October 28, 2012

 

ON FORTY-EIGHT YEARS OF MINISTRY

                                                     Sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith
                                         at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie, on 28 October 2012

 

I was made a deacon on Trinity Sunday in 1964 and ordained a priest an ecclesiastical year later.  That amounts to over forty-eight years in the Sacred Ministry, which, to some, might seem a long time, but in the grand scheme of things is little more, or maybe a little less, than a drop in the ocean.  So, in a very real sense, it is but a short time, and so it is right and proper that I should be able to remember some of the things I was told, along with my colleagues, back there in the mid-1960s. 

The reading from the Gospel on both occasions was taken from Matthew 28, and it included verses 18 -20. 

And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.  Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.  Amen. 

Those are the last words, according to Matthew the evangelist, that Jesus ever spoke to the eleven disciples when he met with them on a mountain in Galilee after the Resurrection, where he had made an appointment to meet with them.

Little did I know then that I would indeed travel far and wide in his service, and that I would be called upon to baptize hundreds in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, including one more little daughter of our Heavenly Father this morning.  And these candidates would come from a diversity of places, in Europe and Asia, in Africa and in the Americas, and from Australasia as well.  Little did I know then that I would travel behind the Bamboo Curtain to proclaim the Gospel, and not only there but behind the Iron Curtain, and in Moslem and Buddhist lands, and even to a congregation of Sikhs on the five-hundredth anniversary of the birth of the founder of their religion, Guru Nanak.

Sometimes I was in trouble with the earthly powers that be.  Sometimes, even when travelling with Paula and the children, there were moments of extreme physical danger.  But no matter what the circumstances, there were always those words of promise – Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.  I was reminded over and over again, that he who commissions sees to it that we are able to fulfil that commission.

Prior to both those occasions nearly half a century ago, I assembled in days of retreat with the other candidates who were to receive the laying on of hands, and we did so in company with our Diocesan, Archbishop Donald Coggan.  He took time out from his extraordinarily busy schedule to spend three full days and nights with us.  Each year, on the Saturday evening after dinner he gave the final address to the candidates, after which all was silence until the following morning.  He would talk about all manner of things to do with the Sacred Ministry, but each address ended with the same words, “Always maintain the vision of a world won for Christ.”

I have spent hours meditating on those words.  I have spent years with that vision before me.  It is of a world, to draw on an image from another Gospel, of fields ripe for harvest, mission fields in all lands, and not least in the United Kingdom and here in the United States, where, despite all appearances to the contrary, Christ is being victorious in the struggle for human souls, even today, even right here in Port St Lucie, Florida, as and when all who have been baptized take up the roles that they have promised to take up in their baptismal vows, those same vows that you repeat at every baptism as we accept another member into the living Body of Christ, those vows that you made once and yet again this morning.  

It is as we bear witness to those outside the Church that the vision becomes more nearly fulfilled.  It has been our privilege, Paula’s and mine, to tell of the things of God and of his Christ in many places.  And, perhaps more successfully, not so much by what we have said but by the way we have lived our lives.  We have been asked what it is that we have been given that makes us be the people we have been, and from that query we have been able to talk not of the what but of the who.  For Jesus does not work only through the things we say, but through the people we are.  As he indicated on more than one occasion, it is not just the rituals of worship but the actions of our daily lives that will attract others to Jesus.  You will not be called a hypocrite by anyone who sees you living out the Gospel, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, rather than merely attending the ritual for an hour or so one day a week, and even then not taking any actual part in it.

We may never know what it is that we have said or done that has attracted a soul to Christ.  That has certainly been my experience as a preacher and a priest.  Sometimes, maybe many years later, people will tell me how their lives were touched by Jesus by what he had heard me say or by what she had seen us do, and that is always gratifying, knowing that God in his grace touched the lives of others through our being open to what he would have us do.  And when that happens, we have the reassurance, the blessed assurance, that the vision of a world won for Christ is becoming a reality, and that, lo, he is with us until the end of the world. 

There was something else that Archbishop Coggan used to like to say, and I have heard him say it over and over, and he also liked to make it clear that it was not a thought that was original to him, but to an aging Japanese Anglican who had suffered for the Lord Jesus within his own culture.  The subject was evangelism, and the way this elderly Japanese described it and whose thoughts Archbishop Coggan shared with us, even as I am sharing them with you, is that evangelism is like one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.  Sitting in the office here at Holy Faith I can vouch how beggars pass on the message that help is available here to other beggars, and our secretary, Tina, knows how many phone calls we receive and how many visitors come here seeking help.  Well, evangelism is something like that.  If anyone has come to know the real joy of having Christ Jesus in their lives, the first thing he or she will want to do, will be impelled to do, is to tell someone else, maybe even a complete stranger.

