We do these things… because they are hard

October 24, 2010

Christ Church Episcopal, Norcross, GA

This is my first sermon at Christ Church where I serve as a seminarian while pursuing a Master of Divinity at Candler School of Theology, Emory.

Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, Proper 25 (Joel 2:23-32, Psalm 65, 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18, Luke 18:9-14)

Growing up in Houston, Texas during the days of the Southwest Conference formed my reference-point for college football. The Orange and White of UT referred to the University of Texas Longhorns, not the Tennessee Volunteers. The “big rivalry” was between the Longhorns and the Aggies of Texas A&M – this was the game that families planned their Thanksgiving meal around.

And then there was Rice University… perhaps the Southwest Conference’s equivalent to Vanderbilt. But with both my mom and dad having gone to Rice during in the 1950’s, when the Rice Owls were a winning football team, the belief each year that Rice would prevail over Texas was instilled in me, and all my siblings, and continues to be espoused by my father even now.

The Southwest Conference disbanded almost fifteen years ago, and even though the teams have moved into various other conferences, the rivalry between the Owls, Aggies, and Longhorns are part of the Texas vernacular. Anyone who’s spent any time in Texas knows what an Aggie joke is and has a frame of reference for the stereotypes attached to each of these schools.

Now, for many of you, when I say “Roll Tide” you attach an image to it… it’s okay, the confessional prayer is just a few minutes away. But for me, having moved to Atlanta just this past January, this is my first SEC Season, and I have little frame of reference for it, or at least not the specifics…

I absolutely “get” the importance. It’s hard to miss. Just drive through any neighborhood and you’ll see a household’s loyalty announced with a banner flying from their front porch. But the rivalry between the Yellow jackets’ and the Bulldogs’ doesn’t motivate me in any way… at least not yet.

Now if you are someone who doesn’t connect with football analogies (I won’t ask you to raise your hand), I would say Inside the Perimeter or Outside the Perimeter, Liberal or Conservative, Oprah Winfrey or Jerry Springer … each of these will invoke an image based on who we are, where we live, and what we believe… Football is just a safer analogy to use… although in the SEC, I’m not so sure!

Well, this same type of imagery was used by Jesus over 2000 years ago as he told stories about how to live and talked about the Kingdom of God. In today’s Gospel, he uses the Pharisee and the Tax-collector. Last week his story included the Unjust Judge who finally gave-in to the Widow’s ceaseless petitions. The week before that, it was the grateful Samaritan, healed from leprosy, in contrast to the nine other Lepers who did not give thanks. Then there’s the Rich Man and Lazarus, the Shrewd Account Manager, the Shepherd with his lost sheep… you get the picture.

Each image would have meant something very specific to Jesus’ audience. But since we don’t have the same reference point when we read the Bible today, we have to spend a certain amount of time just trying to understand the context, like me trying to understand the SEC rivalries, so we don’t miss the point Jesus is trying to make.

To further complicate matters, the frame of reference with which one approaches these lessons impacts our understanding of them. A few weeks ago Ceci likened the story of searching for the lost sheep to her own family’s search for their sick cat, while I looked at this parable from a wholly different angle.

Being a new seminarian, I’ve met other students who have come to Candler from near and far, some, like me, have left everything that is familiar to them. So, when I meditated on the lesson, I connected with the Lost Sheep and the reassurance that not only was there someone willing to look for the Sheep, but that there would be a celebration when it was found!

And if we were to re-look at these lessons in light of the recent sadness experienced within our parish community – the loss of Barbara Kasbo, the shared grief for Carolyn Collins’ loss of her son, Glenn, and Sam McMillan & Leila Martin’s loss of their father Jack… Looking at the parables with this in mind, we may take an entirely different message from them.

What resonates with us or what is pertinent to our lives will impact what we hear in these parables. That’s why we keep reading them… because we can keep learning new things from them.

The other thing that is dramatically different for us today is HOW we hear the lessons.

