“Ave, verum corpus
natum de Maria Virgine,
Vere passum immolatum
in Cruce pro homine,
Cujus latus perforatum
unda* fluxit (et)* sanguine,
Esto nobis praegustatum
in mortis examine.”
Those are the words in Latin to the magnificent motet by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart written in 1791 for the feast of Corpus Chrisi at Saint Stephan in Baden, Vienna. This is how the words translate into English:
born of the Virgin Mary,
Who truly suffered, sacrificed
on the Cross for man,
Whose pierced side overflowed
with water* and blood,
Be for us a foretaste**
In the test of death.
I tell you that this evening because as I made a second attempt at writing tonight’s sermon I had this magnificent music playing on a continuous loop. I had gone to sleep the night before with a lot on my mind. And as I began the new day… somehow with humility and prayer, God had helped me find a way to face some difficult issues that were troubling me a great deal. I didn’t want to concentrate on the news of the day or what was going in Washington, I wanted some music that would help me to focus on the centrality of my faith. Because once again I was feeling overwhelmingly grateful for the help I had been given to find a better path and to begin again. It seems like Advent has just begun and here we are already at the Second week. The Gospel reading this week from Mark starts with two words:
I think if I had my way I would call this Sunday “Beginning Sunday” because we are not just at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark which we will continue reading through Lent but we are also at the beginning of Advent and the beginning of John the Baptist. Of the four Gospels that feature the life of John the Baptist, Mark introduces us to him at the earliest time in the Jesus story and gives the briefest of the four accounts. It says “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” But before we go there, our Old Testament reading from the prophet Isaiah is indeed prophetic because within his words “a voice cries out in the wilderness prepare the way of the lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God” we find the genesis of the entire story of John the Baptizer.
It is here, that the role John will come to come to play in the lives of the early church and in our lives even today finds it’s true beginning.
Jesus will be born and this will change the world. And although all we know about his birth, his life, his teachings and his death on the cross could be interpreted as a beginning and finally as the end… we Christians believe that the end has never come and that with his death and resurrection we entered into a new beginning which has no end.
In the beginning of the Gospel of Mark (and as far as we can know, this is the very first time in the bible that the word “Gospel” which means “Good News” is used to refer to a written account of the life of Jesus Christ”) we are told that Isaiah said “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way”. That messenger in Isaiah is assumed by most to be John the Baptist who while proclaiming a baptism for the forgiveness of sins was assumed by many to be the Messiah, that is until he told them directly “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me, I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
So here we have a people who are looking for a savior, a leader and many think they have found him in John. How disillusioned and disappointed many of them must have been when John refused this notion and said NO. I am not the Messiah but I can show you the path to him that starts with me and ends with repentance, forgiveness and salvation. I wonder, how many clung to him thinking…I’ve gone all in on this. I’ve bet the farm and the future of my family on John being the Messiah. It could have been seen as a dead end but it was really the beginning of the extraordinary. In a real way, the arrival of Christ that we await during this Advent time could not have happened if John had not come first, preparing the way, clearing the path, setting the stage for a new beginning.
I am in a stage of my life that finds me trying to understand once again how I fit into God’s world. But I too am making a new beginning. 15 years ago in another place I began the path to ordination as a vocational deacon. And I am still on that path with the expectation of that ordination in the next year. There have been many stops and starts during those years. Many times I thought my path had come to an end but the end I could see only blocked my view of the beginning that was coming my way. In fact, it is only through the encouragement and support of the late Capers Limehouse, a Deacon of this church that I am here at all. This is how I think the our lives are. A series of beginnings and I do not believe they end until we die which my faith teaches me is nothing more than another new beginning. So for each of our lives I think it is a good thing that this week’s readings focus on beginning.
There is a saying that I think is attributed to Helen Keller who supposedly said, “When a door is closing, most people are so focused on the door that has closed that they cannot see the door that is opening.” And I believe that for all of us, there is almost always another door opening, another potential beginning that we either cannot or will not see.
