*In life, as in running, it’s helpful to have partners to help the miles go by. The Rev’d Stanford Adams is a friend of mine from seminary, and now a colleague who helps out occasionally at St. Paul’s. What follows below is a sermon he preached recently at St. Paul’s. I’m grateful for his wise words. – Brad+
The Rev. Stanford Adams
Epiphany 2, Year A (January 15, 2017)
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church – San Antonio, TX
We have a pretty extraordinary part of our tradition in the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament. A significant portion of the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, contains books that are critiques of ancient Israel, of society, of government, and particularly of religious people and practices. It’s not surprising that there were critics; there are always critics. What’s surprising is that this criticism – the people who called Israel back to its mission when it was falling short – became a major part of the Bible. I often try to sanitize my own story, but in the Old Testament examining our practices in light of our values, thinking critically about what our mission is, and listening to those who are calling us back to our mission when we’ve strayed off course, these are enshrined in our Holy Scriptures.
Tomorrow we will celebrate the life of an American prophet. We’ll remember that Martin Luther King Jr. called us to live out the best of our values; and he reminded those who were denied full participation in their country, he reminded them — and everybody — that better days were ahead. He called us to our mission.
Sometimes the prophets of the Old Testament reminded their listeners that God is still present and working, even when that was not outwardly clear. It’s what we hear in our reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah. “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” The Israelites were in exile when this was written, they had lost their homeland, their country, and things were looking pretty bad. But they still had a mission to fulfill, they had a promise of better days to come, they needed their community to make that promise into a reality. What sounds like a pep talk is really part of a broader message that the mission of the Israelites was alive and well, their call to be the people of God, it was still very much their call, even when their circumstances were poor.
This is the time of year when we think in a formal way about the mission of this place, of our community. Our Vestry will be setting the budget for our parish in the coming weeks. We’ll talk about that at our parish meeting next week. Our parish budget is a mission document. It is where the rubber hits the road for our priorities, and it will outline what we will be about in 2017. And that mission depends on your participation, on our gifts of time and money to our mission.
One of my temptations is to think that my pledge is primarily about my personal financial situation. It’s about my own ability to give money away, my own personal calculation. It’s my own private matter. But really our pledges for the work of the church are about something vastly bigger than just us.
We create beautiful liturgy in this parish. It takes practice by the choir, and lots of work by the altar guild and the flower guild and lectors, ushers, acolytes, and it takes maintenance for our historic buildings. And the experience of liturgy is not the same for any of us in an empty church; it takes a congregation in the pews. When it all comes together on Sunday morning, following in the traditions of the church, honoring the traditions so many who have come before us, when it all comes together, it is a window to the holy. It takes all of us to make that possible. It takes our time and effort and our money.
We have a welcoming, inclusive community here at St. Paul’s. Not every place is like this. We have a mission, I believe, to model that kind of Christian inclusion to the broader church, it’s our calling, our mission, and it happens because you give your time and your money to this place.
We commit significant energy to helping those in need in our neighborhood and beyond. It’s what we do when we pack food bags at Our Lord’s Table. It’s our mission to follow Jesus’ example and reach out to those in need. You make that possible.
Your clergy spend lots of time on pastoral care. It is central to what we’re about. The phrase “pastoral care” is really a misnomer. There’s often no care that we can provide. But we can somehow — even in the worst of circumstances — we can somehow be an outward sign of God’s presence in whatever you face. You make that possible through your gifts of money to this parish.
We prioritize a thoughtful approach to the Bible and the traditions of the church. We use all of the tools we have — our hearts and our minds — to help us hear God in ancient texts and in our lives now. Not everywhere does that, but we do. And it’s an enormous gift. It’s our mission. And it’s your time and your money that makes it possible.
We’re a little short of our meeting the financial needs of the parish for 2017. If you made a pledge for 2016 but have not yet pledged for 2017, we need your help. We need you to make the mission of this place happen. And if you’ve pledged for 2017, we need you to re-consider your pledge in light of our shared calling.
Our Gospel this morning gives us a glimpse of the first Christian community, the first few followers who begin to gather around Jesus. And right from the start the community has to translate who Jesus is into their time, their lives. The disciples proclaim, “We have found the messiah,” which is translated in English as anointed, or in Greek as Christ. Just as the author of John had to translate, to explain, Christ or Messiah to readers who were not Jewish, we today have to explain what Christ is is to a world that does not know. And we have to explain, to discern for ourselves who Christ is in our lives. And that’s ultimately at the heart of what we’re doing here. Translating the love, the justice, the mercy of Christ to a world that desperately needs to know that love, that justice, that mercy.
This morning we also heard the first verses of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Paul called followers of Jesus across the Mediterranean to their missions, varied as those were in the different communities to which he wrote. And communities is key. Paul didn’t write to individuals. “by God,” he writes to the Corinthians in our epistle this morning, “you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” Other translators say called into the “sharing” or “participation” or “communion” of Jesus Christ our Lord. It’s a connection to each other and to God. We’re not on this journey alone. It takes all of us to fulfill the mission to which we are called.
It creates some tension for me when I think about my ability to commit time and money to the church — maybe it does for you too. One priest writes that holding tension in our spiritual lives; holding both sides of unresolved issues when our values are at stake; holding that tension over time is prayer (See Ronald Rolheiser, The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality, page 219).
When I talk about holding this tension, I’m not talking about just an intellectual exercise. This is not an exercise involving spreadsheets or personal budgeting apps, although maybe that’s an early first step. The priest I mentioned a minute ago describes this as “pondering in your heart.” Maybe you’ve heard that somewhere before. It’s, of course, what Mary does after the angel tells her that she’ll have a baby who will be God. Mary “ponders in her heart” what in the world she will do. The kind of pondering we’re called to, it’s also connected to a new birth of Jesus in our world. It’s connected to us operationalizing the values Jesus teaches, following the calling that Isaiah describes, creating a community like those to which Paul wrote. It’s about us making choices to advance love, generosity, mercy in the best ways that we know how so that we too become the bearers of Jesus to the world.
When we create beautiful liturgy so that we’re a window to the holy; when we pack bags of food at Our Lord’s Table or reach out to those in need in our neighborhood; when we show the church that God includes everyone in God’s embrace of love; when we use all the tools we have — our hearts and our minds — to study Holy Scripture; when we create a community where you belong, where you experience a glimpse, however fleeting it is sometimes, where you experience a glimpse of the divine, then we fulfill that mission.
It’s a new birth of Jesus Christ in our world, and it takes all of us to make it possible.