Life Together: Holding On (Last in Series)
My sermon notes from Sunday, February 19th, at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church. This sermon wraps up the Life Together series.
Good morning, St. Timothy’s family, friends and everyone gathered for worship, especially welcome and good morning to those gathered with us online. As we take some moments to listen to our scriptures, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts, be acceptable to you, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
I’d be willing to wager this morning that each of us carries a relationship regret or two in our hearts. We each could think of a name, if asked, of someone we have lost along the pilgrim road of life. I mean someone lost to tempers, to arguments, to disagreements, to insults, to injuries and to frustrations. It seems all too human to have stepped on toes and had our own trod upon, and when the dust settles someone has been pushed away or withdrawn. For many of us, this has probably not been helped by social media and the many wars of opinion we wage on various platforms every day.
How We Got Here
We began this sermon series six weeks ago, a series entitled “Life Together: Foundational Practices for Building Relationships and Communities. The premise has been that in following the examples and teachings of God and of Christ, and following the wisdom of other biblical writers, we can create transformative relationships and a faith community that is vibrant and healthy.
In quick review, we have spoken of these six important practices modeled by God and Christ, and taught in scripture:
- To listen: to take the posture of a listener… giving one another an ear, wanting to hear and understand one another.
- To ask good questions: to seek clarity and understanding with one another, valuing our conversations and good questions above having all the answers or always being right.
- To give the benefit of the doubt: to assume the best of one another, to choose to believe the best of one another, making every effort to be proved right in that belief.
- To make sure that our words are life-giving: to build up those who hear us, remembering that no injury to us gives us license to tear others down, but letting our amazing gift and ability of speech be a blessing to those who hear us.
- To be a people who share: to truly open ourselves up to one another and anyone in need, sharing because we know that we are blessed by God to be a blessing, not just so that we are ourselves are satisfied.
- To be a people who love genuinely and actively: to love as Christ loved his disciples and closest friends, always ready to serve and uplift them, for truly love is the things which gives meaning to our words, our actions and our faith,
and now in our final week…
- To be a people who hold on, who holding on to one another: following the example of God and Christ, believing that it is worth the cost and worth the effort, we are a people of forgiveness and reconciliation.
What does it mean to be a people of holding on? It means that even though we very humanly have those regrets we talked about, and we have relationship misfires and we have trouble letting the practices we learn from God guide all our words and actions, we also very divinely have the capacity to maintain hope and a readiness to reconcile.
It’s the message of the prophets to Israel again and again, God has not given up on you! God is ready and waiting for people to open their hearts to reconciliation. The prophets again and again use proximity language: God is near, God’s arm is not too short. Jesus uses the same kind of language when he says: the Kingdom of God is near, this is the year of the Lord’s favor!
It is human to struggle with these things and to struggle with one another, and it is divine to maintain open hearts and ready love for the chance to bring back together what has been broken.
Our Gospel reading this morning, Matthew 18:21-35, is probably familiar to you, the seventy-seven times or seventy times seven passage… Peter is in the role he so often plays for us, asking questions and probing further… in Matthew 18 Jesus has just laid out a way to deal with conflict, seeking conversation and help in making reconciliation. Peter asks a fairly understandable follow up question, Ok how many times? How long do I have to allow for reconciliation? How many times must I keep my heart open and ready? And Peter surely imagined that seven times would be super generous, right? Jesus says in reply: 77 times, or possibly even more outrageously, seventy times seven… 490. Either way, don’t you think most of us would have lost count by 77?
What is Jesus saying about forgiveness? I heard someone once say that Jesus is talking about the math of the heart. It’s a math that doesn’t keep count, but a math that keeps hope.
- Jesus is not saying that abusers have a license to keep abusing.
- Jesus is not saying that we should take advantage of one another and demand perpetual forgiveness.
- Jesus is saying that we need to stop counting. We need to stop being a people who write one another off.
- Jesus is saying that we are a people who wait in a posture of forgiveness and reconciliation so that those things can happen when the time comes.
His parable helps us understand that Jesus is talking about following God’s example of forgiving, and he also gives us the vivid story of how gross it looks when we who should so thoroughly understand receiving forgiveness deny it’s place in our own hearts for others.
Increase Our Faith!
In a parallel passage, Luke records the exchange a little differently: Jesus says in Luke 17:3-5 “So watch yourselves. If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’”
As a people who have such an understanding and forbearing Lord, we should be a people best able to exercise this crucial practice of holding on, even when it gets tough to do so. And so maybe our prayer is “Increase our faith!” As human as it is to mess up our relationships, it is divine to make room for reconciliation!
And how did Jesus go on in Luke 17 to answer their prayer for increased faith? He said: “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.” In other words, you have in you what is needed. We have within us the same divine potential, if we will give it room to grow and bear fruit. Keeping a posture of reconciliation: we can do this.