Advent is a good time to do some self reflection and to try to come to terms with and cast off some of the negative feelings and beliefs that we harbor that make our lives less joyful than they can be. I have a confession to make: I have been thinking a lot about justice recently. Not about the court system or about what happens in Washington but about what justice means in my life and yours. Over the years of my discernment for the diaconate many things happened, which were not to my way of thinking, either fair or just. Where I know now that I should have simply accepted these things and gone on with my life, I stored up the hurt and resentment they have caused me instead of letting them go. Rather than move on to my next opportunity I have fed on the anger and resentment I have allowed to to damage my heart. I have carried this feeling with me until very recently when I was finally able to understand it is true that life is not fair. It is sometimes, but not always so although justice is indeed a good thing, it is in no way guaranteed or promised to us. Unjust things happen all the time for reasons that are sometimes impossible for us to understand or explain. Babies die, innocent people are sent to jail, people lose their jobs, their homes and their security and housing. Even God cannot promise Justice. He can and does promise unquestioning forgiveness and love through Grace. He gives us the gift of free will and the loving heart to be fair and to engage in acts of justice, but he does not insure a just outcome. Just look at the world and the absence of justice in so many of our human conflicts. I realized some time ago that I had this allowed this fixation on un-promised justice to hold me back, make me bitter and angry at times and keep me from a deeper and more rewarding relationship with God. Like expecting our imperfect lives to ever be perfect, my expectation that everything would always be just was an irrational and unachievable expectation.
So now every morning with every new beginning and the gifts it brings, I ask God to free me from the unreasonable expectations I carry around with me and that has helped to make me a more generous humble and happy person…much more aware of the gifts I have been given than those I lack.
I came upon the following Advent meditation this week from the Virginia Theological Seminary:
“Simplify, travel lightly. Cast off the things and thoughts which are dark and heavy. Put on the “armor of light”. Clean out the closets of your mind and of your house. Simplify and share the best of your mortal life”.
As we enter into the second week of Advent I invite you to the new beginning that God gives us each with every breath and with every new day. I invite you to unburden yourself from those thoughts and convictions that hurt you and keep you from God. To clean out the closets of your mind and of your house of the troubleing and soul deadening things that are holding you back from the love, understanding and forgiveness of God and to use each rising of the sun…as a fresh beginning…a new and unsoiled opportunity during this season of Advent as we await the coming of the one who will save our broken world as we begin anew.
This evening I think it’s helpful to remember where we left off last week in Matthew in fact I think it is helpful to go back to chapter 24 when Jesus having just assailed the scribes and Pharisees sat at the Mount of Olives and the disciples asked him “What will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age?” And Jesus proceeds to tell them what will happen when the Messiah will come. He warns them not to be deceived and to be vigilant and he says many things about being ready and prepared for this coming “Keep Awake” he says, “ for you know neither the day or the hour”. Don’t be deceived by pretenders who claim to be the Messiah and don’t be lazy and negligent…Stay awake because he could come at any hour. Any hour at all. This warning to be vigilent and to be ready is echoed again in our Epistle this week from the First Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians. We are in the days just prior to his crucifixion on the cross and his brutal death. Jesus is trying to tell them about what is to come so they will see and recognize the signs he is telling them about. “Keep Awake”…be ready, be prepared…”Keep Awake”.
This week’s Gospel lesson from Matthew, tells us the parable of the Talents. Three slaves are given a sum of money (a “Talent”) by their master before he goes away for a long time. When he returns he asks for an accounting and finds that two of them had invested what they were given and had doubled the original amount and he rewards each with praise and greater responsibilities. But the third in fear and trepidation had hidden his Talent in a hole in the ground to protect it and although it had not lost value it had not grown. The master angrily addresses him and says
“You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest.” Then he tells one of the others, “take the talent from him and give it to the one with ten talents…for to all those who have, more with be given, and they will have an abundance, but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” And then he throws the slave out into the darkness.
