Monday, July 11, 2016

God, guidance, and gumption

My blog is hosting this sermon today because I think we all need it. 
A Sermon preached at St. Michael and All Angels’ Church, Cuernavaca, Morelos, 10 July 2016,
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

by the Rev. Bruce Coggin

Boy! Today’s collect is really a one-size-fits-all unit, isn’t it? Do you remember what you said Amen to a few minutes ago? We asked God to hear us when we pray, to help us know and understand what we ought to do, and then for the grace and power to do it. What else do we need? God, show us what you want us to do and give us the power to do it. Isn’t that a prayer anybody in any religion could say Amen to? Though I might want to add a word. My friend Katie Sherrod—she’s the wife of Fr. Pool who was rector here years ago—wrote a book about the gutsy women who helped build Fort Worth. She called it Grace & Gumption. You look gumption up and you get synonyms like initiative, courage, resourcefulness, guts. I like that because it takes us beyond knowing and believing and accepting God’s purpose for us and on down the road to doing something about it. It’s a prayer we should always have at the center of our lives in God, because . . . y’know? . . . at times it’s pretty hard to figure out what’s going on, much less how we should act, and I don’t know about you, but for me this past week has been a real doozy. If you’ve been watching the news, you know what I mean. I need help figuring out how to behave in the face of events today, and I expect living that out will require considerable gumption.

Let’s look at the lessons. We’ve been following the Old Testament prophets the past few weeks, and we’ve dealt with Elijah and Elisha, a couple of pretty spooky guys, dangerous at times, always elusive and shifty, either chopping up livestock and Baal prophets or running for their lives. Today we meet a new kind of prophet, Amos, and he wrote his inspirations down. We have his word for it, not a second hand account, and that’s new. (Let me stop here and say something about Old Testament prophets and prophecy per se. Prophets are not crystal ball gazers who fall into a trance and predict the future. Rather they are men who see the present so intensely and perceptively that the shape of the future becomes apparent. They look at current events and say, “You keep this kind of madness up, and this is what’s going to come of it.” It’s what any of us can do and in fact do a lot of the time; but the Old Testament prophets did it in circumstances which made it mortally dangerous. They spoke truth to the power structure of their time; it got them all killed.) So back to Amos. Amos lived in what looked like good times. Both the north (Israel) and the south (Judah) were at peace, prosperous, lots of trade, plenty of money floating around. In Israel King Jeroboam II was fat and happy and in cahoots with the seriously corrupt religious establishment. Right. Any time you see the state and the church getting chummy, skeet for the woodshed, run for the hills, the dam has bust. A theocracy is about the most dangerous thing going, because usually it means that the state has the church bought and sold. Whatever the state does is God’s will. After all, God has been on the side of every army that ever went to war, which must have been particularly poignant in the American Revolution in places like Virginia where both armies were Anglican! And that was the situation Amos lived in. The state tolerated a good bit of non-Yahweh religion, “the high places of Isaac,” Baal shrines; and the church winked while the rich squeezed the poor to death. Bad stuff. And you notice also that when the king tells him to go prophesy somewhere else, he right quick distances himself from that: “I’m not a prophet, not part of that crowd. I’m a farmer.” (I learned, by the way, something about that “dresser of sycamore trees” bit. Evidently there’s a sycamore in that part of the world that bears figs. Did anybody know that? I didn’t.) Well anyhoo, Amos’ world is going to Hell by the short road, and he has the gumption to call it out—social injustice, religious hypocrisy, moral turpitude, all of it. “God,” says Amos, “is going to drop a plumb line on Israel and straighten it out, just like we use a plumb line to build a straight wall. You are acting like Hell, and it’s going to be Hell to pay.”

Well, I’ve got to ask, does that sound anything like today? Just look around us. It’s not all in the U.S. England just took a vote to do something pretty far-reaching, and now they’re not at all sure they’re happy about it, everybody running for cover. And in the rest of Europe, people are choosing up sides. Germany’s getting antsy about immigrants, France is one step away from a pogrom. In the United States, we see police shooting black men one day and a black man shooting police the next, and leaders of both sides of the argument are talking right past each other. One side says we have to have stronger gun laws; the other side says we have to have stricter law enforcement; the people in the middle don’t know which way to turn. It’s all through what we call Western Culture, Europe and the Americas, and Mexico is by no means exempt. You know the old saying, Ay México, tan lejos de diós y tan cerca a los Estados Unidos! What happens in the país vecino al norte is going to wash over into Mexico. And vice versa. We’re all in the same tub, and it’s a slop bucket. And how do our leaders respond? I get sick of hearing people say, “Well, moments like this bring us together.” Really? I don’t see that. I see us being shredded. And is that the only way we can be brought together, in fear and hatred of an enemy? Is that the best we have? I want to yell when somebody asks for “a moment of silence.” A moment of silence indeed. What we need is forty days of fasting and prayer, though I don’t think anybody will call for that. Was it ever any better? Somehow I kind of think so. When I was a kid, things seemed more civil. Not everybody was an enemy. My Grandmother Yeager’s highest praise was to call us good citizens. But somewhere along the line, about fifty years ago or so I remember out of almost nowhere a torrent of the literature of self-affirmation flooding the bookstores, all about how wonderful we all are, how we can do anything we want (a dangerous lie), how we must assert ourselves. Lord, I believe in giving children a good self-image and having one for ourselves, but not that bunch of self-absorption. I remember when I came back to Texas after ten years in Mexico, when I watched television with my mother all I saw were ads for drugs. “Does your eyelid twitch sometimes. You may have Twitchy Eyelid Syndrome. TES! Ask your doctor if you’re ready for Lidstill.” And that’s gotten worse. Or ads about managing wealth, that in a country where about half the population lives right at the poverty line. Drugs and money. And today it’s all about “getting the service you deserve,” “taking control,” “earning points or miles or whatever.” It’s sickening. And the saddest part is, we swill it all up like hogs at a trough. When do we hear about giving and caring for each other? Every now and then somebody talks about “giving back,” but that’s usually the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table. Thank God for David Brooks. I don’t know how many of you know him. He’s a syndicated columnist, appears in the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. He’s Jewish, but I think if you scratch him you find a man on the verge of conversion to Christianity, quotes St. John and other Christian writers all the time. The other day he did an article on altruism, behavior that helps others, benefits others with no expectation of reward. He reported studies showing that small children, two-year-olds say, who see someone drop a clothes pin will automatically pick it up and try to give it back. Natural response. Help others. But if they are rewarded, the next time that happens, they’ll be less apt to help, because they’ve learned to ask What’s in it for me? His point was that altruism seems to be part of our nature until we teach ourselves to be ulterior. I’ve said often about myself, there’s not an altruistic bone in my body; I’m the most ulterior person I know. Where did I learn that? Where do we all learn to expect the worst from ourselves? Well, that’s enough harangue, but I think it’s pretty clear we are in trouble, serious trouble, and life is about to . . . When my Grandmother Yeager was a child, she said she and her sibs liked to shuck corn by pulling it through a knothole in a plank, just skins the husk right off. Well, life is about to jerk us through a knothole. Where is help? Dear God, show us what to do!

