Sermons

Easter IV b April 22, 2018

Sermon by Reverend Thomas Gustavo Mansella

Don’t be afraid to smell like sheep
Today I’d like to begin with an inspiring introduction to our Gospel reading written by The Reverend David F. seller, from St. John’s Church, Salisbury, Connecticut.

“To his listeners, this story was taken right from real life. They were farmers and fishermen, craftsmen and laborers.. maybe even a few shepherds. They related immediately to the long hours, the vigilance and the dedication required to protect livestock from predators. They knew the damage wolves could do it they ever got in among the flock. They lived on very thin margins and they understood that the loss of a single sheet could make a big different. The message, its meaning and the pivotal role of the messenger were all self-evident.

Not surprisingly, things have changed a lot in two-thousand years. We don’t run into many shepherds on the streets of our town. The wolves we see are on Animal Planet.  And doubtless, our 21st Century pride bristles at being equated with sheet. So, has the Good Shepherd lost its relevance? Has the parable outlived its usefulness? Not a chance.

Look around you. The wolves are out in force. And they are howling for our souls. From relentless economic and social pressures to a coarsening of community standards; from a growing lack of civility to increasing insensitivity and isolation; from enslaving addictions to family violence; from unbridled greet to the cruel enshrining of corporate profit above any other value. Yes…
We are under constant assault.

And before these ruthless wolves, we are as helpless as sheep.  The world, the flesh and the devil know exactly what buttons to push…the poor-me button…the I deserve it button…the grass is always greener button…the get-even button…the nobody’s looking button…the everybody does it button…the just this one-time button. We are wired from  head to toe with vulnerabilities. Undefended, we don’t stand a chance.

Enter the Good Shepherd.  He lays down his life for his sheep. No one took it from him. He gave it in perfect sacrifice as a timeless example of unconditional love. Under assault he is our protection. In our sins he is our redemption.

Know with certainty, that at some time in our lives every one of us will be the lost sheep. Yet we can rest assured that every one of us will be sought out and called for. Every one of us will need to be carried back to the fold’ to be nursed and restored. For some of us, life can be a series of endless lost and found round trips. But as long as we have the will and grace to cry out for help, the Good Shepherd will be there.” (This Week’s Focus – “Crying Wolfe”. Copyright 2015 David Sellery.  All rights reserved.  As retrieved from https://us6.campaign-archive.com/u=dbffd2070718c7bb6a1b9b7e0&id=096d906ece&e=9d753c1a09)

Up to here is Fr. Sellery’s reflection. Now, please let me add this.  Jesus was born in a stable, and extending Pope Francis’s image, He wasn’t and still isn’t afraid of smelling like sheep. In fact, laying his own life for the sheet is not a figure of speech or platitudes about life. Indeed he died for you and for me…and for brining home those who still are at risk in this world.

“We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us-and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Brothers and sisters, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action,” reads the Epistle. (John 3: 16-18)

Friends, Jesus Christ has no other voice to call for the lost sheep other than ours. He doesn’t have any other shoulder to carry the sick and infirm other than ours. He doesn’t have any other hands to rebuild the fences of God’s love to keep his beloved Children “Safe and secure from all alarms”, other than ours. There is no other door for the sheep to enter back into God’s loving embrace rather than the doors of own hearts…and the doors of this church.

It would be useful to recall that even if our religious name is St. David’s, or the Episcopal Church, our official corporate name is “The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society.” Then, if it is mission, it is us.

And being a church with wide open doors and hearts is the firs step into fulfilling Christ’s mission. And for that, once again,  kudos for you. For you have kept this church’s doors open through thin and thick. And rather than circling the wagons, you have opened the doors of your hearts to God’s love and to all his beloved children.  Thanks be to God for your ministry.

We know that Jesus sent his disciples – us! – into the world to carry on h is mission, inspiring us to be caring individuals and a caring community. It appears that Jesus is not so much concerned about using wine or grape juice for communion, about the number of candles or even if we should have candles at all in our sanctuary, or any theological hot-button of the day. As long as we keep the doors of ours hearts and of this church open to all and “caring for all” is at the heart, and at the front and center of our mission.

