A Sermon at Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx New York, November 16, 2014
“I will search Jerusalem with lamps and I will punish the people who rest complacently on their dregs, those who say in their hearts, ‘The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm.’ Their wealth shall be plundered, and their houses laid waste…”
The prophet Zephaniah speaks these harsh words to the people of Jerusalem. It’s a fearful prospect, and if I were to read more of it, it only gets scarier. Why? Why are these harsh words of God brought to these people? Because they have no hope in the living God. –‘Maybe God’s out there,’ they think, ‘but he won’t do any good.’ ‘And we are way too modern and sophisticated to believe that there is any possibility that God will do any harm, either.’
The church has relied too much on its own niceness, especially in the last hundred years or so. As if having a nice institution with nice people and nice leaders would be enough to address the evil that is in this world:
Not knowing whether our children will be safe, and be able to have a decent education and basic medical care; people accumulating obscene wealth without any idea that they have a responsibility to use their privilege to build up the common good; and many other examples we can all cite where people disguise self-interest as virtue.
The church can’t glibly claim to be the solution to these things—our culture has called our bluff on that—the institution often acts worse than its secular counterparts, or at least as bad—very few accord the benefit of the doubt or even privilege of special moral status to the church that once was common. And stories of clergy being cheats, charlatans and abusers have become so common that no particular trust is given to clergy or their moral authority by the mass of people today.
The church on its own, as an organization is impotent in dealing with the evil of our day—especially when we “rest complacently on our dregs” not really believing that God can do good or do harm. God is alive, and is not responsible for doing what we tell him to do. God is free and dangerous—and it is in that danger that we have the only source of love or hope. The judgment of God is for the poor and the oppressed, and is very dangerous for the complacent or those who give in to their fear.
In the Gospel lesson today, we have the parable of the talents. I hate to disappoint you but this is not about either investments or fundraising. The amount of money involved is absurd—ten talents was enough money to keep an army in the field for a campaign. The first two slaves were praised and rewarded for shrewdly and confidently using the funds entrusted to them to get more for their master. But the focus is on the third—what happened here? The third was afraid of the future. He took the resources and basically wasted them by hiding them away. He is a pitiful figure of hopelessness, and in that hopelessness his worst fears were realized. Jesus brings us the Kingdom of God—and in that we live a life filled with hope—and the reason for that is that God is alive and will do us good—even if it is not what we put on our order sheet.
Yesterday at Diocesan Convention, Bishop Dietsche shared with us what he shares with every confirmation class. It goes something like this: In this world in which there is so much violence and hatred and selfishness, every human being has the responsibility to make it known where they stand and how they will address these things. And for Christians, the place where we stand together is the promises we make in baptism and for which we take responsibility in Confirmation. We renounce the evil powers that distort our lives and lead to hatred and destruction of God’s people, God’s creatures and God’s creation. We turn to Christ and put our trust in his grace and love. And in the living God we affirm one another in the apostles teaching and fellowship which is the Church.
This weekend, another beloved brother has died. Keith Warren passed away, after a long illness on Friday. I was told at convention by Theodora Brooks, another priest in the Bronx, and we prayed for him when we heard.
Let us pray.
Into your hands, O merciful savior, we commend your servant Keith. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen