SERMON: 6 Epiphany c 2 17 19
I saw a curious meme on Facebook the other day. It showed a photo of the tough guys from the TV series The Sopranos. They looked quite cross, agitated even. The caption read, "If you're from New Jersey you know "how ya doin'?" is not a question that demands an answer. Now, you know I'm not from New Jersey. But I've spent some time there and, of course, I am familiar with "How ya doin'?" as a greeting rather than a question. But it never occurred to me that responding was offensive to anyone.
We try to "read" the people we're dealing with. We try to coordinate our communication with them so we understand each other as well as possible. It doesn't always work out, though. Someone thinks a question, like "How ya doin'?" is only a greeting, for example. Maybe it fits in the same category as "Have a nice day," which sounds more like an order than a wish for someone to enjoy themselves. But even on these slippery slopes of language and intention, we know what is intended, more or less. We can discern what's going on.
At least it works for most people. Then there are others who don't follow the rules, don't play well with others, don't bother with the niceties of trying to deal with people on mutually agreeable terms. You may know someone or a few someones like that. Usually they're called contrarians. Sometimes antisocial. As we grow --most of us-- and age we learn how to interpret signals of all kinds. There are the obvious ones and then there are the more subtle ones. Humans often give off mixed signals, sometimes intentionally, sometimes in confusion, sometimes just carelessly. You think you have a plan with someone then they blow it off. Clearly missed signals. Perhaps uncommunicated signals. But some people are scrupulous about clarity, others sloppy. And we get to figure out who's who.
Our world is full of non-human signals, also. Like the seasons, the weather, the flora and fauna. They tell us where we are in the cycle of the globe's annual revolution around the sun. They tell us how to dress, what to expect, how to drive, and so forth. They communicate pretty clearly, actually. Nature ebbs and flows in its life cycle just like we do. Trees grow and flourish, perhaps shedding leaves for a season, then regenerating for a few cycles, then expiring. We can tell how the trees are doing, just looking at them. Jeremiah ties together the human and the rest of nature. He says this morning that people are like trees. Those who do not follow God are like "
a shrub in the dessert, and shall not see when relief comes." On the other hand, those who trust in the Lord "shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream."
We know what that's like, don't we? When we are being faithful and attentive to God we feel like a well watered tree, safe from sun and drought. Contrarily, when we rely on ourselves too much we wither. We consciously or unconsciously await the nourishment of reconnecting with God, of being nourished by God's love for us, felt most clearly when we are in alignment with God's will. This knowledge of ourselves is really important. Our capacity to thrive in relation with God and to struggle when we leave God out of our lives is as obvious as an unwatered plant as compared with a flourishing one. We know.
We also know that we didn't invent these signals. They are as much a part of nature as the oceans and the sky. They are a part of the natural systems which sustain life. These same signals are recognizable in society, when people are hurting, when some struggle for advantage over others while the marginalized have to struggle to simply survive. When our public life is under siege there are obvious signs. We notice. We feel it. We recognize that God's desire that we all would be one is not being honored, much less fulfilled, in different sectors of our society and abroad.
We are witnessing a global shift toward authoritarianism and nationalism which ignores the good of all in favor of the benefit to a few. This drive always seems to have been just beneath the surface in our society, usually manifested as an effort to dislodge or disadvantage some segment of society deemed undesirable or less powerful and therefore undeserving of respect and evenhanded treatment. This is true whether the victims of such movements are Central American refugees or those fleeing the endless post-9/11 conflicts in the Middle East or poor people in cities with aging infrastructure and toxic public water sources.
When we observe our national political discourse we can tell who's loving their neighbor and who's not, just like we can tell when a tree is dying or the seasons are changing. Cries of "Fake news!" are intended to distract us from the realities we easily recognize, but they don't succeed. A fearful population is just as effective a signal of an unhealthy society as toxic water. Drives to disenfranchise voters in a democracy are as obvious as a house fire.
Here's the thing: when the signals are as obvious as they are these days there are those who would like us to ignore them, others who would just like to pretend they weren't there, and still others who know what the signals are all about but think that the destructive changes that are being visited on us are necessary and that the signals reflect a necessary discomfort. This is what Jeremiah was talking about, also. Jeremiah saw people ignoring the signs that things were not working well, that widows and orphans were being left homeless and without support, that the poor were being mistreated, and that the rich and the powerful were getting away with it. And he observed that God was not pleased, that God will "give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings."
Jesus in the sermon on the plain in today's Gospel also asserts that those who take advantage of others and who acquire wealth and power will not enjoy their power forever, and their influence will fade away. The rich have received their consolation, Jesus says. Those who are full will be hungry and those who are now laughing will mourn and weep, he says. He also offers comforting words for those who are struggling and suffering. He assures them that their struggles will depart and their blessings will increase. Jesus doesn't say it'll happen soon or even in this life, but insists that God's blessing is the reward.
There's a message here for everyone that we need to remember: if we're in tall cotton, as they say, we need to remember it won't always be that way. And if we're up to our hubcaps in mud, this too shall pass. Life is like that. Jesus points out, as does Jeremiah, that there are things wrong in the world and we should not be shy about acknowledging them and doing what we can to correct them. For you and for me it might help to remember that when we see signs of despair we are called to have faith and to do our part to maintain our integrity and our commitments to the Almighty. Part of our responsibility is to lend a hand to those who are suffering and struggling. Another part of those commitments is to speak truth to power, to not remain silent in the face of politically outrageous acts.
When we observe the government threatening immigrants and separating children from their families, we need not shy away. We can voice our opposition with confidence that we can discern the difference between good and bad policy.
When we watch industrialists get appointed to cabinet positions and to gut federal environmental regulations, we do not need to pretend we approve.
We can express our outrage at the corruption of the government, the deals done for cronies, the absence of transparency.
When other protections are erased or diminished by executive order, when democratic principles and practices are ignored, when leaders demean anyone who disagrees with them or when they refuse to play by the rules or they reject congressional authority we need to pay attention and we need to bear witness that these wrongs are being committed.
Jesus was saying these things happen--maybe not on the scale of today's depredations, but they happen. But this, too will pass. Our commitment to love our neighbor means we need to stick up for the little guy. It means we need to resist the isolation of members of society by income and technology. We need to stand up for principles that help all of society and resist actions that benefit the few and hurt the many.
God's love and guidance is what we depend on to guide us and assure us that our witness matters and that our call for better deeds and better times are heard. We reach out in solidarity to those who are harmed and we proclaim the good news: Blessed are the poor, the hungry, those who weep, and those who are persecuted for their faith. Jesus blessed them because they suffered grievous wrongs. We love them because that's how we love God: by loving our neighbor.
A sermon preached on the sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, Feb. 17, 2019, at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Poughkeepsie NY by The Rev. Tyler Jones, Rector