Sermon delivered at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Alexandria, Va on the eve of the 2013 government shutdown.
Readings for the day: http://www.lectionarypage.net/YearC_RCL/Pentecost/CProp21_RCL.html
May I speak to you in the name of one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen
I will unabashedly admit that I appreciate musical theatre. I’m not a particular fanatic, but I do, on occasion, thoroughly enjoy a show where the acting and the story are supplemented by the type of emotional amplification that only music can provide. In fact, when Lara and I went on our first date, it was to see Beauty and the Beast when it was re-released in theaters. I played in the pit orchestra for four different shows when I was in school. When I was little, my sister and I would stage epic wars after going to see Les Miserables (it’s still one of my all time works of art).
Last year, on the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, The feast of His birth, on Christmas Day, perhaps the second holiest day of the year, I not only went to church, but went with my family to see the new cinematic version of Les Mis. (For the record, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and though there were a few bumps I would highly recommend the movie. If you haven’t seen it redbox it or rent it tonight. Sorry, ‘skins fans, but it doesn’t look like that game is gonna be worth watching anyway. Take it from a Panthers fan, I should know.)
Back to musicals though. The thing that always bothered me about them was this: if you are walking through the grocery store and someone breaks out into song rather randomly in your aisle, you’re probably going to think they are crazy. I mean, even if I heard a bunch of music coming from seemingly nowhere, I’m not nearly a good enough dancer to jump in and take part in a completely spontaneous flash-mob style dance.
But that kind of stuff is something you have to take for granted in a show, something you accept as natural in some parallel world that looks very much like ours apart from a few musical interludes. I mean, in our world, what could possibly cause us to break out into song at random intervals of the days. Even if we were “fools for Christ” as we are exhorted to be, that might be just a bit too foolish.
Now, I think you all know how I feel about Paul. As the second or third most important figure in Christianity, I think Paul gets a bit of a bad rap most of the time. We are tempted to hold him to standards of our time, or to find him a moralizing, strident, and obnoxious person. I’d like to posit that’s probably not the case. Paul was by far the most successful of the apostles at evangelization. He was an incredibly pastoral presence, to the point we are, to this day, still applying the advice and directions he offered to congregations in his time to our own congregation and faith community today. In order to be that good, to make that many people want to follow him, to have that many people stick with him, remain loyal to him and to Christ even after he makes some really, really strong rebukes, I mean, he must have had some charisma, he must have had some verve. He had to be the kind of guy people wanted to be around.
Now this letter to Timothy is contested. Some folks think it is a real letter from Paul, more think it probably isn’t a real letter from Paul. But it does bear a bit of a Pauline hallmark.
It turns out our friend Paul has a rather odd habit. Like Harold Hill or those spry teenagers on Glee, Paul occasionally will just break out into song.
At least he does in his letters, and I refuse to believe he didn’t also do that in real life, because it’s just too awesome, and it fits his character oh so well.
And when Paul does break out into song, it’s usually because it’s something pretty important. Paul does this because he is overcome by the spirit, because happiness is shining out of him. He does it because he can’t hold all of that amazement, and gratitude, and excitement, and joy, and love in his feeble little human heart. He just can’t do it, and so the spirit pours out of him, his writing changes, his syntax and his style changes, he sometimes takes off on a glorious tangent and occasionally when he finishes he’ll drop in an “Amen” to let you know that he’s collected himself again. Then he resumes his tight and precise writing style and picks right back up. So when you hear Paul doing this, pay attention, because it’s at these times most of all that the spirit is pouring through Paul and onto the page, telling us what we need to hear.
An excellent example, perhaps the prime example of this is in Philippians 2. where Paul says
5Let the same mind be in you that was* in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
And we see him use what may be another fragment of a hymn in today’s reading from Timothy:
He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings, and Lord of Lord. It is He alone who has immortality and dwells in an unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. AMEN.
Now if Paul played for the Nationals, a: they’d still be playing next week because he can work miracles, but b: his walk-up music would be Amazing Grace. Paul was a man who seemed to spend every moment of his life utterly and thoroughly aware of the Grace that he lived under. And that’s a good message to hear when we get tough passages like today’s gospel, or today’s epistle, or for that matter many of the readings that we have heard over the last few weeks.
I’m not saying this in order to tell you that God doesn’t challenge us, that God doesn’t call us to an amendment of life. God absolutely drives us to new life the same way Jesus was driven into the wilderness by the Spirit. God pushes us in uncomfortable ways if we open our ears and listen.