In the infancy of Christianity, when believers gathered together for worship, the entire Gospel would have been read aloud, start to finish. Now, not unlike modern-day culture, we hear the Gospel in sound-bites. One little piece of the story this week, another next week, and so on. It would be like picking up John’s Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and reading three paragraphs each week and finding meaning just in that section.

At least during this period of the church calendar, between Pentecost and Advent, the lectionary provides fairly sequential sound-bites. So if you attend church every Sunday, you can piece together the whole message. It just takes more work on our part to see the over-arching theme that Jesus’ parables provide.

Keeping all this in mind, let’s reflect on the journey we’ve been taking through Luke’s Gospel over the past couple of months…

One thing to point out is the transitional passage in Luke 13 that says “Jesus went through one town and village after another teaching, as he made his way to Jerusalem.”

When the Pharisee’s warned Jesus that Herod was out to kill him, Jesus revealed that he knew what awaited him in Jerusalem. He replied to the Pharisees saying “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.”

So, seeing what was ahead, Jesus knew it was time to drive home his message… to make sure his followers and disciples understood what was important, and perhaps equally, what was not.

On this journey, Jesus is challenging each listener to get outside their comfort zone, to go against the norms they were accustomed to:
Hate your father and mother… take the lowest place at the table… give up all your possessions … invite the poor and outcast, those who cannot repay you, to the banquet, instead of your friends… help the wounded that lay at your doorstep, like Lazarus… don’t follow the rules just to show people your piety, for God knows your heart… if anyone that has wronged you asks for forgiveness, give it without counting the number of times…

But HOW shall we do these things? Like the disciples we cry “Increase our Faith!” And yet Jesus assures us that with faith only the size of a mustard seed, we can do it all. The key is to know that we are not doing it on our own.

When we show just a little faithfulness, just a little obedience, God provides the ability to be abundantly faithful. When we remember to thank God for healing our uncleanness, like the Samaritan Leper, we are healed completely. Our mustard-seed of faith gives us the assurance that things asked for will be given, as God promises. It may not look like what we thought it would, but our prayers are answered just the same.

As we look specifically at today’s parable, the Pharisee is praying a prayer of thanksgiving, but the thankfulness is about “not being like other people, not being like the tax-collector…” But it’s important we don’t cast judgment on the Pharisee’s prayer either or we fall into the same trap of being superior.

Instead, this is about the tax-collector who acknowledges his own brokenness and inadequacy, and in so doing is justified by God. Sometimes just acknowledging that we can’t do it alone, is where the obedience, the faithfulness comes in.

And how does our view of these passages inform us as we embark on stewardship? One element is that it’s between us and God… it’s not about looking over at what the “tax-collector” is doing and making a judgment about it. We each have enough to think about… at a time when the economy is damaged and money is tight. And even so, the mission of God’s Church is as vital as ever and depends on our commitment to it…

So, as we pray about this, I ask that we each have faith the size of a mustard seed, and let God do the rest. This faith isn’t just needed over the next few weeks as we each contemplate where our own commitment to God’s mission is, but also in the weeks that follow, in staying obedient to that call, even when it isn’t easy.

Those who have just a little faith can move mountains because God closes the gap between what we THINK we can do, and what we CAN do with God.

To reflect on a speech that my father loves, probably in large part because it was given at Rice University, actually, in Rice Stadium, just a few years after my dad’s graduation, John F. Kennedy talked of putting a man on the moon and said,

“But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? … Why does Rice play Texas?”

And in answering this, his answer is not unlike the answer we must embrace as Christians, following in Christ’s example…

“We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

This year’s stewardship focus isn’t about church finances. It’s about each one of us and our individual journey to Jerusalem. It’s a time to reflect on our own faithfulness toward God’s mission. All we need is faith the size of a mustard seed, coupled with the promise of God’s ability to grow that exponentially. Pray unceasingly and God will surely be with us.

I invite your thoughts and insights.

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