What blessèd irony that today’s gospel is Luke’s parable of the Good Samaritan, an epiphanic coincidence. What’s the antidote to all that poison we just choked on? Take care of each other. Simple as that. Stop seeing each other as adversaries or as prey but rather as partners, brothers and sisters, neighbors. You know the story by heart. A pesky lawyer is chopping logic with Jesus, always a losing proposition, asks who is in fact his neighbor. Then comes the story. A fellow falls among thieves on the road, gets knocked in the head, robbed, thrown in the barrow ditch, and left for dead. Along comes a priest on his way to church, and God knows he doesn’t want to get involved and messed up and impure, so he passes by on the other side. Next a Levite, the reader and acolyte, same story, he passes by on the other side. And then a low down, good for nothin’, heretical, Not One Of Us Samaritan, comes by and lo and behold goes right over to the bloody wretch, gives him First Aid, puts him in the back of his CRV, drives him to the Holiday Inn, checks him in, leaves his American Express card at the desk, says he’ll pick and the tab up next time he comes that way. Jesus then extorts the right answer from his questioner, and says, “Go and do thou likewise.” How plain can it be? And yet how do we in fact usually treat each other? I’ve told you this story before, but it fits. One Sunday morning at home I was on my way to Trinity Church to say Mass, a cold morning, windy, spitting rain. I was driving across a long bridge over the Trinity River and spotted an old man, older than me, shuffling along under a backpack about the size of my car, having a hard time in the wind. What should I have done? Yes, pull over, ask if I could give him a lift anywhere. But no, this priest had places to go and things to do, and I passed by on the other side. I know all the reasons why that was the sensible thing to do, and I’m not going to commit hara kiri over it; but it is so typical of the way we react to people in distress, don’t want to get involved, just slither by on the other side. It’s in our DNA somehow, and we’re not going to improve much. But the point is blindingly clear, and without further elaboration, I commend the matter to your conscience. We all need to re-program.

Mercy, where’s the sweet gospel this morning? Let’s turn to Paul and today’s lesson from Colossians. You’ve heard me say that reading Paul is often like listening to Stravinsky, everybody against everybody, especially when he’s trying to explain things. Well, not this morning. How many of you remember Amadeus? Do you remember scene when Salieri, Mozart’s rival, finds a manuscript of a composition not yet performed, just on paper in Mozart’s own hand? He imagines the music, and the most beatific look comes over his face. He can hardly speak. He chokes out, “It was like hearing the voice of God.” Well, that’s what the lesson sounds like this morning, the voice of God speaking love to his children. “I have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus . . . the faith of the gospel you have heard . . . how it and you are bearing fruit . . . how you understand my grace . . . I want you filled with knowledge of my will in wisdom and understanding . . . leading lives worthy of me, bearing fruit in good works . . . being strong so you can live through anything . . . in the Kingdom of my Son who has given you forgiveness for all your sins.” Wow. That’s the way God sees his children, the way God sees us here this morning, his children gathered to learn from him what he gives us and what he hopes for us, as well as the grace and strength and gumption to live out his expectation that we live up to Jesus’ teaching in that parable with each other and with every other battered soul our Father in Heaven puts across our path. You see, God believes in us. It’s up to us to see that, believe it, and live accordingly. What could be sweeter than that?

I see three lessons for us this morning. First, we are in trouble. Oh, we’ve always been in trouble, but today, right now, the walls seem to be closing in. How are we to act as baptized people? I heard someone say this week, “Oh, we live in paradise here in Cuernavaca. None of this touches me. I just go inside and close the door, and it all goes away.” That’s a delusion. Opting out is not an option, not for me anyway. This is the nest we’ve made for ourselves, and it’s ours to clean up. I can’t do it all, to be sure, but nobody but I can do my part, so I’m resolved to try. I hope you will too. Second, the solution is right in front of us: take care of each other. I can’t take care of every battered soul, but I can at least offer a lift to those I find on the same bridge with me. I hope you will too. Third, I know what God wants of me. It’s in today’s gospel lesson. I just need somehow to open up so God can give me the gumption to go and do likewise. I hope you will too.