Sermon Preached on August 11, 2019 – Pentecost + 9
By The Rev. Dr. Nina R. Pooley
St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Yarmouth, ME
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
Psalm 50:1-8, 23-24
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Rooted in God’s Promise and Power
It’s been a disorienting week after last weekend’s violence of double mass shootings. The week of the aftermath is always raw: with the near constant rerunning of the events, the stories that emerge, the political posturing, and communities and families in anguish. We’re used to all of this, though this past week there’s a new twist. Wednesday’s evening news showed a stampede of people in Times Square, set off by what turned out to be the backfiring of a motorcycle. The following story was of people in McLean VA’s USA Today building being evacuated after reports of an armed ex-employee on the property. We are on edge. Perhaps it’s finally sinking in – gun violence is everyone’s problem, because it could really happen anywhere. This is our new normal.
Today we lift our heads from our disorienting week, to find ourselves joining Jesus as he continues his journey to Jerusalem. True to form in Luke’s Gospel, this text expresses both the promise and the power of God, embedded in this Gospel from its beginning, and first declared by Mary. Our God is a God who remembers God’s people, and who will turn the world upside down, with strength and mercy; who will lift up the lowly and fill the hungry, while scattering the proud and bringing down powerful.¹
We need to hear this powerful message right now – that God wills something for us other than this current reality. God keeps God’s promises, God remembers and is faithful to God’s own, God holds to account, God acts… and expects the same of us. There’s strength in this realization – particularly in times of uncertainty. God wills God’s own kingdom for God’s children. This promise sets the context for our text, as Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”² A promise is rooted in God’s generosity and love. God wants this for us, because that is God’s good pleasure.³
Jesus then moves on to the more uncomfortable material – creating that kingdom in the here and now, that’s up to us. That’s the daunting responsibility part of this good news. Jesus begins by requiring us to: cash in our possessions, give alms and secure treasure in heaven. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”⁴
Sell our possessions and give alms. Jesus breezes through these directives, not because they’re easy, but because to him they are obvious. This is the clearest path to the kingdom. We need to become completely dependent on God and one another, be radically faithful in this way – for our own sake and for the sake of others. Remember these verses follow last week’s text in which we heard that greed is idolatry because it’s worship of the wrong things – it allows us to put something other than God at the center of our lives.
Consequently, selling our possessions allows us to focus on what matters more – our relationships with God and one another. Giving alms is more than sending money, it implies an act of solidarity with those in need, and a willingness to change the system, to overturn the way it is, to create the way it should be.
Taken together, this is a call to live into the kingdom, destroying old categories and distinctions, righting unjust structures, refusing to let inequalities stand.⁵ A call to act in the here and now, to create the kingdom. And to be ready – because we could be called to account at any moment. Called to account for the contrast between the world as it is and as it should be. Called to account for what we have or haven’t done to bridge the gaps, and right the wrongs.
If we were held to account today – what would the ledger look like? Personally – that’s between each of us and God, but as a people we are held to account for the ways in which we have damaged our relationships with God, God’s creation, and one another. It seems safe to assume those would include:
The crisis of our environment, during this time of climate change and species extinction.
Our response to those searching for a place of safety and security, in the face of historic mass human migration due to violence and famine.
Our complicity in the vast economic disparity across our nation and the earth.
The rampant racism and dehumanizing actions which still pervade every aspect of our common life in this country.
And, much on our minds this week, the 37,000 thousand lives lost annually to gun violence across our nation.⁶ (The US has 25 times as many gun homicides and 10 times as many gun suicides as any other high-income country.)
Jesus assures us, ‘Little Flock, do not be afraid, for it’s God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.’ But creating that kingdom in the here and now, that’s up to us. With a ledger like ours, where do we begin? Applying the Gospel text from Luke we’ve heard the past three Sundays: We pray. We act. We hold ourselves and others to account. We change the way it is to how God would have it be.
We pray: for our relationships with God, Creation, and one another. We act: with generosity toward God and one another. We hold ourselves to account: for those who are in our midst and in need, for these difficult issues which we’d rather not face. Because we know better. And God knows better. We hold others to account those who serve us in the public square. And we are brave and courageous, knowing that our God is a God of promise and power. How we choose to act is up to each of us, but, let’s be clear – we are meant to act. To respond, or be held to account for the way things are – which is not as God would have them be. We don’t have to right all the wrongs alone, but we are called to see, pay attention, to respond with generosity, and do our utmost to participate in creating the kingdom.
