I am again preaching at Dover United Methodist Church in Dover Plains, NY. The service starts at 11 and you are always welcome to attend.
Directions View Larger Map
The Scriptures for this Sunday are Genesis 25: 19 – 34, Romans 8: 1 – 11, and Matthew 13: 1 – 9, 18 – 23.
I don’t know about you but I sometimes wonder what might have happened if Esau had not given away his birthright to Jacob as described in today’s Old Testament reading (Genesis 25: 19 – 34). Would the outcome have been any different? Would Esau have become the father of the twelve tribes? Or would Isaac still have been the father of the twelve tribes but without the double share of the inheritance that came with being the first born?
It is hard to say what would have happened but that is not our worry. That question, and the accompanying question of free will versus pre-determination, is for theologians and philosophers.
But if we say that Esau had to surrender his birthright then what we are saying is that we don’t have any free will and that everything is pre-determined. And to say that everything is pre-determined is to say that we don’t have much say in what is to happen to us. That’s good news for some because it means that they never have to take responsibility for their actions. They can do whatever they desire and say that they had no control over their actions.
But the bad news is that if we have no say, then we have no hope. And if we have no hope, then we have no future. And from the very start of His ministry, Jesus said He came to offer hope which means that we have a future.
But along with this future comes a choice. We can choose what we want to do but we have to be responsible for our actions and we have to face the consequences of what we do. We can see the world in terms of the things around us or we can see the world in terms of God’s plan for us and how we fit into that plan, even if we can’t figure out what that particular role might be.
Esau’s problem wasn’t a matter of pre-determination and that his brother Isaac would rule over him. It was that he was more concerned about his need for food and his desire to resolve that problem right then and there. He gave little thought to the future. Paul points out that when we lead our lives that way, for the now and immediate gratification, we are likely to end up in trouble.
We try to use the law to control our lives but as Paul pointed out in today’s reading (Romans 8: 1 – 11), the law is broken and flawed. Still, many people will try to use the law to control not only their own lives but the lives of others as well. Just as those who find in pre-determination the opportunity to do anything and not have to accept responsibility for their actions, so too do people use the law to protect themselves from the realities of the world around them and the tasks that God would have them do.
But, in the end, as Paul so often pointed out, the law and obedience to the law cannot deliver what people seek; the law cannot, in the end, deliver anything but despair and heartbreak. The law ties us to the present with wishful glances backwards; the law can never give us a vision of the future. Just as Esau was willing to give up his future for the present, so too does our reliance on the law prevent us from thinking and seeing the future. And our reliance on this type of thinking may have more to do with the problems of the world and our ability, or rather, our inability to solve them.
James Winkler, general secretary of the General Board of Church & Society for The United Methodist Church, gave the 2008 commencement address at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. While he was speaking about members of Congress and what they intend to do when they come to Washington and what they end up doing, he could have just as easily spoken about many of us when he said
Somewhere along the way many decided to cash in and get their own piece of the rock. We are living in a time of moral crisis. Our values have been systematically subverted since September 11, 2001, and our indifference is not only lethargic but lethal. The quiet acceptance of torture and preemptive war eats away at the soul of American life. Our acquiescence to the big lies told by the rich and powerful—and repeated by the media ad infinitum—is frightening and demoralizing (From http://www.sugrads.org/articles/news_from_su/2008_commencement_address.aspx)
You can say that this is the way the system works and there is nothing that you can do about it. But it is a system that allows politicians to bend and break the laws, to say whatever is needed to get elected without meaning it. It is a system that allows ministers and preachers to preach hatred, exclusion, and violence in the name of God. It is a system that allows merchants and manufacturers to send work overseas in the name of low prices and cheap quality. It is a system that tells our young that money and things that are bought with money are more important that what you think or say or do. It is a system that reduces education to a mindless acceptance of the status quo and that offers little in the way of a challenge for all children.
If the system doesn’t work, then you have to fix the system. Some might say that this will require a violent revolution; I think not. But change will not come if you choose to stand aside and let others take away your rights, your freedoms, and your beliefs. You cannot do this simply by thinking about it; you must seek the solution.
In his book, “Why the Christian Right Is Wrong”, Robin Meyers issued a call for a non-violent response for the problems facing this country and this world. He wrote that faith should be seen more as an action-based verb than as a noun. Faith, he said, should be more than simply believing certain things; it should be about doing those things which need to be done so that the Kingdom of Heaven can be built on earth.
We must, as the prophet Micah wrote, do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. We may despise injustice but we must do more than shake our heads and say how terrible acts of injustice are. Too often, we stand by and let injustice and oppression take place.
