A little Border Collie owns me (truth be told), and she is the epitome of enthusiasm! Early Sunday morning, a slip of the wrist with a jerk too soon, and a container of cottage cheese vaulted in a two and a half double hitch dive from the counter on to the floor – of course spilling its contents. With her hyper sensitive nose, a forever appetite, with her computer like reasoning abilities (“hmmm, dairy, creamy, good for me, taste great, on the floor, mine..”) and with speed to leave lightning eating her dust, Abby zig zags across the room and consumes the splattered contents from the floor with her ever so cute “who me” and her “you would have thrown it out anyway” looks! Dogs exude enthusiasm – for good or for naughty!
The scripture reading two weeks ago was a troubling one. Jesus uses the example of someone totally corrupt and dishonest (no, he wasn’t making a statement about some politicians!) but who has such enthusiasm about what he does, that he accomplishes ever so much (for good and ill). The point Jesus teaches, as I explained in my sermon, is NOT that we should live sleazy lives and do “whatever it takes” to get away with what we want. The point is about enthusiasm. Would that we, as His sisters and brothers, had the same drive, speed, enjoyment, interest, concern and heated passion for doing good as the evil ones of this world have for doing what they do! Coming together as a community to praise God, listen to God’s word, take home some important message that feeds your soul, and then live into your calling to “love God above all things and your neighbor as yourself” should not be a burden or just one more task to do. We should have a joyful enthusiasm about what we are and what we do as members of the Jesus Movement! Shouldn’t we? Why don’t we?
This morning I am sending out to you a 2.0 different version of the reflection I had originally written last Sunday evening. I write and pray with such sadness in my heart, and I hear the psalmist’s cry: “My God, My God. Why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1) It’s not “me” who has been forsaken but it is “us” as a nation and culture whose consistent and narcissistic tendencies in going it alone and without our God has made me feel waves of both sorrow and anger.
A rich kid professional quarterback started a national conversation about race by an act of civil defiance by calling attention to himself (as pro athletes tend to do) but also raising more serious questions: the questions of race, police tactics, the ever widening chasm between those with power and those without.
A friend in this parish told me only a few weeks ago that there would soon be another shooting of an unarmed black man. Sadly, he was spot on. It has happened yet again! Only this time, we have the video. This time we don’t need “experts” from the left or the right to speculate as to why this happened. We see the video for ourselves. Either a failure in training, a failure of character, or maybe a deep seeded suspicion or a sinful hate for an African American man who was doing nothing illegal led to a the death of an innocent.
No more excuses! No more ignoring the depths of crisis that racial misunderstanding and hatred are (and have been) creating. That slaughtered man could have been your dad or your brother or your child – if you were born the “wrong” color. And it is too long past the time when we should have gotten on our knees, repented of our hard heartedness, seek the forgiveness of our God and of all who have suffered from such abuses. If we do not call the abusers to account, if we do not begin to embrace each other as brothers/sisters, (“love one another AS I have loved you” – Jesus commanded) then I truly fear for the chaos and darkness that we are choosing for ourselves and the consequences we would deserve from a just God (“who hears the cry of the poor”).
How “important” are any of us? When the school year begins, for a few idyllic moments, I have this illusion that I “am exalted in the eyes of men” (to misquote scripture). People are back from summer travels, and there are numerous parishioners in the pews worshipping and actually listening to my preaching. Then afterwards, of course, one listens to the deflating complaints about why this or that idea “just won’t work” and I am back down to my usual self. .. or .. I fulfill my commitment to teach the course in Church Law at the seminary on Wednesdays, get addressed by students as “professor” (with the inflated ego that comes with this moment), and then find, as an adjunct, I am relegated to a “classroom” the size of the trunk in a sub-compact car but with a broken a/c hanging from the window and other windows that only open high enough to let in flies and bees but no air! Lest I begin to think that I am “important.”
But the message of Jesus is exactly the opposite of my more humbling experiences: you and I are that important – in God’s eyes. The message of last Sunday: no matter how insignificant or foolish, no matter how many bad decisions we might make, no matter how often we do not live into our baptism vows but choose darkness rather than light, no matter how many times we “screw up,” the One whom Jesus called “Father” will always seek us out and welcome us home. It matters not how others think of you: in God’s eyes, you are of inestimable value. Every one of us at times in our lives has been that “lost” sheep or coin. As unimportant as we are through the lens of human experience, never forget that you are of infinite value to the One who redeemed you and calls you my “sister” or “brother.”
A dog can teach by what she could not do! Our rescue border collie has a crushing fear of stairs. We’ve been told that perhaps someone did terrible things to her as a puppy up or down a flight of stairs. Try as we have to coax, cajole, treat, woo, give her affection, etc., this fear remains. Last week she and I walked a gauntlet in Ridgefield through a driveway instead of using the upstairs walkway to the parking lot all because she became paralyzed in her terror. Unmovable, she shook and cried (more than even during a thunderstorm) .. so unable to carry her (one of us needs to hit the salad bar more), I retreated and took my chances with her through this driveway and hoped that some unseeing or texting and racing motorist was not going to impel (impale) us both prematurely into our eternal place in the Kingdom of God.
You know those clever Geico commercials: “if you’re a ____ , that’s what you do!” So if you’re afraid, that’s what you do: you freeze, you whine, you cry (in terror), you lose hope, you cannot move. Sadly, this is what some church communities do.
If growth is the mark of a healthy church community, then remaining frozen in one’s ways, (a.k.a. – “we’ve always done it this way” or “She’s the one who always does this”) becomes a potential sign of a church in trouble. The Gospel must be preached and lived, but how that is done and by whom and using what tools, what programs, what music, which events, led by which group, using which talents – all these elements change over time and as people themselves change. And that’s a sign of a community that is healthy.
If we ever choose to remain frozen, like it or not, this is a sign that we are afraid. Fear will paralyze us, and ultimately we will not be the witnesses God has called us to be in this region of upper Westchester. We are the signs of Christ’s presence, and we’re not afraid to be such. That’s what we do!
The pictures of the earthquake that hammered Italy last week brought back a flood of memories and thoughts. As a student in Rome between 1971-75, would you be shocked if I revealed that often were the days when, in spite of a possible conflict with a scheduled lecture at the university, I would “escape” on a primitive inter-city bus and journey into one of these picturesque villages and take in the local culture, dialect, architecture and, of course, the bread, cheese and wine. I have walked in piazzas (town squares) that today are no more.
We think that what we have will always be, but in a heartbeat, it can be taken away. Life can change so quickly, for good or ill. In the span of one 1-minute phone call, I went from a son to an “executor” of mom’s estate. In the span of another phone call yesterday morning, I now know my brother must face very serious surgery but possesses a body that cannot endure such a procedure. All you think you have can change in a moment!
This is a reflection that I hope will make you both appreciate and ponder. Look at the relationships you are blessed with. Are you grateful and do you show it? Note the blessings you have received in life, do you sincerely give thanks to our loving God who has blessed you so? Are you truly appreciative for all you have received and are you willing to share with those who have so much less? Do you take to heart that life is a journey, and that any point on that trek it is merely that – only one stop. Change, for good or ill, marks our existence, and will do so subtly, lovingly or with the fury of an earthquake (even sometimes literally). What you think you own is just yours to use, for a while.
So there is a reason I often ask you to pray for us as a church community. Pray about the changes that will come, whether we plan them or not. Pray for our sisters and brothers in this parish for we don’t know how long any person journeys with us. Pray that we always keep before us the vocation we have been given. Pray that with the Spirit’s guidance and help, we live into our calling to make Christ present to the world and we are grateful for all we have and for every thing and person given to us.