So we can’t be afraid to rock the boat, nor can we hide from the vitriol of our current political discourse. We need to reclaim true Christian values in the public square: welcoming the stranger, housing the homeless, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, tending to the needs of widows and orphans, and caring for children, protecting families on the run from violence and in exile, and disarming those armed with weaponry designed to kill human beings. Because it’s God’s pleasure that God’s children inherit the kingdom, and these are kingdom-making values.
I admit, it’s daunting. Which is why I’m glad we start with prayer. While we might dismiss “thoughts and prayers” when used as a counterfeit for compassion and real action – the sincere prayer of faithful people matters. Prayer is more than a nice idea offered up for others. When we pray, we call upon God’s promises and invoke God’s power. Prayer is meant to change things. When we pray, we join our efforts with God’s on-going efforts for God’s people. Prayer is about more than us, prayer is an act of community. Prayer is also an act of vulnerability, an openness to being changed ourselves. Imagine that – prayer is meant to change us. That’s the farthest thing from most people’s minds when they pray in the aftermath of crisis – truth is, we want everyone ELSE to change.
Author and Pastor Erin Wathen writes,
We want bad things to go away, we want good people in charge, we want things to go our way. But if we really wanted to see change in the world around us, we would pray first to be changed. … If we really want the heart of our nation to be transformed, we have to pray first to be transformed as a nation. And if our leaders truly wanted to make change, like ending gun violence, they would pray, first, to be changed themselves.⁷
We, too, need to begin with ourselves. Prayer changes us, and is not a tool to change them. Though we can pray for them, too, I suppose!
Again with some help from Pastor Erin Wathen, let’s consider what we might pray for:
Forgiveness. We repent of our faith in false idols; our love of power; our failure to reject the way of violence and follow in Christ’s way of peace.
Wisdom. We pray for the wisdom to dismantle systems of racism, nationalism and toxic masculinity that breed violent killers; we pray for the wisdom to elect thoughtful, compassionate leaders who can bring about meaningful oversight of deadly weapons.
Courage. We pray God will gift us with strong voices in the face of fear. We pray for leaders who possess the same.
Vision. We pray for the thoughtfulness and empathy that it takes to dig deep into complex issues. We pray for the strength to resist reaching for easy answers and scapegoats.
Humility. We pray to know our own human limitations; we pray to remember that someone who disagrees with us might have at least part of the solution to what ails us; we pray that we might know when to get out of the way and make room for the Holy Spirit to move among us.
Compassion. Most of all, if we–collective we– want to be truly transformed, we would pray to be moved. That God would turn us around … from being an inward-looking nation to an outward reaching one. To be a people who seek the greater good over personal gain, and who value the empowerment of all over the perceived power of the individual.
This sort of prayer – rooted in a deep desire for transformation of self and community– has the power to move and to change. It’s a deep intention that becomes lived reality. Get enough people acting out of this prayerful desire, and we stand a chance of ending the violence once and for all.⁸
My friends, together, may we pray, act, and change the way it is, to how God would have it be. Living out our kingdom values and drawing strength from the promise and the power of God, whose joy it is to give us the kingdom. Amen.
1 Matt Skinner, Commentary on Luke 12:32-40, Workingpreacher.org, August 11, 2019.
2 Luke 12:32.
3 Matt Skinner, Commentary on Luke 12:32-40, Workingpreacher.org, August 11, 2019.
4 Luke 12:34.
5 Based on Matt Skinner, Commentary on Luke 12:32-40, Workingpreacher.org, August 11, 2019
6 Statistics from https://www.gunviolencearchive.org/ The Gun Violence Archive is an online archive of gun violence incidents collected from over 6,500 law enforcement, media, government and commercial sources daily in an effort to provide near-real time data about the results of gun violence. GVA is an independent data collection and research group with no affiliation with any advocacy organization.
7 Erin Wathen, Maybe Our “Thoughts And Prayers” Are The Wrong Kind of Prayer, Patheos.com, August 7, 2019.
8 Erin Wathen, Maybe Our “Thoughts And Prayers” Are The Wrong Kind of Prayer, Patheos.com, August 7, 2019