If anything will kill a church is its failure to live to his mission-caring for others and letting the chips fall where they may. Archbishop Temple said, “The Church is the only society on earth that exists for the benefit of non-members.” And as another Archbishop,. William Ramsey, paraphrasing St. Paul also said, “The church that lives to itself will die to itself” (Rom. 14:7-9)

Whenever our concern ceases to be the concern of those we are called to serve, and whenever we become self-obsessed with survival or self-preservation, and me and us become the center of everything we plan, and we do, we will fail.

This is what we are called to be. Rescued sheep turned into caring shepherds. And if we are willing to take care of the “being” part, the doing part will take care of itself.

This is the good news, the Gospel for today – “Jesus said, ‘I am the Good Shepherd,’ and I am trying to follow in his steps.  If we do this, Jesus will be with us in the dark nights of our souls, leading us all along the way, whenever we face perils and uncertainties. And when we reach the point when we feel our strength sapping.  “He will allow us to catch our breath, and He will send us in the right direction.”

Let us pray, “O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear our Lord’s voice we may know that it is him calling us by name. Help us to trust Him wherever He leads us- even through the Valley of Death – knowing that His everlasting love will keep us safe and secure.  This we pray, dear God, in the name of your Son, the Good Shepherd of the flock who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God for ever and ever.  Amen”.

 

Proper 17b – September 2, 2018

“Say what?”

We love to hear the comfortable words of the Gospel – “Come unto me… God so loved the world… I am the Good Shepherd…”

Yet, if you keep reading you’ll find that most of the Gospels are, in general, a little bit disturbing. Disturbing in the sense that Jesus pushes the envelope way beyond our areas of comfort. Take, for instance, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27)

Love God will all your heart at first glance appears straightforward and doable. But, we’ll have to admit that if it were so easy, the church and the world and, indeed, our own lives would be very different.  But then, to boot, Jesus says – strike that, commands! – to love your neighbor as yourself. Do you see?

Today’s Gospel squarely falls in the category of “disturbing” gospel. Just sit tight, and you’ll see.

Here is the background. After his visit to Capernaum, (John 6) Jesus keeps going towards Jerusalem.

And the Gospel tells us that, “They beached the boat at Gennesaret and tied up at the landing. As soon as they got out of the boat, word got around fast. People ran this way and that, bringing their sick on stretchers to where they heard he was. Wherever he went, village or town or country crossroads, they brought their sick to the marketplace and begged him to let them touch the edge of his coat—that’s all. And whoever touched him became well,” (Mark 6:53-56).

So, naturally, as word of mouth extended ahead of Jesus, both good things (healing the sick) and some bad stuff (some people were bailing out of Jesus, as we read last week in John 6), the religious leaders of the day, decided to meet Jesus to check him out. Was he someone worthy of listening to? Was he someone to be wary of? Were the leaders anxious about someone who could rock the status quo with the Romans? They didn’t know, but certainly they were motivated good enough to come out to seek Jesus.

As soon as they approach  to meet Jesus, they were shocked. Jesus wasn’t a dignified teacher surrounded with a great and solemn entourage, with trumpeters and cameras rolling but, rather, a ragtag group of followers with an unexceptional master.

They were appalled for what they saw. There were groups of people eating together – and God only knows what they were eating! – and without the proper religious protocols. To make things worse, our Lord’s followers didn’t appear to care too much about what Jesus should have taught them about keeping the Law. What kind of teacher was this Jesus? Can you imagine such an inexcusable lack of leadership skills?  Perhaps, after all, Jesus was just a charlatan.

So, without much ado, they shoot a broadside. “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”

Jesus, not known for mincing words, responds, quoting the Prophet Isaiah, which by the way was the Pharisees’ favorite book of the Bible, “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

Now, place a bookmark here because I will return in a minute.

Then Jesus, tells them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: Evil thoughts, vulgar deeds, stealing, murder, unfaithfulness, greed, meanness, deceit, indecency, envy, insults, pride, and foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

Yeah, you may cheer! Well said! But wait a minute. Before we sing the doxology, let’s backtrack for a minute, because there is a lot more. There is a lot more because, my friends, here is where things may begin to get too close for comfort.

First, Jesus criticizes the Pharisee because, he says, they follow the tradition of the elders rather than the Law.

But, how about if I were to tell you that all that the Pharisees were doing came down from the pages of the Old Testament?

