Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Joy of Accountability

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
November 18, 2007
The Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Year C: Proper 28 RCL

Malachi 4:1-2a
Psalm 98
(2 Thessalonians 3:6-13)
Luke 21:5-19

The Joy of Accountability

Until the past few months I had lived pretty much my entire life on the academic calendar. Both as a student and as a teacher my life was marked marking period by marking period, semester by semester, school year by school year. Just the other day, I caught myself thinking that pretty soon I could catch up on a few odds and ends during Christmas vacation. And then I remembered that, at least for a long time, there would be no more Christmas vacations for me.

I liked the academic calendar because it has a definite beginning. I liked the start of each new school year – the new books to read, the notebooks yet to be written, the seemingly endless possibilities. Each year, I’d think “this year is going to be different.” And then the reality of school would set in – some classes were good, some were hard and some were boring. Some of the bindings of those new books remained unbroken and those nice clean notebooks became filled with doodles along with line after line of notes. Despite my best intentions, I’d slip into my usual patterns

I also liked the academic calendar because it has a definite ending. We won’t be in this class forever. This class will end. This semester will end. This school year will end. Someday we will graduate. Sometimes it may seem like forever, but there is an ending. But, of course, there’s not only an ending – for students, at least, there is also accountability. In class like every other teacher I was asked about five million times, “Will we be graded on this?” And usually the answer was yes. Year after year, students are judged and graded. Year after year students are held accountable.

The academic year: beginnings, endings, and accountability.

It turns out that the church year is not so different from the academic year. There is a definite beginning and an ending. And, although we may choose to ignore it, there is also accountability. Now we are coming to another ending. Next Sunday is the last Sunday of the church year and then we start a new church year on the First Sunday of Advent. And so, as we come to the end of the church year, sure enough, this morning’s lessons focus on endings and accountability.

These are not easy things to think about or to preach about. I’d much rather look with anticipation to the start of another church year – all the hope and the possibilities – the hope, the excitement, that this year will be different. But, sorry, we can’t skip a step. If we hope to spiritually “graduate” we need to reflect on endings and accountability.

So let’s start with our Old Testament lesson. The prophet Malachi lived in the time after many of the Hebrews had returned from the Babylonian exile. They had rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem – and just like at the start of a new school year there had been tremendous hope and optimism – this time things were going to be different, this time things were going to be better. But, surprise, surprise, just like any human institution, the Temple had become corrupt. In the righteous anger of Malachi (“See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble”) seems to fueled by the disappointment that the religious establishment has become corrupt.

And so Malachi warns the ending is coming and that there will be accountability.

Five hundred years later, Jesus is unimpressed by the splendor of the Temple. Jesus was, of course, very critical of the religious establishment that had become corrupt and hypocritical. And so Jesus prophesies the end of the Temple.
Two thousand years later, it’s easy for us to shrug. For us, the Temple is just another historic structure that has vanished into the rubble of history. But for the Jews of Jesus’ time the thought that the Temple – the holiest place in the universe, the place where God lived – could be destroyed must have been very disturbing, to say the least. And, of course, when the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 – the Temple, the holiest place in the universe, the place where God lived – the Jewish people were scattered throughout the ancient world and had to rethink their faith in a world without the Holy of Holies.

Jesus warns that the ending is coming and that there will be accountability.
Now, I’d just as soon pass on accountability. As a student I used to get very nervous before tests. Just last January I had to take what’s called the General Ordination Exam – a week-long set of tests on Scripture, Theology, Liturgy and so on. If Bishop Beckwith had called and offered to exempt me from the exam you better believe I would have said yes.

But, he never called and so I was held accountable for what I had, or hadn’t, learned in seminary. Accountability. We’d all like to avoid it – but we also need it. Accountability – we’d all like to avoid it – but it’s a sign that we are loved
I remember at one of the high schools where I taught there was another history teacher – a veteran and very popular teacher – who never made his students accountable. His students never had homework, never had to bring books to class, the tests were jokes and I don’t think he ever bothered to grade them. He spent his class periods sharing his political views. At least once he wrote the words “Us” and “Them” on the board and then listed the names of the faculty according to their supposed political beliefs. I never did find out whether I was an “us” or a “them.”

Anyway, I often taught freshmen. Later as juniors and seniors they would sometimes stop by and see me. At the start of the year the kids who had gotten (let’s call him) Mr. E would be excited and try to get a rise out of me, a teacher who was famous for pop quizzes. “Yo, Mr. Murph, Mr. E’s so cool. He really respects us and cares about us and wants to know what we think. He talks to us about other teachers and he never gives quizzes or tests. You don’t even have to read the book”

I’d take all this in, smile, and say something like “Well, it sounds like you have a pretty good deal with Mr. E. Congratulations!”

And then the months would pass and sometimes those same students would stop by for another visit. I’d ask how things were going in Mr. E’s class. Not always, but often enough, kids would admit that his class wasn’t as cool as they had thought. And even once in a while one of them would admit that they even missed my famous pop quizzes.

They didn’t say it, but they were smart enough to realize that the way Mr. E ran his class and treated them was actually deeply uncaring and disrespectful. By not demanding accountability Mr. E was shortchanging these students and showing that he just didn’t care them, their learning, their growth as students and as people.

There are many who want, or even expect, that the Christian life will be easy. I’m not sure how people can read the Bible and think that this is supposed to be easy. I mean, just look at today’s passage from Luke, “…they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.”

Whew. Yet somehow Christians get the idea that God loves me, nothing else is required, and everything is going to be just swell. And God does indeed love us beyond our understanding. But part of that love is a demand of accountability. You and I will be accountable for our actions. You and I will be accountable for how we respond to God’s love. And it’s through that accountability that we can graduate and become the people God knows we really are.
If God didn’t hold us accountable, then God’s love wouldn’t be love at all. In fact, God would be pretty much like Mr. E.

To push the school metaphor just a little further, the life and teachings of Jesus show us that good news that God is the greatest teacher and the most merciful grader of all. This little passage from Luke that we heard today sure is scary on its own. But when we put in context it becomes much less scary.

Throughout his gospel, Luke has depicted Jesus spreading love and hope through his teaching and healing. Just before Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple, he observes the poor widow making her seemingly insignificant and yet incredibly generous donation to the Temple. It’s just a few sentences and yet it’s one of the most powerful lessons in the whole Bible.
And this is how we are held accountable. How much have we been like the widow who gives all that she has?

I can only speak for myself. I haven’t been like her very much at all.
So, because God loves me I am held accountable. Because God loves all of us we are all held accountable. And because God is merciful, we get another chance. In two weeks we begin again. In two weeks we begin a new church year – a new year filled with hope and possibilities.

But before we turn the page let’s take some time and allow God to hold us accountable. Let’s give thanks for accountability. And then let’s move on and really mean it when we say “This year is going to be different.”