If we listen, if we open our ears and hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s Church, we will hear God telling us that the love of money is the root of much evil, and that the love of money has driven many away from the faith in their eagerness to be rich. We hear God tell us that the compulsive need to hoard cash the way some very sick people hoard empty soda cups and old newspapers, is disordered.
But we see many with the need to acquire more and more until life has been completely consumed not with doing justice and loving mercy and walking humbly with God, but gathering more and more to the detriment of both oneself and others.
We hear God tell us to pray for our enemies, to beat our swords into plowshares, and we see a long history of Christian thought laying out a just war theory, a set of guidelines for those rare occasions when it might be acceptable to use force as a last result.
But we see over-reach, a lack of transparency, and an indiscriminate use of less discriminating weapons systems, such as unmanned arial vehicles.
If we look we see God point to those who are sick and suffering, those who are incapacitated, those who spend their lives begging to eat even the food that falls to the floor, the cast off scraps we toss out without thinking.
We see God pointing to someone laying at the gate of the rich man, trying to eek out three meals on $4 Dollars and .12 Cents worth of food stamps a day in the state of Virginia, less than the smoothie I had at Starbucks on Friday... we see God pointing to him or her and saying that person will rest in heaven with the pillars of the faith.
And we see the rich man, the man who couldn’t be bothered to throw Lazarus a scrap, the man who decided $4.12 a day to stop his impoverished neighbor and 3.8 million others from going completely hungry was simply too much to be bothered with, while he feasts nightly at fundraisers with other rich and powerful people. We see him told that there is an uncrossable chasm, and we hear a warning that if someone ignores God’s commandments that thoroughly, that even a messenger coming back from the dead, even God’s Son coming back from the dead will not convince them to change their ways.
God challenges us weekly. God challenges us daily, even hourly. And if we don’t hear God challenging us, if we stop feeling that push, that prod, that tug, that strong yank on our spirit saying, “No. Take another look at that.” then we should probably try and spend some more time listening and a lot more time praying, because listening for God WILL make you uncomfortable.
So... thoroughly convicted by God and the Spirit, it seems like we should be in trouble, right.
I mean, leaving the food stamp debate aside, worldwide we grow enough food to feed the whole world, but lose 50% in production between the farm and our plates, and we have people around the world starving. If that’s where it ends, we are all, pardon my language, screwed.
And that’s why Paul keeps breaking into song.
Because that’s not where it ends. Not even close.
God compels us, God pushes us, God sometimes pokes us really hard. But God also forgives us. And that’s why Paul sings. Because he knows that the Jesus who told these parables has taken a look at us, known just how wrong we were, and decided to love us anyway. He knows that God, immortal and dwelling in unapproachable light, Sovereign, King of kings, and Lord of Lords has sat in judgement, has found us wanting, and has decided to love us anyway. He knows that God has chosen in his Son to pour out grace on us in spite of the fact that we so clearly don’t deserve it.
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, indeed.
And so, as we go through these trials, we must know that the grace Paul saw even as he was warning and admonishing us, the grace Christ spoke of time and time again is there. And these times are particularly trying.
Data may point to a recovery, and the market may be back up, but we have more people living in poverty than ever before, and that chasm of wealth continues to grow. We have violence ripping apart our society, hitting particularly close to home less than two weeks ago in a rather non-descript office building full of civil servants, people not thanked nearly enough for the work they do to keep our country running, when a person with serious illness slaughtered people he had never even met. We have the uncertainty, or at this point, the grim near-certainty of a government shutdown, a political football for some, but an event that will seriously hurt many people sitting right here today. We have a lot going on. And in the midst of it all, we still have to think of others. God isn’t going to let us off the hook on that one. We HAVE to try, and we can always do better than we are currently doing.
But even so, even more importantly, we have the grace and love that have been given to us by God, dwelling beyond our clouded sight. We have that welcome, that warmth, and that hope. We know that we are loved in this world, and welcomed home in the next. We know that in spite of our shortcomings, our failings, our inadequacies... despite our loss, our despair, our worry, our fear, our brokenheartedness... despite all of that
We are loved, and we are redeemed.
It kinda makes me want to break out into song.
And I hope that at some point during this coming week, no matter what happens, good or bad, at work or shut down and labeled with that totally unfair term "non-essential," come what may.... I hope that love, that grace makes you want to break into song, too.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.