111421 Pentecost 25

Trusting the Truth of our Belovedness to Risk All

The sermon begins at minutes 22:00 of the video

I Sam. 1:1-20, 2:1-10; Heb. 10:19-25; Mark 13:1-8

The prolific author, James Michener, was often called a “knee-jerk liberal.”  One time he responded to the charge: “I confess to that sin. When I find that a widow has been left penniless and alone with three children, my knee jerks.  When I learn that funds for a library have been diminished almost to the vanishing point, my knee jerks. When I find that a playground is being closed while a bowling alley for grown men is being opened, my knee jerks. When men of ill intent cut back on teachers’ salaries and lunches for children, my knee jerks. I hope never to grow so old or indifferent that I can listen to wrong and immoral choices being made without my knee flashing a warning.”

    Like Michener, we’re often attacked for stating what we believe when it’s not popular with the crowd. That’s especially true when our convictions are prophetic, speaking about the course the future must take to bear good fruit. Our first inclination when we’re attacked is to get defensive. Michener took a different approach. Instead of being defensive, he accepted the accusation, and redefined the stereotype his critics made of his position. We live in a time when many intentionally distort what others believe and say to make them look dangerous or stupid. When leaders say that child tax credits and energy policies that reduce damage to the environment are the way to a just future, they’re labeled socialists. When they propose large spending bills, no matter how important and popular, they’re called spendthrifts.

So, the voices that compete with our inner voice are different for each of us. For Michener, it was voices that labeled him “knee-jerk liberal”. For the disciples the voice was the beautiful stones of the temple. For the community of the Hebrews, the voice was the threat of persecution. For Hannah the voice was the reality of barrenness in a culture where bearing children was the only way for a woman to be valued.

When our jerking knees are criticized by those voices outside of us, or when those voices simply encourage us to be complacent, we must decide how we will react.

  • I don’t know what led Michener to hold on to his convictions but I do know what made Hannah hang on to her faith when Peninah kept teasing her. She was strengthened by the unconditional love that Elkanah kept showing her.
  • The community of the Hebrews was reminded that God’s law was written on their hearts and minds, and they were completely forgiven. Even then, they were not all able to overcome their fear of persecution to continue gathering as the church. The threats were winning out, and the writer of the letter was trying to convince them that what they had in Jesus was worth the risk.
  • Likewise, the disciples had heard Jesus talk many times about the newness he was bringing – the Kingdom of God. But the current world looked so stable and strong and had so much beauty. The temple with its beautiful stones encouraged them to accept the status quo. Jesus had to confront them with the harsh truth: not one stone will be left upon another. His words functioned like a rumble strip on the side of a highway meant to jar them awake as they nodded off and drifted toward the ditch. Jesus saw that disturbing future as birth pangs rather than signs of ending. They could be complacent about the present comfort and wait for change to happen to them, or they could engage the strength to live into the change even when things look comfortable, or at least tolerable.

     All three biblical stories were messages to their readers about the challenges they faced. Hannah’s story served as a parable about Israel at the beginning of a two-volume history of Israel’s transition from tribal confederation to monarchy. Israel began as a group of refugees who had spent 40 years in the desert. When they crossed into the land of Canaan, they weren’t even close to being a nation. The odds didn’t look good for Israel when their existence as a tribal confederation no longer met their needs as they sought to become a nation. Hannah’s faith invited Israel to claim the same faith as they faced their uncertain future.

         The late first century Christian communities represented in the letter to the Hebrews were facing persecution for their faith in the Roman Empire. The specific community described in the epistle was wavering in their hope in God’s promises, and in their commitment to continue to gather visibly as believers. The author’s exhortation was addressed to that entire generation of persecuted Christians.

        Mark’s Gospel was written around the time of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem – the literal fulfillment of Jesus’ words to the disciples. As such, it was addressed not only to the disciples about a future that was still decades away, but to the generation that was reading it and experiencing that moment. It must have been encouraging to be reminded that they were experiencing birth pangs rather than signs of ending.

      All three texts speak to us in the moment of transition we’re experiencing in our country, our church, and many of our lives. The U.S. is facing a transition. Like Israel we don’t know what’s next, and we can’t go back. We have learned too much about how many people we’ve hurt to go back. In preparing for the panel on Christian Nationalism, I am seeing this even more clearly. And we know that what we have isn’t working either. It’s scary to trust God to lead us to something new. We look at the scarcity of options, the intentional distortions of truth, and the commitment of those who want to go back rather than forward. What is our shared responsibility in the face of all that? Do we even know where to begin?

     St. Athanasius also faces a transition. Do we cling to what exists like the disciples were doing with the temple when Jesus confronted them with an ending that could be a new beginning – not one stone? Do we stop meeting together like some of the Hebrews did in today’s epistle? Do we fear that we might have to take on too much responsibility if things change? Or do we persevere in faith like Hannah and continue to work and pray for the abundance God promises, even when it might not look exactly like we expect?

     As small as St. Athanasius is, with the limited scope of our direct influence, I believe that our message helps us to live out that call to be the change we seek. Our message is not broadly shared in this country. Our voice isn’t loud enough to argue with those who disagree. And there are too few of us to make a difference in electoral politics. But you who gather here reveal a picture of what the future could look like; and you go out from this community to make a difference in many settings – loving your families, caring for your neighbors, being involved in advocacy for a variety of social concerns. Being that picture, and going out to make a difference, are expressions of our stewardship. So is pledging to this church so that we can continue to be that picture and make that difference. Because we are so few, each of us matters more in sustaining this ministry. 

The good news is that there are faithful people all around the diocese making a difference. Yesterday at Diocesan Convention, Bishop Taylor gave a catalogue of Amazing Episcopalians in the Diocese of LA that are acting by faith to create a new future, despite the risks, the apathy, and the opposition. Mary Nichols told us what we can do to fight climate change, even if Glasgow didn’t go as far as it should have. And Bishop Diane spoke of how important it is to nurture communities that have been neglected in the past.

Friends, our stewardship is much bigger and much more urgent than making a pledge to St. A. But a pledge can be one step. And when we don’t know what the future will bring, being faithful in what we can do is essential. May our reckless faith be rooted deeply enough in God’s love deeply to risk everything for God’s future.