These are hard times
SERMON: 4 Lent B 3 11 18
Num21:4-9; Ps107:1-3,17-22; Eph2:1-10; Jn3:14-21
How many of you remember President Ronald Reagan? His silky voice? His perpetual cheer? His indifference to facts, in that respect kind of like the guy we've got now? He's back. At least a recognizable facsimile of his voice is back in the form of his son, Ron Reagan. Ron Reagan has been on TV lately on behalf of an organization of atheists and agnostics, fretting about the intrusion of religion into politics and, for that matter, everyday life.
Personally I agree with him. I think Ron Reagan is a smart guy. I've heard him comment on progressive topics and I have agreed with him. I share his concern that people who think they have all the answers thanks to their faith are trying to impose those answers on others. That irks me. I don't think that's the way God wants us to evangelize.
But what I love about the TV commercial I saw is that after making a pretty good case for people sending his organization money, Ron Reagan signs off with a smile and a friendly nod, "This is Ron Reagan, atheist, not afraid to burn in hell."
In a short commercial -- 30 seconds I think -- Ron Reagan demonstrates something that I think a lot of churches and other religions miss: the idea of an angry and punishing God doesn't work; we need incentives, not threats. I'm not afraid to burn in hell, either. But I believe in God and I believe in Jesus because by getting to know them I have found a way of life that provides me with everything I need. It helps me be a good person and helps me become a better person. It shows me how to live with those I love and how to treat those I encounter whom I don't even know. My faith invites and encourages me to consider my choices, preferably before I act on my decisions, so I can seek to align my schemes with what I understand to be the will of God. That is, love God and love my neighbor. It's not complicated and it's not that difficult. But when I fail to do the very best, even when I slack off completely, I don't think the prospect of hell necessarily looms larger.
Truth be told, my sense of God and God's son Jesus is that they are pleased when I or anyone else makes the right decision. It is affirming the teaching and the manner of living that Christ brought into the world, so I get a sense of holy endorsement when I choose properly. Frankly I don't think God and Jesus are that concerned about misbehavior. Maybe because, like me, they've decided to concentrate on the positive.
You wouldn't know it from today's readings. So I am not going to dwell on them. What I would like to dwell on is the Great Litany which we prayed at the beginning of today's service. And I want to tie it into an immediate problem for you and for me and for our community. Something to consider as a Lenten discipline.
I'm going to pick out a handful of the things we prayed for in the Great Litany. We prayed to be delivered from "blindness of heart, pride, vainglory, hypocrisy, envy, hatred, malice and want of charity." We prayed to be delivered from "inordinate and sinful affections and from all the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil, false doctrine, heresy, and schism; from hardness of heart, and contempt of thy Word and commandment, from lightning and tempest; from earthquake, fire, and flood; from plague, pestilence, and famine, oppression, conspiracy, and rebellion; from violence, battle, and murder; and from dying suddenly and unprepared."
Should I stop here or go on?
Later in this service we will pray and commission the wardens, vestry and committee chairs of this parish. To complement that we earlier prayed that God might "rule and govern thy holy Church Universal in the right way." Later we will pray for God to guide our parish leaders in this way. We prayed that "all might hear and receive thy Word, and to bring forth the fruits of the Spirit," and for God "to bring into the way of truth all such as have erred, and are deceived." I presume that includes us when we qualify as erring or deceived. We asked God to show pity on "all prisoners and captives, the homeless and the hungry, and all who are desolate and oppressed." Then we asked God "to inspire us ... to do the work which thou givest us to do with singleness of heart as thy servants, and for the common good."
Finally we prayed to God to "visit the lonely; to strengthen all who suffer in mind, body, and spirit; and to comfort with thy presence those who are failing and infirm," and "to support, help, and comfort all who are in danger, necessity, and tribulation."
Those things we prayed for remind us we want God to forgive us and to take care of some things that we think God alone can handle. Then we are reminded by our conscience, or maybe by this sermon, that we are the Body of Christ in the world at this time. If someone's going to do the work of God, it's going to be you or me or some other faithful person similarly motivated.
I mention this because when we pray for forgiveness and ask God to help others we need to be really clear about who we're talking about helping and just what we expect God to do. Do we expect God to help people in our community more than we ourselves are willing to help them? We prayed earlier to be delivered from "blindness of heart, pride, vainglory, hypocrisy, envy, hatred, malice and want of charity." Do we hope that somehow frees us from helping those who we later prayed that God would show pity on: "all prisoners and captives, the homeless and the hungry, and all who are desolate and oppressed?" Of course not.
We in fact admitted that we wanted God "to inspire us ... to do the work which thou givest us to do with singleness of heart as thy servants, and for the common good."
We already do much of this here at St. Paul's and in our other commitments and engagements in the community. However, I would like to bring to your attention today a new problem for us to face. This is not only occurring nationally, but in Dutchess County. I'm talking specifically about opioid addiction and the number of overdoses, including fatalities, which are connected with this problem. We need to help. This epidemic does not discriminate and is affecting all members of our community.
As a community and as part of the larger community I believe we are called to be present and to offer support, encouragement, hope and, yes, even faith to those suffering from this plague. They may be addicts. They may be family members. They may be mourning a death from overdose. They may have a family member in prison because of addiction. We need to reach out to them and encourage them to permit us to help them, whether it's by listening or bowling, or prayer or sharing a meal or just sitting quietly or one of a zillion other things that community members do for one another in hard times. And these are hard times. There are tragedies happening every day when a person chooses drug-induced oblivion over community and family. These are tragedies which can be averted and can be reversed. But we need to let people know -- all the affected people--that we care and we will do what we can to help.
We also need to encourage other people of faith --Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Bahais, and others-- to do the same. We should not sit still while members of our spiritual community are hurting.
This outreach is likely to become an initiative of the Dutchess County Interfaith Council in the coming weeks. We are already working with the Dutchess County Health Department to identify congregational strategies to help us and others reach out to those who are hurting from this crisis. A community forum April 19 at the department's 230 North Road training room is scheduled to share information and plan a response and to organize interested groups in Poughkeepsie. For your information I intend to invite Narcotics Anonymous to bring their meetings back to St. Paul's so we can help in that way. This issue, this initiative, is vital, immediate and it belongs to you and to me.
This is our calling just like it is our calling to help people who are hungry. Let's organize around this as a Lenten discipline in the beginning and as a ministry to continue. And let us conclude with the prayer For the Victims of Addiction on page 831 of our Book of Common Prayer.
A sermon preached March 11, 2018 at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Poughkeepsie NY by The Rev. Tyler Jones, Rector