Sunday, November 26, 2017

Pentecost Last, 2017: The power to serve

I had the true pleasure of celebrating with the good people at Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, NC. Below is my sermon in text and audio file. If the audio file below doesn't work on your device, click HERE for a different audio file format.

Lectionary: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24, Psalm 100; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46

En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

Years ago, I was presenting at a conference on domestic violence and sexual assault. Those were always heavy duty conferences, as you can imagine.

One evening, a bunch of us decided to go onto the roof of our hotel to watch the sunset and restore some peace to our weary souls. We were mostly, but not all, practicing Christians. One among us, an African American woman who, it turns out, was a fabulous gospel singer, told us about her struggle to remain a Christian in light of the hypocrisy among state and federal senators and representatives, judges, law enforcement, church and business leaders whose bruised and battered wives we had to shelter, and whose children we had to tend following their sexual abuse of them.

Being mostly survivors ourselves, we knew intimately the many prisons in which most of the victims we served were forced to dwell. Telling on their abuser, or leaving them often meant risking their jobs, the custody of their children, an escalation of financial and legal abuse against them, and even their lives – since 75% of women who are killed by their abusers die when they try to leave.

Our discussion that evening was, as you can imagine, intense. Thankfully, so was the sunset. God’s glory was painted across the sky and took our breath away, leaving us in a humble, restorative silence.

Breaking the silence, one woman mentioned that she’d had a similar struggle with her faith, and her grandmother suggested that she might try singing Christian hymns replacing the word “Jesus” with the word “freedom” and see what happened. Immediately, the first woman I mentioned stood up and began singing Chris Rice’s “Untitled Hymn (Come to Jesus),” doing exactly that. I still get the chills when I think of it. Here’s how some of it sounded:

Weak and wounded sinner
Lost and left to die
O, raise your head, for love is passing by
Come to Jesus freedom
Come to Jesus freedom
Come to Jesus freedom and live!

…And like a newborn baby
Don't be afraid to crawl
And remember when you walk
Sometimes we fall, so
Fall on Jesus freedom
Fall on Jesus freedom
Fall on Jesus freedom and live!

…And with your final heartbeat
Kiss the world goodbye
Then go in peace, and laugh on Glory's side, and
Fly to Jesus freedom
Fly to Jesus freedom
Fly to Jesus freedom and live!
Come to Jesus and live.

What a gateway back to Jesus. Such a wise grandmother.

Freedom takes many forms, and when we lose it, we are truly lost – like scattered sheep - and we are dying unless or until someone intervenes. For example, some of us lose our freedom to alcohol, drugs, food, or gambling. Others among us lose our freedom to money, power, reputation, or celebrity. Still others lose our freedom to people or churches with twisted theology. Our freedom can be surreptitiously lost to mental or physical illness or to fear, hate, or hopelessness.

Finally, some of us lose our freedom because it’s stolen from us – by an abuser, a molester, or a political oppressor. This is the kind of thief specifically described by the prophet Ezekiel who said: ”…you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted all the weak animals with horns until you scattered them far and wide…”

Abuse, in all its forms, is about power… misused power… and the Good News Ezekiel offers is that God sees when the sheep, that is, the people, have been scattered by this misuse of power; and God says, “I myself will search for them… I will rescue them from all the places they have been scattered… [and] feed them with good pasture… I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep… I will seek the lost… bring back the strayed… [and] strengthen the weak…"

Then in our Gospel story, Jesus teaches us about the power we have and how we are to use it. This power is something everyone possesses; a power that has nothing to do with money, or position, or age, or ability. It’s the power to serve – a power which can only be used properly by someone in right relationship with God and neighbor. Only in right relationship, that is to say, in righteousness, can we truly see and respond to the hungry, the thirsty, the lonely and exiled, the naked and ill, and the imprisoned.

How many times have we walked or driven past a panhandler and ignored their plea for help? We may soothe our consciences saying they are addicts and we won’t support their habit; or they choose to be homeless and beg rather than work; or... or... or...

The truth is, we don’t SEE them. We judge them in order to relieve ourselves from responding to them.

The reason is, we know that once we respond, we enter into their eternal reality. There are no quick or simple fixes that allow us to get on with our lives as they were before; and we realize that in order to truly and powerfully serve them, we can’t ignore the system that holds them prisoner. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”

Just look how the recent revelations from Hollywood and politics are calling us to respond to the women who’ve found the freedom to speak their truths and finally tell on their sexual harassers – powerful men, some of whom we truly love and admire. We don’t know what we’re going to do. The system itself is under fire and, thanks be to God, transformation of the whole system seems inevitable – finally.

For “‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

We claim ourselves to be disciples of Jesus Christ, therefore, we do not have the freedom to remain unchanged, unchanging, in the face of the changes in the world around us. We do not have the freedom to remain safely inside our emotional, spiritual, and social fortresses instead of carrying the light of Christ boldly into the world he died to save. We do not have the freedom to deny the real and powerful presence of God that is in us and what that means for us, for our church, and for the world.

As poet Marianne Williamson says,

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us…

We were born to make manifest the glory of
God that is within us.

It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone…
As we are liberated from our own fear,
Our presence automatically liberates others.” (Portions read from: “Our Greatest Fear”)

Liberation. Freedom. Grant O God, that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under Jesus’ most gracious rule.

Nelson Mandela once said, "…to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others." This is hard work and we can’t do it alone. Thanks be to God, we don’t have to – for we live as a body – the body of Christ, and each Sunday we gather to be nourished by Word and Sacrament in order to carry out our ministry in the world.

So today, as we come forward to receive the spiritual food of Holy Communion, I invite us all to open our hearts as we open our hands, and receive faithfully and courageously the body and blood of our Savior Jesus Christ. As we eat the bread, let’s picture the real and powerful, loving presence of Christ being carried by the molecules of the consecrated bread into the cells of our bodies. As we swallow the wine and feel it make its warm path down our throats and our chests, into our stomachs, let us track that as the path of God’s steadfast, generous love becoming part of us – part of our very bodies and souls.

Then, when we return to our pews to pray or sing after communion, let us open ourselves to recognize how, in this very moment, God is changing us - transforming us - physically and spiritually and ponder why… For what divine purpose has God gathered together this particular group of people, at this time, and in this place?

Who are the hungry, the thirsty, the lonely and exiled, the naked and ill, and the imprisoned in our corner of God’s garden? Do we truly see them? Are we serving them?

I wonder what might happen if we were to trust the reality of the glory of God that is within us, and give God the freedom to work powerfully through us until all people are freed and brought together under Jesus’ most gracious rule?

What might happen? My guess is: it would be nothing short of the kingdom of heaven on earth. Amen.

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