January 29, 2012

ON A RESCUE FROM SOMALIA

                                                      Sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith
                                          at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie on 29 January 2012

 

The other evening, as we were watching the telecast of the President’s State of the Union Address, I noticed that there were two members of his Cabinet, the Secretary of State and, especially, the Secretary of Defense, whom he greeted most warmly, and that some words that he spoke to the Secretary of Defense made that gentleman smile broadly.  Not too many people in that Chamber knew what was going on at that very hour nearly halfway around the Globe, and certainly none of us watching at home could have had any idea.  It was only after the President’s address that news came out of the carefully planned and perfectly exercised mission that a group of United States military personnel had undertaken and that it had proved successful. 

So many things could have gone wrong, but nothing apparently did.  Everybody carried out the assignment given, no more and no less, and things went as planned.  That is the way things are done in the military, where everybody does what he or she is supposed to do and has been trained to do.  The President, knowing full well what was going on and how far it had progressed even as he entered the Chamber, had used an earlier example of a successful mission by the same Unit as the framework for his remarks, urging his listeners in the Chamber and nationwide to show the same dedication, discipline and determination in resolving the issues that currently face this nation.  I would like to suggest that the same approach, that same dedication, discipline and devotion be adopted in other walks of life, and not least in the Church and the Parish. 

Citizens of the United States frequently recite the Pledge of Allegiance.  It is something that was taught them in elementary school and citizens often do it throughout their adult lives.  We Episcopalians do something similar.  At the recent Diocesan Convention held in Melbourne, in the course of the Eucharist, the Clergy stood and repeated their ordination vows and then everybody stood and repeated their baptismal vows.  The Clergy will repeat this exercise during Holy Week, probably for those of us in Saint Lucie County at the Quadri-Parochial Countywide Celebration on Holy Wednesday.  I do it again, privately, on the anniversary of my ordination.  Everybody in attendance will renew their baptismal vows at the celebration of the Eucharist on Easter Day.  And that is perhaps is as it should be, for like the members of the United States armed services, we who call ourselves Christians, and especially we who call ourselves Episcopalians and Anglicans, know full well that we are part of a mighty force engaged in a war against the powers of evil, that we fight under the banner of Christ crucified, and that we bear on our brows, somewhat like a regimental cap badge, the sign of the cross that was placed there at our baptism. 

You have heard me preach on more than one occasion on the vows that I have taken as a member of the Clergy, and you can look them up in the Book of Common Prayer, and in the most recent sermon on the topic on the Parish webpage.  When we were at the Diocesan Convention one member of our delegation remarked to me that what I had claimed in the sermons as to the role of a priest was precisely what was in the vows as they appeared in very large type on a screen at the front of the Conference Room.  So I should not need to visit that topic again – well not for a month or so! 

But this Sunday I want to look again at the baptismal vows that we all make and confirm during the course of our lives.  We might call these the job description for the laity.  You can look them up in the Book of Common Prayer, that red book in the back of the pew in front of you, on page 304.  Why not do that right now? 

After answering three questions concerning the Holy Trinity, basically the Apostles’ Creed, the members of the laity are asked to make five vows.  The clergy make six vows, the laity make five.  Let us look at those five vows now.  Each vow is preceded by a question which begins “Will you” and to which we respond “I will, …”  These are not some sort of series of actions that we intend to do in the future maybe, but a firm promise, a firm commitment, five vows, that we intend to implement immediately and for ever.  These are vows with which we will guide our lives from this moment on, even when we go through the church doors at the end of the service and out into the big wide world. 

The first has to do with our devotional life as Christians.  It covers four aspects of our devotional life.  The first of these is continuing in the apostles’ teaching.  Notice that it is not “apostle” in the singular, but in the plural.  We all of us need to know what the apostles taught, and not just the evangelists.  Of course we need to read the Gospels, but we also need to read the rest of the New Testament.  And we need to read our New Testaments each and every day of our lives.  I begin each year at the beginning of Lent with the Gospel of John and the Acts of the Apostles and during the course of twelve months I find that I have read the whole of the New Testament twice.  I take it in small, manageable pieces each day, and I think about what I have read.  And believe me, I find something new so often that I sometimes wonder how I could have missed it before.  

The second of these four aspects is the fellowship, by which is meant the fellowship that includes the apostles.  What that means is regular attendance at public worship, and by regular I mean frequent, like every Sunday come rain or come shine.  People do not know how fortunate they are to have a church building that they can stay away from!  I have ministered in congregations that are not so blessed and have had to make do with a visit from a member of the clergy once a month or even only twice a year.  But here at Holy Faith we have a church building and sufficient clergy available that we have no reason, except for illness, to miss coming each week, and certainly no excuse.  As Christians we need to worship together frequently, and in the early church that meant every Saturday night, that being the beginning of Sunday, the first day of the week.  In the Bible the day begins at sundown.  Attending public worship is the top item on our agenda every Sunday. 

The third aspect has to do with what is described as “the breaking of bread”, by which is meant the fellowship meal, call it what you choose.  In our ordinary day-to-day life we need to eat and drink in order to survive.  We should not eat and drink to excess, but we still need to consume those things that are essential to life on Earth.  In similar manner, we need to share in the Lord’s Supper, so as to receive that sustenance that our Lord has declared that we should receive every time we come together as his Body.  Receiving the elements at the Holy Communion service is not an optional extra, it has been mandated by Jesus that we all share in the meal. 

And the fourth aspect has to do with our prayer life.  This means participation in public worship, especially the prayers of the people, but also on a regular basis day-by-day, and at those times also when there is an especial need to pray, such as a dangerous moment on the highway when we all cry out, O God save me!”  Yet that should not be the only time we pray to God.  We need to do it frequently, every day. 

And every member of the Church agrees to do all this.  We enter into a covenant with each other and with God the Holy Trinity to read our New Testaments, to come to Church, to partake of the elements of the Lord’s Supper and to pray.  That is a solemn vow everybody who is an Episcopalian or an Anglican makes. 

The second vow has to do with standing up to evil.  We are all faced with temptation every waking hour of every day of our lives.  It is so much a part of our lives that we often do not even notice it.  And most of us fail to withstand temptation most of the time.  We waste our time, our energy, our talents and our treasure on things that we do not need.  I don’t wish to sound like a spoilsport, but next Sunday millions, if not billions of dollars will be spent on something as ephemeral as a game of football!  And meanwhile thousands of children are dying because they cannot receive inoculations that cost less than thirty cents!  I hope and pray that we, as individuals and as a congregation, will will to be generous in what we put in the Souper Bowl that day – but there is something very wrong with a society in which it is necessary to even talk about a Souper Bowl.  Many of us have so much that we never use or consume or wear, because we have succumbed to temptation.  We might not see ourselves as murderers, but if one child in this county is starving and we are throwing out food that has gone bad because we bought too much, are we not murderers?  We have knowledge, we have skills, we have property, and if we are not making use of them, for what reason are we accumulating them?  We might not see ourselves as thieves, but if we are withholding our excess and preventing others who need what we do not really need, are we not stealing from them?  We do things and we say things to place ourselves in the best light possible, or we say that we will do things to inflate our own sense of self-importance and then wind up not doing them at all or doing them inadequately.  We may not see ourselves as liars, but are we not bearing false witness against ourselves, let alone the false witness we bear concerning others whenever we gossip about them? 

We vow to persevere in resisting temptation, but oh how often we fall, or, because of the things we say and do, how often we cause others to fall!  The Baptismal Covenant urges us to turn around – that is what to repent means – to turn around and return to the way that leads back to the Lord.  And let me say quite frankly that I know of no one who does not need to repent and return to the Lord, including the one I see in the bathroom mirror each morning and evening!

The third vow has to do with evangelism, to use the big word.  If the menfolk among us were Sikhs they would wear a turban, grow a full beard, sport a metallic armlet and carry a symbolic dagger.  That is what a devout Sikh man has to do.  Other religions demand that their followers carry some form of outward visible symbol of their faith.  We Christians do not, by and large, wear outward symbols of our Faith.  We are signed with the sign of the Cross at baptism, but that is about it.  Married couples might or might not wear wedding bands, and bishops are given a ring as part of the ceremony at their consecration.  But the outward symbol of our Faith is meant to be how we live our lives, in deed and in word.  We are called to show forth the Good News of God in Christ.  Do we really do that?  If we hear of a good deal at JC Penney or Walmart, of a bargain at Publix or Winn Dixie and, these days, Bravo, we talk about that.  But when was the last time you told anyone of the real savings that are to be found at Holy Faith?  We have the best deal under the Sun, and few of us ever advertise it.  We have the Gospel, the spiel about God, and we never gossip it to those around us.  We have the eternal forgiveness of sins on free offer – if Toyota had a free car for life to offer they would have it in every ad on every TV station.  What we have to offer is not just for life, it is for eternity.  Part of the problem is probably that we do not really believe it even though we say it every time we say the Creed: I, we, believe in the forgiveness of sins.  The only evidence that I see of this in so many lives is that people go out and sin again.  Rather than repent and return to the Lord, having been absolved of their sins they repent and return to Sin.  Yet our message, our gossip should be that Jesus has promised that he will be with us, and not just today and tomorrow and next week, but for ever.  Yet how few of us leave the impression that we are walking hand-in-hand with the Saviour!  Even though we have vowed to live lives that show this!

