Saturday, September 18, 2010

Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
September 19, 2010

Leave me alone, I’m having a pity party!

You can take your pity somewhere else, I certainly don’t need it!

What a pity about John.

Whenever we think of the word pity, it almost always has connotations such as these. It seems like we have turned the notion of pity into something to be avoided. Even in instances where we speak of pity from a compassionate perspective there is a hollowness there, and it almost seems like we use that word when we don’t have anything else to say.

This is one of those situations where the use of a word needs to be defined further in order for us to understand its meaning within a particular context. Let me give you another example.

One of the most familiar collects in the Prayer Book is one that I use frequently when opening vestry meetings, classes, etc. I know that many other priests use these words as well, “Direct us, O LORD, in all our doings with thy most gracious favor.” You could probably finish the collect with me because its beauty speaks so clearly and sets such a wonderful tone for any gathering of the church. However, in the original version of the collect instead of the word ‘Direct’ the word ‘Prevent’ was used to begin. If you look in your Prayer Book the collect for next Sunday will use that same word again in speaking of God’s grace. In this context the word ‘prevent’ means to precede or go ahead of. That makes total sense when you look at both of those instances because we should pray that God’s mercy should go ahead of us like a light unto our path or that God should precede us in all that we do.

We certainly encounter a similar situation when we come across the word pity in this morning’s collect. It doesn’t seem logical that a word like pity makes sense when speaking of cleansing and defending the Church. However, the ancient Church knew what she was doing when she used the word pity in the collect for today that was penned many centuries ago.

First, I thank that we actually need to grasp the notion of pity used here. It is not something condescending or belittling. There is a tremendous depth here that might otherwise go unnoticed. The prayer itself is actually seeking the Lord’s pity. It is something that we are to actually long for and eagerly await. In those few sentences at the beginning of the sermon, pity as we know it is the last thing that we would ever want or actually pray for. Yet, here we are asking for that very thing.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, the phrase “miserable offenders” was removed from the General Confession in Morning and Evening Prayer in the ’79 Prayer Book. What a tragedy because the root of the word miserable has a link to the word mercy, and what could be longed for and sought after more than the grace and mercy of Almighty God? Our acknowledgment of our true condition before God as miserable offenders is the recognition that we need and therefore seek God’s forgiveness and mercy.

The exact same thing is happening here in our petition to God for pity. As we think of pity, it is purely an emotion in most cases. Certainly there are times when pity leads us to some sort of action, but most times it is purely on an emotional level. With God, asking for pity in not just a plea for sympathy but it always leads to action. It does so because of this posture begins to get the order correct – we are in dire need of pity and God’s pity is the only thing that leads to life and hope. It whittles away at the very corrupt nature that we’ve all inherited and is part of the process known as sanctification or the striving toward holiness.

Our Epistle and Gospel lessons both bear this out.

St. Paul in his Epistle to the Ephesians exhorts them not to faint or despair or lose heart because of the persecution that he is enduring on account of the Gospel. In essence he is telling them that I don’t want your pity in a 21st Century context, but rather, he urges them to exalt in the glory that this theirs whenever the same befalls them. And befall them it certainly will.

That same persecution is going to come our way as well. We too are going to be ridiculed and admonished by this world for daring to proclaim as Lord the Eternal Word of God, Jesus Christ. Relative truths are the norm today, and the slings and arrows of narrow-mindedness and being called unenlightened are coming our way, and you’d better bet your life on it.

Who are we to have the audacity to say that someone else is wrong? After all, aren’t we all fraught with our own besetting sins and weaknesses? Yes, we are, but I hope and pray that every day of our lives we fall on our knees and beg God for His pity as we seek to serve and follow him.

After all, our Lord was never afraid to call people to task for who they were, and the way they were living their lives. The word that Jesus used was metanoia, and it literally means to turn around and go in another direction. Our life, “following the devices and desires of our own hearts,” is a dead end trail, and that is why our humble confession is a plea for help in turning around and going about things in a different manner.

Our Gospel lesson is the tells the story of the widow of Nain who has lost her only son, and now finds herself in the desperate position of widow with no male children to attend to her welfare. As our Lord encounters the funeral procession we hear that he has compassion on her, touches the bier, the procession stands still and her son is raised to new life. A few weeks ago we encountered that same word used here for compassion, and this is the type of emotion that leads to action. It lead our Lord to action in the healing of the only son of a widowed woman. It should be the same thing that leads us to action as well.

The same pity that we seek from Almighty God for the cleansing and defense of the Church should be what drives us into His service as well. We don’t simply profess a passive faith that requires no work, but rather a living and active faith that leaves us forever changed, empowered for service and work for the Spread of our Lord’s Kingdom.

The Epistle of St. James declares with clarity, “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was. But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed. If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man's religion is vain. Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.”

How appropriate that these words from St. James might be used to accompany our lesson from St. Luke concerning the healing of a widow’s son. He sees this as essential work because we are commanded to ensure that those who are the most vulnerable hear the Good News and that they are not left as a people without hope. The fundamental message of the Gospel is that we are all vulnerable, we are all in need of that sense of compassion from Jesus Christ, and we need to hear and proclaim those self-same words every day of our lives. For we all share in the same fundamental need to receive and then to share the pity the both cleanses and defends the very Church that our Lord gave his very body to redeem and purchase for his own. May we hear and do that which our Lord commands.

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