October 1, 2017

2017 Oct1

Proper 21- Year A

A Sermon Preached by The Rev Ian M. Delinger

 

As God declares:“Hear my teaching, O my people;incline your ears to the words of my mouth”,Let us recount to generations to comethe praiseworthy deeds and the power of the LORD.Amen.

 

Today’s readings have a strong focus on “turning”, on repenting. Ezekiel wants the Israelites to turn from their ungodly ways and turn back to God. Jesus tells a parable of the son who turned away from his father, but then turned back, and the other son who turned away from his promise.

 

Any of you who worked for companies or institutions with prominent mission statements will understand the dynamics of those who believe the mission statements, those who don’t and when the organization fails to meet the standards of their own mission statements. The University of Chester is part of The Cathedrals Group of Universities and Colleges. There are only 14 institutions of higher education in the UK which retain a link to their Christian foundations. I will leave the Oxford, Cambridge and Durham colleges out of that, because their relationships with the Church are more complicated, as is Kings College London. But The Cathedrals Group universities openly claim some connection to their Methodist, Roman Catholic or Church of England roots. None of them are private institutions, because there is only one private university in the UK. So, these universities operate just like any other university, but they claim to be “Christian” to varying degrees.

 

As you can imagine, the challenges of being a church-founded university in a rapidly increasingly secularized society are numerous, from the Vice-Chancellor, to the Chaplain to the student, to the lowest staff member in the institutional pecking order. There are two gripes I heard often, like several times a year:

  1. I am not a Christian, so I should not be bound to the Mission Statement. Most staff members and students are not Christians, so all references to faith should be removed from the Mission Statement.
  2. How can the University claim to be Christian when it has done “XYZ”?

 

These are legitimate conversations to be had, but I’m not sure they are legitimate gripes. And I think the dynamic is related to what both Ezekiel and Matthew have to tell us today.

 

My response to the first gripe, that the University should shed its Christian Mission Statement, was grounded in pragmatism: If you work for any company, you are expected to adhere to it to a minimum degree, regardless of how much you believe in it or not. That’s just fact. And of course, no one I ever had that conversation with – which was mostly one particular person – had ever worked anywhere else.

 

The degree to which an organization adheres to its mission statement varies greatly. Those organizations which take their mission statements the most seriously will literally invite employees who disagree to leave. Recently, there was an issue at Google in which an employee expressed his views on gender inequality. While there is wide controversy over whether or not the employee had the right to express his views, the CEO of Google is quoted as stating that portions of the memo violated the Google Code of Conduct. All organizations have standards by which they are governed, whether an individual employee likes it or not.

 

That is what Ezekiel is expressing. He’s telling the Israelites: Here are the rules, you are not following them, so you’re out! No salvation for you.

 

My response to the second gripe took awhile to formulate in a way that wasn’t defensive. “How can the University claim to be Christian when it has done “XYZ”?” My well-formulated response was “In what ways do you ensure that the Mission Statement is fulfilled?” The retort was along the lines of, “I’m not a Christian; the Mission Statement has nothing to do with me.” What was lacking was the understanding that the organization is not an entity in-and-of itself; it is made up of the people within it. So, the Mission Statement is only as robust as the employees who adhere to it. That objectionable action taken by senior administrators is just as much “The University” as you who claims to not be subject to the Mission Statement. You are like the second son to whom Jesus refers, who says he is doing the work, but in reality, he is not doing the work.

 

People say that they are working when they really are not more often than you might think. In 2015, federal inspector general agents caught at least 60 federal workers cheating on time sheets or skipping out of work without permission in a 3yr period. Collectively, the employees collected more than $1M while they were golfing, gambling or traveling during time periods in which they claimed to be working. One employee claimed $15,000 for work she was absent from. This is exactly like the second son in today’s Gospel story.

 

Neither Ezekiel nor Matthew are actually focused on God this morning.

They are focusing on God’s
people and how those people
respond to God. Both Ezekiel and
Matthew are telling us that the
more Godly person is the one
who turns away from God and
then turns back. The ones who
say they are of God but who
ignore God and Godly things are
not Godly people.

This is part of human nature: We want to blame someone other than ourselves. We want the problems with the organization to be on the organization. You would not believe the number of times I would interject into a conversation, “Who do you mean by ‘The University’?” That is no different than, “Who do you mean by ‘The Company’, ‘The Family’, or ‘The Church’?”

 

What we are reminded of today is that our relationship with God is up to us. We are solely responsible for that relationship. God does work one way. But God cannot and will not force any person to engage in a particular way. So, we each need to nurture our relationships with God. That has always been true: from Adam & Eve in the Garden of Eden to John’s dream recounted in his Revelation. Our relationship with God is a Covenant, both corporately and individually.

 

A Covenant differs from a contract. The latter is entered into and dissolved by either one or both parties. If one of the parties fails to live up to the contract, the contract is severed, and punitive proceedings begin.

 

A Covenant is a relationship
between two entities bound by
promises. When one of the
entities fails to meet their
promises, the other side
continues the promises until the
wandering entity resumes their
part of the Covenant.

 

That is why divorce in the Church was a difficult thing to accept: Marriage is a Covenant, not a contract – the promises are made forever. But the Church eventually come to discover that, as much as God is within the Covenant of Marriage, the human part becomes impaired.

 

Jesus Christ is the New Covenant
that we have with God. The
grace that we receive through
the Incarnation, Crucifixion,
Resurrection and Ascension is
God’s side of the Covenant, with
the promise to love us
unconditionally and to send the
Holy Spirit. God’s side of the
New Covenant I expressed so
beautifully in the poem in
Philippians in which Paul so
lovingly describes Jesus:

though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.

 

Our promise within the Covenant is to the love the lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. A part of how we do that is to come weekly to engage with Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, that intimate gathering of all of us, with Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Eucharist is our call to Mission, to take the Good News out into the world. Again, the poem in Philippians expresses our side of the Covenant so eloquently:

 

at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

 

Both Ezekiel and Matthew show us that the relationship with God is never fully severed…we can always turn back to God. It is most evident in Ezekiel: “Turn, then, and live.”

 

There will be times when we question our relationship with God, when we can’t get to that place of prayer and praise, when we fall into doubt – when we do not agree with the Heavenly Mission Statement. Remove the angry tones from both Ezekiel and Jesus, and we discover that we are being told that we will always be welcomed back. The love of God never ceases; we make the decision to turn away from God; God doesn’t turn away from us.

 

As we reflect on the warning of Ezekiel and the parable of Jesus, let us once again be reassured by the words of the Collect of the Day:

 

O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure.

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