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Monday, March 12, 2007

Different Day - Same Manure

Jon M. Richardson, seminarian
March 11, 2007
Luke 13:1-9; Lent 3C
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham, NJ

In the name of God. Amen.

Well, my friends, it seems that today we have stumbled across one of the oldest precedents of the church: if something isn’t working the way we had hoped, we just spread some manure on it and wait to see what happens. All too often, the only thing that happens is that it just comes out stinking worse than before we tried to fix it.

Yes, this one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church of ours has a long-standing tradition of spreading quite a lot of manure. In every major social revolution, the church – at least in part – has been standing front and center ready to spread the same old… stuff.

For example, when white slave owners up to the nineteenth century finally decided that their African-descended slaves were at least human enough to have earned baptism, the training that those enslaved members of the Body of Christ received in church was all too often carefully calculated in such a way that it would be limited to things like narrow interpretations of Pauline threats for “slaves to obey their masters”.

And while it’s true, many of the strongest leaders of the American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s were first nurtured in churches, we only need to look around ourselves in most of our churches today to see that many churches are still lagging pretty far behind in the struggle for equal rights. It’s one thing to argue for desegregation in public schools; but the vast majority of our churches still practice a kind of segregation in their worshiping communities that is unparalleled in almost any other aspect of American culture.

And when the rest of this country was beginning to awaken to the reality that women just might be as capable as men in making decisions and as such should be eligible to vote: to participate in that kind of American civic baptism; most of the church remained steadfast for decades longer and refused to allow the voices of women, much less the liturgical presidency of women, within the institutions of the church.

And now, in what is perhaps the most ravenous debate facing the Anglican Communion today, while much of the so-called secular society is beginning to recognize the necessity of extending equal (or at least more like equal) rights to gay and lesbian people, most of the church continues to hold fast to its belief that gay and lesbian people are less than worthy of receiving and responding to their experiences of the love of the risen Christ. Churches still just keep shoveling the same old manure.

And this time, the manure continues to look strikingly similar to the kinds of manure that have been shoveled for centuries on women and on people of African descent: gay and lesbian people too often are not allowed to preside at Christian assemblies and the churches that gather these assemblies too often refuse to bless and to proclaim as holy the love shared between two gay or lesbian people.

But, while manure may seem pretty easy for most of us to sniff out in the social movements of the Church, there are other times when it can be more challenging to distinguish between what is the same old manure and what may be the fertilizer that can yield new fruit.

All too often, in our mission projects and outreach ministries, we find that the only thing with which the church has been reaching out is a shovel full of the same old manure. It can be entirely too tempting for us, from the perspective of our fortunate place in this global society, to decide what is needed to alleviate the challenges faced by those others among us who are less fortunate. The problem is, our deciding that we have all of the answers doesn’t make it true. Our efforts at mission are most effective when we take the time to learn from those who need our help, exactly what help it is that they need.

In The Episcopal Church, and particularly in the Diocese of Newark, and even more particularly in this parish, we hope to recognize this truth and are striving to keep our ministries from being shovels full of the same old, ineffective stuff. Across the General Church, our parishioners have been hearing about and are being moved to action by our triennial mission focus on the Millennium Development Goals. With these goals, (you can read about them in our regular weekly inserts) we, as a church, are attempting to eradicate world hunger, poverty, and treatable and preventable diseases, and we are attempting to bring women and people in developing nations out of their marginality through the focused and efficient funding of programs that are proven to be effective in meeting real needs.

In this Diocese, through the leadership initiated by the Sisters of Convent St. John Baptist in Mendham, many of our parishes have adopted a global mission focus that has been yielding profound new fruit for a particular orphanage established by Sr. Jane in Bamenda, Cameroon. The orphanage she established for children with AIDS and for children orphaned by the AIDS pandemic now houses, feeds, educates, and provides clothing for some 40 children. The funds are being raised almost entirely by churches in this diocese to help Sr. Jane reach her goal of building an on-site school, healthcare, and housing facility for more than 400 other children.

This may seem like an insignificant difference when viewed in the context of the now 12 million AIDS orphans that are living on the continent of Africa, but I assure you that the work of our diocese is very significant to each of those 400 children who will be cared for when this facility is complete.

Furthermore, I can assure you that the significance of our influence will continue to be felt concentrically as each of those children moves out into the world as healthy, stable, and educated members of their society. The scope of this potential influence is almost unfathomable.

And even here, in our own parish, we are attempting to reevaluate our own mission focus in such a way that it will bear new fruit and not contribute to the spread of manure that can be so tempting for the people of the church. Through the Random Acts of Kindness grants it is now possible for you, the members of this parish, to identify opportunities for mission in your own neighborhoods and around the world, and to actually bring about some tangible measure of change.

