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A sermon for the seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

This is Amy Laura typing.  I am so very grateful that The Rev. Dr. Kara N. Slade has agreed to allow me to post this sermon.  Her words continually help me to remember whose I am. 

 

The Rev. Dr. Kara N. Slade

All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Hamlet, NC

September 11, 2016

Proper 19, Year C RCL

1 Timothy 1:12-17, Luke 15:1-10

I preached slightly different versions of this sermon twice this week: once at a morning Eucharist at Duke Divinity School and then today, September 11, at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Hamlet, NC. The homiletic and pastoral challenge on this occasion was to note the anniversary of the 2001 attacks without participating in either sentimentality or nationalism. Ironically, the lectionary provided me with a tremendous gift. Fr. Stuart Hoke, the vicar of All Saints’, was a priest at Trinity, Wall Street in September 2001, and I was very aware he would have preached a very different sermon than this one. (In fact, he preached this morning at the 9/11 commemoration at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.) The lectionary readings opened the door for me to give the only sermon I could on this occasion, as someone who participated in the days and years following September 11, 2001 in a very different capacity.

The Epistle and Gospel readings this morning were:

1 Timothy 1:12-17

I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners– of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

Luke 15:1-10

All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, `Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, `Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

 

I speak to you in the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

My words for you this morning require a caveat – or maybe two. The first is that I wish I had 30 minutes to talk with you about these texts instead of the brief time I have, because I have a lot to say that won’t get said. The second is that in order to think about how to read the lessons we just heard, we may need to consider first how NOT to think about them.

In a seminary community like the one I work in, and I think in many churches too, it’s easy to hear today’s Gospel as a summons to heroic ministry. Yes, I could tell you to be like Jesus, to welcome sinners and eat with them, to go after the lost sheep with conviction and zeal. And that would be a fun sermon to preach – much more fun than this one. Telling people to be pastoral and welcoming is like crack for nice Episcopalians like me. And it’s certainly true that the notion of the imitation of Christ is a prominent feature in Anglican spiritual practice. But as a theologian, one of my constant concerns is not so much to tell people to be like Jesus as it is to point them – and myself – towards how much we need Jesus.

And that’s what I think these texts are ultimately telling us. They aren’t marching orders for ministry so much as they’re about what Rowan Williams called “the anarchic mercy of God,” the mercy that “ignores order, rank and merit.”(1) And that is the mercy offered to you today, even as it was offered to St. Paul. Even as it has been offered to me. Let me explain.

While I know it’s early in the morning for such things, I’m about to get very personal and very real for a minute. As we come to the fifteenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, I can’t help but read Paul’s words today with a shiver of recognition: “I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.” Because I, too, am all too familiar with violence – the kind of violence that sits behind a desk and acts at a bureaucratic distance.  I recognize far too much of myself in Robert MacNamara’s account of the firebombing of Tokyo that killed 100,000 civilians: “I was part of a mechanism that in a sense recommended it.”(2)

But I received mercy. I remember walking outside my office at Langley Air Force Base, looking up at the sky, and saying “My God, is this what my life is going to be?”

Now admittedly, God’s resounding “no” to that question involved five more years of harrowing experiences that I never want to repeat. But that, too, was a kind of mercy. The mercy that raises the dead and turns the chief of sinners into an apostle won’t do much for those who think they’ve got it all together. And that’s part of my story. That’s how I ended up in this pulpit.

I don’t know all of your stories. I don’t know what precisely has brought you to this place or to this point in your lives. Maybe sometimes you still wonder the same thing. What I do know is who has brought you here today. And I do know that for church people it can be much easier to make a propositional claim that the lost sheep and the lost coin matters – and much harder to know yourself first as that sheep, as that coin, as the one over whom heaven rejoices. As the one who stands in need of mercy.

As my favorite dead Danish philosopher says, it is a little mystery that it is better to give than to receive. The greater mystery is that it is far more difficult to receive than to give.(3)

That is where we are today, on this strange anniversary in our nation’s history and on this seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost. In his commentary on Romans, Karl Barth reminds us that the primary ethical action – the starting point of Christian life together – is repentance.(4)

And so it’s particularly fitting that we come to the end of the summer and begin the new school year, with all its new challenges and new opportunities, with repentance in mind. Each one of us has particular things to turn from, but the same particular One to turn to. Christ Jesus, the one who came into the world to save sinners, whose grace is overflowing, and who has appointed you – yes, you – to his service.  My brothers and sisters, your sins are forgiven. My sins are forgiven. That – and only that – is the condition of possibility for the work of ministry that is yours and mine.(5)

Remember that, especially when it seems like everyone but you has it all together, when you just aren’t sure you can get everything done, when you wonder yet again why you came here. And while I can’t answer that question for you, I can point you along the way, as T.S. Eliot did in Little Gidding:

What you thought you came for Is only a shell, a husk of meaning  From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled  If at all. Either you had no purpose  Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured  And is altered in fulfilment. There are other places  Which also are the world’s end, some at the sea jaws,  Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city–  But this is the nearest, in place and time,  Now and in England.

