Sermon - 1 June 2008

Notes for a sermon preached for the Church of the Annunciation, Oradell, New Jersey, on 1 June 2008, by the Rev'd J. Barrington Bates, Rector (Proper 4A-Genesis 6:9-22,7:24,8:14-19, Psalm 46, Romans 1:16-17, 3:22b-31, Matthew 7:21-29).

Today's Gospel passage sounds a bit daunting, doesn't it? Jesus says, "Not everyone who says to me 'Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom of heaven." It's quite plain and obvious: only some people get to heaven - not everyone. Today's Gospel passage sounds a bit daunting, doesn't it? Jesus says, "Not everyone who says to me 'Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom of heaven." It's quite plain and obvious: only some people get to heaven - not everyone. As much as we would like it to be otherwise - as attractive and compelling as an idea like "universal salvation" is - you know, the idea that everyone goes to heaven. Well, as much as we may like that idea, Jesus appears to be saying something different, something harder for us to hear. Only those who do the will of the Father in heaven will enter the kingdom. For most of us, the idea of doing God's will is difficult enough. We hope that when we discipline our children we are somehow imparting values - like responsibility, healthy boundaries, and commitment. But we know that sometimes our children don't see it that way. We pray that when we go to the office our work may find favor in God's sight - that what we do helps tip the balance for good, over evil. But we understand that sometimes our actions are perceived in a different light by our co-workers. We trust that our efforts in maintaining a home life provide comfort and sustenance - that a hot meal and a cozy bed help us go forth into the world as servants of God. But we know that sometimes what we do makes us ashamed - and surely must hurt God, too.

For most people, doing God's will is something we hope is happening on a daily basis - in amongst our daily activities: as we ride the subway, shop for groceries, or deal with mounds of paperwork. Doing God's will is sort of in the background, something that happens more-or-less by accident. We don't ourselves heal the sick, even if we may pray for, visit, or provide assistance to those who are ill - and this helps them recover. We don't individually presume to know the mind of God, even if together we proclaim the coming of God's reign - and this helps foster the coming of that kingdom. We don't personally imagine that everything we do and say is somehow right, even if most of what we do is okay by us, and by God - and this helps us continue to grow in God's love.

If you're like me, you probably spend time worrying that you've done the wrong thing, and that you'll be punished for it. We're no angels, no saints. We build our house, and chop our wood, and make our garden grow - we don't interpret visions, cause transformations, or perform miracles. We are just ordinary people.

And Jesus goes on to say, in today's Gospel, that even those who were prophets and exorcists, those who claim to have prophesied in his name or to have cast out demons in his name, those who have exhibited extraordinary powers and heroic service - that these will be declared as evildoers.

I'll tell you, quite frankly, sometimes this Jesus worries me. I mean, here we are, doing our best, right? We try hard, sometimes we fail, we fall down, we pick ourselves up, and we try again. Over time, we can both imagine progress - that we metaphorically fall down less - and we can foresee that we will fall down again. We have no delusions that we will somehow, in this lifetime, become perfect, and free from sin. Even as we struggle to come more and more into that state of perfection. We figure we'll do our best, we'll make a mistake, we'll learn a lesson from that mistake, we'll commit ourselves to do better next time - and that God will forgive us.

And this, of course, can be a big problem: when we see things the way we would like them to be, when we read the Gospel through the filter of our culture, when we try to find good news in what sometimes seems pretty bleak - when we do this, we risk missing the point.

Let me give you an example. Many of you have probably heard the expression, "the Lord helps those who help themselves." It's fairly commonly heard, and even more commonly thought - and it suggests good Christian values: like self-reliance, responsibility, accountability. But where, I wonder, does it say this in Scripture? To what chapter in what book of the Bible do we turn to read, "the Lord helps those who help themselves"?

Well, don't get out your concordance, because this is a trick question. That old adage, "the Lord helps those who help themselves," is many things, but Gospel it is not. Just imagine how hurtful it sounds to someone who has just lost a job, and frantically seeks guidance; how unkind it seems to someone who has just lost a home, and urgently seeks shelter; how painful it feels to someone who has just lost a loved one, and desperately seeks comfort.

That expression - as well-intended as it may be - does not derive from the Bible. For the witness of sacred Scripture - the Old Testament and especially the New - the clear, consistent, and comforting message of our Bible is that God helps those who cannot help themselves.

One of the ways God helps those who cannot help themselves is through others. Ordinary people, like you and me: we do little things that help. Like the proverbial Boy Scout helping the old lady cross the street, we sometimes do our part. And, continuing my series of practical suggestions for ways we can-each of us-help foster the coming of God's kingdom, I have some ideas for you. Last week, you heard some suggestions for ways you can help the environment; today's I have ideas for ways to help some of God's people.

1. Buy Fair Trade coffee. As you may know, coffee is among the most oppressive of commodities traded by humankind. A coffee certified as "fair trade" guarantees the grower a minimum of $1.26 per pound-so just imagine what unfair coffee pays! One example of Fair Trade coffee is something called Bishops Blend, which is available through Episcopal Relief and Development, our national church's fundraising and relief organization. Bishops Blend is not only certified Fair Trade, it is also organic and shade grown-so it is sustainable growth. And here's the kicker: it's delicious. So drink Fair Trade coffee, and help with the coming of God's kingdom on earth as in heaven.

2. Buy wisely in general. If you shop at a big-box store, like, say, Wal-Mart, you should be careful to read the label. The reason they can offer such a great price is not only because of their volume, you see. They are contributing to global oppression, by purchasing goods from factories with sweatshop conditions-something long ago banned in this country, and rightfully so. The Center for a New American Dream can help you locate goods that help the global economy-all of us. "Newdream.org" is their web site, so buy wisely and help foster God's justice.

3. Eat beef that is labeled as organic, hormone- and antibiotic-free, grass-fed, sustainable. Now this may sound like something that benefits you, and it is. The beef is tastier, less fatty, and far better for you-no in the steer's system to wind up making you resistant to antibiotics when you get sick. But the real reason for seeking out grass-fed beef is that this is a new and fledgling industry. In our country, you see, cattle ranchers have long-since switched to feed corn-something steer cannot digest and cannot live on without massive doses of drugs. Every pound of beef produced in this country generates carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to driving the worst gas-guzzling SUV over 100 miles. The system we have is simply not sustainable, and it has to stop. So help stop it, by demanding grass-fed beef. And in doing so, you will help bring the kingdom of God ever closer.

These are but three ideas, and I very much hope you can think of more. Ways you can help bring better balance to the world economy, foster sustainable food sources, and just plain make the world a better place.

I will say this again and again, but let me emphasize it now. It is not by coming to church that we do the will of God. Oh, coming to church is great. It allows us to orient ourselves more intentionally, to give thanks explicitly, and to ask for God's help reverently. Do keep on coming to church, for God's sake! But it is not by coming to church that we do the will of God; it is by living in the world the other 167 hours each week that we assist in the coming of the kingdom. So, when you go forth this week, my friends, I implore you to try just one thing: hang your wash on the clothesline, buy carbon offsets, recycle, recycle, recycle as much as you possibly can, excavate your in-ground oil tanks, buy Free Trade coffee, buy wisely in general, or search out organic, hormone- and antibiotic-free, grass-fed, sustainable beef. And then pray like you've never prayed before: thy will be done, O God, on earth as in heaven. - Amen.

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