We are talking about a great deal of money here. By one reckoning one talent could be more than 1 million dollars. SO it is easy to get caught up in the monetary nature of this story and the complexity of our capitalist economy or even in the concepts espoused by those who preach the prosperity gospel. But this is a parable and parables are complex riddles not factual news reports. Parables can leave us with questions that can confuse and puzzle us. And they are frequently not about what their actual words seem to tell us. In this instance when the Gospel of Mathew was written there was no such thing as a capitalist economy, so to judge the meaning of these ancient words only in economic terms would, I think be wrong.
I think it helps to remember that the 25th chapter of Matthew begins with these words: “When the day comes, the kingdom of heaven will be like this”. I think the purpose of this parable is to give us clues as to what we should expect the kingdom of heaven to be like and to show us what God expects of us.
The Jesuits have an interesting and helpful way of looking at scripture. It is called the “Composition of Place” and it calls them to approach every passage by first descending into the heart to discern what God is trying to tell them and then to put themselves into the place of every person in the story. In this way they place themselves inside the scene not on the outside looking in. They actually try to imagine what they might see what they might hear and what they might touch by actually living in the scripture. SO in this case we would be the master and we would also be each of the slaves…and through that exercise they try to determine the message that God is giving us.
Here I think we are being told something that has little to do with the monetary value of the gifts we are shown in the parable. I think we are being shown that each one of us receives gifts from God of all kinds.
The gift of prophesy, the gift of intelligence, the gift of being able to write or to sing or to take care of the poor and the sick, The gift of great wealth or of great empathy. The gift of being able to be a parent and raise a child or the gift of being able to care for the elderly in their last days of life. There are far too many gifts to name but we all receive them each according to God’s needs for us.
SO I think what this parable is trying to tell us is that whatever gifts we are given, we must first understand or discern them and then we must use them to the best of our ability offering thanksgiving for God’s grace. We then multiply the power of our gifts and can come closer to reconciling with the person God wants us to be and the person we truly are.
Father Adam told us two weeks ago in his sermon about the dancing saints that fill the ceiling of Saint Gregory of Nyssa church in San Francisco. Last Sunday I had one of those experiences that I no longer refer to as coincidences but instead call God Incidences. We were in New York, walking up town from Wall Street to the Whitney Museum on 16th Street when we passed by Trinity Church Wall Street. We had no plans to attend church that morning, but as we passed the open doors the service was just ready to begin and we decided to stop and go in. After experiencing a life changing sermon by the remarkable Reverend Mark Bozzuti Jones I am ready to ask God to help bring those saints down from their lofty perches to help us create a new revolution in how we actually live and use our faith.
Father Mark used his sermon to tell us that we need to find the means to love more deeply and to live our faith more deeply to combat the hatred, discrimination, greed, sickness, dishonesty nihilism, growing militarism in our country and the hunger and poverty that causes millions throughout the world to die before their time.
In light of all the negative and soul dampening things taking place in our world it is crucial that each of us mine the full potential of the gifts we are given. We must live our faith in a new and dynamic way to help bring about the freedom, justice and love that millions of people throughout the world cry out for.
I think that we are being called though this parable to use the gifts we have received to bring God’s love to a broken world. So with this message… I ask all of those saints on all of the ceilings in all of the churches throughout the world to come down to us to help us in our time of need and repair and restore our brokenness. I ask God to help me and each of you to use your gifts to stand up and walk forward as a new army of the faithful…committed to loving each other and to actively fighting to do what we say with our mouths and through the efforts of our hearts and with our hands begin a revolution of the millions of the faithful to multiply the power of our efforts to restore our world.
I have a good friend named Lindsay Lunnum who is a very talented and faithful Rector of an Episcopal Church in the New York metropolitan area. I recently sent her one of my sermons for some feedback and she responded with something that has continued to echo in my life. She said “we need to write the sermons that we need to read”.