This is a faith thing, church. If it were easy, we probably wouldn’t need to talk about it. If it were easy we wouldn’t need Luke’s famous story of the prodigal son who abandons family to waste his father’s money, just to return home in shame and find a father waiting to welcome him. If it were easy the Apostle Paul wouldn’t have written about bearing with one another and putting up with one another. It’s the kind of thing that looks like God among us. It’s the kind of thing that signals to the world around us that something different is going on here, something good, something worth checking out.
We’re not holding on to the anger. We’re not holding on to the hurt. We’re not holding on to every insult, every harsh word or thing that keeps us apart. Instead we’re a people holding on to hope, holding on to love, holding on to forgiveness; forgiving debts as we have been forgiven. We’re a people holding on to people. For in God’s kingdom and God’s church, as in God’s heart, no one is disposable.
Amazing and forgiving God, O God of Holding On, raise up in us the faith that holds on, make us a people formed after your heart. May we find in ourselves that faith which is needed to rise above the failures and injuries which would divide us, until your church is a glorious witness and well of hope to a needful world. In the name of Christ our Lord, who with you and Holy Spirit reigns over our hearts. Amen, amen and amen.
Sermon of Jan 21, 2018 St John’s Episcopal Church
Gospel: Mark 1:14-20, NRSV
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’
16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him.
19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
This passage is a narrative of calling as Jesus goes place to place calling out to everyone “the time has come” and to some of the locals “follow me.” When was the last time you waited on a call? You just sat and watched your phone, checking for missed calls again and again? Today, it seems like that’s all I’m doing, getting calls or calling someone… I’ve even caught myself calling one of my sons in their room on their cell phone… have you been there? Instead of yelling or heaven forbid going to the room, I phone them.
Anyone remember life before cell phones? Before even pagers? When I was a kid we had, I think it was, an enormous brown 1975 Ford LTD. My dad’s car. We kids just roamed the neighborhood like a pack of hyenas, no iPhones, no GPS, no Google Maps. If my dad wanted me home he would go out and honk the horn on that Ford LTD a few times to call me. And pity me if I didn’t make it home in under 15 minutes. I knew that horn. I left what I was doing, so sorry fellas, I’m out, I’m called, and I gotta go. And I get a little bit of the same feeling here in Mark chapter 1 when Jesus says “follow me” and people drop what they’re doing “so sorry fellas, I’m out, I’m called, and I gotta go.”
It reminds me also an East African proverb we learned a long time ago, “To be called is to be sent.” The wisdom being the recognition that if someone with authority or purpose calls for you, it’s with the intent to send you, to use you, to give you something to do. Jesus seems to be calling with the intent to send.
I’d like to chat about Mark’s Gospel for just a moment, because over the years of preaching, it’s sort of become, if not my favorite, one Gospel that I immensely enjoy reading and preaching out of… this Gospel is a masterpiece of sorts. Mark begins, unlike other Gospels with their birth narratives and cosmic returns to the beginning of all things, with a simple statement… here begins the good news.
This good news is bound up in calling and proclaiming: 1) first with John the Baptizer, the voice crying in the wilderness, 2) then in the voice of God at the baptism of Jesus, 3) with Jesus himself who takes up the role of proclaimer as soon as John is arrested and silenced, and 4) eventually in the sending of the disciples to proclaim the message by chapter 3. Mark’s Gospel is an action story, robust with message, meaning, miracles and often a cyclical return to themes and words. Jesus says follow me many times and by the third chapter he appoints twelve apostles to be sent out to proclaim his message.
When my father would honk that horn, he wanted me for something, he was calling me for a reason… it’s dinner time or I had chores to do, or it was simply late and time to be at home. As my father called me for a reason, Jesus called followers for a reason, and we share a similar call, today. We hear it many different ways and we are called in many different situations, but being called is being sent. We who answer to call to enter the kingdom of God accept a call to ministry, as Jesus told them by the water that day “to fish for people.” A focus on the work of God, a call of ministry to the humanity around us. We may not all fish, but we share this call to be aware of the people around us, and follow the lead of Jesus.
We Are All Called
We’re not called to something burdensome, but to shared work and joy of ministry. In a section of our Book of Common Prayer called An Outline of the Faith, we find some the same kind of language wisely used to speak of our calling. I invite you to look into this Outline of the Faith, it begins on page 845, and we’ll be reading at page 855 under the heading, The Ministry.
Q. Who are the ministers of the Church?
A. The ministers of the Church are lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons.
Q. What is the ministry of the laity?
A. The ministry of lay persons is to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever they may be; and, according to the gifts given them, to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world; and to take their place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church.
Who are the ministers of the church? Who is called? We are all called! Does is surprise you that our ministry is described before the work of a bishop, priest or deacon? The very next question goes deeper… we represent Jesus, in his steps and voice, we bear witness, do the work of reconciliation, and share life together in the church, according to our gifts. No cookie cutter, pre-fab, “only my skills are needed or your gifts desired” but we all come together in our diversity to do ministry. We are each called as we are and fit into the work of Christ. On the next page we find the duty of all Christians: to follow.
