Sermon preached by the Reverend Louise Kalemkerian
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 25, 2011
In the name of our all-loving God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
For those of you who don’t know me, I’m the phantom name in the list of associate clergy on the back of the Sunday leaflet. I’ve been part of St. Paul’s for the past 8 years, invited by Fr. Lang to come and join this community when the parish in Stamford where I was rector closed. I will always be grateful to him for that invitation and the welcome I received that first day, and have received every time I’ve been here. The reason I’m not here much is that I do interim ministry in this diocese; and currently I am between positions. I am delighted to be here this morning.
Today’s Gospel passage follows Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem the day before, and his overturning the tables of the money lenders and animal sellers who were working in the Temple courtyard. So when he returns to the Temple the authorities, who have seen and heard his challenging words and behavior, not only in the Temple but throughout his 3 year ministry, confront him, demanding, “Who died and left you in charge? Who gave you the right to do this?”
What had he done? Welcome everybody. Say forgiveness was free and didn’t require a Temple sacrifice they oversaw. Say that God’s love was limitless. Say that the poor and marginalized were close to God’s heart. Say that wealth and possessions can get in the way of our relationships with God and one another.
By what authority? His answer was so radical that it is one of the great paradoxes of faith: that at the end this person accused of undermining authority can become your and my authority—the One in who we put all our trust.
It is easy for us to judge the chief priests and elders, because we already know the story and can point our fingers at them. As is often said, however, when we point one finger at another person, there are three pointing back at us. What if we were to put ourselves in the shoes of the chief priest and elders? What if we were to ask about our own tendency to maintain the status quo? What if we were to ask ourselves about our own resistance to change, to being transformed? What is Jesus asking of each of us as we scoff at the religious establishment?
Jesus then tells a story, a parable, of a father with two sons and he asks both to come and work with him in his vineyard. The first son says “no” but, later, shows up for work. The second son says that he will work, but never appears. Jesus poses the question “Which son did the will of his father?” The answer is clear; it’s the first son who actually shows up, certainly not the one who lied, the “no show”. When we remember that Jesus is addressing those chief priests and elders of Jerusalem, Jesus’ indictment of them is clear and stinging.
As much as I don’t want to, I am forced to take Jesus’ words quite personally. Both because I am part of the religious establishment, and because I am aware of lots that needs transforming, changing in my own life, that I have been a figurative if not literal “no show” in places in my life. And I think that these words of Jesus have something to say to each of us.
One of the things which Jesus taught over and over was the place of money and possessions in the disciple’s life. You know, statements like “Where your treasure is, there you heart will be also” and “You cannot serve God and wealth” and the stories of the Widow’s mite, the Rich Fool, and Zacchaeus and a bunch more. And he didn’t do so because he wanted his followers to give him money. Jesus didn’t need their money, or ours. I believe he did so because he knew the power money has over human beings, and how it can get in the way of our relationships.
In our lesson from Ezekiel God states “know that all lives are mine . . .” Recognizing that our lives belong to God and acknowledging that what we do with our life reveals God’s presence in the world, points to how we live as disciples of the risen Christ.
In a culture that speaks of individual responsibility and celebrates the self-made person, the idea that our life and our livelihood comes from God and even belongs to God is a strange idea. Yet such knowledge has the power to transform us. No longer is our life or livelihood “ours” to do with as we please. Instead they are generous gifts of the Creator to be used for kingdom work that seeks justice, loves kindness and humbly acknowledges God’s abundant generosity as the source of all.
Sometimes in the church we forget to say that a life of giving is not simply about a pledge of time, talent and treasure. A life of giving begins first and foremost with the remembrance that all our lives and all our livelihood comes from God, belongs to God, and is a gift from God. At the early service we recite the words of Scripture from 1 Chronicles to remind us, “All things come from you, and of your own have we given you.” Everything we do is a response to this abundant grace!
I came to St. Paul’s because Fr. Lang invited and welcomed me, at a time when I needed a new spiritual home, at a time when I was in sad and in pain. I stayed because I loved it here. And I keep coming back every chance I get. I love the rich liturgy, the music, the people, the inclusiveness, the radical welcome, the greeting at the door before service, the outreach, the hospitality; I have been a recipient of the pastoral care, been part of the education ministry, received the ministry of many of you. And I have tried to share some of these gifts with other churches where I have served as interim rector.
All of these are signs of God’s abundant and inexhaustible grace which God has poured into my life through St. Paul’s. For which I am hugely thankful. A very big example of this grace is the fact that God provides me sermon words week in and week out, even when I don’t know what to do with the sermon texts.
So how do I respond to God’s grace? With gratitude and generosity. With my giving. With my ministry. With trying to live out by word and action the unconditional love Jesus has shown me.
Two weeks ago my favorite public radio station, WSHU was into its fall membership drive. I have to tell you I hate their membership drives. I don’t like their having to give up their programming to sell their station. I know it’s necessary, but… And besides, I gave the during the last membership drive a few months ago! It was somebody else’s turn this time.
Sunday morning came, and I was pleasantly surprised that my favorite program, Sunday Baroque, wasn’t interrupted by pleas for donations. And the music that morning, 9/11, was exquisite. It moved me to tears again and again. Bach and more Bach, music written to God’s glory, music to soothe our pain. I was so grateful for that program, which added so much to that day of remembrance that the next day I gladly pledged to WSHU. And thanked them for the program as well as the respite from the membership drive.
There’s a delightful story I heard about the time that Mother Teresa went to visit Edward Bennett Williams, the legendary Washington criminal lawyer. In Evan Thomas’ biography, The Man to See, he tells the story about when Mother Teresa visited Williams because she was raising money for an AIDS hospice. Williams was in charge of a small charitable foundation that she hoped would help. Before she arrived for the appointment, Williams said to his partner, Paul Dietrich, “You know, Paul, AIDS is not my favorite disease. I don’t really want to make a contribution, but I’ve got this Catholic saint coming to see me, and I don’t know what to do.” They agreed that they would be polite, hear her out, but then say no.
Mother Teresa arrived. She was a little sparrow sitting on the other side of the big mahogany lawyer’s desk. She made her appeal for the hospice, and Williams said, “Mother, we’re touched by your appeal, but no.”
Mother Teresa said simply, “Let us pray.” Williams looked at Dietrich; they bowed their heads and after the prayer, Mother Teresa made the exact same pitch, word for word, for the hospice. Again Williams politely said no. Mother Teresa said, “Let us pray.”
Williams, exasperated, looked up at the ceiling. “All right, all right,” he shouted, “get me my checkbook!”
Let us pray.