November 17, 2019: The 23rd Sunday After Pentecost

November 17, 2019: The 23rd Sunday After Pentecost
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Readings: Isaiah 65:17-25; Canticle 9 (Isa 12:2-6); 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19

From the Prophet Isaiah, “Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking, I will hear.” I speak to you in the Name of God our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, Amen.

    Have you noticed that our scripture lessons these past few weeks have taken on an almost apocalyptic sense to them? Such texts remind us that we are nearing the end of the Christian Calendar year. In fact, next Sunday does mark the end of that year with the Feast of Christ the King that looks forward to that day when Our Lord will, indeed, return in glory and splendor. And as that year draws to a close, a new Calendar Year begins with the season of Advent celebrating Christ’s first coming to dwell among us as one with us, and show us the way to a renewed and redeemed relationship with God and one another. But I find that our scripture lessons this morning offer truths and promises that go beyond the past as well as the future. In fact, these texts challenge how we choose to live in this present moment: how we choose to live every day.

     I smiled when I read this morning’s lesson from St. Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians. I smiled because this text played an important role in our own nation’s founding. The year was 1607 and Captain John Smith, along with others, had just established the first successful English settlement at Jamestown. Now, things had gone fairly well at Jamestown. After all, most people recognized the value and interdependence they shared with one another; that everyone needed to pitch in and do their part and work together because their lives, their very survival, depended upon each other.

But some came from privileged families in England and believed they should be served rather than serving together as equal and valued members of the community. Winter was coming and the work was piling up: the laborers were few, and the idle, too many. Smith was very much afraid that this community would not survive. Now, being a good Churchman, Smith began each day with Morning Prayer and reading scripture. On one occasion he happened upon today’s reading from Second Thessalonians and Smith had an Epiphany moment!  He announced to the community a new social order based simply upon St. Paul’s words: “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat” (2 Thess. 3:10b). Apparently Smith’s mandate was successful because today we are still here, we survived.

     And yet, this text from 2 Thessalonians is not so much about public welfare and social policy as it is about the continuing life and very survival of the Church. See, Paul was afraid that this community of faith was losing sight of the real Jesus. They were becoming “fans” of Jesus the miracle worker and radical social reformer, rather than proclaiming Jesus as Lord and embracing his call to lifelong discipleship: a discipleship that involves everyone in the hard work of proclaiming in word and in deed the new life and hope, resurrection, forgiveness, grace and mercy of God revealed in Jesus Christ who transforms and redeems all creation.  And that church was forgetting that members must forgive each other as graciously as they themselves have been forgiven. See, discipleship requires that we recognize our interdependence upon one another and work together. Paul feared that in neglecting daily prayer, study and fellowship as a community, in neglecting those in need, and putting each other down, the church had lost sight of who they were and would not survive.

     In our reading from the gospel according to Luke, Jesus speaks of a future time marked by dreadful events and circumstances and his hearers, understandably, are afraid. And while countless preachers still today interpret this reading from Luke as a road map for the future and spend countless hours speculating when destruction will come and Christ will return, that is not what Jesus is talking about. His message isn’t about fear, but rather, about hope and the assurance of God’s presence. Jesus has been telling his followers to focus on today and not worry about tomorrow. He offers these tales of dramatic signs and wonders as a way to encourage the church, not scare it. He says, when bad things happen, when plans go awry, when the future looks bleak, when there is dissention within the community, don’t be discouraged, don’t be afraid, and don’t be terrified – even if you are hated - because you are marked as my own forever and nothing can change that: not even a hair on your head. God is in charge, your future is certain, besides, Jesus says, we have work to do. 

     The reality of the gospel, the good news of God in Christ, is that every thing, every person, every situation can be redeemed, restored, made whole and even resurrected from the dead, through faith in Jesus Christ not as the miracle worker or social radical, but Jesus Christ as Lord. And that hope and promise, Jesus, Luke, and St. Paul say must be at the heart of everything we think, offer, and do as people of God.

      You know, I have been wrestling all week with a burden on my heart concerning this parish and our continuing life together. Those present at last week’s Annual Meeting, might recall my reflections on the 30th Anniversary of the taking down of the Berlin Wall. With all the talk about walls being built along borders, we need to recognize that there are other walls being built: walls of our own creation that are dividing this country pitting our people against one another like never before, just as there are walls emerging in the Church at large, and even here in our own midst. I asked that we imagine, that we dream of, a church where every one of those walls came down – and came down by our own hands as we choose to live differently.    

     See, we are an incredibly blessed parish. And I believe such blessing has come about not from our total agreement in matters of politics or social policy or anything other than our mutual commitment to living and proclaiming the Gospel: the good news of God in Christ that values every human being; the good news of God that Jesus Christ is our Lord who makes all creation new – even you and me. And as our Lord, his teachings and life example impels our everyword and deed. See, we disagree on many things and that is okay. Imagine how boring it would be if we never had any disagreements. But in this Church regardless of our differences, all are welcome, all must be welcome even those with whom we disagree. Even more so, we must choose to let their voices be heard for our unity, friends, is not found in our opinions, but rather, in our proclaiming and living the gospel of Jesus Christ. A gospel that forever says Jesus is Lord and no one else! That gospel is our hope, our purpose, and our identity.

     The Prophet Isaiah spoke of a coming day when all people will be restored to unity with God and each other. It will be a glorious day of such incredible unity with our Creator and all creation that God says, “Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.” Beloved, that promised day of redemption and restoration was fulfilled when Jesus Christ was born over two thousand years ago and rose from the dead at Easter. This is not only a promise to be realized in some distant future, but rather, to be celebrated in this moment, because in Jesus Christ we have already become a new creation, a creation continuously transformed and reformed, a new creation that listens to one another, and works together to break down walls and every barrier so that all may come to this table, kneel with us, and together, taste God’s kingdom.

     “That’s all very nice, Father Allan, but how can we make this happen? After all, people are pretty polarized these days.” Well, maybe it needs to begin right here. So, I invite you to join with me in a true “Passing of the Peace” this morning. Having confessed our sins and made peace with God, the question remains, “Are we at peace with one another?” I invite you, in the midst of passing the peace with those around you, to seek out someone with whom you disagree, someone with whom there is resentment, someone perhaps you don’t even know. Take their hand in yours and say to them, “The peace of the Lord be always with you” and say it from your heart. I believe that if we truly mean those words and if we listen carefully enough, in that moment we will hear those walls begin to come down. But the choice is ours just as it must be our prayer for only in so doing can we truly come to this Altar and be filled once again with the welcoming, healing, redeeming, and transforming presence of God.

     God said, “Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking, I will hear.” May this promise of God be our reality right now, and forever. Amen.