Sermons That Work

Maybe the Really Hard… (Unabridged), Proper 11 (A) – 1996

July 21, 1996

In the name of God Creator, Incarnate in Christ Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Amen

Maybe the really hard core fundamentalists who believe the end is really near have it right. Maybe the day of reckoning, the “final tribulations” as the Jehovah’s witnesses might say, are really upon us. What with the savagery which we now know occurred in Bosnia. The cruelty of conflicts in Africa. The bombing in Oklahoma. The burning of churches in the American south. The random bombings in London, England. The apparent inability of even Canadians, famous for their civility, to co-exist culturally. Maybe the end is near.

When I feel overwhelmed by these events and so much other bad news. I want to be able to turn to my church for peace. I need to find refuge from the storm. To get my spiritual batteries re-charged. And when I do. What do I find?

I hear vitriol, anger and intolerance in some of the statements from some of those still against the ordination of women in the Church of England, an attitude still prevalent even in some American dioceses. I hear the shrill righteousness of some who feel they “won” in the decision in the Righter “trial,” and similar acrimony from some of those who feel they “lost.” It sometimes seems that if we can’t be “right,” then we’re going to be mean.

That really saddens me, and many of the church members I know around North America because we value this church. We cherish our heritage which has always valued diversity, and honored questioning and skepticism as valid components of faith, not a challenge to it. The Rt. Rev. Carolyn Tanner Irish, in an interview with the Salt Lake Tribune (Utah, USA) said that she understood questions “to be a part of faith, not ‘unfaith’ or doubt.” And that “faith was an engagement in the wonders, mysteries, and questions of life, not its certainties.” I think she’s captured the essence of whom we’ve always been. And it saddens me to feel we are losing that acceptance and civility.

I’m also tempted to be overwhelmed by the recent tragedies which seem to thrust our worst moments into the world’s consciousness and pierce our hearts. Like the murder of a beloved priest in Montreal, Quebec. And the criminal charges brought in too many locales against some church employees for sexual misconduct with minors. The indictment and conviction of Ellen Cooke, former treasurer at the national church office in New York. The suicide of Bishop Johnson in the Diocese of Massachusetts. And before I could even begin to process my feelings about that, I then learned about the resignation of Bishop Chalifont in the Diocese of Maine. What next!?

I am a cradle-Anglican and I can’t remember another time when there seemed to be so many issues, arguments and sheer bad news threatening to tear us apart. I can’t remember being so scared for the future of our church. And I know I’m not alone in my distress. I know too many people, lay and clergy alike, who are profoundly distressed and feel deeply betrayed by the actions of these two Bishops. Who are outraged, embarrassed and discouraged at the sexual misconduct of people in positions of trust and responsibility. I know too many contributors angry at the American national church for allowing that theft. I know too many parishioners distressed at the apparent fragmentation of our church.

I read stories of angry clergy threatening to join Rome. I am confused by one Bishop leaving for Rome, and then returning! I hear people arguing with their heads instead of listening with their hearts. Sometimes its seems as if we are disintegrating into a church open to everyone yet standing for little. That we have gone from being the trustworthy “St. Alban’s by the Oaks” to being “St. Cranky by the Swamp!”

I need to be reminded of the words in vs. 133 of today’s Psalm 119: to “keep my steps steady according to your promise, and never let inequity have dominion over me.” And on June 13, 1996, I was reminded so pointedly by the Rev. Gene Robinson, Canon to the Ordinary of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire. That evening, he was the guest preacher at the induction of Jan Nunley as the new Rector of Ss. Peter and Andrew in Providence, RI. Gene spoke eloquently of the many divisive issues and disturbing crises challenging all of us in the worldwide Anglican Communion.

