Sunday, August 29, 2010

Some Things Never Change

The Chapel of the Incarnation, Gainesville FL
August 29, 2010

Year C, Proper 17: The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 2:4-13
Psalm 81:1, 10-16
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

Some Things Never Change

When I first sat down to read, and pray about and think about today’s Scripture readings, I immediately thought, “Some things never change.”

The reading from Jeremiah comes from a time when the kingdoms of Israel and Judah lost their independence. The prophet clearly chalks up these devastating events to the people losing faith in God and putting their faith in false gods such as Baal. The prophet also blames these devastating events on the people losing their faith in God and instead putting their faith in alliances with other countries.

Without a doubt, the prophet believes that God is angry at this lack of faith. But, more than that, there’s a sense of God almost being hurt by this lack of faith.

Jeremiah interprets God as saying, “What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?”

You can hear the sadness in that divine question, “What wrong did your ancestors find in me?”

Jeremiah was a prophet who lived during a time when people put their faith in earthly things and suffered the consequences.

It sure seems like some things never change.

We also live in a time when we put our ultimate faith in earthly gods and suffer the consequences. Think of how many people put their faith in their wealth only to see it evaporate during this terrible recession. I read a news story about a former mayor of my hometown who had made a killing on Wall Street back in the ‘80s and retired when he was still a young man, and served as mayor for a couple of terms. Now, according to the news report, because of what’s happened to his investment portfolio, he and his wife have only $5000 in the bank.

Not unlike the long-ago people of Israel and Judah, too often we put our ultimate faith in earthly gods and suffer the consequences. Think of how many of us put our ultimate faith in our talents or our intelligence or our charm or our appearance. Think of how many of us put our ultimate faith in our political leaders or in our military power.

It sure seems like some things never change.

But, no matter how things seem, as Christians we know that things have changed and are changing. We don’t have the option of looking at the state of the world and shrugging our shoulders and saying, “Eh, what are you gonna do? Some things never change.”

That’s not an option because in Jesus, God reveals to us what God dreams we will be. In Jesus, God reveals to us what God dreams the world will be. In Jesus, God reveals what the kingdom of God is like and what the kingdom of God will be like.

In Jesus, the kingdom of God draws near. Things have begun to change.

So, in the reading from the Gospel of Luke, we find Jesus at a Sabbath meal with Pharisees and others. At first, Jesus offers what seems like just pretty good etiquette advice. Essentially, Jesus says, to avoid embarrassment at a dinner party, don’t sit at the place of honor unless you’re invited to do so by the host. And it’s true, it’s embarrassing to be told, uh, sorry, I’m saving this seat for my friend. Or, sorry, this area is reserved for our first class customers. You’re seat is back there.

So, OK, Jesus gives some good, sort of ho-hum etiquette advice. But, then, just when we think Jesus has made his point, he reveals something about the kingdom of God. Jesus reveals that in the kingdom of God things are different. Things are going to change.

Jesus says, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

In God’s kingdom, the world will be turned upside-down. We hear this message throughout the Gospel of Luke. Early on, when the pregnant Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth, she bursts into song, singing God’s praises, singing a vision of God’s kingdom. She sings, that God “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

And in Jesus’ great sermon in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus teaches that in God’s kingdom it’s the poor and the hungry and the weeping and the outcast and the mocked who are blessed.

In Jesus, the kingdom of God has drawn near. And in God’s kingdom things are changing, things are going to change.
So, what about us? Are we part of the change that begins with Jesus? In us, in the way we live our lives, does the kingdom of God continue to draw near?

In our New Testament reading, we heard a powerful passage from the Letter to the Hebrews – which, by the way, was neither a letter nor addressed to the Hebrews! Instead, it’s a sermon sent to an early Christian community made up of probably both Jews and gentiles. It seems that maybe this community had begun to lose some of its enthusiasm for Christian living. So the anonymous author of Hebrews sends some very clear and pointed reminders of how they – and we – are to live Christian lives.

Today’s excerpt began with the beautiful phrase, “Let mutual love continue.” Do we live lives of love? Or do we live like things never change – concerned only about ourselves or about our stuff?

Then the author of Hebrews tells that early Christian community to offer hospitality to strangers and adds “for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Just how important is hospitality to us? Did we really mean it a few minutes ago when we sang “All are Welcome”? How well do we welcome the stranger into this chapel – or is there a tendency for us to be a nice, cozy little club?

Then we’re called to remember those in prison and those who are being tortured. Probably the author had in mind other Christians who were being persecuted for their faith. And there are many thousands of Christians around the world who being persecuted for following Jesus. Do we ever remember them? And, closer to home, how much thought do we give to the many tens of thousands who are imprisoned all around us?

I read a startling statistic in the diocesan newspaper. In the Diocese of Florida there are 33 prisons, containing over 33,000 prisoners. They are all around us and yet nearly invisible and easy to forget. Yet, if in us the kingdom of God is drawing near, then not only do we need to remember those thousands of prisoners but we also need to ask some uncomfortable questions.

Why is there so much crime in our country? Why are so many of our brothers and sisters locked up?

Finally, the author of Hebrews calls us to keep our commitments, to be faithful, and to avoid the love of money.

When we live this way then truly the kingdom of God draws near. When we live lives of love and compassion and humility and simplicity and faithfulness and integrity, then the kingdom of God draws near. When we live this way then the world turns upside-down and just about everything changes.

But, it turns out that some things really never do change. Living this kind of Christian life was a challenge back in the First Century and it’s a challenge for us today. But, we don’t do it alone. We live out our Christian lives together here in community and always supported by the love and grace and power of Jesus. And as the author of Hebrews writes, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today and forever.”

Some things never change.