Homily for the Twenty-Third Sunday of Pentecost

A FUTURE AND A HOPE

Homily for the Twenty-Third Sunday of Pentecost

October 20, 2013

The readings today portray people in situations of extreme distress and dire need. The prophet Jeremiah offered his prophecy in the midst of the invasion by the Babylonians; the Second Letter to Timothy was written to a young church leader struggling to stay faithful in the midst of persecution and the threat of violence; and Jesus tells a story of a poor widow, who has suffered some kind of misfortune, and a curmudgeonly old judge who refuses to open the door to help her.

Jeremiah, preaching in the midst of the Babylonian invasion, revealed hope at a time when things seemed hopeless: a new day is coming as one age is coming to an end. An age in which people did not adequately understand or relate to God is to be followed by an age of deep spiritual connection. Jeremiah was one who urged people to embrace the change as being God’s will, while the king and religious leaders of the time punished Jeremiah for deviating from the party line.

Using the imagery of seasons, Jeremiah suggests that human life has endings and beginnings – one season must come to an end so a new one may begin. Put in terms of Christian theology, there is no Resurrection without the Cross – the death of one must precede the birth of another.

We are living in such a time, when our old values and lifestyle are being threatened and assaulted, a time when one age is clearly coming to a close, and we are grieving and hurting and disillusioned. In this confused and chaotic time, many Christians have lost touch with any real sense of God, and are quick to assume that things are pretty hopeless. We see the Church apparently failing, and many have long since given up and are just drifting along with whatever current seems to be moving. Even people who used to have faith can tend to be dismissive of people who express hope as being naïve.

It must have been hard to believe in Jeremiah’s day; it is hard to believe now, even as people of faith, that a great era of faith will somehow follow this secular and cynical time in which we live.

Jeremiah reveals the contrast between the way of gloom and doom and the way of hope. The way of doom is rooted in nothingness – no sense that there is any reality to God, no real faith, no willingness or capacity to imagine other possibilities than what we can see or create for ourselves. Jeremiah’s way is rooted in a profound connection with God – an awareness of a deeper reality that is a constant source of new life and even of a new creation. The difference between the age to come and the present one, Jeremiah says, is that people will know God in a way that they do not in the present time.

Jeremiah promises a day when people will know God in the way husband and wife know each other – they will be intimate, is what the word suggests – a day when people will not have to be instructed, coddled or prodded toward some vague awareness that there could be a God; rather, the sure knowledge of it will be well known and celebrated and shared by all.

Jeremiah points toward a spiritual renaissance at a time when it seemed ridiculous to think so, a new age when people will no longer go around quoting Thomas Merton and Meister Eckhart and Evelyn Underhill as if that information makes you a spiritual guru, or talking about the Dark Night of the Soul as though that in itself makes you some kind of mystic. Instead, people will begin to speak out of their own direct and personal experience of God. It will not be second hand, like people who taste bitterness because their parents were bitter, to use Jeremiah’s image of the grapes. Jeremiah points to the possibility of spirituality becoming deeply ingrained in the soul of every individual as they awaken to their own potential, unburdened by the sorry legacy of their ancestors.

Back in the mid-1970’s, I was profoundly moved by a talk given by the principal of The College of Emmanuel and St Chad – the seminary I would eventually attend. Dr Colin Proudman spoke of the importance of forming future clergy in such a way that they would actually come to know God rather than merely knowing a lot about God – and that makes all the difference.

Maybe the woman in the parable today is meant to represent those people who go to religious leaders looking for meaning and truth and insight and they get cynical put-downs rather than meaningful dialogue and spiritual direction. Maybe she represents the needs of the human soul as it comes up against the closed up, un-spiritual and anti-human forces of our day and finds it an experience of darkness. Maybe she is that voice from the margin that in times of darkness calls for the need to open up and connect with the Spirit rather than remaining closed up within the sterile isolation of habitual religious and social norms, a reminder that putting up walls and withdrawing and preserving ourselves in the face of a crisis is the least effective way to new life.

Part of the theme today has to do with persisting through adversity – the ultimate reward that comes to those who persist in looking deeper, who continue tuning in to God instead of losing hope in the midst of what may appear to be God’s absence and indifference.