That was never move true than in the past week when I wrote and delivered a sermon based on the story of the Canaanite woman in the Gospel of Matthew. The sermon focuses on the concept of rejection and how it impacts us all at some point in our lives. On Monday I had my own experience with rejection and when I confided how angry and disappointed I was, Margaret said “maybe you need to go back and read your own sermon. I did. Truer words were never spoken. Lindsay and Margaret were both right. I do not know what God has in store for me…what his plan is. I need to stay positive and open to what will come next.
Here’s that sermon:
It is an innocent children’s game. 10 chairs and 10 children.
The music starts and the children circle the line of chairs ready to sit as soon as it stops. Every time it stops a chair is removed and one child without a seat is removed from the game until there is only one chair left and two children. The music starts, one child claims the chair and is declared the winner and the other the loser. 9 losers and 1 winner. No one wants to be the loser, the rejected one, the “other”. Being rejected is a sad part of our lives. Something that almost everyone experiences at some point but it is often painful.
Each of these celebrated and successful people were rejected (sometimes brutally) or fired at least once and many over and over again before they achieved success. In our society, success (and now celebrity) seems to be the most important thing that can be achieved. Those who succeed are deemed the winners and every one else the losers…so what’s it like to feel like you are the person in the room who is always surrounded by everyone else who is so successful. What is it like to be the person who is not at the top of the deck but who thinks he or she is at the bottom and just never good enough?
Michael Jordan probably thought he was at the bottom when he was cut from his high school basketball team. Steven King probably felt pretty low when his first book “Carrie” was rejected 30 times until in frustration he threw it into the trash and his wife fished it out, submitted it one more time and it launched his writing career. And the name Walt Disney might never have evoked the flights of imagination we now connect with the images he created if he followed the advice he was given in a rejection letter after submitting his work which read, “you don’t have much talent and your ideas are not very good. You might well be advised to seek another profession.”
Success and professional accomplishment are real but the acceptance and recognition that come with them are elusive and ethereal things and there is not much distance separating those who are accepted and those who are rejected. In our lionizing of the successful we are all involved in the creation of those people who society looks down on as the failures, the outsiders, the others. Who never seem able to find a place that brings them strength and acceptance and shelter.
Our lesson this week from Matthew is a deceptively simple story about such a woman, a Canaanite who appears in both Matthew and in Mark’s gospel (although in Mark’s gospel she is called a Phoenician of Syria.) That is the only significant difference between the two accounts. But neither name is terribly important. The important thing here is that Jesus and his followers were Jews and this woman was a Gentile. The point of this story is that Jesus was sent specifically to be the savior and protector of the Jew. the time. So when this poor woman comes to him and begs for his help for her afflicted little girl, his disciples urge him to reject her and send her away because she was a gentile and because she was a woman and because she had very little status in the all male Jewish world…But when she falls to her knees in front of him and pleads “Lord, help me”. This woman, this Gentile woman, this “other” the outsider who doesn’t fit the description “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” who Jesus was sent to… calls him “Lord” As she does this and her heartfelt pleas are rejected by the disciples, Jesus hears her and sensing the sincerity of her faith makes plans to help and save her not because she is Gentile but because of her deep commitment to her faith.
There is a famous passage here that has always bothered me: Jesus says: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs!” but this lowly third or fourth class woman responds: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters table.” She is humble and grateful for his help and Jesus is willing to take her faith from what more fortunate and privileged people leave behind and take for granted. She takes nothing for granted and her sincere statement of faith in the light of her expected rejection, causes Jesus to open his heart to her, He says “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish”! And her child is healed.
So what are we to learn from this? That Jesus’ disciples would reject this faithful supplecant because of her status as a non Jew? No. I think we learn that although Jesus was sent to save and protect the Jews…his heart is truly open to all people of faith and when that faith is demonstrated he responds with love and support. In an ideal world, I would hope we could construct a society where we could judge people only with the conviction that every child created by God is inherently valuable from its first breath. That there are no “others”. Only a holy commitment to love accept and embrace each other with great enthusiasm and sense of mission.