In a most dramatic and compelling example, he suggested that the church, in its current condition could be likened to a narrow footbridge, swaying high above a deep river gorge. He spoke of how we as a church in our perilous present are like travelers who have ventured some distance out on that kind of footbridge. But unlike the typical trekker, we don’t know how far it is to firm land on the far side. Nor can we be certain when or even if we will reach it. As I listened, I couldn’t help thinking how disconcerted I would being out on a bridge like that, given my fear of heights and rickety bridges. Then he added to my (and other’s) discomfort by pointing out how besieged we are by persons and events which seem to be bent on scaring all of us to death by jumping up and down on our bridge.

The specific issue he was referring to was the non-trial of Bishop Righter for ordaining to the priesthood an openly gay male. It was an appropriate reference for this event because Jan, along with being a very gifted preacher and pastor, happens to be a lesbian. And we were there to celebrate the parish’s courage and determination in calling her as rector.

But Gene counseled us not to feel triumphant about the Bishop’s decision. He encouraged us not to jump up and down on the bridge, but to continue in respectful dialogue with those left on the sideline. And as we sat reflecting in the radiance of the joy of the occasion, he reminded us that no matter how great and justified we felt that evening, tomorrow would dawn with all the same worldly and church problems that existed before that night. And that we still would have to deal with them.

In spite of all the bad news. I carried in with me that night. I felt incredibly Christian as I left. Because I had been reminded of the power of being a disciple and of both the obligation to be an apostle, and the faith to be one.

In our distress, we are tempted to feel abandoned, that somehow we are going to have to muddle through all these crises on our own. Like me, maybe you need reminding that God is there for us, as ready as in 1 Kings 3: v. 5: to “Ask what I should give you?” To leave aside our self-reliance and cry out, echoing the words written in 1 Kings 7: “…I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in.” Because, on our own, we don’t know! We don’t know how long this bridge is, how far it is to the “other side,” or even what that “other side” is going to look like.

In verses 9 – 10 “(Solomon asked) Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil, for who can govern this your great people? It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this.” For Solomon did not ask for riches, just for help. And we can too. We can ask God to be with us and for us, not to be “right” or judgmental on any issue, but to be fair, patient and equitable in both our speaking and our listening.

In verse 12, God responds “I now do according to your word. Indeed, I give you a wise and discerning mind…” What more could we ask for than wise and discerning minds? In this, we are no different than Paul was as we read all this summer in Roman’s about faith versus works, and could you be a Christian without being a Jew? Questions just as heavy for them, and translated, just as relevant for us today.

Yet the real challenge for us is not to be wise and discerning about our survival as an institution. But rather, to be discerning and concerned about the issue of our purpose. We are more than halfway through the Decade of Evangelism, a time during which we were supposed to be challenged to find new purpose and ministries to the unchurched and non-believers.

But our record so far is very spotty. While we are on that swaying bridge without knowing its length or strength, we have not done very much to make it a wider path. Some might say, “Why invite more onto this bridge, it will collapse under the weight?” I would posit that if there were more of us on the bridge, it might sway less!

I happen to be a layperson who has accepted evangelism as my vocation. I present evangelism conferences and preach about evangelism in both Canada and the U.S. And I am very aware that some people perceive me, as an evangelist, to be one of those challenging the church. And that I am one of those many might perceive to be jumping up and down on the bridge. But my intent is to expand people’s perception of themselves as Christians. To encourage them to bring outsiders into relationships with God. Yes, I want to challenge. But no. I don’t want to scare them, or you. Hey, my life is scary enough without having to scare anyone else!

So why am I an evangelist? I’m an evangelist because at one time in my life, I knew the loneliness of being estranged from God, and I don’t want others to suffer as I did. I am reminded in 1 Peter 2 vs 10: “once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” I have come to know the peace of being able to live in God’s mercy, and I want that mercy for everyone! I want everyone to be able to experience the love that Jesus promised.

In my travels, and in the news I receive. I am heartened by the productive mission being carried out in some parts of our church. At the imaginative and determined attitude of the Christians in those places. But I am also saddened and amazed at how many areas are doing little or nothing. Where vision seems to be restricted to maintenance or just plain survival. Where faith in our future so often seems to be nothing more than determination to replicate our past. Where we seem to be mired in our recollection of our past glories as a state church. Where we are confused about the difference between doing good works and being apostles!

