Monday, August 14, 2006

Renaming, Realigning, Recreating (Sermon for Proper 14B)

A sermon preached by the Rev. Jason A. Fout
at the Holy Nativity Episcopal Church, Chicago, IL
on 13 August 2006

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.

The new rector was fresh out of seminary and he felt a bit awkward around children. Still, he felt he should get to know the kids of the parish better, so he asked the usual Sunday School teacher to step aside for the day so that he could lead a class of third graders. The children sat on the floor, while the priest nervously towered over them at the front of the class.

He planned to start with what he thought was an easy question. “Children, where is God?”

Of course, he thought they would say “God is everywhere” so that he could launch into his carefully prepared lesson, but the question met with bemused silence.

Trying again, the priest asked, “Class, can you tell me where God is?”

Again, the students offered only stares in return, the anxiety quietly building.

Taking a different tack, the priest called on a youngster near the back, “You there, can you tell me where I might find God?”

At that, the child made a frenzied dash from the room and found his mother at coffee hour: “Oh mommy, there’s big trouble…it seems that God is missing…and they think we’ve got something to do with it!!”*

Continue reading Renaming, Realigning, Recreating

The little boy thought that somehow God had been stolen and he worried that he was going to get fingered for it. Theft – whether real or, in this case, imagined – has a way of heightening fear and hurting community. The church in the ancient city of Ephesus knew about this, because they had a problem with stealing, too.

In the reading from the letter to the Ephesians that we heard this morning, Paul** addresses this problem. He says, briefly, “Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.”

It might be easy to hear this and dismiss it simply as moralizing, as if Paul were saying ‘shame on you for stealing, why not go out and get a job like the rest of us?’ But there is much more depth to what Paul is saying here, a depth into which each of us are invited. Let’s take a few minutes to look at just what he says.

First, Paul addresses what he says to ‘thieves’. He doesn’t say ‘Bob and Susan’, he doesn’t call them ‘those people who are stealing’. He says ‘thieves’: these are people who are known entirely by the negative thing that they do. There’s no name or description of them beyond saying they steal. That’s where Paul starts; but it’s where he moves on from there that is most significant.

Paul says that these people are to ‘give up stealing’. So these people who are known for stealing are to give it up. But Paul isn’t just saying ‘cut it out’; he’s suggesting a total reorientation for these people. This is like being given a new name, or a new identity. Those people who before were simply known as ‘thieves’ are now to be known as something entirely different.

And note here what Paul does not say. Paul does not say to the community that they are to separate themselves from the people who are stealing. The church in Ephesus isn’t to cast out these people as beneath them or of no consequence. And Paul doesn’t say that they need to work on these people, and make them stop stealing. In fact, everything that Paul says here is calculated not to separate these people from the community, but to restore them to the community.

What Paul does say is that these people should work so that they have something to share with those in need. Think about it: this isn’t Paul just callously saying ‘look, get a job’. He isn’t just saying they should work to provide for themselves, so that they don’t bother the church any more. He is actually re-identifying these people. They are no longer to be known only for their anti-social behavior; they are no longer people who only take. They are full members of the community, with responsibility for themselves and others. They are no longer known as those who only take, but as those who are able to give and receive.

In short, Paul renames them. They are no longer ‘thieves’, known only for the negative things that do, but they are full members of the community, and as he says later in the letter, ‘beloved children of God’. That is a radical realignment.

And just in case you think he or I are only talking about thieves, let me assure you that this applies to all in the church. We are given all sorts of names by the world, or even sometimes by each other. But the Holy Spirit is at work in this community, re-naming us, re-identifying us not as the negative things we’ve done, or the negative images others have given us, but as beloved children of God. And each of us then becomes an integral part of this community, able to care for others and allow others to care for us, able to become all that God intends us to be.

Fred Craddock, a professor of homiletics, tells a story that I think illustrates this nicely.***

At the time, Fred taught in Oklahoma, and he and his wife got away to Gatlinburg, Tennessee for a short vacation. One night they went out for dinner, eagerly hoping for a quiet, private meal together.

As they sat waiting for their dinner, they noticed a distinguished looking white haired man working the room, moving from table to table greeting folks. To their dismay, he made his way over to them and started to make small talk. He asked Fred what he did for a living. When he heard that Fred taught preachers, the man replied “well, I’ve got a story I want to tell you,” and pulled up a chair and sat with Fred and his wife. Craddock groaned inwardly.

The man stuck out his hand. “I’m Ben Hooper. I was born not far from here across the mountains. My mother wasn’t married when I was born so I had a hard time. When I started to school my classmates had a name for me, and it wasn’t a very nice name. I used to go off by myself at recess and during lunchtime because the taunts of my playmates [hurt so much]. When I’d walk around town, I could feel people staring at me, wondering just who my father was.”

Hooper went on to describe in some detail how he felt like an outcast in his own town, and even in his own church. When he was 12, a new preacher came. One day, leaving the church, he felt a big hand on his shoulder. It was the preacher.

He looked right at Ben and said “Who are you, son? Whose boy are you?’

Hooper explained, “I felt the old weight come on me. It was like a big black cloud. Even the preacher was putting me down.”

“But as he looked down at me, studying my face, he began to smile a big smile of recognition. “Wait a minute,” he said, “I know who you are. I see the family resemblance. You are a son of God.”

With that he slapped Ben across the [back] and said, “Boy you’ve got a great inheritance. Go and claim it.”

The old man looked across the table at Fred Craddock and said, “That was the most important single sentence ever said to me.” With that he smiled, shook the hands of Craddock and his wife, and moved on to another table to greet old friends.

Then Craddock remembered. On two occasions the people of Tennessee had elected a fatherless man to be their governor. One of them was Ben Hooper.

In the simple act of this anonymous old Tennessee preacher, we see the power of the Holy Spirit at work. It is the power of God opening us up so that we are more than what we do or what we have done or what has been done to us. We are set free and empowered to become whom God intends us to be; to be radically realigned; to realize ourselves as beloved children of God. Amen.

* I’m not sure where I first heard this story, but it’s not original to me.
** As in a previous sermon on Ephesians, I am not completely staked to the critical position that Paul was the author of this letter, although I think it’s likely. But these critical judgements, in the context of a sermon, seem rather beside the point, because they call attention to peripheral detail. If someone other than Paul wrote it, it doesn’t change the teaching on theft.
*** Jamie Buckingham told the story in his book, Power for Living, and I found it online at sermonillustrations.com

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