Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our creator and our lord and savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
We’re already on the fourth Sunday of our congregation’s annual pledge drive. The overall theme of our pledge drive – the tree, the trunk, the branches, comes straight from the teaching of Jesus: he’s the vine and we’re the branches, we’re all bound together.
We started our pledge drive at the end of September by welcoming and blessing the animals that live with us. Then, on the first Sunday of October we celebrated our shared work of global outreach, of developing relationships with people around the world, and especially in El Salvador. Do you remember Sam Gould coming and talking from up here about digging ditches in El Salvador years ago, and not having very many conversations? He said he talked to seven Salvadorans, and three of them were passport control people at the airport. I know you remember Stephen and Ben talking in the forum about how they did get to know a lot of people, and develop real relationships with them. Sam walked with them on that path. Any of us who have been on a so-called “mission trip” have heard the question “what did you do?” But we know the interesting questions: “who did you meet?” “who did you get to know?” “what did you learn about how strong this tree of life in Christ really is?” It’s good for all of us that Sam’s early, lonely, experience of digging some meaningless ditch didn’t make him lose sight of the tree of life and lose heart.
Last week we celebrated the ways we work locally with people across the street and across town. Terry reminded us about all the ways we continually learn to open our hearts to be shaped by one another and to be the face of Jesus for each other. In the name of Jesus we’ve learned to really see each other and know each other. We’re privileged to be walking together past some of the old distinctions, you know the ones I mean: straight and gay, female and male, Gentile and Greek, slave and free.
Still, much of that journey still lies ahead. It remains true that congregations are the most race- and class- segregated institutions in the United States, and our congregation is no exception. But the good news is that we know how to walk together: we’re bound together in strength and courage as branches of one tree. We have each others’ strength and God’s faith in us to keep taking risks, keep getting past the old distinctions, and keep opening ourselves to people we don’t yet know.
This week we’re celebrating the work of our congregation in the areas of formation, education, and worship. We’re rejoicing at our strong Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program, and our forums. We’re thanking God for all the ways we support one another in shaping our hearts.
Our kids and their mentors in church school have been kind enough to let me participate in their work once in a while.
In our first reading, Jacob wrestled with God all night. He named the place where they wrestled Peniel. Now most names in the Hebrew Bible are puns, and so is this one. El is one of the names of God, and pene is the word for face. So that place he wrestled he named “the face of God.”
What I see in this congregation are safe places for children and adults to wrestle with the mystery of God. Hopefully our wrestling with God will be a little more gentle than Jacob’s: it wouldn’t be good for any of our kiddos to get dislocated hips. Even so, this place too is properly called Peniel. I see people of various ages, maturity, and temperament learning to know, love, and care for each other and for God.
Speaking personally, I am grateful to everybody here for getting to know, love, and care for me. Again, it’s all about the tree and the branches. Together we’re doing the work of strengthening that great tree of life, and letting it strengthen us. We do that by knowing each other deeply: by seeing the face of Jesus and the glory of God reflected in each others’ faces.
Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, `Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, `Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
–Luke 18:1-8 NRSV
Jesus spoke about our “need to pray always and not lose heart.” To do that we need to know God and we need genuine human community: we need to know each other. That’s not easy.
What’s this “losing heart” all about, anyway? The Gospel word is εκκακειν. (engkakein) It’s sometimes translated “becoming exhausted” or “becoming dispirited.” But to a Greek speaker, κακος (kakos) means bad. It means reprehensible, harmful, so εκκακειν sounds like “embaddened.” (Is that a word? It should be.) When Jesus talks about losing heart, he doesn’t just mean becoming passive, he means more than that. Losing heart means becoming sullen, disconnected from the tree of life and blind to the face of Jesus in our neighbor.
I spent time with my dad this past week, and he told stories from my childhood when he was a consul – a diplomat – in the Middle East. One of these stories: it was sometime in the mid 1950s, and our family – dad, mom, and a couple of little kids – had just arrived for dad’s posting in Istanbul, Turkey. A representative of the Istanbul city government proudly took us around to show off how modern and progressive Constantine’s ancient city had become.
One stop was the city’s electric generating plant. It was a noisy and smelly place; I suppose they used diesel engines. On one wall were some huge old-school copper knife switches. Our guide reached up, grabbed the handle of one of them, pulled it down … zzzt … and said, “you see? Now one third of Istanbul is without power” Now there was a, literally, power-drunk government functionary, like the judge from Jesus’s parable. I don’t know whether or not he feared God, but he intentionally broke his connection to the people he supposedly served. He set out to show off how wonderfully modern his city had become. But instead he proved that he had the power to cut himself off from his community.
There’s another character in Jesus’s parable: the widow. Of course, in the patriarchal world of antiquity, a widow was a non-person. She lacked influence or status. She was about as meaningful to the judge as the people of Istanbul were to that guy with the knife switch – that is to say, not at all meaningful. The only thing she had to offer to the lazy, embaddened, judge was her relationship. She didn’t give up. She stayed in his face until he saw her for who she really was and then did his job. I wonder, where did she get her courage? Did she draw courage from seeing God’s glory reflected in his face?
Who are you in this story? Who am I? Are we the lazy power-mad judges who lose heart and break our connections to each other and to God’s holy tree just to show off? Sure, we are, sometimes, of course. Any boy, or former boy, among us is tempted to see what will happen if we push that big red “off” switch.
But there’s hope for us even in our most embaddened times. We’re surrounded by a whole bunch of people like that widow, who don’t give up on us, and keep trying to build holy community with us, and to remind us that we are all part of the same tree of life. We do that for each other.
Our Catechesis and forum work here at St. Paul’s are ways we practice caring for each other the way the widow cared for the judge. Of course, our shared global and local outreach work are also ways we practice that. So is the upcoming church fair, where we work – work hard! – side-by-side to welcome people from all over our community.
Our pledge drive is finishing up next Sunday. We’ll celebrate the strength of our community by getting us all together at single service at 9 oclock and gathering up our pledges. Each of us has, like that man in Istanbul, our hand on a switch. Each of us can choose to turn off our own switch or turn it on. We can choose to withhold our gifts or to be generous with them.
But none of us is like that man, because he didn’t care and we do. We know the power flows both ways. We know when we turn on our own switch, when we give our time, our skills, our money, and our prayers, we celebrate and build up our own connections to each other and to the tree of life.
Let’s pray. Lord Jesus, we know you draw us into community with you and each other, and forever keep us from losing heart. You know each of us has the power to break our own connection to your community. Open our hearts to your faith in us, and our faith in one another. Restore and strengthen our connections to each other and to you, we pray, all for the sake of your holy + tree of life. Amen