The fourth vow has to do with serving, serving Christ, seeing him in everyone, especially in those nearest and dearest to us, and in those with whom we come in contact in the everyday course of events.  How does this work out in our daily lives?  In some relationships it is, or should be obvious, as in a mother nursing her child, or as in someone caring for a sick or elderly relative.  But there are other, perhaps less obvious ways.  The key word here is “serve”.  We are called to serve others, which means doing things for them that they are not able to do for themselves.  What it does not mean is doing things for others when they are perfectly capable of doing those things for themselves, even though they may be reluctant to do them, or doing things on behalf of or instead of someone else.  Seeking and serving Christ in others implies allowing others to seek and serve Jesus in us, which is another way of saying that we seek to encourage others to do and to say the things that Jesus has in mind for them to do and say.  (If we want to take the rescue in Somalia as an example: there were two aircrews involved in that mission, one to fly the rescue team in in a long-range transport plane, and the other to fly the team and the rescued hostages out in a Blackhawk helicopter.  The tasks of both crews were vital, but each crew had to fly only the aircraft assigned to it.)  Serving Christ best often means letting others serve Christ.

The fifth vow might sound somewhat abstract when compared with the other four and it is definitely couched in the language of the 1970s, but that does not make it any less serious.  As you know, I worked with the United Nations for over twenty years and for the last decade of that service I was assigned to an agency that had the brief of finding means to provide decent housing and communal living conditions around the world.  That was one way for me to work out the vow of striving for justice and peace among all people.  Everybody needs decent shelter, access to a job with a living wage, education to equip them for that work, readily available health services and the means to relax and enjoy their culture.  Some of us might describe these as basic human rights.  If such is the case, then the second part of this fifth vow takes on a measure of urgent importance, that we, I, you, should respect the dignity of every human being. 

It is this final aspect of the fifth vow that is the biggie, the one that most of us find most difficult to live up to.  We vow to show respect for the dignity of every human being. All too often we say that people have to earn respect, but that is not what this vow is about.  It is about showing respect, not earning respect.  Perhaps we should adapt the Golden Rule a little and say, “Show respect to others if you wish to receive respect yourself.” There are those, even among the congregation of Holy Faith, who tell me that they cannot respect so-and-so, and sometimes they tell me that I am one of those that they cannot respect.  But as your Christian brother I do not have to earn your respect.  You vowed in the Baptismal Covenant to show me respect, just as I have vowed to show you respect!  

We are all creatures of our own cultures, our history and our geography.  To some degree, large or small, we are all of us, each and every one of us, a racist, a sexist, an ageist, a bigot.  I am who I am by virtue of my place of birth, my parents, my schooling, my cultural background – and the same applies to everyone that I have ever met.  A wise man once told a colleague of mine that he would be all right once he had recognized that he was a racist – and he could have said all the other –ists as well.  It is all part of our fallen human nature, but thanks be to God that in Christ there is no east and west, in him no south and north.  And as we become ever more permeated with the grace of the Holy Spirit that we received in baptism, so we become less –istic! 

In practical terms we find we are less disturbed by the way people do things and say things.  I have found over the years that, as I have grown out of the hatred created by the pettiness and fears with which I was surrounded when I was small – and certainly being small during the Second World War all too readily fostered that pettiness and those fears, I have grown into the love that is fostered by respecting the dignity of everyone, no matter from where he or she might have come.  We all come into this World in the same way and none of us has any choice in that regard, just as we have no choice as to where we might have been born.  As newborns we do not hate, but as the Oscar Hammerstein lyrics have it, “You have to be taught before it’s too late, before you are six or seven or eight, to hate all the people your relatives hate.  You have to be carefully taught.”  But there are other lyrics by another lyricist: “To know, know, know him, is to love, love, love him.”  It does take a long time to unlearn hatred, and perhaps by ourselves we never achieve that, but in Christ, ah, in Christ the hatred is not only unlearned but it is done away, and, incorporated in the love of Christ, we find ourselves truly respecting the dignity of every human being.

We make these five solemn vows not in a vacuum, but only, as we say after each of them, with God’s help.  But if God is to help us to keep these vows, then we have to know, know, know God, and be prepared to walk where he would have us walk in his truth, in his love, in his life, in his light.