February 5, 2012

ON MOVING ALONG

                                                    Sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith
                                     at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie, on 5 February 2012
 
       Reading from the Hebrew Scriptures: Isaiah 40: 21-31 
      Reading for the Epistle:              I Corinthians 9: 16-23
      Reading from the Gospel:                          Mark 1: 29-39

 

The other morning there was a meeting of the clergy of the South-east Deanery.  We met for Morning Prayer, and the host minister chose to have read the lessons for this Sunday rather than those for the day, which was the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Perhaps she was looking for ideas, for instead of preaching, she opened up the time between the third reading and the recitation of the Apostles’ Creed to reactions to the readings from the clergy present. 

That was an interesting exercise.  When I went through seminary in England we were taught to look at all the readings and, whenever possible, draw the sermon out of all of them.  However, I noticed that most of my colleagues were attracted to but one reading, although not all of them to the same reading, and that usually it was to but one verse in one reading.  I was tempted, but I did not succumb to the temptation, to ask, “Hey!  What about the rest of the readings?”

Let me tell you what I got out of the readings.  I wonder what some of you heard in these readings, and whether it is different from how I understood them. 

Let us look at the reading from I Corinthians 9.  Paul makes the valid point that preachers preach because they have to preach, regardless of whether they are paid or not.  We do it not for any financial reward, and for the bulk of my ministry I did preach simply for the joy and love of preaching.  It is not the financial reward that matters, but the opportunity to preach to all manner of people in all manner of situations.  This means that we have to be adaptable.  It does not mean that the Good News concerning Jesus Christ is changed, but the manner in which it is presented must vary from place to place and time to time. 

Paul writes of preaching like a Jew to Jews and like a Gentile to Gentiles.  That makes sense.  The first parish in which I served had but one industry, brewing.  There were three breweries in the village of about five thousand and everyone worked in jobs that depended on the breweries.  In that place and at that time it made sense to draw parables out of brewing and the ingredients used in brewing to produce what the Master Brewer had in mind, and how the resulting product could bring pleasure to millions all across the world.  I still think about the message of the Gospel being couched in those terms whenever I open up a bottle of beer brewed in one of those three breweries and which I can purchase right here on the Treasure Coast, but I would not use a sermon that I preached nearly fifty years ago to make the same point today here on the Treasure Coast.

Paul writes that he becomes all things to all people, and that he does so for the sake of the Gospel and to share in its blessings, and those blessings are far more beneficial than any financial reward.  Perhaps I should not advocate it too loudly, but I think preachers would deliver better sermons if they were to do so for the same reason as did Paul, and were to do so free of charge, to use Paul’s words.  As Paul argues, it is better to be a slave to the Gospel and, from the weakness of that position, find that people are brought to the Truth of the Good News and to Jesus himself. 

So, from the reading from I Corinthians 9, I have learned to be adaptable, which has meant living into the lives of the people whom I have been called upon to serve in the ministry of preaching.  What about the lessons from the other readings? 

Let us look at the Gospel.  More than one of my colleagues the other morning picked up on the line, “And the whole city was gathered around the door.”   How wonderful it would be to have the whole town come to the parish church and that there were so many people of all ages present that the place was filled to the doors and overflowing! Well, yes, it might be wonderful, but how did Jesus react?  Did he stay there resting on his laurels, preaching the same sermon over and over?  I know, and I suspect we all know of preachers who fill places small and very large, Sunday by Sunday.  You can see them on television almost any Sunday, and sometimes during the week.  But what did Jesus do?  Remember these words from the Gospel this morning?  “While it was still very dark, [Jesus] got up and went out to a deserted place.”  And what did he do there?  He prayed.  He spent time asking God the Father what it was that he should do next. 

Jesus had gone off to some spot that was so deserted that Simon Peter and his companions had to hunt for him, to use Mark’s words.  And when he discovered Jesus, Simon told him how everyone was looking for him.   Well that’s nice, having everyone in the city eager to see you and to hear what you have to say.  I guess that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of preachers and teachers who would love to hear that message. 

I can tell you from my own experience it feels very pleasant to see several thousand people sitting in front of you waiting to hear what you have to say.  It is very gratifying to be told that people have trekked through the jungle so that they might listen to you.  Those are real morale boosters – and ego boosters as well.  

But the preacher is not there to have his morale boosted and his ego inflated, delightful though that may be.  What Jesus did was the opposite of what Simon and his companions expected or wanted.  We can imagine how great it would feel to have such a popular preacher staying in ones own home.  All that buzz, and all in the comfort of your hometown and your own home as well!  But Jesus had prayed to his Father, and the message he received from the Heavenly Father was very different from the message he was receiving from the Earth-bound Simon. 

According to Mark, Jesus said, “Let us (and notice the “us”), Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also, for that is what I came out to do.”  It may well not be easy to walk away from a successful ministry, from a situation where everybody loves you and listens to what you have to say, but that is precisely what Jesus felt called to do.  There is a time to move on, even though one does not know what that moving on might involve.  For Jesus it meant homelessness.  The birds of the air might have their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.  So said Jesus on another occasion.  So we are called to move on, not knowing where, and with nothing guaranteed as to ones future. 

Well not quite, for we still have that reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, from Isaiah 40.  Now, the prophet’s message was delivered to a particular people in a particular place.  He had been sent to encourage them to move out of the familiar life of Babylon where they had been living for close on four decades, and to travel across barren lands to a city and countryside that were nothing but abandoned ruins.  The circumstances were very different from those of the recipients of Paul’s letter in Corinth or those of Simon Peter’s fellow citizens in Capernaum.  Yet there was an eternal verity that bridged all those communities, and one that reaches out to our community in our time. 

Some of my colleagues on Thursday morning picked up on these words from the passage in Isaiah 40:  “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the Earth.”  Although they were addressed to a group of Jewish exiles in Babylon two and a half millennia ago, they were words that their ancestors had heard and known and lived by from the time of Abraham, a further millennium earlier.  Confident in his knowledge of the Truth implied by those rhetorical questions, Jesus could move on from the success of Capernaum into the unknown, and take Simon and his companions with him.  Confident in the Truth implied by those rhetorical questions, Paul could adapt his presentation of the Good News of Christ Jesus to the circumstances of his listeners and readers.  And confident in the Truth behind those rhetorical questions Christians at all times and in all places have moved on from what appears to be secure into what appears to be insecure, and they have done so because “The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the Earth.” 

Perhaps the prophet of Babylon understood “ends” to mean the limits of the Earth, but we can take his words and adapt them to make another important point.  Not only is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ the Creator and the Ruler of Earth, indeed the whole Creation, but he has an end, a purpose for it, and for each and all of us in it. 

The risen Christ called Saul of Tarsus as he sought unknowingly, perhaps, but not unwillingly to thwart the purpose of the Heavenly Father.  But Paul, as he became, came to understand what was meant by those words uttered by the prophet of Babylon.  Jesus, out there under the stars of a desert night sought to understand the purpose of God the Creator Father, and having prayed until dawn understood that it was time to move on.  The ancient Jewish exiles had to move out and on across the desert.  Paul had to travel to he knew not where.  Jesus simply knew that he had to move out from the potential security of a successful mission in order to fulfil the purpose of his Father for him.  Dare we think otherwise than that we at Holy Faith, if we are to continue the mission that God the Creator has purposed for us to fulfil, must look forward and not back, adapt the phrasing of the message we are called upon to deliver so that it is clearly understood by all those who are intended to hear it, and pray at every opportunity to the Father to discover where he would lead us?