A sermon preached on the twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 25C) on October 27, 2019 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY. Click here to read today’s scripture. Click the play button below to listen along.
About 20 years ago and book and DVD came out called The Secret. The author proposed that good things would come your way if only you remained positive and set your intention to have the things that you want. The inference, of course, being that if you don’t have the things you want, if you aren’t healthy and happy, then you must be doing it wrong.
Now, this is not a new idea at all. For as long as humans have been humans, we have been making up reasons why we’re unhappy and solutions to how we can be happy.
Religion, of course, has been a part of this. There are strains of every major religion that try to make the case for: “If you do this right, you will be happy.” If you pray the right way. If you think positive thoughts. If you give of yourself… you will be happy.
In Christianity, this is called the prosperity gospel. TV evangelists are fond of touting this philosophy (I call it blasphemy) because they want you to feel good, knowing that if you feel good, you’ll send them money. “You will prosper, the more you give.”
While there is a kernel of truth in this, it’s a philosophy that has been twisted by human ego. We know this isn’t true.
We know that an illness can befall the most giving person. We know that a tornado can wipe out the home of someone who prays regularly. We know that financial problems are most typically a result of a system that keeps poor people poor. And we know that death, sometimes tragic death, takes someone we love and can make us question the very existence of God.
Life is much more complicated than, “if you’re doing it right, you’ll get what you want.” And this begs the question, “Why bother doing it right then?” Why bother praying? Why bother worshipping God in church or in another faith community? Why bother being kind? Why bother loving our neighbor as ourself? Why bother being unselfish and allowing our hearts to be broken open by the world?
As Christians, these actions are spiritual practices given to us by our Savior who knew that, through them, we are saved from our own misery – misery brought about by the anxiety over wanting our lives to be a certain way and the inevitable disappointment that comes with not getting what we want.
Because no matter how well we “do” our religion, no matter how pious or prayerful we are, things still happen to us. The difference is, if we have a spiritual practice through which we learn to surrender our control, we are better equipped to carry the peace of Christ with us in the midst of the changes and chances of this life.
This is the point of today’s Gospel. And what Deacon Sue talked about so eloquently in her sermon last week: God is with us in our suffering.
This is what Christian theologians call “divine reversal.” Instead of thinking that God rewards the good people with good things and suffering is a punishment from God, as Christians, we believe that God is always with those who suffer.
And, when this suffering is caused by systemic oppression, God works through us to overturn the powers-that-be. Our Christian story tells us that Jesus was born to a poor, unmarried woman as a member of a marginalized community in a barn amongst the dirt of animals. We’ve come to understand that God’s Hope is found in the margins, the most vulnerable – of society and of ourselves.
It’s clear from this parable today that Jesus is pointing to the self-righteous Pharisee as the one who exalted themselves and, therefore, the one who is furthest from God in their heart and mind. Meanwhile, the tax collector, the one who was detested and berated, is the one who is suffering and is the one who has surrendered to God, asking for mercy.
As humans, we all have the tendency to believe that our weakest aspects are the parts of ourselves that deserve to be hidden and judged. In our shame, we hide them… from others, from ourselves. And we suffer, thinking we are alone. And we heap more shame upon ourselves. Perhaps we want to avoid being pitied or displays of sympathy from others… whatever the reason, we stop short of bringing this part of ourselves to God and to one another. And we end up stopping short of bringing our full selves to God’s Table.
In this month’s newsletter, which will go out to everyone next week, my pastoral letter to you all is about my own grief over my brother’s death this past February. I talk about grief being a long walk, because it is. And I talk about how my brother died, of suicide, which is always difficult to talk about.
I think it’s hard because death by suicide and, even suicidal attempts, are whispered about as if they are something to be ashamed of. And it brings us back to the belief that God is with those who have all their ducks in a row, God is with those who are “doing it right.”
This is not what Jesus teaches us. I know this. It’s where my faith lies. But even still, I can feel the urge to keep things quiet. Upon reflection, I realize that’s about my own fear – where did I fail him as his sibling? I’m a priest, shouldn’t I be able to know when someone in a place of desperation?
I offer this today, not because I desire pity or sympathy. But because I think if I ask you to bring your whole self to this Table to ask for mercy, as well as to celebrate God’s Love… then it’s helpful if, as your teacher and priest, I am transparent with bringing my whole self to this Table… to ask for mercy, like the tax collector, and be renewed in God’s Love once again. Over and over again, as often as necessary.
Because we all wrestle with so many complex situations in our lives. And there are never any easy answers. But on my better days, I know that I’m not alone. I know God is with me in all of it… especially the darker moments when life isn’t the way I want it to be.
Can we pray to God for the things we want? Sure. But we do well to remember that God is not a vending machine and so prayer works better when it’s a practice of surrender, when we withdraw our wants and open ourselves to God’s Holy Spirit, which is always present within us – has always been present within us.
And this is part of what it means to bring the power of the world to kneel at the feet of the most vulnerable in the manger. Through spiritual practice, we cultivate humility, compassion, and peace at the same time. We come to understand that our perspective about the way the world should be is sometimes deeply selfish.
And we come to learn that God is with us in our most vulnerable, most painful moments. In these we find Christ, the Prince of Peace, awaiting us. Peace is the gift we always receive.
May you find peace, may you experience God’s love, today and always at God’s Table.