Texts: Zephaniah 1:7,12-18 ; Psalm 90:1-12 ; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 ; Matthew 25:14-30
Lord of the harvest, gather the hopes and the dreams of all, unite them with the prayers we offer now. Amen.
Do you remember that old offering song? We used to sing it almost every Sunday when I was growing up at the end of the offering while the collection was being brought forward:
Let the vineyards be fruitful, Lord, and fill to the brim our cup of blessing. Gather a harvest from the seeds that were sown, that we may be fed with the bread of life. Gather the hopes and the dreams of all; unite them with the prayers we offer now. Grace our table with your presence, and give us a foretaste of the feast to come.[i]
My apologies to those who aren’t old-school Lutherans out there. I’m not trying to exclude you, it’s just one of those things that happens when you’re part of a tradition for a long time – you get shaped by the songs and the texts that you sing week after week. It’s why you see first-time parents who haven’t been to church in years returning once their children are born. They recognize, on some level, that part of the job of raising their children belongs to the whole community – the traditioning part, a responsibility that we can’t delegate to our televisions without running the risk of cutting our children off from their past. So we sing these songs, like the one our children sang us this morning, “This little light of mine – I’m gonna let it shine!”
Libby tells me that Kenneth really likes to mime blowing out the candle in that song. We invited the children to share their song with us in worship so that they will learn from the earliest age that they are full members of this assembly, and that their voices and their gifts are welcome here. Kenneth’s dad, Scott, read the passage from Zephaniah for us – having signed up last week when Dale made the announcement about signing up to assist with worship. Actually a number of people signed up to assist in worship that have never done so before, and some of you signed up to assist in ways that you haven’t before, and this is a good thing. There is no criteria of seniority for service. All your gifts are welcome here. We practice this in worship so that we can live it out in our daily lives – so we can take that message of full inclusion – the hopes and the dreams of all – out into the world and not hide it under a bushel. We keep trying to practice what we preach.
But sometimes what we have to preach is difficult, and today is one of those days. Scott sent me an email earlier this week asking me to send him the text he’d be reading so that he could start practicing it. I replied with a warning about the words we heard from the prophet Zephaniah. Scott read the passage over and wrote back, “oh my, this must be the ‘motivational part’ where the prophet is exhorting the people to turn from their wicked ways…” and I replied, “or Zephaniah was just an ornery cuss.”
Listen again to these clips from the prophet Zephaniah in this morning’s reading:
At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and I will punish the people who rest complacently on their dregs, those who say in their hearts, “The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm…their wealth shall be plundered, and their houses laid to waste. Though they build houses, they shall not inhabit them; though they plant vineyards, they shall not drink wine from them.” (Zeph 1:12-13)
There is very little in this passage that is comforting. In fact, there is very little in any of the readings that sounds much like comfort. The psalmist sings “For we are consumed by your anger; we are afraid because of your wrath. Our iniquities you have set before you, and our secret sins in the light of your countenance” (Ps 90:7-8). In the gospel reading from Matthew a slave hides a talent in the dark earth and is called “wicked and lazy” and is thrown into the outer darkness. Only in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians do we hear anything that sounds like good news, “for God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing” (1 Thess. 5:9-11).
Quite a distance between “let the vineyards be fruitful” and “though they plant vineyards, they shall not drink from them;” or between “this little light of mine” and “I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and I will punish the people who sit complacently on their dregs.” But sometimes what we have to preach is difficult.
Zephaniah was preaching to the kingdom of Judah around the same time as the prophet Jeremiah. This was before the fall of Israel and Judah, before the Babylonian exile. The kingdom had been ruled by a series of kings who had allowed the temples to be used to worship foreign gods, what Hebrew law called idolatry. Zephaniah’s words then were a direct assault on the power of kings, and a call for change that put God’s values ahead of the world’s practices.
We are sometimes too afraid to speak as plainly as Zephaniah. We, as individuals or as a church, worry that such plain speech will turn people off or scare them away. So we say nothing, or we hint at things, or we say that church is no place for politics. We hide our light under a bushel. We bury our good news in the dirt. There is comfort in the dark. There is room to hide ourselves and our truths.
But hiding in the dark robs us of our power. Nobody knows this better than gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgender people who have a name for this kind of dark place. We know it as the closet, the place of hiding. The chamber of silence. Our accommodation to a world that would prefer that we go away and pretend not to exist.
Oh I know you’re not like that. I know the good people of this congregation don’t feel that way about LGBT people. In fact, you may be sitting in your pew wishing I’d leave the topic alone – thinking that I’ve brought it up too often. Thinking I’m a single issue preacher, or that this conversation doesn’t belong in church. But I need to talk about it today, and here’s why:
Yesterday afternoon, while many of us were gathered to celebrate the life of our sister Marguerite – who never backed away from an uncomfortable conversation when she felt there was an issue of justice at stake – thousands of Chicagoans were gathered downtown to protest the passage of Proposition 8 in California on election day. California was one of three states, including Arizona and Florida, to pass laws making it illegal for people of the same gender to get married. Arkansas passed a law making it illegal for same-gender couples to become foster or adoptive parents. To put the point bluntly, on the same day that this country voted to turn the page on our ugly history of racial discrimination and to affirm the full humanity of people of color by electing to the nation’s highest office an African-American man we also sent a message to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people that their lives and their families are inferior to those of straight people. It was a slap in the face on a night when most Americans were celebrating the triumph of American democracy to address injustice.
