God's Earrings by Vicar Atticus Zavaletta
Proper 13C Sermon
In the name of God, Amen.
It was time for a celebrated professor of liturgy and worship to retire. I had been a student of hers in seminary. Her retirement had just been announced, when I found myself at an event standing near her. We smiled in recognition, and I asked her how she was doing. She said she had just started the big job of moving from her apartment on the seminary campus to an off-campus apartment, where she would start her retired life.
As we were catching up, one of my friends walked up to her. Renée had also been a student of hers, many years before me. As Renée and our professor hugged and exchanged small talk, I stood there just reflecting on the generations of students she must have impacted. Then I saw Renée fix her gaze at our professor’s ear, and exclaim what beautiful earrings she had on. She said, “You like them?” “They’re amazing!” Renée replied. In the quietest, most gentle way--and no one else was watching them--our professor took off her earrings, one by one, and offered them to Renée. “Wear them, enjoy them,” she said, with a warm smile, her eyes dancing with lively affection, and also hint of sadness.
I think of that interaction from time to time, and wonder… What were the realizations that led this great professor to so freely offer what “belonged to her.” It seemed to me a part of her long goodbye to this life. But maybe that understanding, that she didn’t have all the time in the world, maybe her retirement and knowledge that she was moving into likely the last apartment she would ever inhabit, caused her to view her place in this life--the things she owned as well as her relationships--with new eyes.
In the Gospel today, Barbara Lundblad calls attention to the man whose fields produced abundantly. She says this man has an “I” problem… If you’ll notice, he uses the term “I” six times in his brief dialogue. It gives you an idea of where his focus is. His world is small, because he is the only one in it. This man has forgotten God’s command to leave extra of his harvest on the edges of his field for the needy. As Lundblad says, this man doesn’t have a neighbor…. his world is that distorted. He thinks he has all the time in the world, totally lacking the perspective we gain when we are aware of our own mortality.
Jesus’s parable highlights the danger we are in when we lack relationships. He is saying that if we isolate, alienate, and separate ourselves from everyone else in the community, we won’t be rich toward God, the only wealth that actually matters. I think Jesus’s concern is twofold: one concern is for the community who is not sharing in the abundance of the man whose fields are bursting with harvest. But Jesus is also trying to show this man that his life would be fuller if others were in it.
I think also of the terror in El Paso over the weekend, which we are hearing was motivated by racism. We pray for each and every family that has been impacted by that horrific violence. But see, white supremacy does not believe in having neighbors. It wants to have a pristine field that keeps everyone out, and when it can't do that, it turns to killing. It doesn't believe in neighbors, and it doesn't believe in sharing the abundance of America's field.
Theologian Ann Ulanov says that from the time we begin to conceptualize God when we’re little, we create pictures of God that are personal to each one of us. These pictures also morph and grow and change throughout our lives. “Pictures of God,” writes Ulanov, “are like ladders of ascent and descent where we meet God meeting us.”
In Hosea, the image of God is as a holy parent. Israel had made some pretty questionable choices after their liberation from Egypt, but still, even with these bad choices, Yahweh wants to draw them close. Yahweh wants to bring freedom and justice to them. But you can almost see God’s heart breaking for the pain of Her children.
We might be reminded of people who have parented us in our lives- whether those be biological or spiritual parents. I sat with a mother once who told me of the nights she lay in her bed in terror, waiting for a call from the police that her son had been found dead from an overdose. Her heart must have been recoiling within her. It’s the grief of a parent that we hear in the lines: “The more I called them, the more they went away from me.”
What was your picture of God like when you were a child? Was it of a loving nurturer, or strong protector, or was your image of God a harsh and judging deity?
Sometimes the pictures we have help us to draw closer to God, and sometimes, they hinder us. When we see God as compassionate and merciful, I think it helps us to draw closer, I think it calls forth the best from within us. When we see God as angry, judging, and vengeful, we get scared, we are afraid to try and fail, we are consumed with shame. We don’t want to come close.
I wonder what your image of God is today.
This is my third week here in Dundalk, and I’m seeing a few things. I see a community that has lovingly and devotedly tended to their building and their chance to gather together in worship, faithfully caring for their congregation and their pastors, for many, many years. I watch many of you do different jobs every single week that keep this building and the people in it in beautiful shape. When I see that, I think of the word “liturgy” which means “work of the people.” The work you undertake as a congregation is part of your work, a kind of worship, of giving glory to God, and it is absolutely inspiring.
The second thing I’m seeing, is the overwhelming need outside these doors. It seems like everywhere you turn in this neighborhood, there is trouble, there is pain, there is immense suffering.
Can you remember times in your life when you were suffering, when you were enslaved or had given yourself over to sin and separation… what helped you the most? Was it the people who judged you, or the people who loved you? Was it anger or was it grace, that brought you back into the fold?
Israel got into trouble by not heeding God’s commands, but still, God loves them. They’re not deserving, and God knows that. He is wounded by their disobedience. But God also knows that even though love sometimes hurts, it’s what it takes for people to heal.
“How can I give you up,” Yahweh asks... “How can I hand you over?”
“My heart recoils within me;” says Yahweh, and yet, “my compassion grows warm and tender.”
“I will not execute my fierce anger. . . and I will not come in wrath.”
I have a question that I want us to hold in our hearts as a congregation... and I want this to be a conversation that we keep alive….. What are people’s images of our church? Does that image help them to draw close?
I know that on the second Thursdays, many needy people find a real refuge inside these doors, along with clean clothes, a warm-cooked meal, and loving smiles, which is an awesome thing, that really gives witness to the abundant love of God. I can’t wait to experience it this week, and having talked to folks on the block, I know that people in this neighborhood feel God’s love through you in it.
How can we as a church continue to live ever more passionately into the image of a compassionate God, who calls us deeper into relationship with our neighbors? When there is real danger outside our doors as well as heartbreak and hurt, what is our role as a community of witness for the love of Jesus Christ, who leaves no one behind?
I like to think that God is like my professor. God always wants to give to us. God is always on the other side longing to give us greater freedom, greater joy, greater justice. And Jesus’s message in the Gospel compels us to live into the same model of a generosity that might not make sense, but that transforms lives. Jesus doesn’t only love people who “deserve” it. For Jesus, everyone deserves love and care and a welcome at the table.
Maybe, for you, that generosity means tithing faithfully, to ensure the church can stay open and run, providing a refuge for anyone who seeks it. Or maybe you like to feed people- maybe when you see a hungry person on the street, you invite them to have a burger with you and listen to their story. Or maybe you’re like my friend, who always makes a point of carrying dollar bills with her, so that whenever someone asks, she always has something to give. Maybe you like to give the gift of your time and attention, and sit with to someone who needs an listening ear, or shoulder to cry on.
Or, maybe…. maybe... the Holy Spirit is stirring a new vision within you, for how St. Luke’s can serve the needy people on our doorstep.
Whatever your way is of reflecting back to the world the image of a loving, generous, grace-filled God, let’s support each other in that discipleship.
Because the thing is, when we know that God is always getting ready to take off His earrings for us, how can we not do the same for others.