But in the absence of that, may we like the woman in our Gospel lesson, walk in the shoes of the outsider who when rejected, uses that slight as a reminder that God loves us and will protect and defend us. May we when faced with rejection simply and unabashedly fall to our knees and thank God for his acceptance and love and the strength and conviction to love each other with immediacy and enthusiasm. We cannot know God’s plan for us. An experience with rejection may be a gift in disguise as we turn in pain and sadness from something that we wanted so much but did not get…we may find that another pathway becomes clear another portal opens that we could never have anticipated and that could never have happened without the initial rejection we have faced. I can tell you that this has happened to me many times in my life.
There are those people who go through their lives from childhood to old age feeling like they never belong, they never fit in they are always on the edges of our society struggling to get by. They are chosen last in school yard games, face loneliness and isolation. They are the people with their nose pressed against the window looking at everyone inside having a good time while they are outside in the cold. They live without love, without friendship and without human companionship. They are the opposite of what most of us strive for. They are “the other”. To be the other is a sad and heartbreaking experience and sadly that many share. Here is a bit of a poem by Amber Jones called the outsider where she describes this person:
The Outsider by Amber Jones
I am the outsider, the nobody
As your pains and fears pass by,
For some place to belong, to be
I know that I belong nowhere,
Always to be
I am the outsider, the loner
Some form of acceptance, but I
No longer hoping, but pleading for a cure to my
I am the outsider, the lost
I am the outsider
We are all involved in the creation of the “Other”. The rejected one. Yes sometimes a person can be so caustic and difficult to deal with that he or she virtually pushes people away. But I find it true that when a group is formed an awful lot of our time is spent keeping people out rather than inviting people in. And every time we do that we are involved in creating “the other”. I went to a very popular disco one night in New York many years ago. There was a huge crowd outside trying to get in and bouncers baring the door to almost everyone. We were with someone the owners knew so the doors opened for us and we were ushered in to find the place almost empty. The owners were trying to make it seem like it was so hard to get in that once we did get in there was nothing to get in to. I think it is truly un Christian to be about creating a society that marks people as in or out. Winners or Losers. Successes or failures. In reality we should be about inclusiveness not exclusiveness. We are told to love each other. To love thy neighbor. It seems to me that to look down on any child created by God is to grossly ignore Jesus’ charge to us. We were created out of God’s love and we are made to love each other. If we are truly to live a Christian life we need to find the means to eliminate exclusivity and learn to love and include all of God’s creation.
A sermon from Robin Bugbee. Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Charleston, South Carolina. Saturday, July 22, 2017
Here’s a quote I like from John Lennon:
“Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans.”
“Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans”
That quote has stayed with me since I first heard it in a song of his called “Beautiful Boy” many years ago. The quote actually first appeared in a cartoon caption in 1957 when Lennon was 17. Doesn’t really matter. It is a great comment on the way most of us live our lives… running around so frantically and so stressed out that we can’t seem to take the time to just stand still and appreciate all that we have. And I am not talking about the value of our worldly goods. Those things, believe it or not, don’t really count for much. But it would be hard to tell that from what appears in our mass media. I spent some time last week taking note of the number of TV commercials aimed at us that have to do with protecting our health, so we can supposedly live forever, or making great investments so we have the means to supposedly live forever. The things that are truly important are the people we love and who loves us…our families and friends and the incredible beauty of God’s creation.
I want to tell you a story about a video I saw recently that made me think about this message I was going to bring to you tonight, It hit me hard and brought a tear to my eye and it warmed my heart.
We see a young boy, maybe 6 or 7 outside with his father. The father hands his son a pair of sunglasses and asks him to put them on and it is then that we can tell that the child is profoundly color blind. The little boy looks around and is amazed by seeing the world in color for the first time after only seeing things in shades of grey. It is a kind of miracle these magical glasses that completely overwhelms the child and he begins to cry tears of great joy hugging his father’s legs and sobbing softly over and over again “thank you Daddy…thank you Daddy”. Not so very different than the words we utter in prayer often as a matter of course: Thank you Father.
