Sermon for Sunday, September 25, 2011 || Proper 21A|| Exodus 17: 1-7; Philippians 2: 1-13; Matthew 21: 23-32 || The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
When these were the appointed texts three years ago, I’d only been here six months. The economy had dramatically tanked, the unemployment rate had skyrocketed, economists were forecasting no significant recovery until, they said, 2010– and according to the headlines of the day, we were all waiting to see the government’s plan for rescuing our financial markets from collapse.
“Is the Lord among us or not?” I asked, echoing the plaintive question the Israelites asked Moses in the wilderness. Then in a litany that rattled off one grim statistic after another, I repeated that same refrain, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
Three years ago, my aim was to assure you all that it’s not unreasonable, and it’s certainly not unprecedented, for people of faith to ask such difficult questions when living in difficult times—whether that means times of actual or metaphorical wilderness. It’s important to know—deep down where it counts—that it’s really okay—even faithful—to question God. “After all,” I said then (and will say again now) “to doubt God’s presence you’ve got to have a powerful faith in God’s existence. Because people who don’t believe in God, don’t waste their time wondering whether he’s with them or not.”
Now fast-forward three years to today. The economy is still in the tank, and the unemployment rate is actually 3% higher than it was back in 2008. There are even more people living in poverty in this country than were then—in fact, there are more people living in poverty now than there ever have been in the 52 years that the Census Bureau’s been tracking such statistics. An economist from Harvard just declared our economy “dead in the water,” and the Globe reported that, “The disappointing economic recovery has done nothing for the country’s poorest citizens.” Oh, and last time I checked we were still waiting to see the government’s plan for rescuing our financial markets from collapse. Or at least waiting for a new one…
Now add to these dismal economic reports the random tsunamis, tornadoes earthquakes, droughts, fires, floods and hurricanes that seem to be striking in the strangest of places, throw in an expensive and unpopular war of questionable origin that just passed the ten year mark, add a standoff on Capitol Hill that is nothing short of shameful and yes, even sinful, and it’s no small wonder some of us are asking, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
Then slowly turn your gaze closer to home and consider all of the grief and loss, fear and uncertainty that is breaking our hearts, disrupting our lives, and dividing our families, and realize that in this community and in this church and maybe even in the very pew you’re sitting in, faithful people like you and me are asking, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
But then don’t stop there. Please don’t stop there! Because today my aim is for all of you to walk away from here this morning with the resounding answer to that question provided by Paul’s letter to the Philippians…the resounding answer that: Yes, the Lord is among us!
“God is at work in you,” Paul says, “enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure!” Think about that: God is at work in us. That’s at least one place where we know God is. The Lord is among us, in us, and he’s enabling us both to will and to work for his good pleasure. It’s only because God is in us—at the very core of who we are– that we want to do his will. And it’s because God is in us—at the very core of who we are—that we have the power to do his will. Heaven knows we couldn’t do it on our own. But the Lord is among us!
With God working in us—poking and prodding us, encouraging and inspiring us, leading and loving us— we actually consider the needs of others before our own, put other’s interests before ours, and are willing to humble ourselves for the sake of the other as Paul exhorts us to do. We dry each other’s tears, renew each other’s hope, feel each other’s pain, and witness to Christ’s love in each other’s lives.
With God working in us it’s okay when we disagree, we pray for those who do us harm, we even love those we don’t like. With God working in us we give generously of our time and our money to help others, when the truth is we’d rather save both for ourselves. With God working in us, we speak truth to power, we challenge authority, and we stand up for the most vulnerable among us.
With God working in us, we feed the homeless at the Long Island Shelter, serve on the vestry, commit to praying for those in need, cook for the Quincy Crisis Center, and prepare our church for worship. We shepherd each other’s children, walk each other’s dogs, listen to each other’s hopes and fears, gather at each other’s bedsides, and weep at each other’s graves. With God working in us we welcome newcomers, plan picnics, crunch numbers, and tell stories. We bake casseroles, fold liturgies, shovel snow, and bring folks to church. We preach sermons, sing hymns, and read scriptures. We make soup, go to bowl-a-thons, and lead small groups.
Surely, the Lord is among us!
In the same three years since I last preached on these lessons, we’ve been gifted with both John as our Music Director and Adam as our Associate Rector. We’ve welcomed a few dozen new members to our church, baptized a few dozen babies, and married well over a dozen couples. The choir has tripled in size and the youth group has doubled. We’ve developed a model curriculum for adult spiritual formation, new ministries have been springing up because you’ve been inspired to start them, and a lot more of you are committing yourselves to ministries that’ve been around here for a long time. We’ve got new acolytes, new readers, new altar guild members, new soup makers, new teachers, new chalicists. So many of you liked serving at the Long Island Shelter twice a year that now we’re doing it once a month! And so many of you offered to cook for Quincy Crisis Center once a month, that now we’re doing it once a week! And to top it all off, we’ve increased our giving every year, paid down an enormous chunk on our outstanding mortgage, and adhered to the discipline of a balanced budget.
Dare we doubt that the Lord is among us? Dare we think we could’ve done any of this on our own?
In the past three years, life out there in the world may not have changed as much as we would’ve liked it to or as quickly as we would’ve liked it to. But the lives in here, in God’s church, are being transformed. Every single one of us is being given new life, new energy, and new direction by God working in us, enabling us both to will and to work for his good pleasure. We are blessed beyond measure. So in the words of Paul in his letter to the Philippians, “…let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” For surely the Lord is among us! Amen.