Sermon by the Rev. Robert Morrison, St. Alban's, Albany, OR for Proper 28, 25th Pentecost.
“If we don't do it, there's no one else who will.” What a challenge that sentence brings to us all! What great encouragement, that someone will be there for whatever eventuality, but especially in time of need. Yet how disappointing – that there’s the possibility that no one else may be there!
Sometimes life can feel lonely and stressful. Sometimes, whatever it is we have to do, sometimes it DOES feel that no one else is paying attention or caring. Yet, as we reflected last week on all God’s Saints, somehow there nearly always seems to be at least one person who’s willing to step in and do whatever it takes for a situation to be celebrated, or defused, or brought to completion.
Actually, that opening sentence comes from a source which I find a little surprising. It was Cynthia Deitle speaking. She’s the unit chief for the FBI’s civil rights program, and she was talking about why enforcing hate crime laws is a priority. The whole quote is, “We are here to help people who have been the victim of an atrocious crime, whether it's police brutality or a church arson. If we don't do it, there's no one else who will.” 1
It’s terrible to be cynical, but I have to admit surprise at the fact that a Government official from a law enforcement agency which some might consider occasionally less than immediate or compassionate – that THAT is the person and the agency which offers such a reassuring comment. After all, we’re much more inclined to laugh at the joke, “Hello. I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help you.”!
Things may indeed be turning around if the official FBI position shows such a sign of hope. What remains scary, though, is the fact that it’s still true that if you and I as individuals – if the BAC – if this congregation – doesn’t do anything, who will?
Maybe that’s what sickened me when I read, last Monday, about “a brawl outside a house party. A woman hit a man, and the man refused to strike back, saying he wouldn't hit a girl. Instead, he vowed to attack the next male who walked by, even if that person was a random stranger.
“That's when 18-year-old Bobby Tillman happened to approach a group of four partygoers. Authorities said they swiftly stomped, kicked and punched him to death while dozens of bystanders watched.
“‘He had nothing to do with anything,’ said Maj. Tommy Wheeler of the Douglas County Sheriff's Office. ‘They just decided he’s the one. And they killed him.’” 2
These are supposed to be human beings! What made it worse in my mind was that the day before I’d seen and smiled at a photo of macaques in Japan. “Huddled for warmth,” read the caption, “macaques press their bodies into a vast ball of fur. The monkeys’ relaxed social hierarchy allows high- and low-ranking individuals to share the same tight space.” 3
What is it that allows and motivates monkeys in Shodo Shima to act in such a way that they don’t press any sort of seniority or privilege so that all can not only survive but benefit; what is it that motivates these monkeys that eludes eighteen-year-old human beings in Georgia?
This becomes all the more striking when you consider that last verse from the first reading. YES, it looks far more likely that the wolf and the lamb will eat and lie down together than humans can develop and ensure compassion, and justice, and mercy.
Yet we still cling to hope. That’s what we’re about as followers of Jesus. We believe that things DO change, however slowly. We believe that, somehow “It gets better”, no matter how horrendously some treat others.
God WILL make all things new. We’re so impatient, though. We want the new NOW!
The seventeenth-century Puritan theologian, John Owen wrote that “God could, if I may so say, more easily have made a new world of innocent creatures, and have governed them by the old covenant, than have established this new one for the salvation of poor sinners; but then, where had been the glory of forgiveness? It could never have been known that there was forgiveness with Him. The old covenant could not have been preserved and sinners pardoned. Wherefore, God chose to leave the covenant than sinners unrelieved, than grace unexalted and pardon unexercised...” 4
This talks about our seeming insatiability for instant gratification and everything shiny, and it can make us think our own personal needs and agendas should come first. But that’s not the way it should be. God’s agenda comes first – and that CAN annoy us. So much so that when our way isn’t followed, when we have to step back to let another person exercise her gifts, even when we risk some form of abuse, we need to remember that God’s goal is for the entirety of creation to be renewed. Not just wolves, not just lambs, not just cattle – not just human beings, but everything!
