[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/290570382″ params=”auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true” width=”100%” height=”450″ iframe=”true” /]
Sermon from the Rev. Joe Hensley, rector, St. George’s Episcopal Church
Fredericksburg, VA | The twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, October 23, 2016
Sermon October 23, 2016 Proper 25 Year C The Rev. Joe Hensley
The prophet Joel writes this word from God to God’s people: “I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army which I sent against you. You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God.” This word from the Lord promises a healing in the aftermath of hurt. After breaking comes re-making. After the crisis comes a re-creating. We pray with hope for God’s grace. O God be merciful to us, for we long for you to make us whole again. We long to be made whole again.
The repayment about which Joel speaks is more than just a payback. God is promising a total restoration after a time of great suffering and upheaval. Let’s take a moment to remember the context. The prophet Joel, like many of the Old Testament prophets, addresses God’s chosen people who have been unfaithful to God. The word of the Lord which Joel brings is similar to Jeremiah, whom we also have been hearing recently in our lectionary. This word comes to a people who forgot the grace of the one true God and went after false gods. They sought to make political and family alliances through worshipping the gods of their neighbors. They sought to secure their own fortunes by appealing to fickle gods whose power seemed to control rain and harvest. God responds to the infidelity of God’s people by sending invading empires with armies, like a swarm of locusts, to overcome and humble God’s people. Then God sends prophets with a message, “repent and return to the living God who gives you life. If you people repent, if you truly turn back to God, you will have a full restoration, a full repayment of all you have lost.” The Hebrew word for re-pay comes from the word for peace, “shalom.” What God is promising is to make the people whole again, at peace, complete. Sometimes we talk in a similar way when someone has lost some money, we look for a way to “make them whole” again. After God’s people have been through centuries of struggle and loss due to their own greed and stubbornness, God not only promises to take them back. God promises to make God’s repentant people whole. This is phenomenal!
We may question whether God really had to allow foreign armies to attack God’s people in order to turn their hearts. Making sense of God’s methods is another sermon for another day. For today, what I want us to focus on is the fact that God does not waste any opportunity to help God’s people heal. God wants to make us whole, and God will use every possible tool to do it, even our wounds, even our disasters.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy that struck the northeast four years ago this week, I heard about an Episcopal bishop who said this to some other bishops when they asked how it was going. He said something like, “God never wastes a crisis.” In other words, when things seem at their worst, God can use even those times to turn us to our best. God worked in the midst of the hardship of the storm to bring people together. I do not believe that God causes the disasters we face, but I do believe God can use every disaster we face. And on the other side of calamity, God is waiting to say again to us: “I will make you whole again. The plentiful harvest is coming. You will be put to shame no longer.
It’s a tough time in our country right now as we head toward a presidential election that feels like a disaster in the making. Many of us are wondering how we got here. How did we become so divided? How did our political process become so mean-spirited? Can we make it through this election without things totally falling apart? Even when we do make it through the election, how will we find healing for the painful wounds that are bleeding afresh?
We cannot see the whole picture, but I believe that God never wastes a crisis, and neither should we. For many of us the temptation is to put our heads down and hope that it blows over soon. Maybe we will wake up on November 9 and just be able to go about life again without so much rancor and incivility. Yet, we all know that the outcome of the election is not going to heal our national wounds, wounds that have been festering for a long time. As the church, the Good News we can share is that God has always been ready to help people become whole again. God has always been ready to take away the shame from those who will admit their need for grace. God is always in the process of a new creation that may turn the old world upside down but which can bring us to a healing place. This is the cry of the tax collector in the parable Jesus tells in the Gospel today, “O God be merciful to me, a sinner!” This is a cry for healing, for new creation, to be made whole again.
How will we be made whole? How will we know the healing peace, the sense of fulfillment that God offers to those who will ask for it deep in their hearts? The prophet Joel today, also describes signs of the end times, signs of the great transformation that God will accomplish. One of the signs is that God will pour out God’s spirit upon all flesh, upon men and women, young and old, upon even those at the very bottom of society’s pecking order. In Joel’s context, such an outpouring of God’s spirit was unheard of. In the history of God’s people, only a chosen few had received the gift of prophecy, of visions, of dreams. But as God transforms the world, the visions and prophesies of God will be given to many (which is kind of frightening!). When Jesus came, he said it would not be long before those end times and that great transformation. His followers waited a few years, then a few decades, and we have not been waiting centuries. When will it happen? I believe the end times have been with us for a long time. God is in a process of transforming the world, even now. It is not happening all at once. And we all have a part to offer in the vision that God has for us. How will God make us whole? By inviting us to listen deeply to each other, to bear witness to the vision of God that is being poured out upon all flesh. Our sons and our daughters will prophesy. Our old men and women will dream dreams and our young men and women will see visions. Even on those that the world defines as insignificant, God will pour out the Spirit as a sign of a new creation. Do you know what that means? It means God is pouring out the Spirit upon the person who votes differently than me in the election! We will have to listen. How will God make us whole? Deep listening. By showing us that our many broken parts are all part of the bigger picture. By helping us learn to value and listen to each other’s limited vision. We will have to listen deeply, because what we hear on the surface is often what causes division.
This idea of many parts, many visions coming together as one is behind the theme of our stewardship campaign this year: “Giving as One and Growing as One.” As we lift up our pledges, our promises to give money, we are not simply conducting a fundraising campaign. We are celebrating God’s generosity and God’s frugality. God gives us everything, and God wastes nothing. God will use the humble gifts of each one of us so that we can give this one whole parish to the world on behalf of God as a gift. We grow together so that each member and each person who walks through the door with an open heart can have a community where gifts can be shared. God can use every gift that we offer to help make the world whole. We gather our gifts in order to have a place to bring even our wounds, to ask God to use them as an occasion for healing. God will waste nothing. We gather our gifts in order to make a place to bring our failures, personal or political, because God will not waste any crisis. We gather our gifts so that in the midst of our nightmares, we can dream the dreams of God. We gather our gifts and offer everything in praise to God. Praise to God in our stinginess as we cry for generosity. Praise to God in our blindness as we cry for vision. Praise to God in our crises as we cry for peace. Praise to God with our broken parts as we cry to be made whole.