Sunday, August 19, 2007

Year C: Proper 10 (15 July 2007)

This was the sermon I delivered at the conclusion of a thirteen year ministry at St John's in Stockton, California.

Deuteronomy 30:9-14
Luke 10:25-37

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 Israel have escaped horrible slavery in Egypt, by the grace of God and under the leadership of Moses. But they then spent an entire generation wandering in apparent aimlessness in the wilderness of the Sinai peninsula. Now the time has finally arrived for them to cross the Jordan River and take possession of the Promised Land—the territory that had been deeded over by God to their ancestor Abraham and his descendents. But they were entering uncharted territory, and in more ways than one, because Moses, their long-term leader, was not going to be making the trip. He was allowed to view the Promised Land from the lofty height of Mount Pisgah, but the Lord made it clear that Moses was a short-timer, and that it would be his lieutenant, Joshua, who would lead the people across the Jordan. So the bulk of Deuteronomy consists of what amounts to Moses’ valedictory address to the people, giving them detailed instructions about how God wanted them to order their lives once they ceased being nomads and took up a settled existence in a particular place.

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 St John’s bear any resemblance to wandering in the wilderness, so there are some clear limits to the parallel I’m trying to draw. But there is very shortly going to be a leadership change at St John’s—first from me to Father Gubuan as Interim Rector, and then from Fr Gubuan to whomever it is that the Lord has already called to become the 27th rector of this historic parish. In addition to grief, there is an understandable amount of anxiety and uncertainty floating around. What is it that God wants us to do? How is God trying to lead us? “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?”

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 St John’s is, “The word is very near you.” Yes, there are lots of questions that need to be asked during this time of transition, and some of those questions may actually need to be answered! There are some decisions that the leaders of this community will need to make in the task of discerning what God calls St John’s to be and to do, not only in this time of transition, but in the years and decades that lie ahead. (And in this regard, don’t forget that I’m not the only short-timer; everyone here today is ultimately a short-timer at St John’s. God willing, and in the event that our Lord’s return should be delayed further still, there will be Christian worship taking place on this hallowed ground long after we have all entered the world to come.)

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 St John’s the “very near word” is found in the vows of our baptism, the promises by which we once bound ourselves to serve God faithfully in his Holy Catholic Church. In those vows, we promise first to remain faithful to the teaching and fellowship of the apostles. The teaching of the apostles is summarized in the creeds of the Church. They are not optional. They are not subject to change by any lesser authority than a council that is representative of all in the world who profess and call themselves Christians. It isn’t that difficult to discern what constitutes fidelity to the teaching of the apostles.

The fellowship of the apostles is represented by the community of the Church. What God calls the people of St John’s to do is to remain faithful to him by remaining faithful to one another. You are cells in the body of Christ. You are for one another. The people who irritate you the most in this parish are the very people who are most for you, and vice versa. That may not be the news you most want to hear, but, hey, I’m a short-timer! Stick with each other; you need each other, and not just the ones you like, and not even just the ones you know. Hard to do, maybe, but not hard to figure out.

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 Israel on the brink of entering the Promised Land, he not only reminds them that the word of God is very near them, he gives them reassurance with these encouraging words:

“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 Mount Pisgah to view the Promised Land for St John’s, but I can tell you with confidence that God’s plan and desire is to bless and prosper the ministry of this parish! I can tell you with confidence that “the LORD will again take delight in prospering you, as he took delight” in those who came before you in this place. And I can tell you with confidence that the 26th rector of St John’s will be watching you from afar, with an abundance of love, and filled with gratitude for the privilege of being yoked with you here in the ministry of the gospel for these past 680 Sundays. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

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