Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost

Today my itinerant ministry took me to St. Stephen's Church in Westborough. Their rector is The Rev. Jesse Abell.  Below is the manuscript for my sermon on this last Sunday in October.

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Yesterday in his first annual address to Diocesan Convention, Bishop Doug Fisher encouraged our congregations to take risks and to do the small things. “There is no grand strategy coming out of Springfield,” he said. Rather, there is support and encouragement (and even sometimes prodding) for congregations to try many small things that together make a big difference. None of us alone will bring peace on earth, even if there is a Nobel Prize winner among us. But all of us can be, and all of us are called to be, instruments of God’s peace. With God’s help.

The prophet Joel is one of the twelve minor prophets. I've always thought that label a bit unfair—I mean if you are going to be a prophet wouldn’t it be much cooler to be a major one like Isaiah or Jeremiah or Ezekiel? Joel is one of the other guys. His prophetic challenge is only three chapters long and therefore easy to miss, practically hiding between Hosea and Amos. Virtually nothing is known of him except that his father’s name was Pethuel. We know that because he tells us that right up front. (Joel 1:1) From a scholarly perspective there isn’t much to say either, because Joel is difficult to date. Most scholars see it as post-exilic—that is, after the decades long captivity in Babylon. But there are some who argue it could be dated much earlier than that. So there is a lot we just don’t know.

Having said all of that, however, the truth is that both the lectionary and the New Testament writers notice Joel a lot. For a minor prophet he has a lot of heart. He’s the Dustin Pedroia of prophets, we might say. It is Joel, as you may recall, who literally gets to speak the first words of Lent to us each year on Ash Wednesday:

                   Blow the trumpet in Zion;
          sound the alarm on my holy mountain!
Blow the trumpet in Zion;
                             sanctify a fast;
                   call a solemn assembly;
                             gather the people.
                   Sanctify the congregation;
                             assemble the aged;
                   gather the children,
                             even infants at the breast. 
Let the bridegroom leave his room,
and the bride her canopy.  
(Joel 2:1, 15-16)

Today’s reading comes just a few verses beyond those familiar Ash Wednesday words. We heard about how God will remove shame and restore blessing. St. Paul quotes Joel 3:32 in the middle of his most important epistle, his Letter to the Romans. He is making the case there that no one will be put to shame who believes in Jesus. And then he says that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, just one generous Lord of all, for “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (Romans 10:13) I want to linger with you on that promise for a bit, and suggest it is gospel work whenever and wherever this happens, this removal of shame and restoration of blessing. 

We all live with greater and lesser degrees of shame. Lewis Smedes has defined shame as “…a feeling that we will never measure up…that we are broken.”  Candidates for shame, he says, are guilt spreaders, overly responsible people, obsessive moralizers, compulsive comparers, approval addicts, people who never feel deserving, people stuck in the shadow of a parent and those condemned by bad memories or their dreams. Did I miss anybody? Shame can, and does, affect us all! Smedes goes on to say that the three most common sources of shame are our unforgiving culture, graceless religion, and unaccepting parents. (Well you knew that was coming, right: in the end it is surely the fault of our parents, especially our mothers!) More shame, more guilt…

Here is the thing though: no matter how counter cultural we are, no matter how healthy our congregation is, no matter how extraordinary our parents may be, it seems that it is still to some extent simply part of the human condition that shame enters in. It is not just nurture but nature. All the way back to the beginning in that Garden of Eden, remember what Adam and Eve felt when they finally notice that they are naked. They are no longer innocent; they feel ashamed. Shame is corrosive for the life of the Spirit and yet oddly (and sadly) the Church in no small measure seems to contribute to the shame that so many experience. I suspect that beyond his arrogance and hubris that is what is going on for that Pharisee in today’s gospel reading. Religion—the very thing that is meant to help us move out of shame and into new and abundant life—very often heaps on more shame.

So Joel insists that it is part of the creative, redemptive, healing power of God to cast off shame so that God's people can live more full and abundant lives, empowered by the Holy Spirit. And my people shall never again be put to shame. And then--just because we might not have been listening the first time--Joel repeats himself just one verse later for good measure. And my people shall never again be put to shame. When we let go of shame (or more accurately, when we allow God's amazing grace to wash over us and claim us as a holy people and allow ourselves to be embraced as God's beloved) then the Holy Spirit's energy is unleashed in new and surprising ways. Blessing is restored. New and abundant life is possible. 

Is it any surprise, then, that when it comes to describing that great outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost that it is once again to this minor prophet Joel that Luke turns—in fact to the very words we heard this morning?  I know it’s been twenty-three weeks now but do you remember that amazing day in Jerusalem, as the Holy Spirit comes blowing through the crowd like a rushing wind and it makes Luke think about Joel, and the removal of shame and the restoration of blessing:  

                    I will pour out my spirit on all flesh
                              your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.
                    Your old men shall dream dreams,
                              and your young men shall see visions.
                    Even on the male and female slaves,
                             in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

That vision, I submit to you, is ever held before us. It defines who we are and who we are called to be as one holy catholic and apostolic Church. The truth is that while we may not have a lot of history about Joel and the scholars call him a minor prophet he has a lot to say, a lot that the Church in our day needs to hear. The challenge of these words is not really in understanding them, I don’t think. It’s in living them. It is not in talking the talk, but in walking the talk.

Sadly this is what that pious pray-er in in today's gospel reading fails to see: his neighbor. He cannot see that they are bound up together; that the work of the Spirit is always breaking down walls, that love of God and love of neighbor are two sides to the same coin. If men are raised up while women are put down, you will always find shame, not blessing. If the young are disparaged at the expense of the old (or vice-versa) you can be sure it is not yet the work of the Spirit. As long as there are separate sections on the bus for white and black, or separate parts of town, life is not yet what God intends for it to be. The work of ministry is about tending to this new creation.

Maybe Joel’s greatest gift to us is an unintentional one: a reminder that ministry isn’t just about the big guys. Wherever ministry happens—in large ways and in small ways—wherever women and men, young and old, slave and free, gay and straight are being woven into this fabric of God’s new creation there is cause for celebration. This is what we dream of, and pray for, and work towards.  None of us can do it all, or alone—not a little prophet like Joel or a little church like this one or a little diocese like ours or a little denomination like our beloved Episcopal Church. But with God’s Holy Spirit working in us, we can do infinitely more than we could previously ask or imagine. 

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