It is because of these grants and through other generous contributions of time, materials, and money that this parish will embark on an exciting mission trip this summer to Belize. The projects that are completed on that trip will have a profound impact on the lives of the people in the communities of Belize; but, perhaps even more significantly, it will cause the people of this congregation to see the world in a broader way. Our broader thinking will make the world seem smaller and we, as a community, will be more open to recognizing that the needs of any member of the Body of Christ are our own needs.

As we step into our futures, we, the people of the Church, will continue to be the ones most often asked to shovel manure. And when we are asked to do so, we must humbly and prayerfully consider: will we just continue to shovel the same old stuff? Or will we, like the gardener in this parable, decide to take a little time, dig deeper and offer new food in the promise of new growth?

We are trying to dig deeper and in many ways we are succeeding. But it is not yet time for us to rest on our laurels. There is deeper tilling to be done and if we engage ourselves in this work as Jesus, in this parable, is calling us to do, it will often be difficult and tiring work. But the fruit that we will yield will be sweet and will feed us in ways that we could not have imagined.

In my mind, this is largely what the season of Lent is about. As we, through these forty days, prepare ourselves to imagine anew what life with the risen Christ is all about, our charge is to slow down and to take stock of our lives. It is not just about giving up coffee or chocolate or beer. Those things are just symbols that help us to remember that this season of fasting is a time for us to identify those places in our lives where we are fruitless or where we are merely shoveling manure; and to hold them against those places where we should be digging deeper and offering food in the hope of new growth.

God is calling us out of our patterns of solitary fasting and into new life in Christ. God is calling us into closer and closer relationships with one another. Look around this room – this holy place where the people of God gather to worship – the faces that you see are the Body of Christ in this world. And then, when you leave this place and step back into the rest of the world, continue to look for the Body of Christ beyond these doors. Remember each day that our responsibility in answering God’s call is not limited to what we do here in this space or at this appointed time. Our time here is just a chance for us to stop and be fed before getting on with the work of the Gospel.

When you are here, you should know that through God’s mercy you are welcome, and as a welcome member of the Body of Christ, you should take the time to be fed. But then get on with your business. And when you are out in the world doing the work God is calling you to do, be cautious when you begin to feel compelled to interrupt God’s mission for the sake of spreading manure.

The temptation is real, but you may begin to recognize that those are very often the moments when you can be most fruitful. So when temptation strikes, try to dig deeper and to offer spiritual food. With God’s help and a little time, you just might begin to find new fruit growing where there had been none.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


Bill said...

Nicely done Jon!

Susan Russell said...

Without a doubt, winner in the "best sermon title for Lent 3C" division!

Hiram said...

This sermon hardly even rises to the level of eisigesis. The preacher takes a word out of the reading, and develops a whole essay based on that word, scarcely (until the very end)even acknowledging the context of the word or the point of the passage. If he had been a seminarian at VTS when I was there (in the 80's), he would have been asked to try again.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thankfully, things have changed at VTS. There's a woman Dean now, you know, so the level of arrogance has decreased enormously.

Dennis said...

excellent sermon. thanks for posting it for the rest of us.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

A reminder to those of you who wish to comment here: I will not publish scurrilous, snarky or otherwise mean-spirited comments.

If your sentence makes a "statement of fact" but you qualify it with "I think" I won't dignify your comment by printing it here.

A recent example: "I think their (VTS) enrollment is down, too, over the last decade although I could be wrong about that."

You are entitled to your opinion, and as long as you express it positively, I'm happy to publish it.

Otherwise, go dump your garbage over at one of the conservative blogs where they really like that sort of thing.

Hiram said...

Elizabeth, your response tells me a lot:

1) You seem to be stereotyping women as naturally more compassionate and less elitist than men. An interesting thought, although I think that men and women are “equal opportunity sinners” and that while some traits may be more predominant in one sex than another, you will still find that some women are arrogant. Having a woman dean would not inherently mean a lack of arrogance.

2) You reveal one of the great differences between conservatives and progressives. We conservatives regard the Bible as a product of the Holy Spirit inspiring and guiding the authors of Scripture, so that (while each author maintains a unique personality and style) God stands behind Scripture and the assertions it makes are the assertions that God wanted his people to know. In other words, we regard Scripture as inspired and revelatory, reliable and authoritive. It does not, of course, tell us all we want to know, nor is it in itself a systematic theology, but it gives us truth about God, about humanity, about the human problem, and about how God has dealt with that problem in Jesus Christ and how we are to live in light of his creation and his redemption. Thus – we seek to be humble before the Word, and to elucidate the text, so that when we preach, our hearers will understand what the text is saying, what it meant in its original context, and how we may grow from it and apply it in today’s society. (Such respect is why we also repudiate the less-than-accurate “health and wealth” preachers, for they have not interpreted Scripture by Scripture, but overemphasize some aspects of Scriptural teaching at the expense of other aspects.) It is because of this attitude that I say that your seminarian would have been asked to “try again” – not out of arrogance on the part of a homiletics professor, but because of the need to be humble before the text and to properly exegete it so as to be able to reflect not simply some idea that sprang to mind when reading the passage, but the meaning of the text itself and how that can be lived in our society.