But, here is the problem. What Jesus is criticizing was in the Bible for the most part. The laws of purity, what they could eat, what was off limits, and so forth. Do you follow me?

All through the centuries the people of Israel had been taught that ritual purity was at the heart of their relationship with God. They had to cleanse themselves in a certain prescribed way, they were asked to dress in a certain way, they could eat some stuff, and other stuff was out of bounds. They could seat with or talk to certain people. And if you go to the Old Testament, you’ll find pages and pages of do’s and don’ts.

Ritual purity was at the heart of righteousness. In their understanding at the heart of a good relationship with God was crossing all the T’s and dotting all the Is found in Scripture. The more one would research and keep the nitty-gritty, the more one would become acceptable to God.

But Jesus challenges such understanding. He says that what separates us from God and from each other is not ritual purity or the niceties of the Law. Rather, what separates us from God and from each other is what flows from human hearts, namely, “Evil thoughts, vulgar deeds, stealing, murder, unfaithfulness, greed, meanness, deceit, indecency, envy, insults, pride, and foolishness.”

Now, you may agree with Jesus. Indeed, if you look at it, it clicks. Doesn’t it?

But there’s the rub. If indeed what Jesus said is right, then, understanding the purpose of the Scripture only as a long list of rigid laws misses the whole point of God’s purposes. Indeed, taking Scripture just as a long laundry list of things to do or to avoid doing, falls very short of its true purpose.

Thirty or forty years later, St Paul would tell the Christians in Galatia that the whole purpose of the Law was really to point out that there was no way that human beings could somehow earn their own righteousness (cf. Galatians 3:19-29).

The whole point of the Law was not so much to drive people crazy trying to follow each and every bit of the Law, but to show the futility of such an effort. Even if the Law was useful to kind of setting the rules of the road, the purpose of the Law was to show the way of love, grace, and mercy. Was God so silly enough to establish the Law to organize “The Holier than Thou Honor Society?”  No! Jesus himself advised his followers not to try to pick the speck in the neighbor’s eye, and to ignore the log in one’s own eye? (Matthew 7:3)

Of course, the Law is perfect is one is into score-keeping. However, at the heart of the Law lies the fact that whenever we look into the Bible to find the verses needed to condemn one’s neighbor, we fail to understand what God is all about – unquenchable love, limitless grace, eternal mercy. So much so that, in addressing another hot point of the day, the question of the Sabbath, Jesus says, “The Sabbath was made to benefit humanity, and not the other way around. And I have authority even to decide what my beloved can do on Sabbath days!” (Mark 2:27).

In other words, my friends, if we want to make sense of this passage – and indeed a lot of Christ’s teachings – is to accept that Jesus indeed came to rock the boat, as the Pharisees of old and of today fear.

Jesus teaches us not to worry too much about each individual point of the Law – because as St James says, those who break any verse of the Law – even the most insignificant – are guilty of messing up big time. (James 2:10).

For Jesus, the whole point for us is not so much to ponder about what people did or didn’t do one, two or three thousand years ago, and in some way try to force its application to the letter. Rather, the Law’s purpose was and continues to be a sort of spiritual map to guide us to our final goal, perfect union with God in Christ. And if here and there we take the wrong turn, as we will, if we are sensitive to our inner voice, we will “recalculate” and take the turns necessary to go back on track. And that, is what the Holy Spirit is all about.

Let me finish quoting again St Paul, “We are sure about all this. Christ makes us sure in the very presence of God.  We don’t have the right to claim that we have done anything on our own. God gives us what it takes to do all that we do. He makes us worthy to be the servants of his new agreement that comes from the Holy Spirit and not from a written Law. After all, the Law brings death, but the Spirit brings life.” (2 Corinthians 3:4-6)

Let me suggest that what Jesus had in mind is what the Collect of the Day prompt us to do,

To seek such understanding and closeness to the mind of Jesus so that the love of God may be grafted in our hearts;

To gain a new inclusive and open understanding of what should be our true religion so that faith may flourish in our lives,

And, that being nourished with the supreme goodness, grace, and love of God we may be able to bring forth in us the fruit of good works.

Amen.

Fr. Gustavo

From St. David’s Episcopal Church, Aylett, VA, “The little church that can”