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Working for a Better Society

 

Pastor John Gibson preached this sermon on February 28, 2016 on Luke 13:1 - 9

While we Americans love the NFL and football, the rest of the world loves FIFA and soccer. The largest single sporting event on earth is the World Cup. The 2014 FIFA World Cup reached 3.2 billion people. In comparison, Super Bowl 50 - 111 million. FIFA, which stands for Federation International Football Association, in recent years has been plagued by scandal. The FBI indicted fourteen officials for money laundering, racketeering and wire fraud. Even the former president was implicated, stepping down last year and being suspended from soccer for six years due to ethical violations. Gianni Infantino was elected Friday to restore FIFA’s credibility. Infantino did not want to run, entering only at the last minute when it became clear that the frontrunner would be unable to lead FIFA’s reform.

Today we are continuing the sermon series Difference Makers. This series looks at how we can make a difference in our community. The Gospel today shows us the importance of working for better institutions – better government, better business, schools, churches and community organizations.

This can be a challenge. I know I often prefer to take the easy way out and to go with the flow. But to be a difference maker, as Mahatma Gandhi said, you need to “be the change you wish to see in the world.”

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells a story about a fig tree. There are various ideas about the significance of the fig tree. One prominent one is that it represents the religious structure of Jesus’ time. We can see evidence for this because of the context of today’s Gospel. Immediately after the end of our lesson, Jesus is teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath. The leader of the synagogue criticizes him when he heals a woman who had been crippled for eighteen years. Jesus replies, “"You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?" (Luke 13:15-16 NRS). Here we see Jesus directly challenging the religious system of his time.
The parable of the fig tree points to God’s patient work to reform that system. The owner comes year after year looking for good fruit. Although frustrated, he accepts the gardener’s advice to fertilize the tree, to cultivate it so that it will produce good fruit.

Elsewhere in the Gospels we find Jesus trying to change the religious practices of his people. He says that his followers do not need to follow the purity laws before eating (Mark 7:1-15). Jesus cleanses the temple saying, “"It is written, 'My house shall be a house of prayer'; but you have made it a den of robbers" (Luke 19:46 NRS). Ultimately, a new faith springs from Jesus with almost two billion followers today.

Indeed this is the long standing work of God. In the lesson from Exodus, God calls Moses through the burning bush to intercede before Pharoah for the Hebrew people. God calls a people Israel to be a light to a world in darkness. God sends prophets to reform Israel, when the nation goes astray. God is constantly at work to reform, to call the peoples and the institutions of the world, to be who God made them to be. We make a difference when we work with God to improve our institutions whether government, school, business or church.

Last year the Rev. Arthur Calloway was inducted into the Raleigh Hall of Fame. Arthur is a hero of mine. He was the rector of St. Ambrose Episcopal Church from 1959 – 1998, 39 years, a historically African-American congregation. He spoke out during the 1960s for African-American candidates for public office and he worked to integrate the public schools. Much of the strategy for the Civil Rights movement in Raleigh was planned around his kitchen table. Father Calloway served three terms on the Raleigh City Council from 1979 – 1985. He also was the Wake County campaign chair for Congressman David Price. Under his leadership, St. Ambrose fought to improve southeast Raleigh with afterschool and senior citizen programs. Arthur Calloway is an example of an Episcopalian who made a difference.

On the opposite side of the political aisle is Leo Daughtry, who has represented Johnston County in the state senate and house for many years. Daughtry, who recently announced that he is retiring from politics after this term, is a member of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Smithfield. Although Leo has served as head of the Republican Party in the house, he believes his greatest accomplishment has been in the court system and public safety. He said in an article for the News and Observer, “I’ve tried to be the gatekeeper for the courts and the judicial branch, and I’m proud of the fact that we have our court system in pretty good shape.”

Episcopalians have a long history of working to improve our society. Eleven of our nation’s presidents have been Episcopalians including our first president George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush. Episcopalians also have served prominently in American government. Supreme Court Justice David Souter, retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright, James Baker and Colin Powell are all Episcopalians.

Members of Grace have also worked to improve our system of government. Barbara Platt-Hendren, the former vicar of Grace, was active in Democratic Party politics in Johnston County. Tina Huber, who attended here until her family moved to Texas, served with the Board of Elections. Larry Sorensen serves as a voting precinct judge. Jim Purvis is a member of the Archer Lodge Zoning Board.

I personally am working to change a Clayton regulation that prohibits flying the Episcopal flag in front of our building. The vestry, our governing board, and our landlord had approved putting up a flagpole and flag; however, a Clayton planning staff member told me Thursday that the town code prohibited it. I believe this part of the code violates our constitutional guarantee of free speech, since the Supreme Court unanimously ruled last year against a similar ordinance in Gilbert, Arizona.

While the old joke goes that, when two or three Episcopalians are gathered together, there will be at least four opinions on politics or anything else, we Episcopalians have long agreed that we are called, as it says in the Bible, to be in the world but not of the world. God calls us to work for a better world in and through the social structures of our day. I encourage you to be involved whether by voicing your thoughts and concerns at one of Clayton’s neighborhood improvement meetings, serving on a board or even running for office. One way that we make a difference in our community is by working to make our government, schools, businesses, churches, community and sporting organizations more just and fair for all God’s creatures.