This was the sermon I delivered at the conclusion of a thirteen year ministry at St John's in Stockton, California.
I would be ignoring the proverbial “elephant in the living room” if I were to not pay direct attention in these next few minutes to the fact that we are today on the cusp of a transitional moment in the history of St John’s, in the lives of the members of St John’s, and in my own life, and Brenda’s. Fortunately, the reading from Deuteronomy provides a virtually perfect text in which to anchor our hearts and minds as we, together, process this moment of transition in our lives.
The entire book of Deuteronomy is about a transitional moment. The ancient people of
So it was a time of anxiety for the people. Moses they knew. They gave him a hard time occasionally, and not everybody was always cooperative in following his leadership, but at least he was a known quantity. Joshua they weren’t so sure about. He was untested. There is an obvious temptation under such circumstances, a temptation toward constant and anxiety-driven talking—the good Old Testament word for it is “murmuring.” There’s a temptation to act—a great deal of pressure on leaders to just “do something”—but not necessarily in a disciplined and thoughtful manner. This sort of anxious running around leads inevitably to a sort of “paralysis by analysis,” with ever-escalating tension and uncertainty over what the right course of action is. What is it that God wants us to do? How is God trying to lead us? Moses gave voice to the fears of his people this way: “Who will go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?...Who will go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?”
Now, I certainly don’t have the audacity to compare myself to Moses in any way, and I will leave it to others to say how much these last thirteen years at
Moses’ response to this sort of high anxiety was direct and simple: “The word is very near you.” Things are not really as complicated as they seem. The task at hand is not as daunting as it appears. The right thing to do is not all that difficult to figure out for those who really want to. In Moses’ own words: “This commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. … But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.”
If I may be bold enough to ride the coattails of Moses in this moment, my valedictory message to the community of
So, yes, there is work to do. But the main work that needs to be done is not obscure; it’s not difficult to figure out. In the case of
The fellowship of the apostles is represented by the community of the Church. What God calls the people of
In our baptismal vows, we also promise to continue in “the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers.” It’s no mystery what this is referring to. The “breaking of the bread” is an ancient euphemism for the Eucharist and “the prayers” is an ancient euphemism for what we would call the Daily Office. The Mass and the Office are the respiration and heartbeat of the Church’s life. Neglect them at your peril—not just your individual peril, but your collective peril, the peril of the institution. Be disciplined about your life of worship and prayer. Everything else the Church does flows from those sources.
We have also vowed to “persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever [we] fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.” Evil and sin present themselves to us in a variety of different forms, but ultimately it’s a matter of pride, the root of all other sins. Pride and egotism—self-centeredness—can do untold amounts of harm in any community, including a church community. It is so easy to be snared by our egos; it’s like falling off a log. The Evil One can foil the best of intentions by appealing to the egos of those who have such intentions. Therefore, repentance is an ongoing project; it never ends this side of Eternity. I’m not talking about breast-beating self-flagellation here, and not even tears and hugs and apologies so much—though such things are often part of the picture—but, cultivating the habit of simply turning away from Path A—the wrong path—and toward path B—the right path. It’s not complex. It’s difficult, but it’s not complex. We can figure it out. The word is very near us.
Finally, we have a set of three baptismal vows that have to do with mission: We promise to “proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ,” to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving [our neighbors] as [ourselves], and to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” There’s a tremendous amount here, and we don’t have time to unpack it in detail. But it isn’t anything that a ten-year old shouldn’t be able to figure out intuitively: Our actions have to be consistent with our words. If we say we believe that Jesus is the Son of God and savior of the world, then that’s good news that we will not keep to ourselves. If we say we believe the every human person is created in the image of God, then we’d better treat every human person as if they are made in the image of God. And if we say we believe that the God whom we serve is the “author of peace and lover of concord,” a God of justice and righteousness, then we will make his priorities our priorities in everything we do. Pretty simple, huh? Not easy, but not hard to discern, not hard to figure out. There’s no mystery here.
As Moses is with the people of
“The LORD your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all the work of your hand, in the fruit of your body, and in the fruit of your cattle, and in the fruit of your ground; for the LORD will again take delight in prospering you, as he took delight in your fathers.”
Well, as we’ve established, I’m no Moses. But I don’t see any reason why I can’t copy his example as I stand here with you on the brink of a new chapter in the history of St John’s, a leg of the journey on which I will not be joining you. I haven’t been taken to the top of