Q. What is the duty of all Christians?
A. The duty of all Christians is to follow Christ; to come together week by week for corporate worship; and to work, pray, and give for the spread of the kingdom of God.
The Apostle Paul uses some of the same language of reconciliation when speaking his ministry and ours, but I’ve always enjoyed the way he described this calling and sending to the church in Ephesus, when he says:
“But God, rich in mercy and loving us so much, brought us to life in Christ, even when we were dead in our sins. It is through this grace that we have been saved. God raised us up and, in union with Christ Jesus, gave us a place in the heavenly realm, to display in ages to come how immense are the resources of God’s grace and kindness in Christ Jesus. And it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith – and even that is not of yourselves, but the gift of God. Nor is it a reward for anything that you’ve done, so nobody can claim the credit. We are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus to do the good things God created us to do from the beginning.”
Ephesians 2:4-10, The Inclusive Bible
We are God’s work of art. I don’t know about you, but I can look around, go to work, read the news, talk to people, see all the things happening in the world, and I can get a little depressed at the dysfunction, discord and deep needs around me. I can get both depressed and a bit overwhelmed. But the calling changes things. The calling reminds me who I am. Remembering the call refocuses me back on the good, the good God has intended and the good of which we are capable and the good needed by the world around us. The calling comes through to each of us to move us fully into this kingdom, this movement, of God’s grace, God’s love and God’s kindness. And the calling sends us, rejuvenated and made more whole, to share these blessings with an often hurting, bruised world.
Not everyone goes fishing… the disciples we find in the scriptures who are answering the call range from vocations like fishing to tax collecting, a physician like Luke, or a religious leader like Paul, benefactors like Theophilus and Phoebe, and church leaders like Prisca and Aquila… men and women of varied means and backgrounds who answered the call according to their many gifts and abilities.
I would love to be a kid again and hear that horn honking in the distance, hurriedly gathering up my Star Wars action figures and toys and saying my goodbyes to friends to head home. I hope that today I can hear every challenge to goodness as a call, each challenge to justice and fairness as a call, every cry of pain and plea for mercy as a calling to be the work of art God has made me to be. The call is there. Today. We are called and we are sent.
I pray that we as a people, as a church, take this calling to heart and cast our nets of love, kindness and healing among the people of the world, in all our variety and diversity of our gifts and our backgrounds. I that pray we answer the call to do the good works God has intended for us as a way of life. Let nothing distract us or sidetrack us or divert us from the call to make goodness our trade, justice our vocation and God’s love our pattern of life.
I will end with a prayer from the Apostle Paul for that church in Ephesus, from Ephesians chapter 3, a prayer for you and I as well, again from The Inclusive Bible:
“I pray that God, out of the riches of divine glory, will strengthen you inwardly with power through the working of the Spirit. May Christ dwell in your hearts through faith, so that you, being rooted and grounded in love, will be able to grasp fully the breadth, length, height and depth of Christ’s love and, with all God’s holy ones, experience this love that surpasses all understanding, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. To God – whose power now at work in us can do immeasurably more than we ask or imagine – to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus through all generations, world without end! Amen.”
Prayer For My Enemies
God of unbridled love
and steadfast affection
for all of creation,
I desire your will in my life.
So I pray for my enemies
asking you to bless them
with peace and wisdom,
with joy and goodness.
I have in my sinfulness
offended others with my words
and hurt others with my actions.
These may think me an enemy.
Personal choices I have made,
for my own faith and vocation
with no intention to offend any,
may lead some to be my enemy.
Circumstances of my birth,
my nationality and ethnicity
being things beyond my control,
may still cause some to revile me.
For all of these I pray,
For all those I have hurt,
For those who hate my choices,
For those hating what I am.
I would beg that healing
come to any I have injured;
I pray for their peace
that they would be whole.
I pray peace for all unlike me
who dislike my choices and life,
that they would know joy
and I could better serve them.
I pray for those who hate
the very thought of who I am,
who believe me a burden,
that they might see you in me.
May we be reconciled
until no more enemies remain
and in your enfolding peace
we reflect your light. Amen.
Resolving Deadly Viper…
I just perused a very welcome update on the Viper interplay between the authors and the voices of protest. I’m glad to see the prayers of many answered in this obviously relational move to resolve the hurt and to move the whole kingdom forward. Amen!
Let’s be honest… like never before our predominantly Anglo majority in our country is having to come to grips with our heterogeneous society on levels and in arenas unimagined. We have to face the shallowness of the much lauded, historic “welcome” that we presented to other peoples who came to our country to share our space and raise their families with us. We also face this within the kingdom of God. The “Viper” parable can be an anchor as we move forward. White folks don’t just write and speak for white folks, and Asian folks don’t just speak and write for Asian folks, and so on… we share the movements of God in this world, and that means we share a heavy responsibility of love, grace and adaptation.
I think that this coming Sunday we will all lift the cup and bless the bread a little more one, and a little more in sync. That’s a good thing.