St David’s Episcopal Church, Aylett
October 13, 2019 – Pentecost XVIII
God’s Faith – Faith to Live By
Last Sunday my theme was, “Words of Faith – Words to live by.” Today I would like to continue with faith as our central theme but, rather, from a different perspective. Today I would like to talk about “God’s Faith – Faith to live by.” Yes, you heard it right. We know that God is faithful, right? So, God has faith, right? But faith in what, or, perhaps, whom? God’s faith. Hold on to the idea. Keep the idea on your back burner.
“Make yourselves at home.” This is the substance of the letter that Jeremiah sent to the captives in Babylon. Certainly, it was not the kind of letter they might have been waiting for.
By the time that the letter to the captives was written, there were very few Israelite families and individuals left on their homeland. Three times the Babylon empire attacked Israel, and every time it resulted in people being evicted from their ancestral homeland to live in captivity, “by the rivers of Babylon,” as the Psalmist said.
I can imagine what a letdown might have been to receive the news that they needed to make themselves at home in Babylon, for they were to remain for quite a long while. All they wanted to hear was, “When are we going back?” They were not interested in making themselves at home in Babylon.
They longed to return. Babylonian society was, even for the norms of the day, completely alien to them. While the Assyrians were tolerant of other religions, the Babylonians were adamant that all the people had to worship the Emperor.
One of the jobs of the Levites was to sing songs in the Temple. Travelers arriving in Jerusalem could hear their haunting and inspiring voices from miles away as they approached the Holy City. Perhaps the Babylonians were attracted to Jewish music. More likely, they were trolling the exiles when the Babylonians asked to sing their songs.
At any rate, “How can we sing the songs of God on foreign soil?” was the exiles’ answer. They just wanted to return to their homeland, to the former glory of the days of David and Salomon.
One can easily imagine the Babylonians taunting them, “What happened with your God? Is he taking a break? If God is the King of the Jews, where is he now? Was it worth to have such kind of God that makes you go through so much trouble?”
Eventually, God brought them back home. A good question to ask now is, “Why did God bother to restore to their good fortunes such an undisciplined and uncooperative nation?” “Why did not God give up on the Jewish nation?” “Why God did not give up on them?”
Fast forward about six hundred years. After a dramatic event, Saul from Tarsus, the enemy of the early Christians, is transformed into the apostle Paul. After several years of ministry, Paul begins his missionary trips, preaching the Gospel of the Risen Jesus. Eventually, he arrives in Lystra, in Asian Turkey, where he recruits Timothy first as his trainee, then as his trusted assistant, and finally, leaving him in Ephesus as his first pastor to the early Christian community.
As you know, Paul continued his fearless ministry. Eventually, however, Paul ends up in prison, and later, he is shipped in chains to Rome.
As I told you during the last few Sundays, Timothy had the work cut out for him. Particularly, because he was a young man in a position that otherwise it would had called for a seasoned leader. Problem – There was no one else but Timothy.
One of the issues that he had to deal with were Paul’s enemies. Even if Paul had a lot of friends among the original apostles, many were dead set against his openings to those who were not of a Jewish background. Think of desegregation and integration, version 1.
So, when Paul was sent to prison, some came calling on Timothy. “Where is Paul now?” “Was he not appointed apostle by Jesus?” “If he’s so well versed in theology, how come now is in prison?” How do we now all that? Last Sunday we heard that Paul wrote to Timothy saying, “Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner; but join with me in suffering for the gospel.” A gospel that, as we read today, caused Paul to suffer hardship, “even to the point of being chained like a criminal.”
Even to the cost of his own life, why did Paul decided to “endure everything” for the sake of his fellow Christians and, as he writes, to “bring salvation and eternal glory in Christ Jesus to those God has chosen?” Was his suffering worth it? Was Paul’s advice to Timothy to keep on keeping on bad practice? Was it worth it? Would God bless their ministry, or would that be an iffy proposition?
After living in Babylon for over seventy years, with so many Jews settling for good – and in doing so, becoming what today are the Iraqi Jews – what force or ideal moved so many of them to pick up camp, and to move back to their ancestral homeland? Would it be worth? Would God bless their enterprise, or would that be an iffy proposition?
What was in play was not so much the faith of exiles, or the faith of Paul, Timothy, the early martyrs and saints of the Church, and those who even today are giving their lives for the sake of the Gospel. What was in play was their belief that God had faith in them. What sustained them was their deep-seated reliance in God’s faith.
Every time that God signed up a covenant with his people and, in Jesus Christ, with all of us, he deposits his faith in us. The sad story is that time and again, we all back-pedal. And, yet, God is so committed to us, that through the Holy Spirit, he lifts us up from the messes we create for ourselves. Every time we fail, he opens his arms to receive us back home and provides the power, the grace, the mercy, and the love we need to give it another try.
“If we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself.” God is love. But he does not love us because we loved him first. Just the other way around. “We love him, because he first loved us,” wrote St. John.
Whenever trials and tribulations hit you in force, or whenever you find yourself in a big mess of your own doing, please remember that what it counts is not so much your faith, but that God has faith in you – He knows that you can make it to the end, and he has committed himself to make sure you’ll succeed.
When doors seem to be closed, remember that God is the master locksmith. When dreams seem even too far-fetched even for being dreams, remember that God inspires dreams. When the signs point to failure, and things look tired and worn-out, remember that God makes all things new.
Why? Because God is faithful. In other words, God is full of faith – in us, his beloved daughters and sons. So much so, he promised to his people and, yes, you and me, that he would bless us with a future filled with hope. A future of success where, “You will turn back to me and ask for help, and I will answer your prayers. You will worship me with all your heart, and I will be with you.” This is God’s faith. Faith for us to live by. Amen.
Words of Welcome
Welcome home! Homecoming is the time to look back at all the fellowship that we have enjoyed here at St David’s, and all the joy and sorrows that we have shared together. It is a time to remember with appreciation all those who in the past have worshipped together with us here at St David’s, and all those that now live in the plenitude of their God and Savior.
Time and again it has been said that the Church is not the building. Indeed, St David’s Church is not just a building. It is, first and foremost, a home. A home where you should always feel welcomed, a place where you can relax a be yourself, a place where you can meet God – In the word, in the Sacrament, in prayers, in hymns, and in the fellowship with your brothers and sisters, the family of God!
But home is also a place where we dream. Where we sit around the table and hash, “What if we…” It is the place where we look to our children or nieces and imagine them with graduation gowns and yeah, why not, walking the red carpet to the altar, hand in hand with their beloved. Home is also the place where old men and women are free “to dream dreams,” inspired by God’s Spirit, as the Prophet Joel said. So, welcome back home!
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
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.
From St. David’s Episcopal Church, Aylett, VA, “The little church that can”