Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Gospel of Encouragement

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, Rochester, NY
October 21, 2007
Jeremiah 31:27-34; 2 Timothy 3:14--4:5; Luke 18:1-8

Jesus told the disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.

It turns out losing heart is an easy thing to do. Jesus knew that.

The translators chose a metaphor to render the Greek word “egkakein,” an odd word that appears only once in all of the Gospels. It’s a word whose meaning is slippery; it depends a great deal on context.

The context here is that Jesus has just done some musing about extraordinarily difficult times he sees ahead for his followers.

The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it.

Not such good news.

But in a very real sense, these are the days of our lives, longing for things to be better, for God to do something dramatic to change things for the good, be it in our personal lives, or our civic life.

Or our spiritual lives. The parable Jesus tells is a hard one because the God character in the story is “the unjust judge.” Of course one can make the obvious analysis that Jesus is meaning to contrast how God acts toward us and how the unjust judge acts toward the pleading widow.

And yet. And yet God feels like the unjust judge sometimes, does he not? When our prayers don’t seem to be answered or when the presence of God in our lives seems more like the absence of God. Apparently even such a saint as Mother Theresa spent years of her life feeling like God was more like the unjust judge. Another Theresa, Theresa of Avila, one of the greatest mystics of the 16th century, is quoted as having said to God, “If this is the way you treat your friends, it is no wonder you have so few of them!”

Jesus knew that the days of longing were coming for his followers; that his presence could not continue in the way it had. His followers were going to have to fall back on the promise made by Jeremiah centuries before him; that the presence of God, his presence, would have to reside in their hearts rather than before their eyes.

That’s a wonderful thing, but also a troubling one, because it is easy to lose heart.

Other words the translators could have used for “lose heart” are “grow weary” or “be discouraged.”

And for even the most positive of us, it is easy to be any of those things. It is easy in this life to grow weary, lose heart, or be discouraged.

You know I love the hymn “His eye is on the sparrow,” but whenever I hear the opening line, “Why should I feel discouraged?” I want to stop and say, “Now don’t get me started!”

Now of course, all of you know by now that I suffer from the “discouragement disease,” depression, and I temporarily lost a skirmish with it last weekend. That had not happened to me for a long time, but my defenses were down and my longing was high, weariness took over and I lost my heart for a bit.

That happens to some of us quite beyond our control and it is an evil thing, I’m here to tell you. And I’m also here to tell you that one of the reasons you got a letter from me about it and one of the reasons I have talked about it before and am talking about it now is because it needs to be brought into the light. The stigma about suffering from depression or any other mental illness has got to stop because it only makes it worse. One of the most evil things about depression is that it robs you of your own sense of worth and dignity and acceptance. It isolates. We just make that worse when we can’t talk about it because someone will think I’m a mess, that I don’t have my act together, or that I’m “crazy.”

Guess what? You’re all a mess and most of you only have your act together on occasional good days and crazy is not such a bad reaction to reading the newspaper in the morning. So let’s get over it.

The silence and the stigma is the bad news of discouragement, it is the “blessing” of a lost heart.

We are called to proclaim the gospel of encouragement, of strength through the struggle and of a heart found in the acceptance of God.

Read that passage from Jeremiah that we heard this morning. He talks about a new covenant. What is so new about this covenant that is being offered? It actually comes at the end when God says,

I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.

Forgiveness rather than judgment is the new covenant. Acceptance rather than rejection is the new covenant.

The Church is supposedly the community of this new covenant, proclaimed by the prophets and sealed with the death and resurrection of our brother Jesus.

But we keep getting it wrong so that the world thinks (and we even think about ourselves) that the church is the place for people who have cleaned up the mess of their lives and are very good about being happy about everything. We are sunbeams for Jesus.

Well I’m here to tell you that I am a mess and that doesn’t look like it’s going to change any time soon and some days I’ve got some light to shine and some days—forget about it.

But I’m longing. I’m surviving. I haven’t given up, and I’m not going to, and that’s what it’s all about. Faith in God is not about being a sunbeam for Jesus it is being Jesus’ companions in a resistance movement, resistance to all the crap out there (and in here and even in my own heart) that would rob us of our dignity and our acceptance by the one who made us and sets us free in spite of everything.

Before she was a bishop, Barbara Harris was among other things the editor of a magazine called the Witness, which unfortunately no longer exists. She wrote a monthly column called A luta continua, “the struggle continues.”

I’m here today to proclaim to you, with the widow before the unjust judge as my companion, a luta continua, the struggle continues. That is the gospel of encouragement that we all so desperately need.

That’s why we gather week by week: to be encouraged, so that we not grow weary, so that we do not lose heart, knowing that we can do none of these things alone, but we can do all of them with God and with one another.

A luta continua!

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