Why am I using the pulpit to address this issue? Let me tell you why.
First, I’m preaching about this because I told you I would. When St. Luke’s made the decision early in 2006 to open its call process to the Extraordinary Candidacy Project, now Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries, long before you’d even received my particular paperwork you indicated that you under
stood that by opening your call to this particular roster you would be inviting clergy who have a commitment to preaching and teaching about issues of sexual orientation and gender identity as an issue of justice and basic human rights. That was the understanding that made it possible for us to begin our ministry together two years ago.
Secondly, I’m using the pulpit to talk about this because there are a good number of gay people in our congregation, people who are hurting and angry – just like I am – about what our fellow Americans said to us when they went to the polls on November 4th. We grew up in churches that never spoke about us, never made reference to our lives, never acknowledged that there were couples sitting next to us in the pews who weren’t being allowed to marry even as they cared for each other in sickness and in health. We have lived with the understanding that if we speak up too much, if we ask for too much, if we demand too much – like just being acknowledged as human beings with equal human rights and equal human dignity – that we may lose our place at the table. So I am using the pulpit to tell these brothers and sisters of ours who are here today that at God’s table and in God’s house the place reserved for you cannot be voted away.
But finally, I am using the pulpit to talk about this topic because the world needs to change – and it won’t change until it is called to change. And if we, who are called children of God, are called children of light, who have been entrusted with good news of immeasurable value can’t find a way to invest the world with the promises of God’s righteousness shown in Christ Jesus’ living and dying for all people – then what are we doing here? The people who voted to take back the right of gay and lesbian people to marry in California – after tens of thousands of same-gender couples rushed to city hall to make promises to each other in public, promises to love and care for each other – did so in the name of religion. I’m using the pulpit to ask you to consider if that’s what you want your religion to stand for. And, if not, what are you doing to make that known?
Hide it under a bushel? No. I’m gonna let it shine.
Marguerite told me early on in my tenure with all of you that she didn’t come to church to hear about sex. I don’t know, but I can imagine she wouldn’t have been too pleased with this morning’s sermon. But I also know from listening to the people who eulogized her yesterday that, though she had strong opinions, she was open to learning more – to discovering what she may have been missing. One guest at her funeral talked about how she would often invite him to lunch to ask for his opinions on issues of race relations saying, “help me understand.”
Can you hear that I’m not talking to you about sex? I’m talking to you about love, and commitment, and dignity. More importantly I’m talking to you about people you know. Not just me, but Dale and David and Dave and Kyle and Noel and Scott and Daniel and Chad. People you sit down with at the coffee hour. People who you worship with. People with families. People raising children. People. Is that up for a vote?
I’m talking to us about us. Not just the gay men in our congregation. I’m talking about what it means to be family. We can celebrate each other’s marriages or births or adoptions. We can grieve each other’s losses. We can also fight for each other’s dignity. If you are not gay or lesbian, have you asked any of us who are what it felt like on election night to have our humanity voted on again? Can you listen to what we have to say about that?
If you can, if we can, then we can change. If we can be open to hearing the truth about the wrong path we are walking down, then we can change. We know this is true because we saw it happen almost two weeks ago when we as a nation changed ourselves and the way the world looks at us through the election of a person of African descent to the presidency. We know this is true because we saw it happen in 1970 when Elizabeth Platz and Barbara Andrews became the first women to be ordained in the Lutheran church. We, who celebrated Reformation Sunday just three weeks ago, ought to know this is true – we people of the reformation. Our calling is not to remain the same, but to be transformed by grace into people of grace. Giving away freely what we have found here.
Sometimes what we have to preach is difficult, but we do it anyways. The prophet Zephaniah had little to say to us this morning that sounded like good news – but perhaps that news is to be found in the effect his words had on a nation. King Josiah, who came to power while Zephaniah was still preaching, is remembered as the great reformer of the nation of Judah. While cleaning out the treasure room at the temple in Jerusalem Josiah’s people discovered an ancient scroll, what we now call Deuteronomy, one of the books of Moses. He had it read before the crowds in Jerusalem and he called the people back to faithfulness. As king he was supported in that work by prophets like Zephaniah and Jeremiah who had the courage while it was still unpopular to speak truth to power. God grant us the courage to use our voices as well.
Gather the hopes and the dreams of all. Unite them with the prayers we offer now.
Hide it under a bushel? No! I’m gonna let it shine! Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.
[i] “Let the Vineyards Be Fruitful (Offering Song).” Text by John W. Arthur (1922-1980), music by Richard Hillert (b. 1923). Text and music © 1978 Lutheran Book of Worship. ELW 182.