Sunday, September 28, 2014, 16th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
Ezekiel 18.1-4, 25-32; Psalm 25.1-9; Philippians 2.1-13; Matthew 21.23-32
Pastor Renee Splichal Larson
Grace and peace to you from the One who gives to us a new heart and a new spirit, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Right now I’m reading a book called, “Tattoos on the Heart,” written by Father Gregory Boyle. It is a powerful, unbelievable book about change, transformation, tragic deaths, ministry, Jesus Christ, gangs, and new life birthed from the most hopeless of situations. The Spirit of God took hold of Father Greg as he grew up in the projects of Los Angeles and prepared him for a life of relationship and service with those whose lives and communities were ravaged by gang life.
In our reading in Ezekiel, God says: “Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live.” These words were written for people thousands of years ago, yet, how relevant they are for us here today. I hope all of us this morning can hear these words from God as spoken to you and to me.
To help us think about what this might look like in our lives and in the lives of others, I have two stories from the book that highlight people who received a new heart and a new spirit. These two people stepped out of the gang life they knew into a new life of faith and healing community.
The first is a 23 year-old named Miguel. Miguel spent time in detention, corrections, and jail growing up. He had no connection to family because they mistreated and abused him his whole life and no support system other than gangs who were happy to have them in their group. After being tired of death and violence, he made the choice to turn his life around. He met with Father Greg and ended up getting a job with Homeboy Industries (Father Greg and his parish’s ministry) removing graffiti from public places.
After some time off the streets he called up Father Greg on New Years and Father Greg asked him what he did for Christmas. Miguel told him that he had invited 5 rival gang members over to his apartment who also had no where to go for Christmas. They all cooked a turkey together “ghetto style,” he said. “You just rub it with a gang a’ butter, throw a bunch a’ salt and pepper on it, squeeze a couple of limones over it and put it in the over.”
Father Greg asked him what else they had. “Just Turkey,” he said. “Yeah, the six of us, we just sat there, staring at the over, waiting for the turkey to be done.” Father Greg referred to Miguel’s kitchen as a “holy kitchen.”
He then asked Miguel: “Can I ask you a question? How do you do it? I mean, given all that you’ve been through—all the pain and stuff you’ve suffered—how are you like the way you are?”
Miguel answered: “You know, I always suspected that there was something of goodness in me, but I just couldn’t find it. Until one day,”—he quiets a bit—“one day, I discovered it here, in my heart. I found it…goodness. And ever since that day, I have always known who I was…and now, nothing can touch me.”
Father Greg reflects after his conversation with Miguel: “…there is a lethal absence of hope in the gang member. There is a failure to conjure up the necessary image that can catapult you into your future. In fact, gang members form an exclusive club of young people who plan their funerals and not their futures.” (pp. 88-89)
Through the power of relationships and taking hold of his own future, Miguel discovered a new way of being, a new heart of goodness, a new spirit—the Spirit of God…and it changed his life.
The second story is about another young man named Scrappy, who had a relationship with Father Greg for over 20 years. Father Greg met Scrappy when he was assigned to the church to complete some community service when he was 15. Scrappy had quite the attitude and made sure Father Greg new that he didn’t have to listen to him.
Five years later, Scrappy’s fellow gang member was murdered. During the funeral sermon, Father Greg said, “If you love Cuko and want to honor his memory, then you will work for peace and love your enemies.” Immediately Scrappy stood up, walked up the isle to Father Greg, “mad-dogs” him intensely and walked out of the sanctuary. A few years after that Scrappy pulled a gun on Father Greg and threatened to shoot him.
Years later Scrappy entered Father Greg’s office and wanted to talk. Father Greg invited him in.
Scrappy said, “I have spent the last twenty years building a reputation for myself…and now…I regret…that I even have one.” He then he begins to weep.
After gathering his breath he said, “Now what do I do? I know how to sell drugs. I know how to gangbang. I know how to shank fools in prison. I don’t know how to change the oil in my car. I know how to drive, but I don’t know how to park. And I don’t know how to wash my clothes except in the sink of a cell.”
Father Greg hired him that day to work on the graffiti crew. He writes, ‘Scrappy discovered, as Scripture has it, “That where he is standing is holy ground.’ God’s voice was not of restriction, to ‘shape up or ship out.’ Scrappy found himself in the center of vastness and right in the expansive heart of God. The sacred place toward which God had nudged Scrappy all his life is not to be arrived at, but discovered. Scrappy did not knock on the door so God would notice him. No need for doors at all. Scrappy was already inside.” (pp. 33-34)
Maybe to get a new heart is to find oneself in the expansive and loving heart of God already; to realize that God has been with you and present from the moment your were conceived. I know some of our stories are not as dramatic as the two I have shared (some are!), but we all have stories. Every last one of us has had and have ways in which we need God to give us a new heart and a new spirit.
What is so powerful about the Ezekiel reading is that it is spoken to a people who have little or no hope. They have suffered tremendously. They are asking the questions: Why God did this happen to me? Why are you unfair? Why do I have to suffer for the decisions of my parents?
The people have a sense of fatalism about them, that no matter what they do their lives and situation won’t change. They are unwilling to even try or to admit any of their own fault for the situation they find themselves in.
This is where God gets really direct. “Each life is mine,” God says, “the parent’s life and the child’s. Stop blaming others and me for the situation you find yourself in. Take responsibility for your own life. It doesn’t matter what your parents have done or not done, they are in my hands. Take a look at your life and understand that I desire to give you a new heart and a new spirit, and give you life, good life.”
What God is saying to us is that there is never no hope for anyone. God is saying, “I am always with you and always have been. Step into the life I offer you. Receive my forgiveness and let the past go.”
I wonder why we sometimes limit the power of God in our own lives. We think we’re not good enough or that all the things we have done God couldn’t possibly forgive. We think that this is the life we’re born into and in it we’ll stay.
Scrappy and Miguel did not limit the power of God in their own lives. “Los Angeles county claims 1100 gangs with nearly 86,000 members.” Father Greg says that “A great number of these youth know to come to Homeboy when they are ready to ‘hang up their gloves (p.8).”
In the face of such odds, why would Father Greg and the people of his church keep doing this work? Because they know the power of God and that Christ changes lives. They know God gives people a new heart and a new spirit. They know that tax collectors, prostitutes, gang members, and sinners are welcome in the kingdom of God, loved and redeemed by God.
These gang members could have written Father Greg off, could have written the church off, but God’s love in their lives and the community of faith became their strength, their change, their opportunity to have their lives transformed and really truly live. They had reputations, reputations that would never catch them dead going to worship on Sunday morning. Having Christ as their Lord did not make them weak, but stronger than ever.
It’s probably not too difficult for many of us in this chapel to admit the power of sin in our lives. I would be first to step up and say, “Yes, sin affects my life and I am guilty.” But God is greater than our pasts, greater than what we have done and left undone. You and I are already inside the expansive, loving heart of God. We receive a new heart and a new spirit when we come to realize this and claim it for ourselves.
Brene Brown says, ““How do we cultivate the courage, compassion, and connection that we need to embrace our imperfections and to recognize that we are enough—that we are worthy of love, belonging and joy?”
With the psalmist we pray: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit (51.10-12).”