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Sunday, September 10, 2017

Heaven and Earth

A sermon preached at St. Philip's, Laurel, DE
September 10, 2017 - Pentecost XIV - Proper 18 A
(the Rev'd Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton

Well, as I stand here, the country is in notable high anxiety about hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, on the East Coast and forest fires ablaze on the West Coast.  Some of you may have family or friends who live in the midst of one of these "natural disasters".  

Let's take a moment to actually and with great intention send our thoughts and prayers to the folks who are in harm's way. Amen.

I think this is my absolute all-time favorite story of "Theology of Hurricanes and Other Natural Disasters".

When a series of hurricanes were predicted to tear up Florida, journalists asked a Roman Catholic priest, an Evangelical minister and then Episcopal Bishop Leo Frade why each one thought there were so many hurricanes hitting their state.

The RC priest said it was evidence of God's wrath for the sin of abortion.

The Evangelical minister said it was proof of God's punishment for homosexuality.

Bishop Frade said, "It's hurricane season."

We do love to blame others or God for whatever ills befall us. It’s been that way since the beginning. 

As early as the story of the Garden of Eden, God asked Adam how it was that Adam knew he was naked and Adam said, “Umm . . . it’s Eve’s fault. She gave me the apple to eat.” And, Eve said, “It’s the snake. He told me to eat it.” 

We look around and see the destruction in the path of Hurricane Harvey and now Hurricane Irma – with Hurricane Jose hot on her heels – and we think, well, at least some of us think, “Is this God’s punishment for something we’ve done?”

We ask this question from a place of fear and fear often infantalises. I recently had a health issue that was making me anxious. If the treatment plan was an injection of steroids, it meant pain. If the treatment plan was surgical intervention, there would definitely be pain.

Either way, the anticipation of pain as part of the remedy made me anxious. Which is completely understandable. 

I began to wonder what I might have done to bring this about. No, I didn’t ask if God was punishing me but I confess the question of an association with cosmic retribution for the way I might have abused my body kept dancing behind my thoughts. After so many years of reading ancient sacred texts, that sort of theology gets under your skin.

To distract myself I found myself scanning the walls of the doctor’s office. I didn’t want to see images of bucolic pastures with grazing sheep or cow, much less images of placid lakes. I wanted to check his credentials. Suddenly, it became a matter of urgent importance to know where he went to school. And, if he were board certified in his specialty. And, did he have membership in a prestigious fraternity or medical society?

In my anxiety and in my sense of vulnerability, if I was going to be dependent upon this doctor – this father figure I was asking to work a miracle of medical science – he had darn well better be the absolute best in his field. 

One of dear friends often reminds me, “Fifty percent of all doctors graduated in the lower half of their class.” Another always says, “Question: What do you call a physician who graduated last in his or her class in medical school? Answer: Doctor.”

The question of divine retribution is an ancient question, one which is answered in many of the stories of the Hebrew Scripture. We read that in the story of how the Israelites, who were held in bondage in Egypt, understood the history of their salvation. God sent the plagues to the Egyptians as a demonstration of God’s power. And, God’s wrath. 

Moses, God’s prophet, knew the secret to keeping away the last plague from the Israelites – a special dinner of lamb, prepared in a precise way; and then, the smearing of the lambs blood on the doorway of the house, so that God would “Passover” and spare the Israelites. 

The Prophet Ezekiel from whom we heard this morning – like many of the prophets – makes a very clear and direct line between the “wickedness of the people” and divine retribution and punishment for those sins. Even so, says the prophet, God does not want to punish people; God wants people to turn away from sin and save themselves. 

That is a bit of an evolution in the thinking about prayer and our understanding about God's punishment and our responsibility in our own salvation.

In this morning's pericope – the section of scripture – we heard from Matthew’s Gospel, we see a further evolution of the idea of sin and retribution. Jesus gives us guidelines for how to handle conflict in community, giving us a deeper, more mature spirituality about sin and salvation and God’s role in the brokenness and sin of our lives. 

Jesus says, “What you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven and what is loosed on earth is  loosed in heaven.” 

Do you hear the difference? It isn’t that God is acting independently or perniciously or malevolently; it’s that God is as affected by our behavior as we are affected by our understanding of God’s action in the world. 

Let me say that again: God is as affected by our behavior as we are affected by our understanding of God’s action in the world.   

The two realities – heaven and earth – do not exist independently or in isolation. In the new Christian cosmology, Jesus teaches that heaven and earth are mutually interdependent. 

My mother’s favorite saint was St. Teresa of Avila. St. Teresa once wrote:  
“Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
Do you hear in her words an echo of the words of Jesus? 

We are not alone in this enterprise we call human existence. God is right in the midst of it with us because, through Jesus, we are His body incorporate here on earth. What we do affects God and what we know of God, through Jesus, affects us.

So, rather than blame the violence of the world on the violence of God, God wants us to take responsibility for our own violence. Rather than blame God for the tragedies in life, God wants us to look at what we’ve done to contribute to those tragedies and to make amends for them – as individuals, as a community, as a nation, as the world.

It’s very easy to blame and scapegoat others for things we don’t understand. When we do that, however, even with God, we allow others to hold our sins for us which conveniently prevents us from ever having to deal with those proclivities and character flaws in ourselves.

An example: Less than two weeks before my father died, I went to visit him in the extended care facility where he was recuperating from congestive heart failure. He was also struggling with dementia which was simply heartbreaking to see.

He would have some moments of clarity, however, and I was fortunate enough to share a moment like that with him during my visit. My father was an alcoholic who became verbally abusive and physically violent when he drank. I had held enormous amounts of anger for my father and often blamed him for whatever there was that was wrong in my life.

I was walking with him in the hallway and I said to him, “Daddy, I want you to know that I have forgiven you.” My father stopped cold in his tracks and looked at me with such clarity and awareness it was startling. Then he smiled and said, “Well, good, because I forgive you, too.”

And then, it all washed over me in a sudden insight: I had not exactly been a model daughter. I had certainly done things that hurt him – hurt others. Not that I intended it but that was the natural consequence of the choices I had made. I felt, all at once, the sting of shame and guilt and the joy of forgiveness and freedom.

The truth of it was this: I needed his forgiveness, too, and I didn’t even know it. As long as I allowed him to hold anger, I never had to deal with my own. As long as I allowed him to hold violence, I never had to deal with my own. As long as I allowed him to hold addiction to alcohol, I never had to deal with my addiction to food or other sources of comfort.

My father had been my scapegoat. It was easy to do. I had learned to “blame” things that were not in my control on “God the father”. Blaming my father for the things I didn’t want to work on came just as easily. That was so until I realized that God is not just my father; God is my mother and the source of my life, the Source of All Life. God is my brother in Jesus. God is the Spirit of Life – the Guide of life – the one who opens our eyes and ears, our hearts and minds.

In that one moment of clarity, what was loosed on earth was loosed in heaven. I think my father and I both felt free – freer than either of us had been in a long, long time.

Jesus is calling us to a deeper, more mature relationship with each other and God. 

God is calling us to forgive others as we are forgiven. 

And, God is calling us to forgive ourselves so that we can forgive others and be in relationship, one with another and be at peace within ourselves so there will be peace in the world.

What is bound on earth is bound in heaven and what is loosed on earth is loosed in heaven.

Hurricane Harvey has left. Hurricane Irma is here. Hurricane Jose is on his way.

God is not punishing anyone for any reason.

It’s hurricane season.   

Buckle up.


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