At least give it a try

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 6, 2020 – Ezekiel 33:7-11; Matthew 18:15-20 – STEM-Wide Morning Prayer via Zoom

From the Book of Ezekiel today we hear what is, at least for me, a familiar message. It’s not necessarily a message that I associate first and foremost with God the Father, but it is a message I’ve heard all of my life, mostly from Thom, my father. The message is this: at least give it a try.

God has appointed Ezekiel as a sentinel of sorts, a watchman for the exiled Israelites. He is God’s mouth piece, a trumpeter of the divine word.

God’s instructions to Ezekiel’s are clear. If God says to the wicked, “O wicked ones, you shall surely die,” then Ezekiel is to warn the wicked ones to turn from their wicked ways. If Ezekiel does not warn these wicked ones, not only will they die in their iniquity, but Ezekiel will have their blood on his hands. And it’s pretty clear that if Ezekiel finds himself in that position, the result will not be good for him.

God also says to Ezekiel, “If you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, and they do not turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but you will have saved your life.”

In other words, “At least give it a try, Ezekiel.” 

I really do think this is a lesson that most of us begin to learn at a fairly early age.

“You may not get up from this table until you at least try those Brussels sprouts, young man. With or without vinegar—your choice.”

“You may not go outside and play until you have practiced the piano for at least a half hour, young lady.”

“I know you don’t want to go to a new school, sweetheart, but you’ve got to give it a try.”

While it’s true that we might begin learning these hard lessons during childhood, they are by no means childish lessons.

On the contrary, it is certainly a sign of maturity when we come to the realization that, while there may be plenty of things in life that we do not want to do, there are several things that we must at least try in order to continue wandering our way through the world.

Maintaining a steady income, making friends, or serving the community. These are all things that start with giving it a try.

A life spent refusing to try is a life devoid of new experiences. If everyone refused to try, we’d live in a world without Eagle Scouts, law school graduates, and award-winning pastry chefs.

The truth is, personal effort is a key ingredient in all of life’s recipes, whether they be for success or disaster or butterscotch pie. But most especially, God emphasizes the importance of our personal engagement in our relationship with him.

A life spent in covenant relationship with God is not a life of sideline spectating. It certainly wasn’t for Abraham, who packed up and moved to the land of the Canaanites. And it wasn’t for his wife Sarah, who bore a baby boy at age ninety. It wasn’t for Jacob, who wrestled with an angel down by the Jabbok.

It wasn’t for the prophets or the psalmists. It wasn’t for Peter or Paul, or, well . . . Mary.” And it isn’t for you. As Christians, each of us is called to a life of rich participation in God’s reign on earth.

It’s not always easy to participate in such a thing as great as that reign. It takes courage to attempt the unfamiliar and to risk the possibility of failure. If, like Ezekiel, you have ever been tasked with trying to change your neighbors’ hearts and minds, you know well the frustrations associated with such an arduous undertaking. 

During this pandemic-plagued moment of national anxiety, there may well be a number of things that you wish you could force others to do. But most days, I bet it would seem impossible to accomplish those things.

Lucky for us, God takes failure out of the equation. Remember, God didn’t make Ezekiel responsible for forcing his fellow Israelites to change hearts and minds. God is not concerned with our statistical rate of success.

“If you can get at least 50% of folks to turn from their wicked ways, then I won’t hold you responsible, Ezekiel.” No. No, that’s not how it works at all.

Ezekiel is responsible merely for relaying God’s message, for passing on God’s warning, for spreading God’s word. Ezekiel is responsible only for giving it a try. That’s all God asks. Give it a try.

God doesn’t pass the buck or eschew his divine responsibility. God’s Word is just that—God’s. Whether it is speaking creation into being over the vast expanse of the deep, teaching crowds along the dusty roads of the Galilean countryside, or stirring you to new thought and action by the hearing of the scriptures this very morning, God’s Word is God’s alone.

God’s Word is responsible for changing hearts and minds. God speaks it, God sends it, God sustains it. The hard part is taken care of. When it comes to sharing it, our role, just like Ezekiel’s, is, at least, to give it a try.

It may be tempting to hear in God’s conversation with Ezekiel this morning a threat. Either warn folks of what is to come, saving your life—and at least some of theirs—in the process, or don’t, and suffer the consequences along with them.

But would God really threaten the life of his prophet just because he didn’t relay one lousy warning? I don’t think so. More to the point, I don’t think we are meant to interpret God’s interaction with Ezekiel as threating at all.

Instead, I think it’s an honest portrayal of what it means to be a child of God. God is telling Ezekiel that we have a responsibility to one another. That’s important, and God’s not going to let it slide. 

Episcopalians, among other denominations, emphasize the corporate nature of Christianity. A key part of our identity is the recognition that we don’t function individually.

We are members of one body, walking toward God’s dream for us together. So, when some of us lose our way, like those wicked ones in exile—or even the folks Jesus references in today’s Gospel—our job is at least to try to call attention to signs of sin and death within the community, and to help each other turn away from them.