Which brings us to the front cover of the bulletin this week.  You will have seen a picture there of a very colourful little fish.  Actually this picture is a little more than life size.  This little fish has been described as the most valuable living thing, even the most valuable thing, in the United States.  It is called the peppermint angelfish (in Spanish I guess it would be angelote yerbabuena).  What makes it so special is that it is rare.  It is found in its natural habitat along the coral reefs in the deep Pacific Ocean waters surrounding Samoa.  There are only two specimens in aquaria, one in Japan and the other in Waikiki, Honolulu, Hawaii.  Paula and I went to see the one in Waikiki this past June, and we were lucky, as it had only been put on display that week after having been in quarantine for some months.  And we would not have gone to the aquarium in Waikiki had it not been for a chance encounter on the beach with an elderly Japanese American beachcomber, wearing a David Beckham t-shirt, the day before we were due to leave.  She and Paula chatted for a long time about sea shells and then she turned the conversation to this peppermint angelfish.  So, on our last day, after we had checked out of our hotel and with about four hours to use, we went to the aquarium and asked about the fish.  We had no idea what it looked like or where to find it, but we were shown the way to the right tank, and there was this little fish darting in and out of the coral-like rocks.  I took some pictures, although not the one on the cover of the bulletin, and here I am telling you about the peppermint angelfish. 

Had a complete stranger not chanced to mention the peppermint angelfish we would never have sought it out.  Had we not sought it out and found it, I would have no reason to mention it to you.  Do you see the parallel with evangelism?  Surely Jesus is a lot more valuable than a unique specimen of a reef-dwelling little fish!  Folk will gossip about all manner of things, but there is nothing more important or more valuable to any of us than the incarnate Word of God, Christ Jesus our Lord.

You might be ignored.  I’m glad we did not ignore that little old beachcomber in Waikiki.  You might be mocked at.  That happened to me in Moscow one November morning.  I had been to Moscow before on a damp visit, and this time I did not want to have to put up with rain. So I prayed the evening I arrived that it would not rain on the morrow, and God answered my prayer.  It did not rain.  It snowed!  When I called upon my counterpart and his colleagues in the Ministry of Housing they were lamenting the snow.  I told them not to apologize as the snow was my fault as I had been less than specific in my prayer request. They pooh-poohed that idea and assured me that it would now snow for my entire visit and for weeks and months ahead.  They mocked me when I said that I had prayed again and the snow would stop by noon and that there would be a wonderful sunset that evening.  Well, you will know that it stopped snowing by noon, and when the person who was my minder came to take me to the evening meal I was to attend, I pointed out to her the beautiful sunset over the towers of the Kremlin just across the road from the hotel where I was staying.  Later my counterpart was assigned to the office in Nairobi where I was employed, and one day he asked me how I knew it would stop snowing by noon that day and that there would be such a beautiful sunset.  I told him that I had not known, but that I had prayed and I had borne witness to God, and that God is faithful and answers prayer, as he had mine – twice – in Moscow, and then given everyone the bonus of a beautiful sunset!

Mark the evangelist tells us of another promise of Jesus, and one that we might not like to hear, that those who are faithful will be the victims of persecution.  It was another of my diocesan bishops who used to remind his priests and deacons of this, Archbishop Manasses Kuria in Nairobi.  And he knew whereof he spoke.  But I can vouch to the truth of this saying.  We might expect persecution from non-believers, and I have not been surprised at being declared persona non grata in one country, at being arrested and threatened with deportation in another, at being grilled by security police and immigration and customs officials in various parts of the world.  Jesus had promised that.  But what is disturbing is to face similar treatment from within the Church because individuals do not like what you say and do.  Yet there is reassurance, blessed assurance, in receiving such treatment, and one has to thank God that he considers one worthy to be treated in this way!  And that the promise is being kept: lo, I am with you always to the end of the world

We have spent the past twelve years here at Holy Faith, and in those years I have frequently been reminded of those comments by Archbishop Coggan and Archbishop Kuria.  And we have experienced in microcosm here what we have experienced elsewhere throughout the whole wide world.  So we find ourselves ministering to people from all over the world, as we have done this morning, we have witnessed to and participated in baptisms in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, as we have done this morning.  We are seeing the world won for Christ as people from so many places and cultures humbly bend their knees and bow their heads before the Ascending Christ.  We have seen many people gossip their faith; although we have seen many keep their mouths close-shut about Jesus.  And, yes, there have been those who have chosen to go in different paths from the ones that God has told me to show them, but we still love them, we still pray for them.  After all, Jesus did say something about turning the other cheek, and sometimes that is what we are called to do.  It might hurt, physically and emotionally for a while, but if that is the cost of discipleship, let it be, Amen.  The real joy is to experience those tokens of reassurance, blessed assurance, that we receive from the Father through the lips of so many of you.  And let that be.  Amen.  And the promise is sure: lo, I am with you always to the end of the world.  Amen and Amen.

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