Yet in many ways, these conditions and challenges seem not too different from the issues Paul addressed in his letter to the Romans. This whole summer, we follow that letter, as Paul examines the human condition, of being lost and in need of salvation. And of God’s responsible to their, and our desperation. But if we are lost, or confused, or distracted, we also have the answer in Romans 8, vs 27-28: “And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the spirit, because the spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that all things work together for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

The keys for me in this passage are “intercedes for the saints” and “all things work together.” For better or worse, we are today’s saints. And together, without ignoring our differences, we can make a difference.

I just saw a news clip about how some of the radically opposed pro- life and pro-choice advocates in Buffalo, New York, have joined together to deal with the common problem of teenage pregnancies. The interviewees were adamant that they had not abandoned their own positions. But, that in recognizing a problem equally repugnant to both sides, they had come together and were listening to one another. If they in their situation can listen to one another and find common goals, surely we in this communion can do the same.

And what can we find in common? What will help us get past, although not ignore, our crises? Our mission to the world will. For we are called to focus on our baptismal covenant to be missionaries to the world. That call is repeated today in Matthew 13: vs 31 & 32: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

God has given us the seed of the Kingdom to inhabit us. But God has also made us the seeds for the world. And, we are called to be not only the seeds, but the cultivators. Why? Because people out there are dying. We are reluctant in our comfort to get out into the dirty fields to do some planting. And yet we believe in this loving God who is so generous, who interacts with us, and wants to serve us! As he offered Solomon in 1 Kings 3: vs 5: “Ask what I should give you.” And this generous God is still ready to give us what we need. And if we are going to be the mustard seeds for this world, we need to ask God for help.

So are we prepared to be seeds and cultivators? What can we do while still honoring our Anglican sensibilities? What can I suggest which will still respect your intelligence and individual relationships with God? What can we offer those who don’t know God? Who don’t know the story of Jesus? Who don’t live with the power of the Holy Spirit? Who have no idea what it means to (Eph 5: 1-2) “walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us?” Well, I’d like to offer you these simple, practical and contemporary suggestions. And each is an opportunity to be available & inviting, not coercive or judgmental.

First. If you’re at a social gathering, and someone asks you to do something on Sunday, take the opportunity to invite them to join you in church that morning before going onto wherever. Or perhaps you know someone who is really interested in music. Give them a card with the date and time of your choir’s next event.

Second. You have an upcoming luncheon or supper. Invite someone to eat. People are always “hungry!” And right now, so many people are noticeably hungry for a spiritual life. And far too many of them are spiritually starving to death! Jesus had the answer in Luke 4, 4: when he answered the devil: “It is written that one does not live by bread alone.” We know where the milk and honey are!

Third. If you operate any type of office with a waiting room, display in that area current copies of Anglican and Episcopal publications and your most current church newsletter. Or if you work in an office or in a classroom, you can keep copies on your desk for others to notice, and perhaps even ask about or borrow! At the very least others will notice that you are a Christian. And far more importantly, you will have given them the chance to be curious, and at their own pace.

Then, look at your parish. Perhaps you can help make the property as inviting as you would want your own home to be? Maybe you can become a knowledgeable greeter really trained to respond to visitors? Or you have the skills to prepare a new welcoming brochure. Again, these are ways to be inviting, not imposing. I invite you to recall that wonderful passage in 2 Chronicles 36: 15: “The Lord sent persistently to them by his messengers because he had compassion on his people.”

You can take the opportunity to extend that same compassion to your neighbors, and to be as persistent as God. You can make it possible for them to hear that ringing invitation to “lift up their hearts,” so that with our Lord Jesus Christ, their lives may be lifted up too! And when you do, no matter how distracted and troubled your minds may be abut the state of our church, your hearts will be healed and your spirits will soar!

In the name of God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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Christopher Sikkema


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