Monday, October 1, 2012

Sermon: B 18 Pentecost 21 Proper 30 September 2012

Esth 7:1-6,9-10;9:20-22; Ps 124; Jms 5: 13:13-20; MK 9: 38-50

Our help is in the Name of the Lord, the maker of Heaven and Earth. AMEN.
Today we include Michaelmas in our observance and thinking. It’s odd though to have the story of Esther on the same day as Michaelmas, the first being the Purim narrative, a Jewish celebration usually observed in March—and its attendant cookies available at the picnic—and September 29, yesterday, was St Michael and all the Angels. It’s jarring to have asparagus-spring-fertility matched together with and pumpkins-autumn-fruition together, and nearly St. Francis (to come next week and here.) Maybe, seasonal constants don’t shape your day, but they do underlie the Church’s wheel of time, nature’s time, and light patterns in which we live and grow. Also, it’s election time, and elections cross both nature’s wheel of time and our church and personal commitments to decency. Today’s lections each have a structuring, almost echoing, commitment to some sense of decency.

“The Lord has not given us over to be a prey for the enemies’ teeth,” from the Psalm.” Esther’s plea is, “Let my life and the life of my people be given us… For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, I would have held my peace, but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king.” Esther takes being enslaved as an occupational hazard of war, society, or living, but not being annihilated—it’s not right, acceptable, or decent. James offers pairs of people, those in trouble and those who could help them, and summarizes: “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective,” and so exhorts us to be responsible in helping each other in need. It’s a mutuality of backing and forthing to identify a need and work to alleviate it. It shows a way to be a decent human.

In the Episcopal News Service this week, priest Tom Ehrich, writes, “Nothing will get better in our troubled and divided nation until we take to heart three lessons about what it means to be a decent person. First, give back to God. In researching trends in giving, I was shocked to discover that more than 50 percent of those who attend Episcopal congregations give nothing at all — not a dime — to their churches. Giving has plummeted 50 percent over the past 20 years, even as personal income has soared 900 percent… Across mainline Protestant traditions, giving has sagged to 2 percent of household income — one-fifth of the biblical tithe.” He adds: 2, help the unfortunate, & 3, tell the truth.”

Consider the lies that lead to Esther’s plea for her people, and the king’s decency to Mordecai, “whose word had saved the king.” The king understood about giving back, back to God for his being saved, and he saved the unfortunate Jews, caught in Haman’s lies and jealousy. Similarly, James, at root, urges decency on his followers. He wants people to use what they have to give back to God and help the unfortunate, and “if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” These principles of decency lived out, are a way to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself,” as well as, “doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly before your God.” These are different formulations of comparable ways to live a life.  However, naming this pattern as “decency” makes it seem less divisive and more universal than our individual rules, practices, or codes of our own brand of Christianity, or other faith tradition. Each of Erich’s three elements of decency is so basic, it would seem impossible to omit or violate any of these.

Yet in this vitriolic election season, we’ve been told “47% of us don’t pay taxes, and "are dependent upon government [and] believe that they are victims.” Were all the election ads to be governed by these three boundaries of decency, virtually none of them could run. If instead those dollars went to feeding the poor, or risking creation of new jobs, or supporting innovative start-ups, or providing fine education in places where it’s sub-par, or renovating urban housing into acceptable city neighborhoods, or guaranteeing affordable medical care for all military personnel desperate for care, or or or or. Fill in your own list. To be assaulted by ads not telling the truth, not helping the unfortunate, and certainly not giving back to God, nor even crediting God with a role, contributes to shredding not only our simple outfit of decency, but also to knocking off the whole protective armor of God. The winner doesn’t matters if the victory is at the expense of any possibility of a decent society.

Jesus says, “if any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and were thrown into the sea.” He uses dramatic rhetoric not to predict dire things happening to such people but to underscore his point. “Do not stop anyone casting out demons in Jesus’s name for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.” Jesus repeats and repeats that the bar for the reward, the reward of eternity with him is so low everyone meets it. Everyone has given water to someone, and so has earned and is guaranteed that reward— everyone. Each of us, though, will have to be cleaned and purified—Jesus says will be subjected to salt and fire, the two ancient symbols of saving and cleaning. Jesus is not conveying a recipe for smoked, cured human meat. He’s dramatizing the necessity of “Hav[ing] salt in ourselves, and be[ing] at peace with one another.”  Other Bible passages describe winnowing out chaff, strengthening metal with a refiner’s fire to burn out any impurities so the metal will be strong, or using a potter’s wheel to help make a perfect shape adding clays for strength and durability. Each metaphor reminds us that natural elements in use, acquire artifacts or flaws, picking up impurities in normal wear and tear. They acquire or are exposed to materials, which weaken the grain ‘s value, weaken the metal when tested for strength, or change the clay to be harder to mold into a perfect or strong pot.  The mix-ins aren’t bad, but they detract from the strength or practical use in action, so the element needs to be cleaned, purified. The winnowing, testing, molding or other process is not for style, but to make the element more effectively itself. Punishment and judgment aren’t part of these processes, but the dramatic language of hacking off limbs or other body parts sounds angry and judgmentally corrective. It’s visual language to help cure ills. The reward is already promised, so the bold imagery underscores that point not to threaten us.

What then are we to do as regular practices to help encourage decency in our society, to help us live into, “Whoever is not against us is for us…so remember to have salt, or adaptive correction in ourselves and always be at peace with one another.” We’ve lost confidence in that reward, and fear admitting weaknesses or errors and so resisting natural and expected correctives, so being at peace with one another is elusive. Returning to Ehrich’s ways to make a society decent is a fine place to start.

As I’ve said before remembering to say thanks before any and every meal is a start. It’s not the quality, quantity, or companionship at a meal, but that none of us produced completely what we eat, and each, or most of, us have enough. Whether it’s bread&peanut butter, mac&cheese, an elegant soufflĂ©, Kobe beef, or cabbage&potatoes, we probably didn’t earn it, and there’s no good reason why we have it and others don’t. There are causes and forces, but not persuasive Reason for haves and have-nots. The thanks or grace said, need not be more than, “Thanks for this food,” or “For that which we are about to receive, let us give thanks.” It acknowledges we have received the unmerited grace of sustenance, and we’re grateful.

At Michaelmas, we might well remember there are forces around us to help and defend us. “Send thine archangel Michael to our succor; peacemaker blessèd, may he banish from us striving and hatred, so that for the peaceful all things may prosper.” This archangel is usually seen looking around with a spear, ready to ward off whatever dangers may threaten us. If you don’t have an ikon of Michael, it’s wise to find a symbol and to know the need for help, both admitting we are not all-powerful against forces assailing us and trusting in some Defender to help us, find our warts, and be a Refiner for us. Let’s work to make a more decent society, knowing our own reward is already sure: Good News.  AMEN.

© Katharine C. Black         30 Sept 2012      St. John’s Boston