But how we chafe at the bit when we don’t find our own desires met. An Op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times put it succinctly with its headline: “‘America the timorous.’” Then it went on, “Our self-image is one of bold action. In reality, Americans resist change, pressing the government to act boldly only when a national calamity forces it upon us.” 5
This isn’t an indictment of us alone, however. I think it’s human nature to resist change, no matter what the promised outcome. It’s human nature to shrink back when something new or unusual surfaces. It’s human nature to become defensive when we feel threatened. But the point of Jesus’ conversation is that, actually, this is NOT what human nature is supposed to be like. Even if everyone else around us seems to be losing his or head and panicking or being greedy, or being violent, Jesus encourages us to hold on to the hope which can never be taken away from us, no matter how disturbed we may be.
More than that, though. Because the hope and the promise of the renewal of everything, we must be willing to stand with the FBI unit chief. We have to stand with others until they can trust enough to know that they’ll be renewed as well as us.
What would have happened if even one more person had stood beside Bobby Tillman? It’s possible that the savagery would have continued, but at least Bobby would have known that he wasn’t alone, and would never be alone.
Jesus wasn’t kidding when He spoke of wars, and suspicion, and fear. He Himself was subjected to so much of it that He knew what can happen to us. It filled Him with such sadness to see some people struggling to conform to society, not matter what was happening; struggling to maintain the status quo or better in their own personal lives while doing very little struggling to encourage and support others that they might find that special someone who shines so much hope-filled love and light into their lives.
THAT’S what the message of hope is all about. THAT is what it means to be renewed. And we need to remind ourselves of this again and again. Jesus calls us to be a people of risk-taking. Jesus calls us to not only SAY we believe. Jesus wants us to DO what we believe. As is obvious – to believe is an active verb, not a passive noun.
Often it seems that the easiest way to deal with conflicting views, or difficult situations, or controversial decisions is to behave in an attitude of anxiety or fear. That’s where Neil Gabler, the historian, journalist and author of the LA Times OP-Ed article seems to perceive many in this country right now.
“Instead of bold adventurers confronting our demons,” he concluded, “we are a nation of the frightened, hoping to turn back the clock and railing against the only tool that can really help us: action.”
I agree. Action is necessary. But I have to define it by saying that your actions and my actions are to be built on unshakable faith, and hope, and love.
This where Paul’s words seem to hit home so strongly on point today. We’re tired of seeing those headlines about people suffering; about natural disasters; about selfish and stupid behaviour that obliterates human kindness for whatever reason. The readings speak to us in our tiredness and remind us that we CAN be cheerful in the face of stress. So the writer to the Thessalonians begs us all “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers (or anyone else) who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. For (we all) know how (we) ought to imitate (the apostles);” The apostles “worked night and day …. in order to give (us) an example to imitate. … Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.”
We may not have been aware of it, but we were called here this morning to hear God talking to us about having hope, of not being overwhelmed by people talking about how much destruction there is in our society. We have been brought here to have our life and witness affirmed. You and I have been brought here so that we can stand firm with others. The New Jerusalem is not yet here – it IS coming, of that we can be sure. But there’s work to be done, and Cynthia Deitle’s comment still rings in my ears. Let me change it a little to end with a question about mission and evangelism, and everything else about our lives as Christians. If we don't do it, (who) else who will?
1 Cynthia M. Deitle, unit chief for the FBI's civil rights program, on why enforcing hate crime laws is a priority. (Source:Washington Post)
2 “Brawlers beat random stranger to death in Georgia” By GREG BLUESTEIN Associated Press Monday, November 8, 2010 5:17 PM EST
4 John Owen (1616-1683), An Exposition upon Psalm CXXX , in Works of John Owen, v. VI, New York: R.Carter amp Bros., 1851, p. 475 See the book at http://cqod.com/r/rs527
5 “‘America the timorous’ Our self-image is one of bold action. In reality, Americans resist change, pressing the government to act boldly only when a national calamity forces it upon us.” By Neal Gabler 7:00 AM PDT, October 25, 2010 http://link.latimes.com/r/NAT6JL/GBTKX/S1PM6R/UHZZ8/2OI7JH/OS/h