Several days after I shared that video I was sent another. A very similar scenario. Except this time the color blind person was middle-aged adult…but the end result was the same. Overwhelming gratefulness and freely flowing tears for the gift of being able to see the vibrant colors of the world for the first time. I tell you that story because of the reasons why it was so inspirational to me. I am not one to pass up the magnificence of the gifts we are given every moment of every day. In fact, I spend a great deal of my life trying to help others find and recognize those gifts in their own lives. But I am just an average guy and like you and most of us get caught up in the meaningless confusion of our lives, the petty things we worry about and I am apt to miss the big picture: those things that are truly important. That is one of the main reasons we come to this place: to help us to reconnect with the magnificent gifts God constantly gives us and to help us understand that our lives are so much more than how important we are, how much money we have and how grand our houses are. That the true gifts we are given by God are what binds us to him and to each other.
I watched a magnificent concert this week that was filmed in front of Buckingham Palace in London several years ago to celebrate the Queen’s birthday. Every major musical star in the galaxy was there with a full symphony orchestra and an enormous audience of thousands. Suddenly, Paul McCartney walked out, the crowd erupted and the orchestra and singers began jubilantly singing the Beatle’s “All You Need is Love”.
And it struck me: this is what Paul is trying to us in his letter to the Romans.
You are God’s. He is yours. He will never leave you alone. He will always be with you bringing you all the gifts you need… there is nothing you need do to earn any of this and there is nothing you can do to lose it. It is simply a matter of love and Grace.
I love this week’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans…but then I love the entire book of Romans because in it Paul speaks so sincerely and with such love about the wondrous gifts we have been given as the children of Christ. His letter is an attempt to build up the faith of the people in Rome who are following Jesus Christ and he does this by talking about what it means to have faith, by showing us that we can never be separated from God’s love and by demonstrating in the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes how to truly live a Christ centered life. He pours his love for his life in Christ into every word and is so clearly trying his best to build up his fellow Christians not so much with the word of God but with what it has meant to him personally. He tells them that they are good when he says:
“I myself feel confident about you… that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another.”
He gives them good and helpful advice
“We, who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor.”
And most importantly, he tells us that nothing can separate us from the love of God.
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, not things present, nor things to come, nor powers, not height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
This is our promise from God. These are the gifts that we are continually given. And like that little boy who sees the colors of a rainbow for the first time…we need to continually tune in to the wonders of this world and the magnificence of the gifts we are showered with daily and instead of taking them for granted…use them as Paul would want us to, embrace Gods love to try to return it as best we can, and love each other with great enthusiasm and joy.
So back to John Lennon’s quote: by all means, make plans. Our lives are uncertain and fragile. and can change in an instant. We all have both wonderful things and terrible things that happen to us throughout our lives…but we have to embrace all of them. Everything is a gift from God although many times that is difficult to understand. We need to try to keep in mind that trying to live a life in Christ requires us to live by his plans not the ones we make. The mystery is we cannot know his plans but we need to try to be open to understanding what he would have us do and how he would have us live and love.
Because we were born of his love for us.
And that is all we need.
Every Monday morning I try to post something on my Facebook page that is really inspirational to help people start the week in a good place. I love the music of John Rutter and this week I posted a magnificent rendition of the composition “For the Beauty of the Earth” sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir under this comment: “This is such a magnificent work by John Rutter that it would have been enough if he just stopped after creating it…but I’m awfully glad he didn’t. I hope this helps everyone have a blessed start to their week.”
Shortly after posting it, I received this message from a woman who thanked me for the posting and said how much she loved it and how grateful she was to be able to begin the week with it echoing in her mind. I thanked her in response. A bit later I received another message from her that said:
“Robin: I told my husband about this and he encouraged me to tell you
“This morning, I was sitting in our sun blessed living room enjoying my morning coffee and checking my emails and Facebook on my phone. Up popped your post with the Rutter piece. As I sat singing along, the sun came through a side living room window and blotted out the video but not the music. Suddenly the screen showed a cross, which filled the entire screen, I was momentarily stunned and emotionally moved to tears. How had that crossappeared? I realized that it came from a reflection of a framed print on the wall behind me and as quickly as it appeared, it vanished. It must have just been a peculiar accident.” Shirley.
