Sunday, July 12, 2009
The Rev. Natasha Brubaker Garrison
Proper 9, Year B
Today’s readings are nothing if not an interesting mélange. What is the thread that binds them together? What is the unifying theme?
In the first reading we hear another story about prophets, unlikely prophets, and the cold response they so often receive. Amos is banished by Amaziah for his words that foretell of the destruction of Israel. His words are not comforting. They don’t confirm the king in his position of control and influence. He warns of an awful future. Truth telling can have severe consequences.
The Gospel is one of the more gruesome stories in Scripture. John the Baptizer has been imprisoned by Herod for his preaching. The kingdom of God vision and the call to repent that Jesus’ cousin was teaching was deeply subversive. If implemented it would shift wealth and question authority and generally such talk is not greeted with joy by those in charge. It is in line with that preached by Jesus. In reading this it reminded me of the doctors who were arrested outside the offices of Senators for asking that their voices be included in the health care reform discussion. John’s words are not comforting. Hence, John is taken to jail. For Herod, though, the issue is also personal. John preached a very strict version of the law that prohibited Herod marrying a divorcee whose husband was still living. Then follows the story we know of revenge, the use of seduction to wield power vicariously, and the dangerous roles of prestige, saving face, and arrogance. John is executed as the consequence of the worst behavior we humans can engage in and his important, if sometimes strident, voice is silenced. John paid for his convictions with his life. This both reminds us of the cost of following our beliefs and foreshadows what is to come for Jesus. There is some connection to Amos’s story here, but the weight is really on those around John rather than John himself. Perhaps it is a necessary cautionary tale to remind us of the evils that can overtake us and the terrible things of which we are capable.
We also hear this passage from the letter to the Ephesians. Its tone is quite different. Its message is joyful, encouraging, uplifting. It doesn’t focus on telling us where things have gone wrong or what we need to do different or better. It doesn’t challenge us with a parable or difficult teaching. It is rather a recalling and a reminding of the foundational joy at the center of our faith in God as revealed in Jesus.
In the drama of the stories of Amos and John the Baptizer this passage could easily get lost. It is nowhere near as gripping or captivating as these other passages. But it is worth looking at and taking some time to ponder. The past few weeks my sermons have been more serious; this week I’d like to look seriously at the words of Paul. The first two readings look to the future or to the way we ought to be and call us into forward movement. But we won’t get very far if we are not solidly rooted in our ground, our origins, our fundamental identity. This is the role the words from Ephesians play. Where we want to go depends on where we come from. What we hope to accomplish is determined by what shapes us, informs us and defines us. If we lose sight of whose we are then we will get lost along the way no matter how grand the vision and noble the goal.
Paul’s letters are often a mystery. Most of the time it is the scriptural version of overhearing someone’s cell phone conversation in the store or on the bus. From what they are saying, often far longer and in far more detail than one would care to be subjected to, it is possible to infer or at least imagine what the other party is saying. In most of Paul’s letters we are in a similar position. We are hearing his responses to pastoral questions, concerns over worship style, divisions over theology and community life that the various churches are experiencing. We are making informed guesses as to what the churches wrote to Paul.
But Ephesians does not fit this mold. From the content of the letter there doesn’t seem to be a burning issue needing Paul’s attention. Rather, it is a letter of celebration and encouragement to a community living their faith in a society that doesn’t always welcome it. However, this is simply the structure of daily life; there is nothing to suggest that the community is in a particular crisis. Yet even in everyday life we need to take time to stop, breath and remind ourselves of our roots and our core identity. This is what Paul is doing for the Ephesians.
It’s a wonderful passage. Just as the first story of the Bible ends with God’s initial blessing all of creation—and God saw it and it was good—and creating all things to be in loving relationship with God and each other, so Paul begins with reminding us that we are blessed in every spiritual way through our trust in Jesus Christ. To follow and know Jesus enriches us, blesses us, and restores us.
Then we hear of grace, which is God’s love for us that is utterly independent of anything we do or say but simply given to us from God. We can get hung-up on the words “destined” and “will”, but it helps if we see this from our perspective, that is, we know, understand, that we have heard and received the call to be in relationship with God through Jesus. It’s about us and not about any one else. It is a confession, not a statement of elite selection vis-à-vis others. The will is not God manipulating things on some cosmic scale of those he plays favorites with and those he rejects, but rather God’s deep hope for us to respond to God’s presence and reality. We are created free to respond to God or not, but God wills, desires, our acceptance of holy grace.
We know the way this grace is lived most fully, most completely and expressed most profoundly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, Paul reminds us. In Christ we have been redeemed into a life, both as persons and as communities of people, that are able to be freed from the bondage of sin and brokenness. This is the journey of our lives made possible by what Jesus has accomplished for us and revealed to us. We hear that forgiveness is at the heart of our ethical understanding and what allows us to turn to each other again in a way that invites in the kingdom of God. How wonderful it is to hear that we are lavished with grace. How often do we need to be lavished with love and affection, with support and hope! It is indeed Good News to hear that at the heart of God’s reality is this superabundant grace that is pouring out freely, almost recklessly, without rationing or measuring. It is over the top as we say. And as we soak it up we are changed beings, changed into a new humanity that can make real the vision held out by the Gospel in our own small ways.
In times of turmoil and despair, when the center no longer holds, when our societies are in great strain and paroxysms of anxiety and violence, it is easy to lose hope. I know for me it has been a constant struggle my whole life, but particularly this past decade to not succumb to a sense of utter futility and despondency. I know that is not the faithful Christian response, but struggle I still do. So Paul’s words reminding me that in the fullness of time all will be gathered up into God’s loving embrace and purpose is a word I need to hear. Paul reminds me that God has the last word and that word is that I am God’s own, marked, sealed, and destined to him and for him. There is my hope. The disciple follows, the friend of Jesus stays the course, because the promise is bigger than the span of my life and abilities. It’s part of that coming fullness. And we are participants in the will of God, that graced, loving and forgiving force, being made incarnate.
Archbishop Romero of El Salvador could preach that word of grace and grounding. He also gave his life for what he believed as did John the Baptizer. His words speaking for and with the poor in his country and working for their dignity and liberation were cut short by an assassin’s bullet. But they were not killed or silenced. He knew whose he was and where he was going. He received the lavish grace and lavished it on others. He believed in the redemption possible in Jesus even as it took him into the darkest parts of our human experience. He bore a light to a deeper truth of whose we are and who we are destined to be. So I will close by sharing some of his words that remind us too of our fundamental identity, our ground, our origin and our destination. I think Paul would have liked them.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No program accomplishes our mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
That is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.