Our Parish is Tied to Our Neighbors....
Published by Ronald Steed,
Sermon for Sunday, October 16, 2016 (22 Pentecost Proper 24)
St. James Episcopal Church, New London, CT
Luke’s parable today is one of the stories Jesus told his disciples on the road to Jerusalem. Right away there is something interesting. “Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart." The team is on the way to Jerusalem and they don’t expect a happy reception; some may be losing heart. It may be that Luke includes this parable in his Gospel because his own community was losing heart as well. Perhaps this is a parable that we really need to hear at St James. Transition times can be hard… the end seems far away and the progress seems painfully slow… there are floods and famines and wild animals to contend with. Maybe our hearts are not so very different from Jesus’ disciples or Luke’s community. What does it mean to be a church? Why do we come here on Sunday? What is God up to? Is he done with us?
Part of the answer sits all around us… he calls us to be the Body of Christ… all of us together. And every Sunday, we come here together to remember in two ways. First, to remember… to remind ourselves who Christ is, and what he did, and how he did it, and to remember what we should be doing in the world as well. And Second, to re-member. To bring the various members of this body back together; its arms, legs, eyes, and ears… all our talents and gifts: to reconstitute a portion of the Body of Christ, in this place.
The liturgy we do here on Sundays is a rehearsal for the lives we lead in the world… it’s not theatre, and it’s not a stuffy old tradition (although it can be if we’re careless). There is a mystery being revealed here if we are alert to look for it. First, we listen to scripture being read and preached. Paul tells us today exactly why we do this: “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful… so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work." We hear the Word on Sunday so that we are equipped for work… not just for coffee hour, but the work we are to do in the world for the rest of the week, every single day! Next we pray… we complain to God like a widow seeking justice! Because THAT is what we cry to him about day and night… for justice! And not just for us, but for everyone… justice for all of creation. “Give us justice God!" Then we exchange the Peace… everyone is greeted in the name of Christ and with the sign of peace. Is anyone excluded at St James? Is there anyone sitting too far away that we won’t come out of our pews and go to them with our peace? No… no one escapes the peace in this place! And we take that peace with us into the world… God knows they need it out there. When the seventy were sent to towns where Jesus himself expected to go, they entered every home with “Peace to this place" on their lips. We can do this when we get into our car… when we enter a shop… when we get to our workplace… and we do it to everyone we meet… even to those who might make it hard for us to wish them peace… maybe especially for them. St. James is not like Las Vegas. What happens here on Sunday doesn’t stay here… it goes with us into the world. Then, we are fed at the Eucharist… all of us together… rich and poor, many or few, Catholics and Methodists, young and old, people of all races, none of us more deserving than another… all of us come begging to that table with our hands out and we are fed. We receive the body and blood of Christ and we ARE the body and blood of Christ. So, we’re equipped, we’ve complained to God for justice, distributed our peace to everyone, been given a meal. Then, we are sent out as Apostles to take this deeper reality out into the world.
We have a great sense of liturgy here; it is such a gift. Good liturgy helps us to see a mystery… a mystery that goes with us. The love and care of the choir for their music is something we witness, then we carry the same love and care to our own work. The objects on the altar are handled with great reverence; the same reverence we have for a cup of tea from the hand of a neighbor. We give dignity to everyone during the peace and at the table; the very same dignity we give to a sick patient in the hospital, or to a guest at the Lord’s Pantry, or to the Custodian at our workplace. If we are doing it right, people who come here are healed, they are reconciled, they are restored. And we take that into the world with us… that is God’s mission… that’s what he is up to every day across Southeast Connecticut… that is what it means to be part of the Body of Christ.
And we are not alone in this work… we have the Spirit. In today’s reading Jeremiah says “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts"… that happened. The Spirit dwells within us; every one of us. It’s not like we get a little spirit-booster-shot at Eucharist that wears off over a week; the spirit is always there inside us, accessible even if silence is the Spirit’s first language. I was a hospital chaplain for six months as part of my Deacon training, and I would sometimes ask patients what they thought an encounter with God might be like. Some would say something like “I don’t know… maybe there would be bright lights or angels or the clouds would part." For so many people, God seems remote... on some distant galaxy wagging his finger at us from time-to-time. The truth is incredible. God dwells within us… closer to us than we are to ourselves. This is why we can experience Christ in the face of the other and we can help others to see the Jesus that is in us. We might meet Jesus in a homeless shelter… I have… or in a grocery store line… or at the DMV… even there. More than that, we have been given other gifts as well; healing, compassion, diligence, good listening. Sometimes the gifts we think we need are not the one’s the Spirit has actually given us. We might think we need young families here and maybe we do, but is that what we have already been given? Have we taken spiritual stock of the people who have been sent through that door? I will tell you this: St. James already HAS every gift it needs to do God’s work in the world… every single one. Don’t lose heart… God is not done with us. The challenge for us is to keep discerning what we have been given more than what we lack and to keep those gifts working in our neighborhood. Our future Priest, whoever they are and whenever they get here, will bring new gifts; maybe one’s we are hoping for, but maybe ones we’re not. Whatever they bring, we are not alone in this; the Spirit is with us and is working on us.
The stewardship of this Parish is ALSO the stewardship of our neighbors in this region. They are one and the same. In my experience in this Parish, we are most fully ourselves and most fully blessed, when we come together as the Body of Christ, witness the mystery that is here among us, and go into the world to spread that blessing doing God’s mission. We are healed when we heal others; we are reconciled when we reconcile others; we are restored when we restore others. That’s not an accident. Jesus says: "Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" Yeah… I think he will and I think he DOES… as long as we are faithful stewards of the Body of Christ and of our neighbors. Amen.