A Sermon for the Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost

The Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest
Abilene, Texas
Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost + Proper 25C
First Lesson: Joel 2:23-32
Psalm 65
Second Lesson: II Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Gospel: Luke 18:9-14

✠ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Campaign 2016 DebateFor several months now, we’ve been in the midst of a very heated and often divisive conversation about who is most fit to lead our country as the next president. Some may argue that it’s the most controversial election cycle that our country has ever seen, and if you’ve been watching the debates, you’d probably agree with that assessment.

For months, the media has been filled with news stories concerning the latest scandals, and time and again, we’ve witnessed campaign rallies turn into spectacles of protest and outrage. Both of the leading candidates for president have clearly expressed their contempt for one another, and what’s worse is that this contempt has spread to their supporters as well. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been guilty of this as I’m sure so many of us have.

It’s hard to avoid when we see it at every turn – when our favorite television programs are interrupted by advertisements of candidates attacking each other and our social media news feeds are filled with hateful comments directed toward the candidates and those who support them.

Now, some of us may think that it’s inappropriate to discuss politics in church, especially from the pulpit, and if you fall into this category, I completely understand your concern. Politics is something that’s very personal. The choices that we make are matters of conscience. They affect our lives as individuals and the lives of those we care about, and when we’re preparing to vote in a major election – especially one that will influence the direction of our country for the next several years – we want to make sure that we get it right. We want to choose the person that we think will do the best job possible, the person who will care for us and for the well being of our families. So, I understand how discussing politics in church may seem inappropriate and make us feel uncomfortable.

Yes, politics is personal, but I don’t think that should prevent us from being able to talk about how political decisions affect the world that God has created and how they affect our lives as Christians. No matter who we decide to vote for in this election, we are still followers of Jesus – the one who calls us to respect the dignity of every human being and the one who calls us to love one another, even those with whom we disagree. An election does not exempt us from our baptismal vows. When we come to church on Sunday mornings, we bring with us the cares and concerns of the world around us so that we may pray for peace and reconciliation and so that God may empower us to be instruments of his love and mercy when we depart from this place.

I made a commitment a long time ago to never discuss partisan politics in the pulpit, and I intend to live up to that commitment today and for as long as I have the privilege of serving as a priest. No preacher has the right to try to influence his or her congregation to vote for a particular candidate or political party.

However, I believe that there are some things that simply must be talked about, and when I read today’s lesson from the Gospel of Luke, I decided that it was time to talk about the election and specifically, how it has affected us and the way that we’ve been treating our brothers and sisters.

At the beginning of our Gospel lesson for today, the author writes, “Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” From the very beginning, the author of Luke’s Gospel wants his audience to know that this parable of Jesus is intended for those who think so highly of themselves – those who are convinced that they have all the right answers – that they are unable to see past their own arrogance and treat others with the respect that they deserve. In the story, there are two men who go up to the temple to pray. One is a Pharisee, a religious leader who, in the time of Jesus, would’ve been regarded as one of the most respected and pious members of the local community. The other is a tax collector who, historically, would’ve been loathed and rejected by the community. In an ironic twist, Jesus’ parable turns the tables. The Pharisee is regarded as arrogant, relying on himself and his own sense of righteousness rather than trusting in God while the tax collector is presented as the exact opposite – a model of humility, a sinner in desperate need of God’s forgiveness. At the conclusion, Jesus is very clear about which of the two men is justified. He explains that it’s people like the tax collector, people who lower themselves and put their trust in God, who will be lifted up.

In our current situation, it’s so tempting for us to take on the role of the Pharisee, to judge and condemn other people because we have different opinions or we think that one side is right and the other side is wrong. Like the Pharisee, it’s so tempting for us to say, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people, like those who support this candidate…or that candidate.” The Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector teaches us that arrogance and self-righteousness lead to contempt of the other. When we think that we have all the answers, it’s easy to dismiss and reject those who don’t share our opinions. That’s why it’s so important for us to remember who we are in all of this and to trust that only the love of God, the love that we’re called to share with all people, can truly sustain us and bring us into everlasting life. As we heard earlier in our lesson from the prophet Joel, “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

We have a lot of work to do going forward, and I’m not just talking about our country as a whole. I’m also talking about us as individuals. I’m talking about our relationships with God and one another. After November 8th, the election will be over, but there will still be a lot of anger and frustration, a lot of mixed emotions and hurt feelings.

My friends, now is the time to look deep within our selves and to re-connect with what makes us the beloved of God. Now is the time to ask for God’s forgiveness and to ask for the healing power of God to make us whole. We can’t control the way that other people express their opinions, but we can control the way that we express ours. We can’t rely on our own strength or the strength of other people, but we can rely on the wisdom of God to lead us and guide us into all truth. The American poet, Wendell Berry, once wrote a poem entitled “The Wild Geese,” a poem that, in my mind, speaks to this idea that we aren’t the ones in control of what happens around us or above us. Only God is in control. Only God is able provide us with what we truly need. In the last lines of his poem, Berry writes, “And we pray, not for new earth or heaven, but to be quiet in heart, and in eye clear. What we need is here.”

Look around and you’ll see. What we need is not a new earth or a new heaven. God has already given us everything that we need. What we need is here. Amen.

Click here to hear an audio recording of the sermon.

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