If instead we ignore the pockets of darkness that we encounter, if we shrug our shoulders and role our eyes and continue on as normal, then it will be as though we are already dead, rendered useless as members of Christ’s body.

Useless, not because we are unable to convince our neighbors to repent, but because we have forsaken our responsibility even to try.

In other words, we are called to play an important role in spreading the Word, not because of the benefits it gives us, but because we are convinced of what it can do for others, and because we know it strengthens us all.

It’s not easy, but it is simple. Spread the Word. Not to save your life, but because your life has already been saved. Really. Just give it a try. With or without vinegar—your choice.

By God’s grace

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 13, 2019 – Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 – Trinity, Winchester

Let’s look at today’s collect again.

Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works…

“That we may continually be given to good works.” That’s a good thing to pray for. We should do good work—God’s work—in the world.

But lest we get too caught up in the idea that our works might be the source of our salvation, this prayer first calls our attention to the source of our good works: God’s grace. We pray for God’s grace to precede and follow us because grace is precisely what makes our good works possible.

The order is very important. God’s grace comes first. Our works follow. When you look at it that way, it makes life seem so much more manageable, doesn’t it?

In our Sunday School series on evangelism last spring we said that the mission of the Church is God’s mission. The work of reconciliation in the world is God’s work. The ministry of this parish is God’s ministry. We are able to share in it because God empowers us with his grace.

God was here before us, and God will be here long after we go. We are God’s coworkers on earth for a time, but God’s grace lasts forever.

We heard this morning a portion of Jeremiah’s letter to the exiled Israelites in Babylon.

“Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.”

In other words, Jeremiah encourages them to put down roots, as if to say, “You are in this for the long haul.”

Last week we got a sense of just how devastated the Israelites were to find themselves in captivity. I can’t imagine that “put down roots” is what they wanted to hear. But prophets aren’t in the business of telling people what they want to hear. Prophets are in the business of telling the truth.

People want to hear things like, “Everything’s coming up roses!” But we don’t need the prophet to tell us, “Everything’s coming up roses!” When everything’s coming up roses we are pleased to go on listening to CNN and the local Top 40 station.

What we need to hear are things like, “Brace yourself, folks. Things are going to get tough for a while.” That’s why God sends a prophet. To be honest, to “get real” with us when we need it most.

God sends a prophet to the woman whose husband comes out to her after eight years of marriage. God sends a prophet to the man whose job transfers him away from friends and family. God sends a prophet to the teenager whose father is sentenced to 10-12 years.

It doesn’t do any good avoiding the truth. Things are going to get tough for a while. Your marriage is ending. You may spend Christmas alone. Dad’s not going to be around for a while. 

You don’t have to like it, but in order to have the slightest hope of getting through it, you do eventually have to accept it. That’s why you need a prophet like Jeremiah to tell it like it is. 

Jeremiah tells the Israelites to go on living their lives. Lay a foundation, put up some walls, plant some food, get married, have babies. In short, do the work God has given you to do. It’s not ideal, but it’s the first step toward accepting their new normal. 

Let’s get really clear about one thing. Their daily life and work is not meant to be a distraction from their troubles. “Well, this will take your mind off of things for a while… Have a hot bath, take a walk in the woods, get one of those adult coloring books.”

No. The work isn’t a diversion. The work is their key to reconnecting with God. As they resume their routine they will reminded of God’s presence among them.

Build the house. Who fashioned the stones from chaos? God. 

Plant the garden. Who sends the rain form the heavens? God.

Get married. Who created us, one for another? God. 

Be fruitful and multiply. Who blessed all of Abraham’s righteous offspring? God. 

The work is meant to return them to the steady rhythm of life so that they might realize once again that God’s grace is what makes their lives possible, even in Babylon.

Life isn’t always easy. Even though we may not like it, we have to summon up the courage to accept it. Sometimes we need to be reminded that getting out of bed in the morning and going on with our lives is the best thing we can do. Because it’s in living those lives that we find the grace of God. 

I know a little church in a small Tennessee town. Maybe you know it, too. It has been through some pretty rough times. One day nearly the entire congregation walked out. They thought they’d set up a new parish down the road. 

I’ve never been part of a church when something like that happens so I can only imagine the lament. I can only imagine how hard it must have been to walk into a nearly-empty nave the following Sunday. 

I don’t know exactly what the faithful remanent heard the prophet say. Probably not “build houses” or “plant gardens.” I imagine it was something like “say your prayers, answer the phone, pay the bills. Do the work God had given you to do.” 

I know another little congregation at a small rural crossroads not far from here. It struggled with membership for years. Members died, members moved away, members stopped coming. There were some disagreements, some harsh words, some apologies, a lot of mixed emotions. 

They also heard the words of the prophet. “Things are going to be tough for a while. You might have to make some hard decisions. Do the work God has given you to do.” 

By God’s grace the people of these congregations did just that. They prayed, they worshipped, they studied the Bible, they took care of the sick, they fed the hungry, they clothed the naked. In fact, they still do. And by God’s grace they always will.