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Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Hope, Persevere, Heal, Love

A sermon preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in St. Joseph, Michigan
on Sunday, November 14th. (Proper 28C)

Mal. 3:13-4:2a, 5-6; Ps. 98:5-10; 2 Thess. 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

In modern terms, Jesus was not a very good marketer. In today’s gospel reading he says, “you will be hated by all because of my name.” Apparently Jesus hasn’t read the latest in church growth books. After all, that’s not a particularly welcoming slogan: “become a Christian, be hated by everyone.”

Now I certainly don’t mean to second-guess Our Lord. But wouldn’t it have been far better if he had claimed that everyone would love us because of his name, and as a result we could win friends and influence people? Or if that wasn’t close enough to the truth, then maybe he could just say, “because of me you will be regarded with kindly indifference.” That would have been nice, because then we could just lead quiet, anonymous lives, going about our business. Or even if that didn’t fit, then at least he could have used a euphemism: “follow me, and others around you will experience a negative attitude adjustment.”

But no, Jesus says, “You will be hated by all because of my name.” Perhaps we ought to change our church signs here to “St. Paul’s Episcopal Church – you think you hate us now, just wait ‘til you get to know us!”

Continue reading Hope, Persevere, Heal, Love
But joking aside, the readings from this morning point in different ways to a mystery that we have each encountered in one way or another. The mystery, to put it plainly, is this: the world is out of whack and the wicked seem to flourish while others suffer.

This was certainly true at the time of the prophet Malachi. He writes that people said, “It is vain to serve God. What do we profit by keeping his command? Now we count the arrogant happy; evildoers not only prosper, but when they put God to the test, they escape.” In other words, why are we so worried about righteousness when it seems that the wicked are the ones who get ahead in life?

We certainly know about this paradox, too, don’t we? Take for example, Margaret Hassan, who worked with Care International in Iraq. She devoted her life to working with the poorest and most disadvantaged of people, and she was kidnapped several weeks ago and has not been heard from recently. Others working in relief and rebuilding in that hobbled nation have been kidnapped and killed, too, and yet those who have committed these atrocities seem to have escaped. Or take the attacks on 9/11, and all of those lives lost, while the masterminds, for the most part, walk free. The innocent and those who have worked for good are threatened and killed while the wicked continue in their ways.

Or, closer to home, think of the airline pilot who serves with safety and dedication for thirty years only to have his pension yanked while in retirement. In general, it seems like the little person is getting squeezed, whether it is the hard-working family who cannot afford health insurance, or the promising child who can’t receive an adequate education, or the retired senior whose fixed income can’t cover unanticipated expenses. Many people work hard, very hard, their whole life doing the right thing and never get ahead. It might be easy for such folks to look at others who get ahead by wickedness: a sleazy politician, a corrupt businessman, in some areas, a drug dealer or a pimp, and wonder why these people skate through life so easily. The prophet knew well how the wicked seem to prosper, while the innocent and righteous suffer; he knew the world was out of whack.

In the gospel reading today, some take Jesus to be talking about the end of the world. It seems that whenever wars and portents are mentioned, then people think Armageddon must be in view. But actually, Jesus is talking about the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, not the end of the age. Of course the Romans razing the Temple certainly seemed like the end of the world, as it can hardly be overstated how important the Jerusalem Temple was to Jews and early Christians. But Jesus says not to worry about all that: the disciples will be hated far and wide before the first stone is thrown down. And here we come to a second mystery.

If we are perplexed about why the righteous and the innocent suffer, we might also wonder why Christians are so disliked. Now, certainly we can give some pretty sober historical answers to that question. We are hated because of crusades, inquisitions, our cooperation with the colonizing efforts of Europe and America, and, as Gandhi put it, our ongoing inability to be like Jesus. No mystery there.

But it goes deeper than that, and therein lays the mystery. I don’t think Jesus had these abominations in mind when he said that. I think he was pointing to something deeper, for he knew that his followers would encounter this resistance before the church would ever have power and wealth. I think he was saying that, like a patient who insists that the medicine for his cure is actually poison, a world that’s out of whack is going to resist the means of its healing.

I don’t think this hatred just comes out of perversity, though. I think it comes out of fear. Like someone who has been sick so long she can’t imagine what she would be like without this malady, the world has forgotten that it is out of whack and needs healing.

This healing, that’s really what we’re about as the church. In following Jesus as his disciples, we are embodying – or at least growing to embody – the way that life was intended by God to be. We grow to love God and worship him as our creator and redeemer. Knowing that our lives are not of our own making, we learn to live lives of gratitude and thanksgiving. We are taught this chiefly in the Eucharist, in which God gives himself to us without reserve, so that we might give ourselves back to him, and by extension, to the world around us, without reserve.
Living thankfully, we can live lightly, not being afraid of losing what we have for we don’t truly have anything anyway, we’re just taking care of it while we’re here. And all of this opens us up to love our neighbor as ourselves. The work that we do here in the liturgy, and the work that God is doing in our lives, and the way we live in the world: all of this is nothing less than the healing and renewing of the creation. This is the great adventure that God has called us to, and to which he calls everyone far and wide.

So what do we do then? How are we to live in a world that’s out of whack, that’s not yet completely healed and renewed? This is still a place where the righteous and innocent suffer while the wicked prosper, still a place where people are hated because of Jesus’ name. There are two responses to this in our texts for today.

First, Jesus says to persevere. He says don’t be misled; don’t be terrified; trust that I will be present with you in your suffering; even though you will be hated, persevere. As I have been saying, it is this perseverance which will mean new life for the world. We endure out of love for God and love for our neighbor, not simply because we are mulishly stubborn or gluttons for punishment.

Second, God responds to the prophet Malachi saying, “once more you shall see the difference between the righteous and the wicked.” In other words, God sees and God will act, in God’s time. But just because we are suffering or hated does not mean that we are doing the wrong thing. And it might seem like the wicked get ahead at the expense of the innocent and the righteous, but in the end they do not win.

So let us take confidence. The hatred, the suffering that we see in the world is real; sometimes we experience it ourselves. But they are not the final word, for Jesus bids us to not worry but keep doing what we know to be true and right. We are to hope for God’s ultimate deliverance. And we are to invite others: come, join us as we grow together in love and gratitude, and, through the Spirit of God, embark on the adventure of healing and renewing the creation – which isn’t such a bad slogan, after all. Amen.

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