October 20, 2019: The Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost

October 20, 2019: The Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost
(The Day following the 41st Valle Country Fair)
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Readings: Jeremiah 31:27-34; Psalm 119:97-104; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8

From Luke’s gospel, “(Jesus asked) When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

     I awoke this morning with this song in my mind: (singing) “My Lord, what a morning! My Lord, what a morning! My Lord, what a morning … when the Fair is done once more!” Yes, the 41st Annual Valle Country Fair is now history and like many of you, I look forward to receiving news of the final tally of everyone’s efforts. You know, seeing the thousands gathered here yesterday – people of every race, culture, backgrounds, shapes, sizes, gifts and abilities, economic situations, and probably people with a myriad of religious beliefs, too, and then thinking about the hundreds of people the fair helps year after year – I was reminded of what can happen when people of faith commit to work together and truly seek and serve Christ in every person they meet. Thank you all. And well done, faithful servants and friends of Holy Cross: well done!

    Earlier this week, while many of you were busy preparing for the Fair, clergy from throughout the diocese gathered right here in Valle Crucis for our Annual Fall Conference hosted by our Conference Center. On another occasion, Rev. Anna and I will share the learnings and challenges heard during that conference: learnings and challenges about mission and ministry to indigenous peoples. This was an eye-opening experience and the presentations touched our hearts and minds: touched them deeply. Nevertheless, one of the more memorable moments for me had nothing to do with those presentations.

During an afternoon set aside for reflection, one of our presenters, The Rev. Dr. Bude Van Dyke, a Cherokee Indian and, by the way, a Sewanee grad, went for a walk and noticed how dry our creek beds had become due to our seven-week drought. As a Cherokee and, therefore, someone very in tune with nature and the earth, it was natural that he should pause and offer prayers for rain. When I heard about this I thought, “How lovely” and gave it no further thought. That is until the next morning when it proceeded to rain and then rain the entire day. That is when I grew nervous. So I offered one of those prayers where one expresses thanks to God but also says “don’t overdo it.” I went so far as to remind God how many people are depending upon the success of the fair that would be ruined if it rained too much – as if God needed to be told that.

    But that got me thinking. Do you ever find yourself praying like that? Perhaps adding bargaining chips to your prayers? Usually such is offered in times of distress. Someone might pray “Give me an ‘A’ on this test and I’ll promise to study next time.” If God will do this, they will do that: a quid pro quo arrangement.

    I believe many Christians tend to approach prayer as an opportunity to present God with a “to-do” list of things we need or want, or the needs and wants of others. Jesus did, after all, encourage us to ask God for whatever we need. And yet such prayers tend to become a plea for God to fix something, to give something, to correct that which we think is a wrong in society or even within our own selves, rather than seeking and asking God’s help in amending our own lives. For all their honesty, such prayers suggest that whatever mess we’re in, if God really loves us, God will just fix it for us.

     On the surface, today’s gospel reading with its parable of the Widow and the Unrighteous Judge suggests such an approach to prayer. It has an almost prosperity gospel message to it. You know, that message that says if you pray hard enough, if you just keep asking, keep nagging God to act, God will be obliged to do whatever you want. Yet, Jesus was speaking about something far deeper and perhaps even more difficult for us to grasp because while the message of this parable is simple, it is a challenge to live. Our reading from Luke is not about nagging prayer or an unwilling God, but rather, about a God who bears with us, bears our suffering with us. This passage is about God’s people remaining faithful, clinging to faith, persevering in faith in God’s justice, mercy, love and forgiveness even if everything around is falling apart. It’s about faith that endures even when we feel we have been treated unfairly by others, or when God is strangely silent, when God seems distant. Faith clings to the promise that God is always faithful even if, and when, we, ourselves, are un-faithful.

     In Jeremiah’s day, the people of Israel lived as exiles in Babylon. Their great empire had collapsed and everything they held dear was either gone or changed forever. For a while, they blamed this national disaster upon the sins of their parents – “the sour grapes” – a common teaching at that time that said if something went wrong in your life, it was because your ancestors had sinned. In today’s Old Testament reading, Jeremiah debunks such thoughts and affirms God has been present to God’s people all along. God has seen every act of kindness, everything done to build up society just as God has seen every act of evil, everything that uproots or destroys. Jeremiah says we can’t blame anyone but our own selves. And, Jeremiah says if we will acknowledge that we each bear the responsibility for our actions and choices in life and in society, God, in turn, promises to always forgive and restore and redeem people of faith.

    But is faith enough? Well, St. Paul, in our reading from his 2nd letter to Timothy, suggests that faith in itself is notenough. While he urges the church – that’s all of us - to be persistent in faith and in proclaiming that faith, Paul says that such is only possible when faith is acted upon so that it truly transforms who we are – when God’s words and ways become written on our hearts. Such faith impels us to action, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ to our communities through our words and our deeds, through our lives, through our hearts and minds.

See faith may enable us to get up in the morning after a sleepless night of worry or grief, but it is active faith that truly transforms who we are, how we think, and how we live. It is active faith that makes a difference in us and in our communities.

     Active faith urges a little country Church called Holy Cross to bake, to put up preserves, to crush apples into cider and apple butter, to provide huge vats of stew, BBQ pork, and chili, and hundreds and hundreds of corn muffins. And let’s not forget those burgers and fries, too. It is active faith that urges volunteers to give of their time, talent, and treasure to feed and meet the needs of these our neighbors. Active faith pushes us to reach outside of ourselves, beyond ourselves, and embrace and welcome the stranger, to uphold the dignity of every person we meet, to see Christ in them – even in those who, at times, might, like the widow in our gospel story, nag us to distraction: Those who get under our skin. Active faith moves us to persevere even in the face of extreme hardship. At times, in my own life, it seems that all I had left to cling to was faith. And that may not sound like much, but Jesus said faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains. Nevertheless, it was only when that faith was put into action that I began to change, to amend my life, to repent and right the wrongs I had committed. That is when my faith began to make a real difference in me just as I know that such active faith continues to transform you and every member and friend of this wonderful parish.

     Luke says that Jesus shared the parable of the widow and the unrighteous judge to remind his followers to pray always and not lose heart. And after explaining the parable, Jesus gets to the crux of the matter by asking, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” I wonder how you might answer that question this morning.  The answer does put the onus on us. After all, persevering in faith, trusting and nurturing our faith, and living our faith is always our choice. My own answer as to whether the Son of Man will find faith on earth is, “Yes, Jesus most certainlywill.” In fact, I know he will not only find faith here in Valle Crucis, but an active faith that is indeed written on our hearts, and shown forth in our lives. It is a faith that time and again, makes a difference in us and in this community. And for that, friends, I say “Thanks be to God.” And by God’s grace, may each of us continue to grow in active faith and be transformed by it today and always. Amen.