The Second Letter to Timothy advises a struggling Christian: “be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable.” We often have to deal with situations which are unfavourable. Some are able to take major catastrophes in stride, while others fold up and go berserk if the traffic lights don’t work in their favour.

The life of the Christian Church has gone up and down many times through the centuries. In the midst of apparent judgement and disaster, through the prophets – through those who stay tuned in to God – God offers hope, and the faithful insist that new possibilities will assert themselves. But you won’t see them if you have chosen to remain closed up inside your little world, like the man in the parable, already having judged and dismissed the world

Jeremiah looks to a new age; Jesus tells a story in which a woman appears in the life of a closed up and isolated man who is described as having neither awareness of God nor respect for other people. He is a judge – a man of judgement whose judgement is obviously skewed. What the woman needs is much more creative and compassionate, and it will require him to step out of his usual carefully proscribed ways.

Sometimes it’s probably hard to see any connection between the readings and everyday life. Today is one of those days when the messages of the readings point very definitely in the direction of something that is very relevant to us right at the present moment.

It’s in this light I want to reflect on our situation at the moment as we decide whether or not to open up to the appeal of St Margaret’s to join us. It’s rather interesting symbolism when compared to today’s Gospel: a woman appealing to a man, asking that the man do the right thing. Perhaps we could picture St Margaret coming to St John as a kind of parable about opening up to a voice claiming hospitality and compassion and care.

Every parish prides itself on hospitality. Here is a real chance to prove it. At St John’s, I think the things we say about ourselves do connect to something real, so when we say we are hospitable we are prepared to back it up – to act on our words.

In our situation here at St John’s, we find there is someone outside who wants in – in fact, a whole community. They have lost something very dear to them, something they have built up and cared about and sacrificed for. Imagine how you’d feel if St John’s were on the brink of closing. They are hurting, disillusioned, looking for light in the darkness – just like the woman in the parable.

Over the last couple of years, during the Ministry Assessment Process (MAP) we have studied hospitality and radical welcome; we have named it as a priority, as if we have been preparing for a moment like this.

I believe the only response is to open the doors and say “Welcome!” — to see in this moment both a blessing and an opportunity, an influx of new life, because this gift of new people will strengthen St John’s and make us a more dynamic and diversified church, as people with many gifts and leadership skills come into our midst.

They’re coming anyway – they’re already here – we’re already seeing them in church, in the choir, the Men’s Group, the ACW, the Crafts Group and study group. You’ve seen them – the rapport was pretty instantaneous. So it’s already a question of how we make that happen not IF.

But today we can send a message, that we not only kind of tolerate their being here, but that we are grateful to God for this gift of new life, which I believe brings hope to both communities. We can promise to work with them in a positive and creative and welcoming (and above all loving) way to create a new kind of vision and community for St John’s.

Jeremiah’s prophecy points to the possibility of two kingdoms becoming one – how appropriate! Again, it’s really interesting to see the scriptures that have come up on this day when we contemplate joining with another parish. What is God trying to tell us? What is the Spirit saying to the Church? The marriage service speaks of the mysterious way in which two become one. In the many meetings we have had with the folks from St Margaret’s, we have often talked in terms of marriage – John and Margaret – what a nice couple. For a number of reasons (not just because we bear the male name) as we enter this marriage, Margaret will graciously take our name, and this parish will continue to be known as St John’s.

There will be no change of priest or deacons, but this will change the character of our community. Even one new person can change a community but in this case it could be 25 or 35. As we work toward integration part of our welcome will express itself in a sensitivity to the fact that there are new people around who don’t know all our jargon like PMC and EFM and aren’t quite sure of themselves yet.…

When the Son of Man comes will he find faith on earth? What is faith other than the willingness to put our beliefs to the test of real life? As we look at the parable today – who do we want to be in the story? How do you want it to end? The choice is yours.

I want to let you know in no uncertain terms that I believe this is the right thing to do, and I pray that because we are a people who do indeed love God, and do have respect for other people, we will not hesitate to open the doors to new life.

The Rev. Grant Rodgers+

RCL appointed readings:

Jeremiah 31:27-34 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the LORD. In those days they shall no longer say: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge. The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt–a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

2 Timothy 3:14-4:5 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.

Luke 18:1-8 Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”