So here was a woman who had responded to a posting I had made and had been inspired so much by the music and the image of a cross on her phone that it had brought her to tears. And just as quickly as her tears had dried she had rejected the event and chosen to class it as an accident.
And so I responded:
Nothing is an accident. Everything is a gift from God.
Thank you and Blessings”.
And about an hour later I got another message from Shirley that said:
“Robin: I have made two attempts to repeat my experience without success and have decided to accept the gift.”
We had connected we had talked about God in the world Shirley and I had been inspired and that is a great demonstration of what evangelism can be. It is something each of us can do if we are simply aware of God’s work in our lives and are ready to share that news with others.
The Gospel lesson that we just heard read is a continuation of the 10th chapter of Matthew “the Evangelist” that we started last week but the tone of this week’s lesson is much darker. We are at a point in the life of Jesus where he has spoken the parables and demonstrated the miracles that should make it clear who he is and where this story is going but it is almost as if he feels the need to make his message much clearer, much more precise and impossible not to understand. We are at a point in this story where something is going to happen and it is likely going to be dramatic and messy and dangerous. When Matthew quotes Jesus as saying “I send you out like sheep among wolves: be wary as serpents, innocent as doves.” He is clearly trying to tell them that by following him, walking in his footsteps, professing their faith and standing up unwaveringly…the apostles are about to find out that this is a dangerous and difficult task and they could lose their lives for what they profess to believe.
When Jesus says, “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master, it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master.” He is telling them bluntly that they (the disciples) will share the teacher’s lot or what ever befalls Jesus will be visited on them as well. They are likely to find themselves in a whole lot of trouble very soon. Jesus knows the punishment he is going to experience and so is warning them of what is to come to them. But the truly important part of what Jesus is telling them in this Gospel and the gift that I think we should take away from today’s lesson is that only God can protect us as he protected his son. Only God can direct us on the path that is best for us and only God can preserve and protect each of our souls. We are children of this ultimate protector and there is no other. Surely this is the message that Jesus was in the process of demonstrating by showing that it was possible to live a life with him and to walk the paths he walked demonstrating the love of God that lead him inexorably toward the cross. And that brings me to how this message has application to our lives today in the church. Episcopalians and the Anglican tradition have never (at least in recent times) had a very positive attitude towards the concept of Evangelism. We shy away from any demonstration of our faith as if we are embarrassed about discussing it with anyone other than someone who has been sitting next to us in the same pew for the last 20 years. And yet that is exactly what the disciples truly were: Evangelists. And they had so much more to lose, their lives, than I think we do in Charleston in the year 2017.
I’m reading an interesting book about Evangelism called “Lifestyle Evangelism: Crossing Traditional Boundaries to Reach the Unbelieving World” by Dr. Joe Aldrich that has a lot of valuable information on Evangelism in our lives. It begins with this story:
“There is a legend which recounts the return of Jesus to glory after his time on earth. Even in heaven, he bore the marks of his earthly pilgrimage with its cruel cross and shameful death. The angel Gabriel approached him and said:
“Master, you must have suffered terribly for men down there”.
“I did”, he said
“And,” continued Gabriel; do they know all about how you loved them and what you did for them?
“Oh no” said Jesus, “Not yet. Right now only a handful of people in Palestine know.”
Gabriel was perplexed. “Then what have you done to let everyone know about your love for them?”
Jesus said “I’ve asked Peter, James, John and a few more friends to tell other people about me. Those who are told will in turn tell still other people and my story will be spread to the farthest reaches of the globe. Ultimately, all of mankind will have heard about my life and what I have done.”
Gabriel frowned and looked rather skeptical. He knew well what poor stuff men were made of. “Yes”. He said, “but what if Peter and James and John grow weary? What if the people who come after them forget? Haven’t you made any other plans?”
