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.

Discovering Repentance

Tuesday in Proper 10C – July 16, 2019 – Matthew 11:20-24 – St. Mary’s Convent, Sewanee

It seems Jesus’ ministry isn’t going so well. 

All the ground he’s trod, all the sermons he’s preached, all the miracles he’s performed, and folks in Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum still don’t get it. He is understandably frustrated, perhaps because he knows that his earthy ministry wanes with each passing day. 

Don’t you get frustrated when, despite your best efforts, things don’t go according to plan? My friends who are school teachers help me understand classroom woes from their perspective. 

How many times do I have to tell you not to touch that?!

How many times do I have to remind you to keep your hands to yourself?!

How many times do I have to say, “No talking in the hallway!”? 

How much worse must the Son of God feel when, after giving God’s people glimpses of the Kingdom firsthand, they turn away from God’s saving grace? 

We cannot imagine what it’s like to be Jesus, but we do know a thing or two about what it means to be human. It turns out, Jesus knows a little something about that, too. He knows that it includes getting angry. 

For this reason, passages like this one can be difficult to hear. It’s hard to make sense of an angry Jesus. We are taught that God is good, loving, and merciful. So, why is he condemning the people of these towns to hell? 

Perhaps we need to think on it some more. What is Jesus’ anger—or any anger, for that matter—really about? Deep down, why does the teacher get angry when the students don’t follow the rules? Is it frustration because they just don’t seem to listen? Sure, but why? 

I’d bet that a big part of it is sadness. Sadness that other human beings—especially cute, young, impressionable human beings—are capable of willfully doing wrong. 

To experience the Gospel, yet turn away from it unrepentant, is tragic. In today’s gospel Jesus mourns that. “Why must my father’s children put themselves in this position?!” If we could answer that question, I guess we’d finally stop doing it.

Alas, we still separate refugee families at the border. We still elect blatantly racist leaders. We still celebrate the founder of the Ku Klux Klan in the great state of Tennessee. 

Why do we persist in sin? Because we are children of Adam’s fallen race? Because we are weak-willed and can’t help it? Because it’s just plain more fun to be bad than good? 

I’m honestly not sure I have the answer. As a preacher, I’m humbled to find myself in this position quite frequently. This may be disconcerting to some of you, while others might find it comforting, a sign that we really are all in this together, that no one is perfect. 

At any rate, while the motivation for our sin is not always clear, what is clear from today’s lesson is that Jesus mourns the fact that we don’t hold ourselves accountable for our sins. Perhaps the better thing for us to focus on today is not why we sin, but what it looks like to hold ourselves accountable when we do sin. In other words, what does it look like to repent?

I’m not talking about self flagellation. I’m talking about amendment of life. Repentance is built into our liturgy, but the question is, is it built into our daily lives? It should be! We need to acknowledge where things are broken, admit our culpability, and take steps to fix them. That’s what God created us to do. 

So, what’ll it be? Apologizing to an old friend? Investigating sustainable living practices? Eating better? Divesting from companies that harm the general welfare? Thinking critically—instead of alphabetically—at the ballot box? 

Those are just a few examples. Only you and God know what’s next for you, but whatever it is, first you’re going to need some strength. So before you get started, come to the table, take, and eat. 

Doing something

Tuesday of Proper 28 – November 28, 2017 – Luke 19:1-10

Listen to me preach the sermon here.

I love the story of Zacchaeus. What’s not to like? It’s one of the first Bible stories children learn and remember. There’s a catchy song about it. A grown man climbs a tree.

But, above all, it is a story about repentance and salvation.

Zacchaeus is a sinner. He’s deeply implicated in the oppressive powers of the Roman government. He is complicit in a corrupt tax system. He is hated by people around him.

But this sinner does something incredible. he risks public humiliation to try and see Jesus. He offers hospitality to Jesus. He repents of his sins.

His repentance doesn’t take the form of a quiet prayer to God. It’s not an afterthought or a quick soundbite of an apology. His repentance is profound, public, and, most important of all, it bears fruit.

Repentance isn’t just a “transaction of the heart.” [1] True repentance also involves doing something.

John the Baptist is one of the first people to teach us about this. In Luke 3 John baptizes crowds of people. He exhorts them to “bear fruits worthy of repentance . . . every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Then they ask, “What should we do?”And does he ever have an answer! “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Tax collectors, “Do not to collet more than is due to you.” Soldiers, “Do not extort people for money or make false accusations about them. Be satisfied with you wages.”

John makes it pretty clear that repentance isn’t just something that happens in your heart or in your mind. It’s something you act out. Repentance is more than an idea or a prayer. It’s a lifestyle.

Luke’s account tells us this over and over again.

When a son asks for his share of the inheritance and then runs off and squanders it, he doesn’t just say, “OK, I made a mistake. Sorry, dad. Sorry, God.” No. He goes back home with rags on his body and shame in your heart and says, “Please, give me whatever job you have.”

When a notorious sinner sees that Jesus is in town, she doesn’t hide in her room saying, “I’m sorry, everybody. I’m sorry, God.” No. She takes an alabaster jar of ointment and she washes the feet of the Lord with her tears and dries them with her hair.

When one of the flock goes astray, the shepherd doesn’t look at the rest of the sheep and say, “Sorry guys, I let one slip past me.” No. He goes looking for it. And when he finds it he celebrates.

When a tax collector is reviled by his entire community, he doesn’t just stay at home and say, “I’ve sinned against my brothers and my sisters and against God, and I repent.” No. He goes out and does whatever he can to catch a glimpse of Jesus himself. And when Jesus asks to come to his house, he shows him great hospitality.  And when the crowd is closing in on you, de doesn’t just say, “My bad. I won’t do it again.” No. He offers to pay them back with even more than their fair share.

Repentance isn’t just something we say, it’s something we do. We act it out. We do something because the joy of our salvation isn’t just something in my heart or in your heart.

Salvation isn’t a private matter. It’s not about personal conversion. It’s not even about getting a personal ticket to heaven. It’s not something we keep to ourselves.

It’s something we share.

But let’s be clear. We don’t go back home because God requires it. We don’t break open our finest oil because God demands it. We don’t pay back more than we owe just to get the crowds off your back. And we don’t do these things to earn our salvation.

We do these things because we are grateful for the abundant grace that God has given us.

We do these things because when we realize that God is calling us to wholeness we are so overjoyed that words alone will not suffice.

[1] Fred Craddock, Luke, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1990), 219.