Sunday, February 17, 2019

Year C 6 Epiphany 2019 Misplaced Trust

Year C 6 Epiphany, 17 February 2019 
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA 
“Misplaced Trust” 

Collect: O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you: Mercifully accept our prayers; and because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. 

Luke 6:17-26 Jesus came down with the twelve apostles and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them. Then he looked up at his disciples and said: 
“Blessed are you who are poor,  for yours is the kingdom of God. “Blessed are you who are hungry now,  for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now,  for you will laugh. “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you,  
and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets." 
"But woe to you who are rich,  for you have received your consolation. "Woe to you who are full now,  for you will be hungry. "Woe to you who are laughing now,  for you will mourn and weep. "Woe to you when all speak well of you,  
for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets." 

There are certain points in my ministry when things could have gone better. Last week I spoke of my failures, and how I am even thankful for them. They drew me closer to God & God’s Grace. But sometimes, even when I have a huge failure, the Holy Spirit shows up to snatch a victory from the jaws of defeat. 

When I used to work at a camp for inner-city Richmond kids, we had an evening program one time that I will never forget. Several of us had been in Boy Scouts, and at Scout Camps we often had several elaborate evening programs. In an Order of the Arrow ceremony, a few of us had seen someone call down fire from heaven. As we were reminiscing, I thought how cool it would be to do the same stunt, but just to do it around the story of Elijah and the Prophets of Baal from the Old Testament. 

Now if you remember the story, Elijah had prophesied for God to the evil King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. They were Baal worshipers and Elijah said that it would not rain for three years. After the three years passed, he called for a showdown on Mount Carmel which juts out in the Mediterranean. Like here, most weather moves west to east. As folks arrived, Elijah told them to set up an altar to Baal and he would make one to the Lord. The prophets called on their idol to deliver rain after lighting their altar, and Elijah waited. After hours he taunted them, and still no rain. Elijah said to them to finally quit. He had his altar covered with water until it was thoroughly soaked to prove that no trick was possible. He then prayed to God, and a fireball came down from heaven lighting his altar. Then a cloud, shaped like a hand, came from over the Mediterranean and it began to rain. It dumped. It poured. And Queen Jezebel swore revenge on Elijah. 

Now in our version, we were going to redo the story, just without the rain part. We had a guy up in a tree. There was a wire stretched from the top to a stone altar we had built from creek stones, and in it there was a bucket of kerosene. Strung on the wire we had a roll of toilet paper, soaked in kerosene, that we would light and zip down the wire and land in the bucket of kerosene, and joila! A fireball from heaven to light our altar. Tada! 

Well, we really got into it. We had screaming and yelling prophets of Baal. A mean ol’ Ahab. A shrieking harpy of a Jezebel. And I got to play Elijah. We went through the story, and like most camp productions, everyone played it huge and cheesy. There is a reason they call things like that “campy.” The prophets were dancing and calling for fire. Jezebel swore my death. And when I got up to call upon God, I was mid-prayer when I hear a hum on the wire and plop. Landing next to me was the unlit roll of toilet paper plopping down right into the bucket, 30 seconds too early. No fire from heaven. No climax to the show. And no backup roll of toilet paper. 

And to top everything off, the woman playing Jezebel got too into her part, and after we had disappointed a camp full of children she calls out, “Where’s your God now, Elijah!” 

It was awful. We had tried too hard to get these kids to see this great Bible story, and grow their faith in God. We had trusted in ourselves and our ingenuity. We moved them all from the fire pit, and into the Big Lodge to sing some songs and redirect them as best we could after our Flop, or Plop rather. Either way it was a bust. 

We put our hope on special effects and showing off. And maybe pointing the kids to God. 

Where do you put your hope? 

Really, when it comes down to it, where do you place that most sacred of trusts, our hope? 

Your mom and dad? Your spouse? That the sun will come up in the morning? That you will get a good night’s sleep? 