Progressives regard (as far as I can tell from what I read) Scripture as the product of the various authors’ encounter with the divine – the words of Scripture are their reflections on what they experienced. They are important reflections and they shaped a people’s vision of who God is and what God is like – but they do not give God’s communication to humanity. Since we too have spiritual experiences and life experiences, we are also allowed to interpret those experiences, using to a great degree (or possibly a lesser degree) that pattern of thoughts we have inherited from those who have gone before us. Thus, to a progressive, Scripture is a great repository of ideas, stories, and images, and the preacher is free to use them in concert with his or her own ideas, stories, and images.

Another thought: In the days when I subscribed to “The Witness” (which I did for about ten years), I remember reading something the then Rev Barbara Harris said in her monthly column (when she was on staff and before she was consecrated as a bishop) – “Make your theology fit your politics.” Those six brief words seem to me to sum up the major difference in our approaches. I simply want to say what the Bible says, be it liberal or conservative politically, and whether it is popular or not. I do not try to tell the Bible what political stance it should take.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...


You bristle at the word "arrogance" - accusing me of stereotyping along gender lines - and then you exhibit the most amazing demonstration of arrogance and hubris which embodies the very stereotype you seek to dismantle.


You are not Jon's teacher or mentor, much less homeletics instructor yet you appoint yourself to tell him to go back and redo it.

You probably would tell Louie Crew to do the same with his because he did not fully exegete the gospel text (See "Come No Closer" above).

Then, you presume to tell me what it is I believe about Holy Scripture because you used to read The Witness.

The arrogance and hubris of the neo-Puritan orthodox conservative Evangelicals - all the while professing to "humble themselves before scripture" - never ceases to take my breath away.

Mark said...

Ever notice how well "orthodox" tear down, but seem to be incapable of producing anything themselves?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I'm especially fascinated to look at the statistics from Matt Kennedy's church as well as "Tony" in upstate NY.

As of 2004, neither church had more than 80 in attendance on Sunday, and their plate and pledge was less than $90K.

I'm hoping to visit some friends upstate during Eastertide and just drop in for a visit to one of their churches some Sunday.

You know, just to learn first hand what I'm doing wrong because I only have 150-200 people on a Sunday and a plate and pledge of $300,000.

Allen said...

This morning I finally got a chance to read Louie Crew's sermon and this sermon by Jon Richardson. I come from a strong protestant background and judge a sermon by whether the gospel is preached or not. Both of these sermons preach the gospel. At St. Mary's Manhattanville this Sunday we too had a sermon by our seminarian and it too, was a riff on the readings and not a careful exegesis. But the gospel was preached. That's what really matters.

Hiram said...

Elizabeth, I seek to be dispassionate, clear, and brief in my comments, but I must have been too brief to be clear.

You say, “You [Hiram] are not Jon's teacher or mentor, much less homiletics instructor yet you appoint yourself to tell him to go back and redo it.”

No, I do not tell him to go back and redo it. I said that my homiletics professors would have told him to try again. They were regular “Virginia (Low) Churchmen,” and not British evangelicals, but they still placed the emphasis on bringing out the meaning of the text and not using words, phrases, or images as jumping off places to float one’s own ideas. Most of what I learned in homiletics I learned by making mistakes, and I can recall my professors’ values quite clearly.

You also say, “Then, you presume to tell me what it is I believe about Holy Scripture because you used to read The Witness.”

I summarized the general attitude of progressives that I, and others, have discerned over decades of reading and listening – and some of it has been clearly stated in lectures and books. I did not say that that was your position on Scripture; individuals can vary, sometimes widely, from the general position of a group. The only reason I mentioned “The Witness” was to quote Bp Harris’s comment on theology being (in her opinion) subservient to politics.

I did read Louie Crew’s article. I thought that it was a good one, but more along the line of a devotional or a testimony than a full-orbed sermon. I was moved by it. I don’t agree with him on some very basic items, but he is a very personable man, and on the few occasions where I have had the opportunity to speak with him we have had brief but good conversation.

As a further note on men, women, and arrogance, I knew Dean Horne’s predecessor, whose name I forget at the moment. I had a NT elective course with him, in a small class. He was a wonderful scholar and he was not in the least arrogant, so moving from a male to a female dean did not create a reduction in arrogance at VTS.