was most definitely not the messiah! He believed that he was guarding the faith from unbelievers, false teachers. It was his belief—in fact his certitude—that caused him and to persecute the earliest followers of Jesus, right? Not his unbelief!

Now I suspect that if I do ever get to sit with this writer in the age to come, and if I pushed on this issue, the response would be something like this: “yeah, well I know now that it was wrong belief. That’s why I said ‘unbelief.’ Whatever.” But I am not sure I’d let him get away with the “whatever.” Because it matters for us—the saints who are still here trying to work this stuff out. It matters for people of faith, people with beliefs. How do we know at the time when we are acting from unbelief and when we are acting from wrong belief and when we are acting from right belief?

I raise this question because I think it goes to the very heart of what it means to be a Christian community like this one living into the next 150 years, and what it means for all of us to be people of faith in this early part of the twenty-first century. So if you can hold that thought for a moment, I want to move on to the Gospel reading for today and then I promise that I will find my way back…

Because today’s Gospel reading, interestingly enough, begins with an assumption that the world is very neatly divided between believers and unbelievers. All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. Those are thee “unbelievers,” right? And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." Those are the “believers.” The religious folk.
Have you ever noticed that sometimes religious people do grumbling better than we do gratitude? It’s not a Jewish-Christian thing, nor is it a first-century versus twenty-first century thing. It’s a parking lot after worship thing. But the great challenge of Jesus, then and now, is that he seems to like hanging out with the sinners. I know: someone will say he loves the sinners and hates the sins. But still; he really does seem to enjoy their company. Maybe because they are more real and less guarded; more humble and less self-righteous; more humble and less sure. I think about that parable Jesus offers about prayer: the religious guy looks over at some “sinner” and says to God: “O Lord, thank you that I am not like him!” And what does the other guy pray? “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.” Who would you rather hang out with?

In any event the religious people are grumbling, and so Jesus tells three stories. I know the lectionary committee only gave us two of them today, but I know that you all know the third one and since next week’s reading skips over it and picks up at chapter sixteen I’ll very briefly remind you of it as well.

First story: which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he finds it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices and then comes home and says to his friends: lamb chops for everyone! Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost. Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

Second story: what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not get out a flashlight and go through every room in the house and search until she finds it? And when she does, she too calls her friends and neighbors and throws a party: `Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.' Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.
See the pattern? Remember, Jesus is talking with the grumbling religious people, the believers. So story three: two brothers. One makes some bad decisions and gets himself lost, the other stays home to take care of the family business. Until one day the prodigal comes home and the old man welcomes him with open arms and throws a big party. Why? For the same reason that shepherd with the lost sheep and that woman with the lost $100 bill does: because this son was lost and is now found and the only right thing to do is to celebrate with wine and dancing and veal piccata for everyone.

But do you remember how the story ends? The older brother, the religious brother, the righteous brother, the good boy Gallant chooses to pout and grumble because life isn’t fair. After all he’s done…
The one, two, three punch of these stories is pretty clear: Jesus is telling the believers to get over themselves. He says, “you should be singing “Amazing Grace” and instead you are complaining that life isn’t fair. He’s telling them to stop grumbling and start partying, not only because something or someone who was lost has been found, but because if you really stop and think about it, the truth is that we are all a little bit lost. So maybe as the Reign of God draws near we need to stop insisting on how right we are and acknowledge that we too might be lost and we too might be in need of grace and healing and forgiveness.  Even that older brother; maybe especially that older brother. Even those scribes and Pharisees and maybe even some of us who can get lost in our resentments and self-righteousness and our belief that we are superior to our brother or our sister or our neighbor. Even us.

So back to that epistle and my imaginary cup of coffee with Paul, or whomever. What if when I pushed about the use of that word, they said something like this:

Listen, I really did think of myself as a believer back in my Pharisee days, and everyone else thought I was a believer too. I did all the right things and I checked all the right boxes. But you are right: it did lead me to this feeling of superiority and self-righteousness. I liked being an insider. But that meant somebody else had to be outside. I liked being “good,” but that meant I had to define somebody else as “bad.” It turns out that what I learned on the Road to Damascus was that I had it all wrong. I was blinded in order to see that religious faith is not about simply being “good” and it is most definitely not about getting to define who is bad. Religious faith is about trusting God. It is about God’s amazing grace. It is about realizing God’s mercy is sufficient, for all of us: this saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.

And I’d concede in the end that the writer got it right: what he thought was belief was not; it was unbelief even if he was so certain. That is the thing about Jesus: he messes up our tidy boxes. To be his follower, to be a faithful parish like this one, is to be learning daily to let go of the grumbling and to pray: Lord, open our lips / and our mouths shall proclaim your praise. Truly faithful communities –like this one—are the ones that are learning that when we do sing “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me” we aren’t singing on behalf of the poor slob three pews away. We are singing it for ourselves and praying that God will keep on finding us again and again and again, in our belief and in our unbelief.  

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