October 31, 2010
Pentecost 23C, Proper 26
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Most mornings I wake up to music from WXXX. If the music playing at 6:30 is a Bach cantata or something by Vivaldi, chances are I’ll wake up pretty happily. But if the music playing at 6:30 happens to be a Sousa march or something with clanging cymbals, I’ll feel like I was rudely awakened. Maybe YOU weren’t quite awake when you arrived here this morning. Maybe you were hoping for some soothing words from the readings. No such luck. I imagine the opening words of the Old Testament lesson struck you like a trumpet blast or crashing cymbals: “Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom! Give ear to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomor'rah!”
What a way to start the day! Isaiah certainly knows how to get our attention! He doesn’t try to sugar-coat his message. Isaiah’s words would have been pretty striking in his own day. His contemporaries expected to hear sharp words from a prophet. They knew well what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah when they incurred God’s wrath. Today, we’re not used to being addressed with such force and vehemence. We’re not used to being hit between the eyes. We like to be approached just a bit more gently.
So why is Isaiah talking to us that way? We’re good people. We’re in church on this Sunday morning after all. We could be at the gym, we could be in a coffee shop, or we could be simply getting our well-earned rest. But we’re not. All of us got up this morning and came to church to hear the word of God proclaimed and preached. We came to exchange the sign of peace with each other and to eat at the Lord’s table. Like the Pharisee from last week’s Gospel, we might well be feeling mighty pleased with ourselves. If we’re honest, we might be feeling just a little superior to that neighbor of ours who says he communes with God on the golf course.
But Isaiah isn’t going to let us get away with feeling smug. He takes away any shred of self-satisfaction we might feel about our diligence in worship. After all, he’s a prophet, and shaking us up is his job. He aims to let us know just what the consequences are for ignoring God’s will for us.
The simple fact of our attendance at church doesn’t impress God one bit. Our scrupulous observation of the ritual doesn’t impress God either. Through Isaiah the Lord says, “Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you spread forth your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen.”
This last bit sounds quite discouraging. If God won’t listen to our prayers, what’s the point of praying then? Why are we even here, making the effort to worship according to the forms of the Prayer Book, with everything done decently and in good order?
It’s not that there’s anything BAD about our worship. Not at all. It’s just that worship isn’t enough all by itself. There’s more to our relationship with God. One of the reasons this passage has been appointed for us is to remind us that there is a danger in seeing worship as an end in itself. There’s a risk that we too, like the people of Judah, might become so focused on the details of our worship that we neglect how God has commanded us to live.
God’s concern for us extends beyond how we relate to God to how we relate to each other. Ritual without relationship is empty. So God asks that we extend our circle of concern beyond our individual soul’s relationship to God. God asks we extend our circle of concern to embrace and uplift those whom Jesus calls the least among us. Through Isaiah God commands us, “learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.” This idea has lasted through the ages. About seventy or so years ago Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed that “The church is the church only when it exists for others.”
Now I realize that many if not most of us here are already on the path to reaching outside the church doors. XXXXXXX parish is well-known in [College Town] and throughout the diocese for its generosity to organizations that feed the hungry and shelter the homeless. We’re further known for volunteering in these organizations, for gathering canned goods for food pantries, for supporting Habitat for Humanity, and for preparing food for the soup kitchen, just to name a few of our many local outreach activities. These kinds of participation provide much benefit to our neighbors in need, and our neighbors are much better off for our concern.
But we could do more, and I believe that as people who’ve been richly blessed by God, we’re called to do more. I’d like to challenge us all to do two things.
First, let’s get to know our homeless neighbors right here in downtown [College Town]. Let’s give ourselves an opportunity to find out who they are and to listen to their stories. During the time I’ve served at the [College Town Agency] and [Downtown Agency], I’ve heard stories of adversity and grace that both saddened and inspired me. I’ve met people like Bill. Bill taught at a northeastern prep school until a psychotic break turned his life into a shuttle between mental hospitals and homeless shelters. I met Marty. Marty was a New York City travel executive until his alcoholism and Vietnam era demons caught up with him. Most recently, I met Lilian, a mother of seven and former [Downtown Agency] donor—yes, a donor. Lillian’s health issues and need to leave an abusive marriage sent her and her children to the shelter for refuge. I’ve changed the names but not the stories. These are real people.
I encourage anyone who is able to sit down and chat with some of the folks who eat in the soup kitchen, or who use [College Town Agency’s] other services. But there are some of us whose time and health constraints don’t permit meeting homeless people face-to-face. Fortunately, there are also online and print sources of stories by homeless people. Once we hear or read these stories by people who are more like us than not, we will never look at homeless people in quite the same way again.
The second thing I’m asking us all to do is, as a once popular bumper sticker used to say, is to question the dominant paradigm. We can ask ourselves what structures of our economy and society keep some of our sisters and brothers without adequate food, shelter, and healthcare, while others have far more than they could ever need. We can ask ourselves how we might become agents of change, however small. Jesus certainly questioned the dominant paradigm of his time. In order to follow him, we need to do so as well.
By doing these things, in addition to our already generous gifts of our time and treasure, we’ll be taking our faith through the church doors and out into the world beyond. This kind of faith in action is what I believe that Isaiah is telling us is pleasing to God. God is quite willing to work with us in the process of helping us to align ourselves with God’s will. Today’s Isaiah lesson ends infinitely more gently than it begins, with the words, “"Come now, let us reason together,
says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” With God’s help and through God’s grace, we and our world can be transformed and redeemed.
Our Gospel today gives us a clear example of the grace of God at work through a seemingly very unlikely person. The tax collector Zaccheus climbs a tree in order to see Jesus in the crowd. Jesus asks Zaccheus to come down from the tree so that Jesus may stay at his house. The crowd around Jesus is scandalized that Jesus would accept the hospitality of a presumed sinner. Zaccheus’s next words reveal his true character. Zaccheus says, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.” More than the self-righteous crowd, Zaccheus understands what it means to follow Jesus.
My prayer for us all today is that we too may fully understand and fully embody what it means to follow Jesus, that we may serve God as the General Thanksgiving says, “not only with our lips but with our lives.” May we come down from our trees, or whatever it is that hinders our discipleship and follow Jesus, who came to seek and to save the lost. Amen.