As I was coming home from church last Sunday, I had the opportunity to hear the Catholic Mass broadcast on the Fordham University radio station (WFUV). I don’t always get this opportunity since the broadcast starts at 11 and there are many times when I am out of radio range. But when I do get the chance, it is an opportunity to continue the worship of the morning. And this last Sunday I got to hear the presiding priest speak of a friend of his whose sister was killed by the El Salvador army in the early 1980’s.
She was one of several Christian workers killed at that time because they sought to bring the Gospel message to the peasants. And in doing so, she and her co-workers brought the anger of the El Salvador government. In his homily, the priest did not say whether his friend was angry at the death of his sister or the manner in which it was done; though, it stands to reason that he and his family were angry and upset. He could have done many things but the thing that he did was to channel his emotions through his skills as a lawyer and seek justice. It took a long time and it required overcoming many obstacles, including our own government who was supporting the El Salvadorian government at that time. But in the end, his quiet, persistent and non-violent efforts brought about justice.
But you will say, as others have said, that violence is sometimes necessary and often times the only way. Some say (and have said) that slavery would not have ended were it not for the Civil War some 140 years ago. I am not that certain that it did. Slavery still exists, perhaps not in the physical bondage that we associate with the term, but most certainly in economic terms.
It may be that the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960’s would not have had its success if it were not for dogs attacking children and water from high pressure hoses tearing away the skin of protestors in Birmingham, Alabama in April of 1963 or Alabama state troopers beating marchers on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama on Easter Sunday, March 7, 1965. It may have been the violence and the killings that caused people to cry out but it did not end the racism that was the cause of segregation. As long as one person continues to believe that the color of their skin or the size of their bank account makes them a better person than someone else, then racism will continue. As long as we see others less fortunate than we are as not worthy of the same treatment that we expect for ourselves, then racism will continue to exist in this country and throughout the world.
Peace and justice will not come if people hear the words but do nothing. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus pointed out that there would be those who heard the words but, like the seeds that fell on the rocky soil and did not grow, will do nothing. They sometimes even use the the rocks to build a stand that will give them a better view of what is happening and let them cheer as the parade passes us by. But it moves them further away from the Gospel, not closer, and so the Gospel dies, like seeds scattered on rocky soil.
If we want the Gospel to grow, then we have to get in the dirt. Yes, we will get dirty but if you want the seeds of the Gospel planted right, you have to get in the dirt and there is no way that you will not get dirty. And then you can start removing the rocks that block the future and keep things from growing. We are very familiar with the rocks that block the future. Gandhi called them the seven deadly sins and, if we did nothing, would destroy us: They are wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, science without humanity, knowledge without character, politics without principle, commerce without morality, and worship without sacrifice.
Each of these sins works to keep the Gospel from growing. But when you work in the field to remove them, that is when the Gospel takes hold and things start to grow. But you have to choose to get off the side; you have to choose to do what it is that you say you believe in. Faith becomes more than a noun, it becomes the verb.
We know there is a choice and we have the opportunity to make the right choice. We can stand by, saying the system will not work and there is nothing we can do. We may believe that our choice affects no one. Or we can choose to accept Jesus as our Savior, knowing that as His disciple, we can make a difference. I have spoken of Thomas Pettepiece before and I used his words today as my closing prayer.
Lord, I already know the best way to alter my life-style to the best advantage for all — live like Jesus. The Christian existence ideally is to imitate what you do. You send the sun and rain on everyone, you want me to bet back to the basic facts of life, to love without reservation, to distinguish between life’s needs and life itself, and seek first your kingdom knowing you will meet all my other needs.
Still it is easy to trust in the “things” of today and feel like it is up to me to see that humanity survives. Keep me from undue worry and pride. Remind me that life is a gift — not a right, and that my attitude toward the ultimate resources and values in life will determine how the earth’s resources will be handled and provided for those who need them. I have already formed many habits of consuming and acting. Guide me in aligning my personal priorities to conform to my awareness of a world hungry. May my life-style become more compatible with our biosphere and supportive of peoples around the world.
Lord, help me choose a simpler life-style that promotes solidarity with the world’s poor, helps me appreciate nature more, affords greater opportunity to work together with my neighbors, reduces my use of limited resources, creates greater inner harmony, saves money, allows time for mediation and prayer, incites me to take political and social action.
May all my decisions about my style of life celebrate the joy of life that comes from loving you. AMEN (from Visions of a World Hungry by Thomas G. Pettepiece)