If you came this way,  Taking any route, starting from anywhere, At any time or at any season,  It would always be the same: you would have to put off  Sense and notion. You are not here to verify, Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity  Or carry report. You are here to kneel  Where prayer has been valid.(6)

Welcome – or welcome back – to this place that is also the world’s end. Here, prayer has been, and is, valid. Here is the free and difficult gift of grace. Can you receive it?

 

(1) Rowan Williams, The Wound of Knowledge (Cowley, 1991), 17.

 

(2) This quotation appears in The Fog of War, a 2003 documentary by Errol Morris that I recommend very highly.

 

(3) See Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, Problema III.

 

(4) See Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, in the commentary on Romans 12 entitled “The Problem of Ethics.”

 

(5) I remain grateful to Amy Laura Hall for first saying a variation on this to me at my ordination to the priesthood.

 

(6) T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets, online version at http://www.coldbacon.com/poems/fq.html.

The Naked Emperor and Labor Unions

This essay originally appeared in the September 4, 2016 (Labor Day Weekend) edition of the Durham Herald-Sun

I have been working for two years on a project to encourage people of faith to talk about labor unions on Labor Day weekend. The most radical thing I wrote about our effort is this:  “You are the very best person to compose a prayer or story for your faith community.”  I was brought up in a faith community (Methodist) that is at our best when we stay with a set of practices for worship.  When it comes to matters of conscience, however, people should formulate their own words and thoughts.

Praying, like dancing, is a gift best lived when you do not care who is watching.

Some friends have complimented me for sharing my time to “advocate for workers.” I continue to explain that I am a worker too, and that I am volunteering my gut and brain to work with the AFL-CIO because I think everyone who works needs labor unions.  I teach, and I have written before on why teachers need labor unions.  I am also a writer, and I want to explain here, in writing, why people who write for a living need labor unions.

Writers need labor unions like dancers need labor unions.  Writers need to be free to write or dance like Fred Astaire and not be pressured to write or dance like Ginger Rogers.  Robert Thaves noted that Ginger Rogers had to do everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards, and in high heels.  I am not downplaying the brilliance of Ginger Rogers.  The point is that Ginger Rogers had to follow Fred Astaire’s lead, and look as free as possible, while following his lead.  She had to dance backwards, following a leader, while in high-heels.  Writers need the freedom to write forward, seeking our own best footing.

Without labor unions, writers can become liars for-hire.

Two writers who wrote against lying are Augustine of Hippo and Immanuel Kant. If I were to give a bumper sticker version of their insight it would be this:  the gift of language is for discovering truthfulness together, so, using words to lie to one another is to make our lives into nonsense.

To believe that language is a gift that allows us to discover things together, and to consider truth together, does not mean we are forbidden to use words to tell jokes, make up fanciful stories, or come up with zany combinations of words that allow for play, irony, sarcasm, or poetry.  (I often use a Sesame Street vaudeville routine “Kermit the Frog here,” and then say something true about a fairy tale being told in the media.)

kermit

But, to believe that words are a gift for truth does mean that, if I use my words intentionally to mislead people, it will eventually make my soul sick.  Or, put differently, if I use my gift of words primarily to please someone who is paying me to write, then my sense of the world will wither.  Humans are creatures who best live together when not primarily trying to deceive one another or to please someone who pays us to be well-versed liars.

I write in Christian Ethics.  If there is a field where someone ought to feel free from the pressure to dance backwards in high heels, it should be someone writing from their own faith, about “ethics.”  But scholars from many disciplines can testify to the pressure at their institutions to stay away from certain questions, to shy away from subjects, and to fudge the truth as they see it if a student asks them a tricky question.  This is different than “knowing-one’s-audience.”  Understanding what words a group of readers will or will not be able to hear is different than trying to please a funder.  When considering my “audience,” I should not have in mind a foundation or a corporation . . . or my institution’s development office.

It did not serve Mr. Inadvertently Naked Emperor well to surround himself with people who were afraid to use their words for truth.  Journalists, scholars — writers of every kind — help people from being fools.  At our best, writers help us to see the truth we know when we look in the mirror, keeping us from lying to ourselves about ourselves.  Writers are at our best when we are neither biting our tongues nor speaking through a forked one.

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