I was talking with someone the other day, and he asked how things are going here. I asked, on what level. On the surface things are going well. We had a great business meeting last week. People are serving God in so many wonderful and beautiful ways. But I have been here just long enough for people to start trusting me. I am a known entity now, and the burdens that they have been carrying alone for too long are starting to surface. I told my friend that this was actually a good sign, the rocks are being picked up and the creepy crawlies are getting exposed to the light. We can actually deal with the important things, the worrisome things, the things that nudge us in the dark of the night and make us doubt that the dawn will never come. So keep coming in, keep letting me know. I am your priest. We all need a priest.  

In the movie Schindler’s List, we see the main character Oskar Schindler say: “My father was fond of saying you need three things in life - a good doctor, a forgiving priest, and a clever accountant. The first two, I've never had much use for.” Schindler put his hope in Itzhak Stern his accountant. 

So I ask it again, where is your hope? 

This week I got another wake-up call as to how important and imperative our work with our fellow Ashland clergy is, especially our relationship with Shiloh Baptist and Randell Williams, their pastor. He texted me a story from the Richmond Times-Dispatch whose headline read “KKK Flyers Found On Private Property in Ashland, Hanover.” He sent it to me and other ministers here in Ashland because who knows us; he trusts us; and, he has hope that we will have his back and look out for his flock. He is right. Hate triumphs when good people stay silent. We denounce this ridiculousness because it is against our neighbors, it is against our better selves, and it is unquestionably against the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We been invited to a joint service on February 27, 7 pm, at Duncan Memorial to emphasize what we are really about. We will not give room to hate, and we will proclaim the freedom we have in Christ and we will not give into the fear the KKK so wants to produce. 

SO, it begs the question again, where do you put your trust? Today’s Scripture pound it home. Jeremiah: “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord.” And, “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord.” 

From Psalm 1: “Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seats of the scornful! Their delight is in the law of the Lord, and they meditate on his law day and night.” 

What we need to do could not be more clear than the Beatitudes listed from Luke in today’s Gospel reading, or Matthew’s Gospel either. 

Now let me repeat my thoughts on the Beatitudes. It is crazy talk to say that the Poor are blessed, or the Hungry, or those that Weep. The Persecuted, no one wants to volunteer for that. How on earth can they be blessed? I have heard it said that the Beatitudes were a list of ideals to be kept. But that would be ridiculous, if we are intellectually honest. God does not want you Poor, Hungry, Weeping, or Persecuted. 

But neither does God want you Rich, Fat, and Comfortable as the folks who preach the Prosperity Gospel proclaim. So what is it? When we filter this through our original question, these all seem so different. We see our Hope is found in God. When we are Poor, look to God. When we are Hungry, look to God. When we are Weeping, God. When we are Persecuted, keep holding on to God. And when we get to the Woes, the Rich, the Full, the Pleasure-seeking Laughers, and the Popular stop looking to God and put their trust in the ephemeral and fleeting: money, comfort, frivolity, and fame. Woe to them that think they have arrived. God is calling us all, higher, deeper, into a more full relationship. 

To finish the story about the Elijah skit, we took the kids back from the campfire ring and into the Lodge. I wanted to hurt the guy that was up the tree for his ill-timed accident, but knew he was humiliated and had an accident. Nothing more, nothing less. I could have killed the woman playing Jezebel who said, “Where’s your God now, Elijah?!?” But she was trying to think on her feet, and was enjoying her role WAY TOO MUCH. 

In the 50 yards of walking I had to come up with what I was going to say. What could I say to redeem this? Where could we go? My policy is to be honest. And when things are hard, be VERY HONEST. I told the kids the truth. We had tried and put on a show for them, telling them to trust in God. We had fire, planned fire anyway. Funny actors, and a great story. And I told them the truth, if you put your trust in people, eventually, somewhere along the way they will disappoint you. Always. People are not perfect. Trust people. Hope for the best. But there is only one place where we will not be disappointed if we put our trust, and that place is with God. For me the proof of that was that somehow the Holy Spirit spoke through fallible, disappointed me, and said exactly what was needed to be heard once I got out of the way. And really was the point of the story, BOTH in real life and in our retelling. 

It was true that night 27 years ago. It is true today. We can trust in God. Our hope is not lost there. Ever. Especially when we have people mocking us and saying, “Where’s your God now?!?”  

“Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord.”Amen. 

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Blessings, Rock