Jesus answered: “I have no other plans. I am counting on them”
Twenty centuries later, he still has no other plan. He is counting on us… In reality, one of the most important things we are asked to do is to be about the business of evangelizing…each and every one of us. In fact our presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, calls us all to be Evangelists. And here is how he does it…by telling a simple and heartfelt story that can do no less than touch my heart and yours. Perhaps you have heard him tell this story about his Father. If you’ve heard it before…that’s OK. It is so powerful that I think it is worth telling over and over again.
“When my parents met, my mother was an Episcopalian. My father was in seminary and a Baptist preacher. One Sunday, my father decided to go to church with my mother. He had never been inside an Episcopal church. It was an alien world to a person who came from the African-American Baptist tradition. The Book of Common Prayer, the liturgy, the written prayers, the silences, the chanting…all were new. But he later said the most striking difference for him that day was communion. He had never experienced a chalice, the common cup from which everyone drank. That morning my parents were among the few African-Americans in the congregation. This was the 1940’s. Jim Crow was alive and well. Segregation and separation of the races was still the law in much of the land. The armed forces had not yet been integrated. Brown v the Board of Education had not taken place, and it was long before the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Martin Luther King Jr. was still in seminary. Still, my father saw on the altar only one cup from which everyone was to drink. My father didn’t feel comfortable going up for communion but when my mother went up, he watched closely. Was the priest really going to give her communion from the common cup? And if he did, was the next person really going to drink from that same cup? And would others drink too, knowing that a black woman had sipped from that cup? He saw the priest offered the cup to the next person at the rail and that person drank. And then the next person, and the next, all down the rail. When my father told the story he would always say: “That’s what brought me to the Episcopal Church. Any church in which black folks and white folks drink out of the same cup knows something about a gospel that I want to be part of.”
So why is it that we find evangelism such an objectionable activity?
I read a piece recently on a blog called New Wineskins that brought this home to me. Even if we are the most introverted of introverts, one of the things we all should be finding a way to do is to bring the Good News of Christ to the world around us the way it was brought to us. (Think back a bit…who was it that went out on a limb…took a chance and brought the good news to you?) After all, the word Gospel translates to “Good News!” Each of us, like Matthew, has a responsibility to make Evangelism an important part of our lives but what stops us, I think, is an aversion to interrupting another’s personal space, of expressing our faith and being afraid of a negative reaction. Plus I think many of us have had a bad experience with someone trying to “save” us. As Dr. Aldrich says in his book: “Unhealthy evangelism models have hurt the evangelism enterprise. Often the artificial and unnatural methodology of some of these models offends us. Gimmicks, pseudo-questionnaires, buttonholing, altar calls, evangelical mugging and the outright rudeness of some witnesses can turn us off and the result is that evangelism has become a much misunderstood term – one that most people either swear by or at.”
Well here is a solution to that problem that I think could help each of us. Instead of talking about our faith…why not BE a living demonstration of it? Listen to what Paul has to say about this in 1 Corinthians:
“My message and preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with demonstrations of the Spirit’s power so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom but on God’s power!”
Evangelism is something we should BE more than something we should be doing or talking about. It is so important that we try to make the point with what we do in our daily lives that “Born into sin and blemished by infinite imperfections, we have not been excluded from Christ’s love. That God not despite what we are, but because of what he created us to be both nourishes and cherishes us. Isn’t it incredible to think that he cherishes us? That he is always with us and that as the bible says, “even the hairs on our heads are numbered.”
I think true and meaningful evangelism means to replicate and demonstrate the nature of God, his love, righteousness, his faithful and steadfast commitment to care and protect us in everything we do every day. To be joyful, in the face of despair, to be positive in the face of negativity, to be generous in the face of miserliness and to be loving in the face of bigotry and hatred.
So tell a story like Bishop Curry’s…and if you don’t have your own story…tell his or the hundreds of others that can be found in books like his “Crazy Christians” Do this. Be this and we can truly live a life in Christ and be his shining light banishing the darkness in the world. I cannot conceive of a better definition of evangelism and Jesus is still counting on us!